Caiman vs. Alligator – Can You Tell the Difference? 5 Main Differences Explained

Written by Heather Ross
Updated: October 11, 2022
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Key Points
  • Chinese alligators, also called Yangtze alligators or muddy dragons, come from China and are smaller in size than American alligators. While American alligator numbers are around 3 million, Chinese alligators are coming close to extinction with a mere 200 left in the wild.
  • There are many species of caimans including: Cuvier’s dwarf caiman, smooth-fronted caiman, yacare caiman, spectacled caiman, broad-snouted caiman, and black caiman.
  • Caimans have a ventral armor of overlapping bony plates and stiff calcium rivets, and long slender teeth; the alligator has softer scales and short, wide teeth.

Alligators, crocodiles, caimans, gharials – these toothy reptiles from the age of the dinosaurs go by many names, and each type has unique features. Today, we’ll compare the alligator with the caiman. Can you tell them apart? By the end of this article, you will be able to!

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Caiman vs. Alligator

Caimans and alligators are both crocodilians. There are 23 species of crocodilians divided between three families. Both caimans and alligators belong to the family Alligatoridae.

These animals look and behave similarly, but you’ll discover subtle differences in their appearance and size, and big differences in where they call home.

Comparing Caimans vs. Alligators

In the chart below, consider five key differences between alligators vs. caimans.

Please note that there are two extant species of alligator.

  • American alligator (Alligator mississippiensis): Native to the southeastern United States and able to live more than 80 years.
  • Chinese alligator (A. sinensis): Also called the Yangtze alligator or muddy dragon, endemic to China. Smaller than the American alligator at about 7 ft (2.1 m) in length and weighing 100 lb (45 kg).

There are also many species of caiman.

  • Cuvier’s dwarf caiman (Paleosuchus palpebrosus): The smallest caiman species, native to Brazil and its surrounding countries.
  • Smooth-fronted caiman (P. trigonatus): The second-smallest caiman species, also known as Scheider’s dwarf caiman.
  • Yacare caiman (Caiman yacare): Also called the red caiman, averaging less than 10 ft (3 m) in length.
  • Spectacled caiman (C. crocodilus): Also known as the common caiman, there are three subspecies found throughout Central and South America – the common spectacled, Rio Apaporis, and brown caimans.
  • Broad-snouted caiman (C. latirostris): An average-sized caiman occupying a more southern territory than its cousins.
  • Black caiman (Melanosuchus niger): The largest caiman species, known to reach lengths and weights rivaling the American alligator.
LocationNorth America/AsiaSouth America
Sizeaverage 790 lb (360 kg)/13 ft (4m)average 88 lb (40 kg)/8.2 ft (2.5 m)
Skinsofter skinventral armor of overlapping bony plates, stiff calcium rivets
Teethshort and widelong and slender
Snouthas bony septumlacks bony septum

The 5 Key Differences Between Caimans and Alligators

Let’s take a closer look at each of the key differences between alligators and caimans.


As noted above, alligators live in North America or China, depending on the species. All caiman species are endemic to South and Central America. If you see a crocodilian in the wild, where you see it is the biggest key to determining whether it is an alligator, caiman, or something else.


If the animal weighs more than 100 pounds and is longer than 10 feet in length, you can narrow it down to two species – the American alligator or the black caiman. Then, you must take the other key differences into consideration. If the animal is young, not fully grown, or of a smaller species, location and other factors will also help you identify it.


Alligator skin is sought after for its softness in making boots, bags, and other items. Caiman skin is not. Its belly is covered with overlapping bony plates called scutes. The scales of the caiman also have calcium rivets, which make the hide stiffer. The black caiman’s skin is also much darker than the alligator’s greenish-brown skin.

Teeth and Mouth

Both have teeth visible at the sides of the snout but with different sizes. Their mouths have distinctive traits in color and jaw.

The alligator’s teeth tend to be round, short, and wide, while the caiman’s are long and narrow. The alligator has a little overbite, while the caiman has a huge upper jaw. The mouth of an alligator is beige. The caiman’s mouth has an orange tint.


The alligator’s nostrils are divided by a bony septum (you have a septum, too – it’s the cartilage that divides your two nostrils. Caimans lack this bony appendage. Both have a rounded snout.


Of the two types of alligators, American alligators were classified as endangered in 1967 by the US Fish and Wildlife service. But because of government protection, their population surged to 3 million and they were removed from the the endangered list 20 years ago.

Unfortunately, the same can’t be said for Chinese alligators, which are nearing extinction. Less than 200 remain in the wild due to poaching, alligators being poisoned by consuming rats that have been poisoned themselves, and habitat loss. Zoos are trying to help by breeding Chinese alligators and releasing them into the wild.

It’s an entirely different story with caimans, whose numbers are estimated at 10 million. Of the varied species, the black caiman was under threat at one time due to the commercial value of its hide. However, due to being listed as conservation dependent, it is also making a comeback.

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The photo featured at the top of this post is ©

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About the Author

Heather Ross is a secondary English teacher and mother of 2 humans, 2 tuxedo cats, and a golden doodle. In between taking the kids to soccer practice and grading papers, she enjoys reading and writing about all the animals!

FAQs (Frequently Asked Questions) 

How Do You Tell the Difference Between a Caiman and an Alligator?

The biggest consideration is where you’ve made a sighting. If you’re in North America, it’s probably an alligator (a few crocodiles do live on the southern tip of Florida, however). If you’re in South or Central America, it’s probably a caiman.

And if you’re viewing the animal at a zoo or nature reserve, simply ask a guide or check the information panel near the enclosure.

Can a Alligator and a Caiman Mate?

Though they look similar, alligators and caimans are distinct species. In nature, they would never come into contact with one another to mate. They are too different genetically to produce viable offspring.

If an alligator and a caiman got in a fight, who would win?

First, let’s reiterate that alligators and caimans don’t occupy the same continent. So, if they found themselves in the same river or enclosure, one animal was either very lost or there was some human involvement.

The winner in a match between an alligator and a caiman would likely come down to which one was larger. It would depend on the two species involved (is it a black caiman or Cuvier’s dwarf caiman? An American or Chinese alligator?), the age of each, and individual characteristics. If one was large enough to consume the other, the larger animal would win.

Are Alligators and Caimans the Same as Crocodiles?

Alligators, crocodiles, and caimans, are all crocodilians – they have a similar body plan, hunting style, and manner of reproduction. They are, however, different species. Alligators and caimans are considered more closely related to each other than to crocodiles.

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