Published March 31, 2023. Open access.

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American Crocodile (Crocodylus acutus)

Reptiles of Ecuador | Crocodylia | Crocodylidae | Crocodylus acutus

English common name: American Crocodile.

Spanish common names: Cocodrilo de la costa, caimán aguja.

Recognition: ♂♂ 6.25 mMaximum distance from the snout to the tip of the tail. 1,100 kg ♀♀ 4.4 mMaximum distance from the snout to the tip of the tail..1,2 The American Crocodile (Crocodylus acutus) is Ecuador’s largest crocodilian. It can be distinguished from the other crocodilian inhabiting the Ecuadorian coastal region (Caiman fuscus) by having a narrow snout, fourth tooth on the lower jaw visible when the mouth is closed (not visible in C. fuscus), and by lacking a bony inter-orbital ridge (Fig. 1).35

Figure showing variation between individuals of Crocodylus acutus

Figure 1: Individuals of Crocodylus acutus from Guayas province, Ecuador. sa=subadult, j=juvenile.

Natural history: Crocodylus acutus is an uncommonUnlikely to be seen more than once every few months. species along Ecuador’s coastline. Only in the gulf of Guayaquil it reaches densities of 0.2–0.9 crocodiles/km.6,7 American Crocodiles are nocturnal and occur in a variety of primarily brackish to hypersaline8 aquatic habitats, including coastal mangroves, lagoons, marshes, and tidal sections of rivers.4,9 They occur in polluted waters6 and also wander inland along rivers or into the open sea.5,9 Movements of up to 76.3 km and 700 km have been reported for juveniles10 and adults, respectively.11 Average home range is 0.08–11.7 km2 and increases with the size of the animal.12 Individuals prefer to bask on sand beaches and river banks so long as these are not steep.5 Juveniles usually remain in the edges of the water bodies, surrounded by floating vegetation or mangrove roots, where they wait in ambush for prey to pass by.5 There is a dietary shift from invertebrate to vertebrate prey over the lifetime of C. acutus.5 Their diet as juveniles is primarily composed of insects, arachnids, mollusks, crustaceans, and frogs.3,8,13 The diet in adults also includes crustaceans,13,14 but in most populations it is based primarily on fish and to a smaller degree on mammals (including marsupials8 and dogs15), birds, turtles (including Lepidochelys olivacea16 and Rhinoclemmys nasuta17), iguanas (Iguana iguana),3 snakes,18 smaller crocodilians (including Caiman fuscus19 and conspecifics8), echinoderms, and fruits.4,5,15 There are records of American Crocodiles attacking and even killing humans.20

American Crocodiles reach sexual maturity at 8–18 years old or at a length of about 2.3–2.5 m.5,21 The nesting season in Ecuador is not known but elsewhere it coincides with the annual dry season.9,22 Males fight with each other to defend territories, which they also maintain by producing loud sounds.3,5 Females breed once a year5 and build simple nests by excavating in soft sand or gravel or by building low mounds.4,9 These are located ~9–14 m from the water.22,23 Clutches consist of 9–80 eggs that measure 6.2–7.3 cm in length, weigh 63–140 g, and take 75–90 days to hatch.59,22,23 Temperature during incubation determines the sex of the hatchlings: low and high temperatures produces females and mid-temperatures result in males.23,24 Flooding of the nests is the main cause of egg mortality.5 Hatchlings measure 24–27 cm in total length at birth.5,8 They remain in groups and communicate acoustically with their siblings and with the mother.5 Females aggressively defend the nests and the hatchlings.3,5 Wild cats, raccoons, birds of prey, vultures, herons, catfish, and ants are known to prey on eggs and neonates.5 Caimans (Caiman fuscus) are also known to prey on the juveniles of C. acutus,8 but the adults have no reported natural predators. An individual in Venezuela was estimated to be 65 years old.8

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Conservation: Vulnerable Considered to be facing a high risk of extinction in the mid-term future..25 Although Crocodylus acutus is widely distributed and occurs in protected areas, the species was the subject of overexploitation for decades, particularly between the 1930s and 1970s.6,26 Uncontrolled large-scale hide hunting was the main driver of the decline,6 but so was direct killing,25 and habitat loss and degradation.25 The mangrove ecosystem that is so critical to the survival of the species continues to be transformed into shrimp farms, human settlements, and agricultural areas.27 Crocodylus acutus is now internationally protected and populations in most of the 18 countries where the species occurs appear to be recovering despite decades of overexploitation.6 However, recovery appears to be limited or non-existing in Ecuador, where only two presumably stable but severely depleted populations are known.7,27

Distribution: Crocodylus acutus is the most widely distributed New World crocodilian. It occurs from the southern tip of Florida, along both the Atlantic and Pacific coasts of southern México and Central America to northern South America.9 It also occurs in several Caribbean islands.9 In Ecuador, populations persist in the gulf of Guayaquil and along the Río Puyango and its tributaries in extreme southwestern Ecuador. Records of C. acutus elsewhere in Ecuador correspond to vagrant or migrating individuals. The species has been recorded at elevations between 0 and 345 m (Fig. 2).

Distribution of Crocodylus acutus in Ecuador

Figure 2: Distribution of Crocodylus acutus in Ecuador. See Appendix 1 for a complete list of the presence localities included in the map.

Etymology: The name Crocodylus is apparently classical Latin for crocodile and is derived from the Greek word krokodeilos.28 The specific epithet acutus is a Latin word meaning “pointed.”29 The snout of this species is narrower than that of other crocodilians.

See it in the wild: In Ecuador, American Crocodiles can be seen reliably in two protected areas: Manglares El Salado and Reserva Cazaderos. These shy reptiles are most easily found at night by detecting their bright orange eye-shine.

Special thanks to Roy and Laurie Averill-Murray for symbolically adopting the American Crocodile and helping bring the Reptiles of Ecuador book project to life.

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Acknowledgments: Special thanks to Ernesto Arbeláez (Bioparque Amaru) and Ricardo Chiriboga and María Belén Chiriboga (Zoo el Pantanal) for prodiving photographic access to specimens of Crocodylus acutus under their care.

Author: Alejandro ArteagaaAffiliation: Khamai Foundation, Quito, Ecuador.

Photographer: Jose VieirabAffiliation: Tropical Herping (TH), Quito, Ecuador.,cAffiliation: ExSitu, Quito, Ecuador.

How to cite? Arteaga A (2023) American Crocodile (Crocodylus acutus). In: Arteaga A, Bustamante L, Vieira J (Eds) Reptiles of Ecuador: Life in the middle of the world. Available from: DOI: 10.47051/XBAZ9538

Literature cited:

  1. Platt SG, Rainwater TR, Thorbjarnarson JB, Martin D (2011) Size estimation, morphometrics, sex ratio, sexual size dimorphism, and biomass of Crocodylus acutus in the coastal zone of Belize. Salamandra 47: 179–192.
  2. Domínguez-Laso J (2009) Record size for a female Crocodylus acutus in the Grijalva River, Chiapas, Mexico. Crocodile Specialist Group Newsletter 28: 14–15.
  3. Savage JM (2002) The amphibians and reptiles of Costa Rica, a herpetofauna between two continents, between two seas. The University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 934 pp.
  4. Brazaitis P (1973) The identification of living crocodilians. Scientific Contributions of the New York Zoological Society 58: 59–101.
  5. Morales-Betancourt MA, Lasso CA, De La Ossa V J, Fajardo-Patiño A (2013) Biología y conservación de los Crocodylia de Colombia. Serie Editorial Recursos Hidrobiológicos y Pesqueros Continentales de Colombia, Instituto de Investigación de Recursos Biológicos Alexander von Humboldt (IAvH), Bogotá, 335 pp.
  6. Carvajal RI, Saavedra M, Alava JJ (2005) Population ecology, distribution and habitat assessment of Crocodylus acutus (Cuvier 1807) in the “Reserva de producción de fauna manglares El Salado” of the Guayaquil Gulf Estuary, Ecuador. Revista de Biología Marina y Oceanografía 40: 141–150.
  7. Fernández Porras LM (2018) Línea base de Eretmochelys imbricata y Crocodylus acutus en el Golfo de Guayaquil y el Archipiélago de Jambelí. Ceiba Foundation for Tropical Conservation, Guayaquil, 40 pp.
  8. Seijas AE (2011) Los Crocodylia de Venezuela. Experimental de Los Llanos Ezequiel Zamora, Barinas, 281 pp.
  9. Thorbjarnarson JB (2010) American Crocodile, Crocodylus acutus. In: Manolis SC, Stevenson C (Eds) Crocodiles: status survey and conservation action plan. Crocodile Specialist Group, Darwin, 46–53.
  10. Crespo R, Beauchamp JS, Mazzotti F, Cherkiss MS (2015) Crocodylus acutus (American Crocodile): long distance juvenile movement. Herpetological Review 46: 623–624.
  11. Balaguera-Reina SA, Moncada-Jimenez JF, Prada-Quiroga CF, Hernandez-Gonzalez F, Bolaños-Cubillos NW, Farfán-Ardila N, Garcia-Calderón LM, Densmore III LD (2020) Tracking a voyager: mitochondrial DNA analyses reveal mainland-to-island dispersal of an American crocodile (Crocodylus acutus) across the Caribbean. Biological Journal of the Linnean Society 131: 647–655. DOI: 10.1093/biolinnean/blaa121
  12. Balaguera-Reina SA, Venegas-Anaya M, Sánchez A, Arbelaez I, Lessios HA, Densmore LD (2016) Spatial ecology of the American Crocodile in a tropical Pacific island in Central America. PLoS ONE 11: e0157152. DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0157152
  13. Platt SG, Thorbjarnarson JB, Rainwater TR, Martin DR (2013) Diet of the American Crocodile (Crocodylus acutus) in marine environments of Coastal Belize. Journal of Herpetology 47: 1–10.
  14. Cervantes JÁ, Charruau P, Cedeño-Vázquez R, Varela BJ, Larsson HCE (2017) Crocodylus acutus (American Crocodile): diet. Herpetological Review 48: 839–840.
  15. Platt SG, Chenot-Rose C, Rose V, Rainwater TR (2014) Crocodylus acutus (American Crocodile): frugivory. Herpetological Review 45: 120–121.
  16. Escobar-Lasso S, Gil-Fernández M, Sáenz J, Carrillo-Jiménez E, Wong G, Fonseca LG, Gómez-Hoyos DA (2017) Distribution and hotspots of the feeding areas of jaguars on sea turtles at a national park in Costa Rica. Neotropical Biology and Conservation 12: 2–11. DOI: 10.4013/nbc.2017.121.01
  17. Medem F (1962) La distribución geográfica y ecología de los Crocodylia y Testudinata en el Departamento del Chocó. Revista de la Academia Colombiana de Ciencias Exactas, Físicas, y Naturales 11: 279–303.
  18. Geluso K, Harner MJ (2013) Nerodia clarkii clarkii (Gulf Saltmarsh Watersnake): predation. Herpetological Review 44: 156–157.
  19. Medem F (1981) Los Crocodylia de Sur América. Volumen I. Los Crocodylia de Colombia. Colciencias, Bogotá, 354 pp.
  20. Pooley S, Siroski PA, Fernandez L, Sideleau B, Ponce-Campos P (2021) Human–crocodilian interactions in Latin America and the Caribbean region. Conservation Science and Practice 3: e351. DOI: 10.1111/csp2.351
  21. Briggs-Gonzalez V, Bonenfant C, Basille M, Cherkiss M, Beauchamp J, Mazzotti F (2017) Life histories and conservation of long-lived reptiles, an illustration with the American crocodile (Crocodylus acutus). The Journal of Animal Ecology 86: 1102–1113. DOI: 10.1111/1365-2656.12723
  22. Casas-Andreu G (2003) Ecología de la anidación de Crocodylus acutus (Reptilia: Crocodylidae) en la desembocadura del Río Cuitzmala, Jalisco, México. Acta Zoológica Mexicana 89: 111–128.
  23. Barragán Lara R, Grajales JG, Martínez Ramírez E (2021) Nest temperature assessment in an American crocodile (Crocodylus acutus) population on the central coast of Oaxaca, Mexico. Journal of Thermal Biology 99: 103012. DOI: 0.1016/j.jtherbio.2021.103
  24. Lang JW, Andrews HV (1994) Temperature-dependent sex determination in Crocodilians. The Journal of Experimental Zoology 270: 28–44.
  25. Rainwater TR, Platt SG, Charruau P, Balaguera-Reina SA, Sigler L, Cedeño-Vázquez JR, Thorbjarnarson JB (2020) Crocodylus acutus. The IUCN Red List of threatened species. Available from: DOI: 10.2305/IUCN.UK.2022-1.RLTS.T5659A212805700.en
  26. Ross JP (1998) Crocodiles: status survey and conservation action plan. IUCN/SSC Crocodile Specialist Group, Gainesville, 97 pp.
  27. Alava JJ, Carvajal R, Baquerizo J (2003) Crocodylus acutus in the Gulf of Guayaquil Bioregion: current status and census of captive individuals. Crocodrile Specialist Group Newsletter 22: 15–16.
  28. Uetz P, Freed P, Hošek J (2021) The reptile database. Available from:
  29. Brown RW (1956) Composition of scientific words. Smithsonian Books, Washington D.C., 882 pp.

Appendix 1: Locality data used to create the distribution map of Crocodylus acutus in Ecuador (Fig. 2). Go to the section on symbols and abbreviations for a list of acronyms used.

ColombiaNariñoBarreraFig.1; Balaguera-Reina et al. 2015
ColombiaNariñoLa EnsenadaFig.1; Balaguera-Reina et al. 2015
ColombiaNariñoQuebrada La SegundaFig.1; Balaguera-Reina et al. 2015
ColombiaNariñoRío RosarioFig.1; Balaguera-Reina et al. 2015
EcuadorEl OroHumedal La TembladeraGarzón-Santomaro et al. 2019
EcuadorEl OroJambelíiNaturalist; photo examined
EcuadorEl OroPuerto BalaoErnesto Arbeláez, pers. comm.
EcuadorEl OroPuerto BolívarCésar Zambrano, pers. comm.
EcuadorEl OroPuerto JelíFernández Porras 2018
EcuadorEsmeraldasAtacamesMAE Esmeraldas 2016
EcuadorEsmeraldasCabo San FranciscoGAD Cabo San Francisco 2017
EcuadorEsmeraldasEsmeraldas, Calle DelgadilloEL UNIVERSO 2021
EcuadorEsmeraldasEstero SalimaDiario La Hora 2016
EcuadorEsmeraldasIsla Luis Vargas TorresEL UNIVERSO 2008
EcuadorEsmeraldasMajúaEL UNIVERSO 2021
EcuadorEsmeraldasReserva Ecológica Manglares Cayapas MatajeMAE Esmeraldas 2008
EcuadorEsmeraldasRío VerdeEl Telégrafo 2013
EcuadorGuayasCerro de los MorreñosFernández Porras 2018
EcuadorGuayasEstero BajenFiallos et al. 1979
EcuadorGuayasEstero Plano SecoFernández Porras 2018
EcuadorGuayasEstero Puerto HondoAlvarado Avilés 2016
EcuadorGuayasGuayaquilMCZ 4041; VertNet
EcuadorGuayasGuayaquil, Planta TermoeléctricaÁlava et al. 2003
EcuadorGuayasIsla Puná, La ConcordiaiNaturalist; photo examined
EcuadorGuayasIsla SantayPhoto by Elena Sergeeva
EcuadorGuayasManglares El MorroiNaturalist; photo examined
EcuadorGuayasManglares El SaladoCarvajal et al. 2005
EcuadorGuayasPuerto NaranjalUPMA 2023
EcuadorGuayasPuerto Sabana GrandeFernández Porras 2018
EcuadorGuayasPunta MandingaMAE 2016
EcuadorGuayasRío DauleCésar Zambrano, pers. comm.
EcuadorGuayasRío GuayasAMNH 22109; VertNet
EcuadorGuayasRío Guayas, near Punta de PiedraMCZ 10920; VertNet
EcuadorGuayasRío TauraiNaturalist; photo examined
EcuadorGuayasSalitraliNaturalist; photo examined
EcuadorGuayasSalvadorPhoto by Ernesto Arbeláez
EcuadorGuayasSector ChuruteOnline multimedia
EcuadorGuayasUrbanización Puerto AzulFernández Porras 2018
EcuadorGuayasYaguachiProyecto Crocodylus Ecuador 2022
EcuadorLojaBolaspambaiNaturalist; photo examined
EcuadorLojaBosque Petrificado PuyangoGarzón-Santomaro et al. 2019
EcuadorLojaCazaderosPhoto by Santiago Hualpa
EcuadorLojaMangahurcoPhoto by Fausto Siavichay
EcuadorLojaRío PuyangoCésar Zambrano, pers. comm.
EcuadorManabíSan ClementeMAE Manabí 2017
EcuadorManabíSan VicenteMAE Manabí 2017
PerúPiuraRío ChiraMedem 1983
PerúTumbesBocana MurciélagoGalván & Vargas 2003
PerúTumbesCabo IngaGalván & Vargas 2003
PerúTumbesCaño UcumaresWCS 1979
PerúTumbesEstero CorralesVásquez & Pickens 1995
PerúTumbesGuanábanoGalván & Vargas 2003
PerúTumbesQuebrada HondaGalván & Vargas 2003
PerúTumbesRío ZarumillaMedem 1983
PerúTumbesSantuario Natural Los Manglares de TumbesPooley et al. 2021
PerúTumbesZorritosYPM 006519; VertNet