If you’re anything like me, you might have trouble when it comes to identifying an alligator…or was it a crocodile? These water-loving reptiles look strikingly similar and can be tough to name. While it may take careful consideration to distinguish between them when they’re alive, they can be even tougher to ID in leather form.
That is why we spent this week diving into the world of crocodilians and unearthing the secrets behind recognizing their leather.
We get nerdy about live crocodilians
First, let’s get the obvious part out of the way. Being that crocodiles, alligators and caiman are all reptiles, they all share distinct reptilian features like scaly, armored skin and long, low bodies with tails that are great for the amphibian lifestyle.
Now that that’s out of the way, let’s chat about the classification of crocodiles, alligators and caimans. To start, they are all part of the same Order: crocodilia. While they may look the same, they are different enough to be split into two families: Alligatoridae and Crocodyloidea. Caimans and alligators belong to the same family, though they are split into different subfamilies that are very similar to their common names. For that reason, alligators and caiman are often grouped together when discussing physical traits – just like we’re going to do in this post. Their leather is pretty different, but we’ll get to that part later.
So we’re still going the science route, but this part is less stuffy. Do you know how to tell the difference between an alligator and a crocodile? A lot of folks will jump to head shape. Crocodiles tend to have a thinner jaw, while alligators (and caimans) have a wide jaw. While this test is a fairly safe bet when discussing American crocodilians, it doesn’t apply to them all. There are crocodiles and alligators with both head shapes.
Some folks will note size, as caimans tend to be smaller than both alligators and crocodiles.
It’s important to note that size is not necessarily indicative of genus or species as crocodiles and alligators are not born gigantic. So, just like head shape, this rule doesn’t apply across the board and should not be the lone factor in identifying crocodilians.
The best way to tell the difference is by looking at two things: the setup of the jaw and little bumps called Integumentary Sense Organs or ISOs.
The way alligatoridae’s jaws are setup has a smoother look. These guys sport an overbite, much like us. It makes only their top row of teeth visible when their mouths are closed and gives them a look akin to a smirk. Crocodiles have a bite that rests their teeth right on top of each other so that both rows of teeth are visible with a closed mouth. As a result, their mouths look jagged and more dangerous than smooth-jawed alligatoridaes. While this difference is perhaps the easiest to spot, it’s not at all helpful when talking about leather because teeth are removed during the tanning process.
A caiman shows off its overbite. Doesn’t it look like a cheeky smile?
The final distinguishing feature is the location of ISOs, little sensory-detecting bumps that make crocodilians truly formidable opponents. These ISOs make heavily armored crocodilians more sensitive to movement and touch than human fingertips. While all crocodilians have ISOs, only crocodiles (and the nearly extinct gharial) have them all over their bodies. Alligatoridae just have them on their faces. ISOs are absent from the top of the head of all crocodilians. These bumps can be tough to see after tanning, but pronounced ISOs are easy to spot.
See the little black dots on this croc? Those are ISOs!
Image via Vanderbilt.edu
Now that you know about the wild side of things, let’s get to the material
So, you know the basic way to spot the difference between alligatoridae and crocodyloidea, but what’s the situation with leather? From here on out, we’re switching to street names and we’ll stop grouping caiman and alligators together.
Why? Well, it may surprise you to learn that when it comes to leather, alligator and crocodile are very similar. It turns out those alligatoridae family members are not as similar to each other once they’re tanned.
These wee little things are crocodile, though many SLC staffers ID’d them as caiman at first. IDing was tough because ISOs were not easily spotted either. We used some of the tips below and had some help from the tannery.
All of these animals are pretty darn similar after they’re tanned, but there are three key factors that will help you ID your leather.
No, this leather doesn’t have acne
We talked about ISOs earlier in this post. These little bumps, that sometimes look like blackheads, are found on all three of the reptiles in question, but only crocodiles have them all over. While some tanning practices can render ISOs virtually invisible, some tanners keep this distinguishing feature in tact as a sign of authenticity. You can still find ISOs on alligators and caiman that have their facial features left in tact.
Notice the darker, pimple-like marks on this alligator piece. Those are ISOs. This section is the side of the alligator’s head – think of it as a cheek. They can be tough to see, but are notably missing from the rest of the skin.
ISOs aren’t always around when you’re trying to identify leather, but if you can spot them all over, you know you’re rocking with a crocodile.
With great softness comes a great price tag
You can rank our crocodilian friends based on value that is determined by one major factor: workability. When it comes to leather, ISOs aside, crocodiles and alligators are actually more similar to each other than caiman. This is not because of size, but because of their rigidity or hand.
The back and belly of an alligator. Notice how this leather doesn’t lay as flat as a lot of the caiman we have pictured. It’s due to the softness and size of these pieces.
Caimans have calcium rivets in their scales making their fibers denser and more rigid. That rigidity causes caiman leather to be a bit tougher to work with. While the degree of rigidity is partially determined by tannage, caiman spinal scales will pretty much always be tougher than those found on alligators and crocodiles. For that reason, caiman will often sport a much lower price point.
Crocodile is in the middle of this heirarchy as it is more pliable and easier to work with than caiman, but not as soft as alligator. Crocodile leather will be priced pretty similarly to alligator for this reason.
Of course, that puts alligator at the top of the list with the most workable skin and the highest ticket price. Alligator is also easier to tan, so you may find that they have a more consistent color and finish.
Something we’ve noticed
We gathered just about every iteration of caiman we could find in our warehouse. From full skins to tails large and small. We even found some spines! While it may be tough to spot, nearly every piece of caiman here has a different hand to it.
One thing we noticed when working with caiman is that it’s easily identified due to some mysterious little markings on their scales. They may be tougher to spot on the belly, but they’re visible on just about every surface of a caiman except for their sides.
Notice the pore-like dots on these scales? Not the dark marks, but the small groupings of holes. They almost look like feathers plucked out of a bird or a bad skin day. This is a feature we noticed on all of the caiman pieces we had and couldn’t find them on any crocodile or alligator. Unfortunately, we’re not aware of any scientific jargon associated with these marks, so we’ll just refer to it as complexion.
A quick recap for those in a rush
A crocodile spine
If you want to know what leather you’re dealing with look for ISOs, check price and pliability, and check your leather’s complexion. If you’re lucky enough to come across a tannery sticker, the work’s been done for you!
The truth is, IDing this leather can be tough, even when you have each kind in front of you. But, with a little practice it’ll all come together.
If you’re interested in learning more about crocodilian leather, be sure to use the links provided throughout this article.
If you want to purchase some crocodilian skins from us, please visit our website or visit us in-store where our selection is wider. If you have any additional crocodilian leather facts or questions, please use the Inbox button at the top of this page or send Kevin an email by filling out the form on our website.