Alligators and Crocodiles are large reptiles of crocodilian species. They are very much alike, but yet have some differences in habitat and appearance. Alligators live in fresh water in subtropical climate, and they have rounded snouts. Crocodiles live in salt water in tropical climate, and have pointed snouts. Strong and pliable, the skins of both species have been used for making luxury accessories worldwide for over a century, priced similarly and often used interchangeably. Nevertheless, it is important to be aware of their differences, and the myths surrounding them.
Crocodile Sensory Pores (ISO)
Similar in texture and patterns, alligator and crocodile skins are composed from square and oblong scales (or tiles). If you examine them closely, you can see that some skins have little dots close to the scale edge (crocodile), and others don't have them (alligator). The dots are hair follicles, or sensory pores, which assist crocodiles to detect change in water pressure, and locate and capture their prey. In biology, these pores (hair follicles) are called ISO (integumentary sense organs). Thus, the major difference between Crocodile and Alligator is, in fact, the presence of the sensory pores (ISO) that are found only on the Crocodile skin, but not on the Alligator body skin.
Umbilical Scar Controversy
Be aware of the myth claiming that only Alligators have umbilical scars (navels), and remember that Crocodiles do have them too, as other animals. Crocodiles' umbilical scars look slightly different, and they are not as elaborate as Alligators', but nevertheless they are, indeed, umbilical scars that are located on their bellies. Note that on expensive vintage handbags umbilical scars were usually prominently displayed on the front to show off its high value as a genuine, authentic skin product. Take a look at the featured Crocodile swatches to see the ISOs on each scale, with the Umbilical scars in the center. Also, take a look at the swatches, presented side by side, to feature both the Alligator umbilical scar, and the Crocodile umbilical scar.
Cultural Differences & Terminology
It is also important to mention that most of the "alligator-crocodile" confusion is purely cultural by nature. Europeans call all crocodilians 'crocodiles', while Americans refer to them as 'alligators'. Ironically, the situation contributes to frequent mislabeling of final products. For example, if you purchased an alligator handbag labeled as 'crocodile' in Italy, it can be confiscated by the U.S. Customs while entering the U.S., because of the ban on some types of crocodile skins in the U.S., such as American Crocodile (Latin: Crocodylus acutus). Thus, it is important to keep this in mind, while traveling to Europe, in order to avoid potential problems.
Please note that, as we learned in August 2011, you are required to buy an Export-Import License to ship overseas your brand-new or vintage (used or pre-owned) handbags made from various skins. For detailed information about such permits, licenses and regulations, please contact your regional USFWS office.
You can also buy our collector's guide, if you are looking for the detailed information about various exotic skins, including Alligator, Crocodile, Caiman, Turtle, Ostrich, Lizard, Snakeskin, presented in several chapters on pp.207-226, in order to learn how to authenticate your vintage handbags properly.
Left Photo: Alligator umbilical scar (Source: Louisiana Alligator Advisory Council)
Right Photo: Crocodile umbilical scar with scale ISOs (Source: "Exotic Skin: Alligator and Crocodile Handbags")