Geographical Range Eastern China (confined to a small area in the Yangtze River basin, along the East China Sea coastline)
Habitat Traditionally found in rivers, streams, lakes, ponds, marshes, swamps and adjacent land; now mostly confined to ditches and ponds on agricultural land
Scientific Name Alligator sinensis
Conservation Status Critically endangered

The Chinese alligator is one of just two alligator species in the world. Compared to its cousin the American alligator, the Chinese version is relatively small, with an average total length of about five feet in males and 4½ feet in females. The Chinese alligator has a more robust head than its American counterpart, and its snout is tapered and turns up slightly at the end. The Chinese alligator’s blunt teeth are perfect for crushing shelled animals, like clams and snails. But the menu is quite varied, and also includes insects, fish, and the occasional small mammal or bird.

During the cold, dry months (October - March), Chinese alligators hunker down in caves or burrows and brumate, rather than truly hibernate -- a way that reptiles respond to cold weather. In April, they emerge and spend much of the day basking in sunny spots. As summer begins, the animals become more nocturnal. This is also the time when they begin their mating rituals. Females build nests and lay their eggs (anywhere from 10 to 40 or more at a time). The young hatch in September, and they benefit from maternal care: moms help the young hatch and then carry the little ones from the nest to the water.

The Chinese alligator, unlike the abundant American alligator, is critically endangered. Scientists estimate that fewer than 130 individuals survive in the wild. The main threat facing the Chinese alligator is habitat loss. The species’ traditional wetland habitat has been largely converted to rice paddies, and the remaining wild populations are confined to drainage ditches and farm ponds in one small Chinese province.

Fortunately, efforts are underway to help the Chinese alligator. The species has been successfully bred in wildlife refuges and in zoos, which maintain healthy populations. In 2003, the first captive-born Chinese alligators were released into their native range -- hopefully the beginning of a successful reintroduction program.

Did You Know?

The local name for this species is Yow-Lung or T’o, meaning “dragon.” Some writers think that the mythical Chinese dragon was, in reality, the Chinese alligator.