|American alligator (Alligator mississippiensis)|
The family Alligatoridae of crocodylians includes alligators and caimans.
The superfamily Alligatoroidea includes all crocodilians (fossil and extant) that are more closely related to the American alligator than to either the Nile crocodile or the gharial. This is a stem-based definition for alligators, and is more inclusive than the crown group Alligatoridae. As a crown group, Alligatoridae only includes the last common ancestor of all extant (living) alligators, caimans, and their descendants (living or extinct), whereas Alligatoroidea, as a stem group, also includes more basal extinct alligator ancestors that are more closely related to living alligators than to crocodiles or gavialids. When considering only living taxons (neontology), this makes Alligatoroidea and Alligatoridae synonymous, and only Alligatoridae is used. Thus, Alligatoroidea is only used in the context of paleontology.
The below cladogram shows Alligatoridae's relationships to other crocodilians, based on the results of a 2018 tip dating study by Lee & Yates that simultaneously used morphological, molecular (DNA sequencing), and stratigraphic (fossil age) data.
The below cladogram shows the internal relationships within Alligatoridae:
The superfamily Alligatoroidea is thought to have split from the crocodile-gharial lineage in the late Cretaceous, about 87 million years ago. Leidyosuchus of Alberta is the earliest known genus. Fossil alligatoroids have been found throughout Eurasia as land bridges across both the North Atlantic and the Bering Strait have connected North America to Eurasia during the Cretaceous, Paleogene, and Neogene periods. Alligators and caimans split in North America during the early Tertiary or late Cretaceous (about 53 million to about 65 million years ago) and the latter reached South America by the Paleogene, before the closure of the Isthmus of Panama during the Neogene period. The Chinese alligator split from the American alligator about 33 million years ago and likely descended from a lineage that crossed the Bering land bridge during the Neogene. The modern American alligator is well represented in the fossil record of the Pleistocene. The alligator's full mitochondrial genome was sequenced in the 1990s. The full genome, published in 2014, suggests that the alligator evolved much more slowly than mammals and birds.
The lineage including alligators proper (Alligatorinae) occurs in the fluvial deposits of the age of the Upper Chalk in Europe, where they did not die out until the Pliocene age. The true alligators are today represented by two species, A. mississippiensis in the southeastern United States, which can grow to 15 ft (4.6 m) and weigh 1000 lbs (453 kg) and the small A. sinensis in the Yangtze River, China, which grows to an average of 5 ft (1.5 m). Their name derives from the Spanish el lagarto, which means "the lizard".
In Central and South America, the alligator family is represented by six species of the subfamily Caimaninae, which differ from the alligator by the absence of a bony septum between the nostrils, and having ventral armour composed of overlapping bony scutes, each of which is formed of two parts united by a suture. Besides the three species in Caiman, the smooth-fronted caimans in genus Paleosuchus and the black caiman in Melanosuchus are described. Caimans tend to be more agile and crocodile-like in their movements, and have longer, sharper teeth than alligators.
C. crocodilus, the spectacled caiman, has the widest distribution, from southern Mexico to the northern half of Argentina, and grows to a modest size of about 2.2 m (7.2 ft). The largest is the near-threatened Melanosuchus niger, the jacaré-açu or large or black caiman of the Amazon River basin. Black caimans grow to 5.0 m (16.5 ft), with the largest recorded size 5.79 m (19.0 ft). The black caiman and American alligator are the only members of the alligator family that pose the same danger to humans as the larger species of the crocodile family.
Although caimans have not been studied in depth, scientists have learned their mating cycles (previously thought to be spontaneous or year-round) are linked to the rainfall cycles and the river levels, which increases chances of survival for their offspring.
See also: List of crocodilians