Crocodilia: How to know what you’re buying

So you bought an "Alligator" Victorian bag on Ebay... What is it, really?

Just a little update for anyone looking to expand their knowledge of crocodilian skins…  I found this great mini-guide and had to share it:

\”Distinguishing Features of Crocodilian Leathers\”

Note these features on the head, especially:

Gator= 2-2-2 pattern of bumps

Caiman (often sold as alligator--don't be fooled!): 4-4-2 pattern of bumps

Croc= 4-2 pattern of bumps

There is often much confusion between alligator and caiman (as they are very closely related).  It’s important to remember that caiman is often sold as gator.  It’s dishonest, but very common.  Educate yourself and know what you’re buying.

Alligator is much more expensive, due to a few factors.  One, it is quite scarce in comparison to caiman.  Alligators can be farmed or caught wild (though there are only 30 days each year that they can be hunted legally).

Alligator hide is MUCH more supple than caiman–you can fold gator in half and there should not be any cracking along the fold (unless you suspect it’s a really old piece of skin and then you should maybe think about identifying it a different way–just a thought).  Caiman is more brittle, and little cracks will appear when you fold it.

Then there are the differences in belly tiles.  The photos on are great references!

As always, look for the DPRs (or ISOs: different names/theories, but each amounting to the fact that you’re only gonna find those little holes on a croc).

For more help with other reptilians, you can find my exotic leathers study guide here.


Exotic Leathers Study Guide

Keeping up with all of the exotic leathers out there is NOT easy.  This has been my weakest area on skin identification, and so I’ve been working on a study guide that would help me to tell all of my exotics apart.  I based my research on only the most-trusted sources, including the Smithsonian Zoological Department, as well as the University of Michigan’s Biodiversity Department and the Florida Museum of Natural History.  I also sourced several specialty leather websites  (facts are sourced in parenthesis). Below is what I have compiled (if you do not agree with what I have posted, PLEASE email me so that I may A. Argue with you, or B. Correct it).


Because we won’t be dealing much with the whole animal, it is best to concentrate on the properties of the skins alone: below are two links which I found very helpful.


Note the DPRs on each tile of this CROCODILE skin.

The Crocodylidae Family is divided into three main groups or sub-families:  Alligatorinae (this includes alligators and caiman) and Crocodylinae (this includes crocodiles and false-gharials) and Gavialinae (which includes the Gharial).

All members of Crocodylidae have Dermal Pressure Receptors (aka DPRs) along their jaws.  These pits look like black stubble.  Crocodiles also have these DPRs all over their bodies, on each individual tile.  However, neither Caiman nor Alligator have DPRs present on their body tiles—they have evolved out of them  (University of Michigan Biodiversity Department).

“Crocodile and alligator skin wallets, handbags, boots etc are easy to tell apart – if the scales have a small spot or dimple close to the edge, you know the skin is from a crocodile and not an alligator or caiman.”

-Florida Museum of Natural History


"Scutes" or "Osteoderms" along the back of an AMERICAN ALLIGATOR.

All caiman species (there are six)  live in South and Central America. The American Alligator lives only in North America, while the Chinese Alligator lives in China. The majority of Alligatorinae live in the New World, whilst the majority of the Crocodylinae live in the Old World.

The belly scales of the Alligator are large and fade into smaller, rounder tiles toward the flank (side) of the animal.  The tiles become more rectangular in shape on the ventral (bottom) portion of the tail (  The skin on the back of the American Alligator is characterized by vertical bony plates for defense called “osteoderms” or “scutes”  (Smithsonian Zoological Park).

Crocodylian skins from all families may be “spliced” together for continuity.


Anaconda:  New World, one of the largest snakeskins.  Of the constrictor family.  The scales are characteristically large and lack the long stomach plates found on python.

Python:  Old World, a member of the constrictors.  Characteristics include long (widthwise) stomach plates gradating into smaller, more diamond-shaped scales that overlap along the sides (keeled).

Whipsnake:  Found all over the Old World and many areas of the New World, the whipsnake is identified as a non-poisonous Colubrid.   They are very common and their skins are not very expensive.  They also take dye very well.  Dorsal scales are smooth, not keeled.  The scales found on the head are very large, characteristic only to this family of snakes (Colubrids).


My little Karung montage. 🙂

Karung:  a name for the leather that comes from the Wart Snake.  Smooth, almost consistently-sized pyramid-shaped scales on both the back and stomach.  Lower-class skins.  Look for the pyramid/diamond-shaped scales that are smooth and unkeeled (they do not overlap).

Vipers:  of the family of venomous snakes, found in both New World and Old World, including copperhead, rattlesnake, cottonmouth (New World), cobra, black mamba, etc (Old World).  Quite expensive and sought-after, especially the cobra.


Teju:  New World lizard, blackish with yellow banding, growing to about 3 feet in length.  Rectangular stomach plates changing to smaller, rounded rectangles along the flank.

Java:   Old World Lizard.  Found in Indonesian Islands.  Characteristically round scales.  Look for the round-to-round: you can’t go wrong!

Ring Lizard:  the name for the leather that comes from the Asian Water Monitor (Old World).  Animal can grow up to 3 meters/9 feet long!  Look for the characteristic “rings” pattern on otherwise smaller scales.  Natural coloring is a taupe gray design on a buttercream background.

Nile Lizard:  an Old World Monitor specific to Africa.  Skin looks very much like ring lizard, only the colors are reversed (buttercream on a darker, greenish black) and the pattern much more defined.

Iguana:  New World Lizard.  Characteristics include a “dewlap” or row of spiked scales running along the spine that may or may not be found on the tanned hide, as well as a “parietal eyes” or  large eye-shaped scales directly behind the head.  Scales are small and consistent across the body (stomach and back).  Scales are smooth and unkeeled.


Ostrich: Characterized by the giant quill cells prolific over the hide.  Leather can be used from the body as well as the legs, which look like “dinosaur skin,” long plated scales running the length of the legs.

Emu:  very similar look to ostrich, although the hide itself is smaller and not very sought-after.

Amphibians: the skins just “look like a frog.” Sorry: that’s not good enough, I know… maybe I’ll put some pics up…


Eel:  Look for the long, pixilated stripe running the length of an extremely smooth, unscaled skin.

Stingray:  The most durable skin in the world—must be cut with a diamond blade!  Skin is covered in dimpled orbs, with a more-raised area along the spine.  Each skin has two holes where the eyes were on the animal.  The dimpled orbs may remain as they are, or may be sanded down for a smooth bubbled effect .

Shark:  One of the toughest leathers known to man.  Looks very much like sand from which water has evaporated—like the mud at a dried-up riverbed.  Does not smell pleasant.

If you’re still confused, I’d very much suggest typing the name of the actual animal (*NOT the name of its leather) into google images.  I found pictures of the live specimens infinitely helpful when trying to decipher the differences.

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