Smithsonian National Zoological Park l Friends of the National Zoo



Cuban Crocodile

Cuban Crocodile

Crocodylus rhombifer

With the most restricted range of any crocodilian, the Cuban crocodile is in danger of extinction due to habitat alteration, hunting, and competition with introduced caimans.

Physical Description:

Adult Cuban crocodiles vary in color from yellowish or yellow-green with dense dark green or black blotches. Their backs and necks are mostly black or blackish, and their legs and sides are spotted. White eyelid edges give these reptiles a spectacled look. Juveniles are more brightly colored - more yellowish and spotted - than adults. Cuban crocodiles have stout, muscular legs and slightly ridged scales on their tails.


Male Cuban crocodiles generally grow to about ten and a half feet long, although 15-foot-long individuals have been reported.

Geographic Distribution:

Cuban crocodile are now restricted to the Zapata Swamp, a one-million-acre wilderness in southwestern Cuba. They have also been reintroduced on the Isla de Juventud in Lanier Swamp.


The Cuban crocodile is listed as critically endangered on the World Conservation Union's (IUCN's) Red List of Threatened Animals.


Cuban crocodiles inhabit freshwater swampland, although they can probably tolerate brackish conditions. Their Zapata Swamp habitat is very similar to that found in Florida's Everglades, with sawgrass and dense shrubs growing in the water.

Natural Diet:

Cuban crocodiles eat small mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, fish, and invertebrates. Broad teeth in the back of their mouths may be an adaptation to facilitate the crushing of tough turtle shells.

National Zoo Diet:

The Zoo's large Cuban crocodiles eat rabbits; smaller ones are fed mice or rats.


Less is known of Cuban crocodiles' natural history than that of other crocodilians, including its reproductive habits. For instance, some describe these animals' nests as holes dug in the ground and filled with dirt and vegetable matter, but zoos and researchers in the field have reported that the crocodiles lay their eggs in mound nests not unlike those made by alligators. Large females lay up to 40 eggs.

Life Span:

The lifespan of the Cuban crocodile remains unknown. Like all crocodilians, they are probably long-lived and may live up to 75 years in zoos.


Cuban crocodiles ambush prey floating or swimming in the water and leap out of the water. They may also eat small mammals on land.


Cuban crocodiles were once far more widespread on Cuba and also lived on the Bahaman and Cayman islands. Their numbers dwindled following widespread destruction of wetlands for agriculture, heavy hunting pressure, and the introduction of common caiman (Caiman crocodilus), with which Cuban crocodiles can interbreed. Zoos and crocodile farms are breeding pure Cuban crocodiles, and these animals may someday join wild ones. The National Zoo participates in a Species Survival Plan (SSP) that coordinates zoo breeding for this species, and breeds its animals according to SSP recommendations. Meanwhile, Cuban conservation measures have helped the Zapata Swamp crocodiles to rebound to between 3,000 and 6,000 animals. Future protection measures will need to include protecting Zapata Swamp from further destruction, establishing other wild populations as insurance against extinction, and carefully monitoring the wild population.

A Few Cuban Crocodile Neighbor:

Zapata rail (Cyanolimnas cerverai): A small, elusive marsh bird found only in the sawgrass and bush-covered Zapata Swamp.

Zapata wren (Ferminia cerverai): A small grayish brown bird that lives in dense shrubs of the Zapata Swamp.

Bee Hummingbird (Mellisuga helenae): The world's smallest bird has one of its strongholds in and near the Zapata Swamp.

By saving Cuban crocodile habitat, these and many other animals are protected.

Further Reading:

Crocodiles & Alligators of the World, by David Alderton; Sterling Publications, 1998.

Copyright 2000, Friends of the National Zoo.