The Cuban crocodile has a short, broad head with a bony ridge located behind the eyes. Large osteoderms from the dorsal shield extend onto the back of the neck. Scales on the legs are larger than usual and heavily keeled on the two rear legs. Coloration is darker on the top portion of the body, consisting of a pattern of green and olive black with yellow speckles. The belly of the Cuban crocodile is pale with no distinctive markings. The tail is marked with black blotches and/or bands. Cuban crocodiles have 66 to 68 large teeth. They have muscular hind legs and a leg bone structure that carries more of the weight under their bodies, enabling them to move with great agility and power.
Cuban crocodiles are strong swimmers and are adept at walking and leaping. This makes them equally at home in water or on land. Temperature control is important since they cannot generate heat metabolically. They soak up heat from the sun or warm water, generally in the morning when they are cold and groggy, or after a meal, because the heat raises their metabolisms.
Adult Cuban crocodiles generally do not exceed 10.5 feet (3.5 meters) in length, with males being larger than females. Larger individuals have been found in the past but are now rare.
The Cuban crocodile has the smallest range of any crocodile, encompassing an area less than 200 square miles (500 square kilometers). It can be found only in Cuba in the Zapata Swamp in the southwest and in the Lanier Swamp on Isla de Juventud. The historical range also included the Cayman and Bahaman islands.
Juveniles of the species tend to feed on invertebrates and small fish. Adult Cuban crocodiles eat mainly fish, turtles and small mammals. They can also feed on birds and arboreal mammals by leaping from the water (using powerful thrusts of their tail from below the surface) and catching the prey from overhanging tree branches.
At the Smithsonian's National Zoo, they are fed croc pellets, rats, rabbits and occasionally fish.
Cuban crocodiles construct mound nests. Breeding season generally begins in May and lasts for three to four months. The number of eggs produced depends upon the size and age of the mother but 30 to 40 eggs are average. A large number of eggs are produced to compensate for the fact that a large percentage of hatchlings do not survive to adulthood. This is due to a variety of factors, primarily predation, on both eggs and hatchling crocodiles by various reptiles and birds.
Cannibalism of young by more mature Cuban crocodiles has also been reported. The eggs range widely in size; on average, they are 2.5 inches (6 centimeters) in length. In the wild, the eggs hatch about 2.5 months after they are laid. Temperature of the nest determines the sex of the hatchlings. Between 89.6 and 90.5 F (32 to 32.5 C) produces males.
This species lives for about 50 to 75 years.
The Cuban crocodile is one of the most threatened New World crocodilian species, primarily because it has such a small and restricted distribution. The Cuban crocodile's main threat is humans, who have hunted the crocodile extensively and have largely encroached upon their habitats. There are currently more than 600 Cuban crocodiles in the Lanier Swamp competing for space and food resources with at least 40,000 spectacled caiman. Likewise, the American crocodile has made incursions into the Zapata Swamp through a series of canals constructed in the 19th century. There, American crocodiles and Cuban crocodiles are interbreeding, producing hybrids and leading to the loss of the Cuban crocodile's genetic integrity. It is thought that there are around 3,000 purebred Cuban crocodiles in the wild.
Information on the ecology and natural history of the Cuban crocodile is still not widely known. Work needs to be done to increase and protect the remaining wild population. Cuban crocodiles are well represented in captivity in the United States.
Farms were established in the late 1950s and 1960s for skin and meat production, and now a relatively large number of animals are produced annually to satisfy demand. One farm has been given CITES approval to start international trade in skins.