Caimans are closely related to
alligators, differing mainly in having the skin
of the underside reinforced with bony plates and
a narrower body. They range in size from the
dwarf caiman, which averages 4 feet in length, to
the black caiman, which can grow to a length of
15 to 20 feet.
The several species of caiman
can be grouped into the spectacled and broad
snouted, smooth fronted, and black. Spectacled
and broad snouted caimans have a ridge across the
nose, between the eyes, resembling the bridge of
a pair of spectacles. Smooth fronted caimans lack
this ridge. The black caiman also has a smooth
forehead but is glossy black in color,
contrasting with the browns and olives of other
species. The black caiman is also the only
crocodilian that does not lose its juvenile
stripes as an adult.
The majority of caimans are
confined to the northern part of South America,
primarily in the Amazon Basin, but one species
does extend through Central America into southern
Mexico. There is also a fairly sizable breeding
population of spectacled caimans in southern
Florida, where they were released into the wild
by careless pet owners.
Caimans inhabit a variey of
habitats, but are found primarily in or near
rivers, streams, and/or lakes.
Like all other crocodilians,
caimans are exclusively carnivorous. They feed
primarily on freshwater crustaceans when small,
graduating to amphibians, fish, reptiles, birds,
and mammals as they mature and grow. A fully
grown caiman is capable of taking down prey as
large as a wild pig or small deer, and when prey
is limited some caimans will even hunt their own
kind. One exception is the Paraguayan caiman,
which seems to live almost exclusively on giant
Caimans hunt both on land and
from the water. When taken on land, the prey is
almost always carried back to the water to be
held under until drowned. When stalking prey from
the water, the caiman will submerge and then swim
around to capture it and drag it into the water.
When swallowing, the caiman stretches its neck
out of the water and maneuvers the prey into a
head foremost position in the mouth.
After mating, the female
builds, near water, a nest of vegetation and mud
scraped together into a mound. She then digs a
hole in the top and lays up to 50 eggs in it,
each the size of a chicken or goose egg; the
average number of eggs per clutch, as well as the
size of each egg, varies considerably from
species to species. Some caimans take advantage
of termite mounds rather than dig their own
nests, relying on the heat inside the mound to
incubate their eggs.
The mother will stay near the
nest throughout the six-week incubation period.
Just before hatching, the babies will start to
croak. When the mother hears this, she will
scrape the top from the nest to help them escape.
As the hatchlings emerge, she carries them to a
shallow pool, where they learn to swim and fend
for themselves. The hatchlings look like
miniature versions of adults except for having
relatively larger eyes and shorter snouts. They
are rarely more than a foot long, but grow
rapidly, usually doubling in length by the end of
their first year.
Other Habits and
Caimans can move with
surprising speed over a short distance on land,
and are even more agile in water. In general,
they are quicker and more active than alligators.
Although caimans do move about
during the day, they do most of their hunting at
Although caiman populations are
relatively strong, they are threatened by habitat
loss and are protected in most parts of their
range. They have escaped the fate of other
crocodilians that are hunted for their pelts, as
the bony plates on their underside make their
skin unsuitable for tanning.
genera & species
Caiman crocodilus spectacled caiman
C.c. apaporiensis Rio Apaporis caiman
C.c. fuscus brown caiman
C. latirostris broad snouted caiman
C. yacare Yacare (Paraguayan) caiman
Melanosuchus niger black caiman
Paleosuchus palpebrosus Cuvier's dwarf
P. trigonatus smooth fronted caiman
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