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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.
Distribution and Habitat
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 snails.
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 Behaviors
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 night.
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.
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This page was last updated on June 24, 2017.