Animals

Caimans

by Marcia Malory

Caimans are crocodilians that, along with alligators, make up the family Alligatoridae.

A caiman, like an alligator, has a snout that is shaped like the letter "U".

Crocodiles have snouts that are shaped like the letter "V".

Caimans are native to rivers and wetlands of southern Mexico and Central and South America. In general, they are freshwater reptiles, but they can tolerate saltwater. They will bury themselves in mud and estivate when their environment becomes too dry.

Cuvier's dwarf caimanCaimans are nocturnal (active at night.)

Young caimans eat invertebrates, such as insects, crustaceans and mollusks, including snails. Adults often eat fish. They may also eat other vertebrates, such as water birds, turtles, snakes and mammals

Larger caimans may eat large mammals, such as capybaras or wild pigs.

Caimans build mound nests that are made of soil and vegetable manner. A clutch may consist of between 10 and 60 eggs.

There are six species of caiman alive today: the spectacled caiman (Caiman crocodilus), the Yacare caiman (Caiman yacare), the broad-snouted caiman (Caiman latirostris), the black caiman (Melanosuchus niger), the smooth-fronted caiman (Paleosuchus trigonatus) and Cuvier's dwarf caiman (Paleosuchus palpebrosus).

Caimans tend to be much smaller than alligators. The black caiman, however, usually ranges from about 10 to 14 feet long, and is comparable in size to the American alligator.

Because of their relatively small size, caimans are sometimes kept as pets, particularly when they are young

If you are thinking about getting a pet caiman, check your local laws about owning exotic pets. In some places, keeping a caiman as a pet may be illegal or may require a special permit.

Make sure that your pet caiman has an enclosure that is large enough to allow it to grow to its full size. If its enclosure is too small, its bones may become deformed. In addition, it will suffer from stress and other health problems if it does not have enough room to move around comfortably.

Do not purchase a juvenile caiman if you will not be able to care for it once it becomes an adult.

Spectacled Caiman

The spectacled caiman, which is also called the common caiman, gets its name from a bridge of bone beneath its eyelids that makes it look like it is wearing spectacles.

Spectacled caimans are native to Mexico and to many parts of Central and South America, including the Amazon basin. Populations have also been introduced to Florida, Puerto Rico and Cuba.

They  usually range from about 4 ½ feet to 8 feet long, with males being longer than females.

Adult spectacled caimans  have olive colored scales, while juveniles have scales that are yellow with black bands.

Spectacled caimans are sometimes kept as pets.

Yacare Caiman

The Yacare caiman, or Jacaré caiman, lives in Brazil, Argentina, Paraguay and Bolivia.

It can grow to be about 10 feet long.

Some Yacare caimans have bottom teeth that protrude through their upper jaws. This makes them look like crocodiles.

Alligators and most caimans have upper jaws that are wider than their lower jaws. When they close their mouths, their bottom teeth fit into sockets in their upper jaws, so that their bottom teeth cannot be seen.

Crocodiles have upper and lower jaws that are of equal width. When they close their mouths, their top and bottom teeth can be seen.

Yacare caimans are sometimes called piranha caimans. This may be because their diet includes piranhas or because their protruding upper and lower teeth cause their mouths to resemble the mouths of piranhas.

The Yacare caiman used to be considered a subspecies of spectacled caiman.

Broad-Snouted Caiman

Broad-snouted caimans, which are sometimes called broad-nosed caimans, are native to Brazil, Argentina, Bolivia, Paraguay and Uruguay.

They generally grow up to about 6 ½ feet long.

The broad-snouted caiman gets its name from its short, wide snout. The snout has a bony ridge along its base, between the caiman's eyes.

Broad-snouted caimans are often pale olive green, but their coloration can vary. Some older broad-snouted caimans appear to be almost black.

Black Caiman

The black caiman is the largest of the caimans. It may grow up to about 15 feet long, although its length usually ranges from 10 to 14 feet.

It lives in South America.

The black caiman gets its name from its dark, black scales, which are thought to act as camouflage. It has gray or brown bands on its lower jaw. Juvenile black caimans have pale white or yellow bands along their flanks.

A black caiman has a bony ridge over its eyes.

Young black caimans eat invertebrates, such as insects and crustaceans. Adults eat vertebrates, including fish, birds, turtles and large mammals. There have been reports of large black caimans attacking human beings and domestic animals.

The black caiman was once hunted so much that it was close to extinction, but conservation efforts have helped the black caiman population to increase.

Smooth-Fronted Caiman

The smooth-fronted caiman, also known as Schneider's smooth-fronted caiman or Schneider's dwarf caiman, grows to about 6 ½ feet long.

It is the second smallest of all the Crocodilians. Only Cuvier's dwarf caiman is smaller.

The smooth-fronted caiman lives in South America's Orinoco, Amazon and São Francisco River basins.

It has brown scales, sometimes with a green tinge.

A smooth-fronted caiman does not have a bony ridge in front of or between its eyes.

Smooth-fronted caimans are sometimes kept as pets.

Cuvier's Dwarf Caiman

Cuvier's dwarf caiman, also known as Cuvier's smooth-fronted caiman or the musky caiman, is the smallest of all the crocodilians. Females grow to be about 4 feet long, and males grow to be about 5 feet long.

This caiman can be found in the wild in  the Amazon, Orinoco and São Francisco River basins of South America,  as well as in Paraguay and Panama.

Cuvier's dwarf caiman has a smooth head, without any bony ridges in front of its eyes or between them.

Adult have dark brown scales on the tops of their bodies. Juveniles are lighter brown, with dark bands.

People sometimes keep Cuvier's dwarf caimans as pets.