Caimans are crocodilians native to Central and South America. Most species are relatively small for crocodilians, although the black caiman can grow up to 15 feet. Caimans are members of the Alligatoridae family, which also includes the Chinese and American alligators.
Scientific & Common Names
Genera: Caiman, Paleosuchus, Melanosuchus
Common Names: Yacare Caiman, Spectacled Caiman, Broad-sounted Caiman (Genus Caiman), Black Caiman (Genus Melanosuchus), Cuvier’s Dwarf Caiman, Smooth-fronted Caiman (Genus Paleosuchus)
Like all crocodilians, caimans have long snouts, sharp teeth, scaly armor, and vertically flattened tails suited to swimming through the water. Compared to many other crocodile species, caimans typically have wider snouts and longer teeth. Unlike other crocodilians, caiman scales feature calcium rivets, which make their hides much stiffer.
Females build large nests to house their eggs out of vegetation, and lay their eggs within. The number of eggs varies from species to species (the spectacled caiman lays an average of 22, while the black caiman can lay up to 65).
Mother caimans stay close to the nest during the incubation period, protecting the eggs from predators, which include snakes, birds, and mammals. Once they hatch, the mother will transport them in her mouth from the nest to a safe aquatic area. She will look after them for several months before they break out on their own, if they survive long enough.
Caimans eat mostly fish, but will also eat birds, mammals and reptiles. Like other crocodilians, they are aquatic ambush predators. They often lay motionless on the water, like a log, with just their eyes and nostrils visible, waiting for unsuspecting prey to come near.
As they are large predators, adult caimans have little to fear from most other animals. However, they do sometimes fall prey to jaguars and anacondas. Large birds such as wood storks can prey on juvenile caimans as well.
As most caimans do not grow as large as other crocodilians, most species are less of a threat to humans, although the black caiman has been known to attack people.
Caimans have been traditionally hunted for their leather, although the bony calcium in caiman’s scales meant that their leather was less desirable than the skin of other crocodilians.
Most caimans are classified as species of Least Concern, meaning there is no imminent threat to their existence. However, that does not mean that they are not in danger of becoming threatened. Many caiman species were brought to the brink of extinction in the 1980s due to being hunter for their skin, which was used to make leather. While many species have bounced back after bans on crocodilian skin trading, caimans still must contend with deforestation and destruction of habitat, along with illegal poaching.