Caiman crocodilusCommon caiman, Spectacled caiman

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Geographic Range

Caiman crocodilus, the spectacled, common, or brown caiman, is a crocodilian native to northern South America, Central America, and certain parts of the Caribbean. They are native to the following countries: Brazil, Colombia, Costa Rica, Ecuador, El Salvador, French Guiana, Guatemala, Guyana, Honduras, Mexico, Nicaragua, Panama, Peru, Suriname, Trinidad, Tobago, and Venezuela. They have been introduced into Florida, Cuba, and Puerto Rico. (Bartlett and Bartlett, 2003; Crocodile Specialist Group, 1996; Kohler, 2003; Ross, 1989; University of Southern Mississippi, 2009)

Habitat

Spectacled caimans are found in freshwater habitats as well as some salt water habitats. Rivers and wetlands, usually slow moving water, are preferred. They are found in both deep and shallow water, as they only need enough depth to submerge their bodies. (Bartlett and Bartlett, 2003; Bartlett and Bartlett, 2003; Britton, 2009a; Grana Raffucci, 2007; Ojasti, 1996)

  • Range elevation
    800 (high) m
    2624.67 (high) ft

Physical Description

Spectacled caimans are small to medium-sized crocodilians generally 1.5 to 2.1 meters in length. Historically, maximum reported length was 3 m. At current levels of exploitation, few specimens exceed 2.5 m in length. Females are smaller than males. Average adults are a dull olive to nearly black in color with variable yellow or black crossbands. They have long snouts and their fourth mandibular tooth is not visible from the outside of their closed jaw. Juveniles are yellowish in color with darker bands and spots. A feature that helps to distinguish Caiman crocodilus from other, sympatric crocodilians is the presence of a bony infra-orbital bridge between the eyes. Subspecies vary in color and skull size. (Bartlett and Bartlett, 2003; Britton, 2009a; Grana Raffucci, 2007; Kohler, 2003)

  • Sexual Dimorphism
  • male larger
  • Range mass
    7 to 58 kg
    15.42 to 127.75 lb
  • Average mass
    40 kg
    88.11 lb
  • Range length
    1.5 to 3 m
    4.92 to 9.84 ft
  • Average length
    2 m
    6.56 ft

Development

Some weeks after courtship and copulation, with internal fertilization, females lay their oval, hard-shelled eggs in a newly made mound of leaf litter and other vegetation. Once the eggs are laid, the female will cover the nest. Females, and sometimes males, guard their eggs against nest predators. Temperature influences sex determination during incubation. An average nest temperature of 30 degrees C will produce mostly females and 34 degrees will produce mostly males. After an incubation period of 65 to 104 days the babies will hatch out of their eggs and move to the nearest water, with some help from their parents. Once the juveniles have hatched, they will stay near their parents for about 1.5 years. Juveniles then grow to adult size at around 1.2 to 1.4 meters in length. Once juveniles reach minimum adult size, they are able to reproduce. If they survive long enough, they can continue to grow until reaching a size that may exceed 2.4 meters. (Bartlett and Bartlett, 2003; Britton, 2009a; Grana Raffucci, 2007; Kohler, 2003; Ojasti, 1996)

  • Development - Life Cycle
  • temperature sex determination

Reproduction

Mating typically occurs in the wet season from April to August, depending on local climatic conditions. Males can breed with multiple females and females can breed with multiple males. Courtship behavior involves prospective mates swimming together, rubbing backs, bellowing, touching snouts, circling each other, and bubble-blowing. Both sexes use these behaviors to attract their mates. After a female mates with a male she will build a nest in the males territory. There, the male and female will guard the nest, eggs, young, once they are hatched. (Britton, 2009a; Britton, 2009b; Grana Raffucci, 2007; Kohler, 2003; Mertz, 2009; Ojasti, 1996)

Spectacled caimans reach sexual maturity at sizes of about 1.2 meters for females and 1.4 meters for males, corresponding to from 4 to 7 years old. Social status affects growth rate and reproduction. Some younger, smaller caimans will be unable to mate because of social stress because of the presence of larger, more dominant caimans. Courtship and copulation occurs between May and August. Eggs are laid from July to November, depending on local climatic conditions. Females lay from 10 to 30 eggs. Incubation usually requires between 65 and 104 days. Sex is determined by temperature in the nest about midway through incubation. The decomposing vegetation in the nest, which may be a meter high and 2 meters in diameter, may help retain temperatures at the proper level. After hatching, the parents may excavate the juveniles from the nest and help them out of the eggshell. Once emerged, juveniles stay near their parents for approximately 1.5 years, receiving some protection from predators. (Bartlett and Bartlett, 2003; Britton, 2009a; Britton, 2009b; Grana Raffucci, 2007; Kohler, 2003; Ojasti, 1996)

  • Breeding interval
    Spectacled caimans breed for about four months during the wet season each year.
  • Breeding season
    Spectacled caimans breed from May through August.
  • Range number of offspring
    10 to 40
  • Average number of offspring
    22
  • Range gestation period
    65 to 104 days
  • Average time to independence
    1.5 years
  • Range age at sexual or reproductive maturity (female)
    4 to 7 years
  • Average age at sexual or reproductive maturity (female)
    6 years
  • Range age at sexual or reproductive maturity (male)
    4 to 7 years
  • Average age at sexual or reproductive maturity (male)
    6 years

After copulation, females, sometimes assisted by males, build a nest out of leaf litter. Females lay their eggs in the nest and then cover it with more leaf litter. Females, and occasionally males, guard the nest from predators until they hear the babies call with grunt-like squeaks. Females then help uncover eggs and break the shells open to get the juveniles out. At that point, juveniles stay near their mother, and sometimes within the male parent's territory, for around 1.5 years for additional protection from predators. The parents may incidentally provide some food scraps for the juveniles but, for the most part, juvenile caimans catch food for themselves. After about 1.5 years with their parents, juveniles disperse from their parent's territory. In some situations, young caimans remain closer to their parents for longer periods. (Bartlett and Bartlett, 2003; Britton, 2009a; Grana Raffucci, 2007; Kohler, 2003; Ojasti, 1996; Ross, 1989)

  • Parental Investment
  • pre-fertilization
    • provisioning
    • protecting
      • female
  • pre-hatching/birth
    • provisioning
      • female
    • protecting
      • male
      • female
  • pre-independence
    • provisioning
      • female
    • protecting
      • female

Lifespan/Longevity

There is very little known about the lifespan of Caiman crocodilus. The longest known lifespan in the wild was estimated at about 60 years old. However, 30 to 40 years might be more normal. The average captive lifespan is 20 years, with a minimum record of 24 years. (Britton, 2009b; Mertz, 2009)

  • Range lifespan
    Status: wild
    60 (high) years
  • Range lifespan
    Status: captivity
    24 (high) years
  • Typical lifespan
    Status: wild
    30 to 40 years
  • Average lifespan
    Status: captivity
    20 years

Behavior

Spectacled caimans live in loose-knit groups but are generally solitary except during mating season. They stay in the same territory and remain immobile for most of the day. During the heat of mid-day they stay submerged, morning to early afternoon they bask on the shore. They are able to rapidly respond to certain situations like catching prey. Spectacled caimans typically feed at night. During mating season, they become territorial and aggressive. Social rank is determined by size, with larger animals being more dominant. Animals with higher social rank tend to have more mating chances during mating season. (Ojasti, 1996)

Home Range

Home ranges are not large and spectacled caimans generally stay in their home ranges throughout the year. Home range size varies with the structure and richness of the habitat. (Kohler, 2003; Ojasti, 1996; Ross, 1989)

Communication and Perception

Spectacled caimans use taste, touch, sound, and visual senses for social and reproductive communication. The ability to detect vibrations in the water may aid in prey detection. (Britton, 2009a; Britton, 2009b; Ojasti, 1996)

Food Habits

Spectacled caimans are carnivorous generalists. Prey items change as they grow from smaller to larger caimans. Prey can include insects, snails, shrimp, crabs, fish, lizards, snakes, turtles, birds, and mammals. Spectacled caimans have at least 105 prey items reported in their diet. Cannibalism can occur, especially under drought conditions, when many caimans of different sizes are concentrated in small areas. However this species can be surprisingly unaggressive and tolerant of temporarily dense concentrations during the dry season. (Mertz, 2009; Ross, 1989; University of Southern Mississippi, 2009)

  • Animal Foods
  • birds
  • mammals
  • amphibians
  • reptiles
  • fish
  • carrion
  • insects
  • terrestrial non-insect arthropods
  • mollusks
  • aquatic crustaceans

Predation

During nesting time, tegu lizards (Tupinambis sp.) can destroy up to 80% of caiman nests in some places. Coatis (Nasua narica) and foxes also raid nests. Juveniles are eaten by large fish, wading birds, large snakes, and other crocodilians. Adult spectacled caimans are able to defend themselves from most potential predators, except humans. (Bartlett and Bartlett, 2003; Britton, 2009a)

  • Anti-predator Adaptations
  • cryptic

Ecosystem Roles

Spectacled caimans are predators of aquatic invertebrates, fish, and other aquatic and shoreline vertebrates. In their native range they are important members of riparian shoreline and aquatic communities. Where spectacled caimans have been introduced outside of their normal range, spectacled caimans may have unpredictable, perhaps deleterious effects on prey species. (Bartlett and Bartlett, 2003; Grana Raffucci, 2007)

Economic Importance for Humans: Positive

Within their native range, spectacled caimans are usually the most abundant crocodiles and are the most heavily harvested species by humans for the hide industry. (Britton, 2009a; Grana Raffucci, 2007; Ross, 1989)

  • Positive Impacts
  • pet trade
  • food
  • body parts are source of valuable material
  • controls pest population

Economic Importance for Humans: Negative

Spectacled caimans are potentially dangerous to humans and pets, and they occasionally attack livestock. Their smaller size compared to other crocodilians makes them less of a threat. They become shy and avoid humans in areas where they are frequently hunted. Spectacled caimans have been introduced outside their natural range, such as in southern Florida, and possible negative effects on local naive wildlife are in need of study. (Bartlett and Bartlett, 2003; Grana Raffucci, 2007)

  • Negative Impacts
  • injures humans
    • bites or stings

Conservation Status

In 1986 and 1988 spectacled caimans were listed by the United States Fish and Wildlife Service as a threatened species. This was due to increased hunting pressure on their populations. Caimans are heavily harvested for their skins to make leather products. The pet and curio trade has also had some degree of responsibility for local population declines. Spectacled caiman populations are still relatively stable in some parts of their range, although they are severely depleted or extirpated in many local areas, especially near human population centers. (Bartlett and Bartlett, 2003; Britton, 2009a; Crocodile Specialist Group, 1996; Ross, 1989)

Contributors

Kayla Terry (author), Michigan State University, James Harding (editor, instructor), Michigan State University, Tanya Dewey (editor), Animal Diversity Web.

Glossary

Nearctic

living in the Nearctic biogeographic province, the northern part of the New World. This includes Greenland, the Canadian Arctic islands, and all of the North American as far south as the highlands of central Mexico.

World Map

Neotropical

living in the southern part of the New World. In other words, Central and South America.

World Map

acoustic

uses sound to communicate

bilateral symmetry

having body symmetry such that the animal can be divided in one plane into two mirror-image halves. Animals with bilateral symmetry have dorsal and ventral sides, as well as anterior and posterior ends. Synapomorphy of the Bilateria.

bog

a wetland area rich in accumulated plant material and with acidic soils surrounding a body of open water. Bogs have a flora dominated by sedges, heaths, and sphagnum.

brackish water

areas with salty water, usually in coastal marshes and estuaries.

carnivore

an animal that mainly eats meat

carrion

flesh of dead animals.

chemical

uses smells or other chemicals to communicate

coastal

the nearshore aquatic habitats near a coast, or shoreline.

cooperative breeder

helpers provide assistance in raising young that are not their own

crepuscular

active at dawn and dusk

cryptic

having markings, coloration, shapes, or other features that cause an animal to be camouflaged in its natural environment; being difficult to see or otherwise detect.

dominance hierarchies

ranking system or pecking order among members of a long-term social group, where dominance status affects access to resources or mates

ectothermic

animals which must use heat acquired from the environment and behavioral adaptations to regulate body temperature

estuarine

an area where a freshwater river meets the ocean and tidal influences result in fluctuations in salinity.

food

A substance that provides both nutrients and energy to a living thing.

freshwater

mainly lives in water that is not salty.

heterothermic

having a body temperature that fluctuates with that of the immediate environment; having no mechanism or a poorly developed mechanism for regulating internal body temperature.

insectivore

An animal that eats mainly insects or spiders.

introduced

referring to animal species that have been transported to and established populations in regions outside of their natural range, usually through human action.

iteroparous

offspring are produced in more than one group (litters, clutches, etc.) and across multiple seasons (or other periods hospitable to reproduction). Iteroparous animals must, by definition, survive over multiple seasons (or periodic condition changes).

marsh

marshes are wetland areas often dominated by grasses and reeds.

molluscivore

eats mollusks, members of Phylum Mollusca

motile

having the capacity to move from one place to another.

natatorial

specialized for swimming

native range

the area in which the animal is naturally found, the region in which it is endemic.

nocturnal

active during the night

oviparous

reproduction in which eggs are released by the female; development of offspring occurs outside the mother's body.

pet trade

the business of buying and selling animals for people to keep in their homes as pets.

piscivore

an animal that mainly eats fish

polygynandrous

the kind of polygamy in which a female pairs with several males, each of which also pairs with several different females.

riparian

Referring to something living or located adjacent to a waterbody (usually, but not always, a river or stream).

saltwater or marine

mainly lives in oceans, seas, or other bodies of salt water.

scavenger

an animal that mainly eats dead animals

seasonal breeding

breeding is confined to a particular season

sedentary

remains in the same area

sexual

reproduction that includes combining the genetic contribution of two individuals, a male and a female

solitary

lives alone

swamp

a wetland area that may be permanently or intermittently covered in water, often dominated by woody vegetation.

tactile

uses touch to communicate

terrestrial

Living on the ground.

territorial

defends an area within the home range, occupied by a single animals or group of animals of the same species and held through overt defense, display, or advertisement

threatened

The term is used in the 1994 IUCN Red List of Threatened Animals to refer collectively to species categorized as Endangered (E), Vulnerable (V), Rare (R), Indeterminate (I), or Insufficiently Known (K) and in the 1996 IUCN Red List of Threatened Animals to refer collectively to species categorized as Critically Endangered (CR), Endangered (EN), or Vulnerable (VU).

tropical

the region of the earth that surrounds the equator, from 23.5 degrees north to 23.5 degrees south.

vibrations

movements of a hard surface that are produced by animals as signals to others

visual

uses sight to communicate

References

Bartlett, R., P. Bartlett. 2003. Reptiles and Amphibians of the Amazon. Gainesville, Florida: University Press of Florida.

Britton, A. 2009. "Caiman crocodilus (LINNAEUS, 1758)" (On-line). Accessed October 21, 2009 at http://www.flmnh.ufl.edu/natsci/herpetology/brittoncrocs/csp_ccro.htm.

Britton, A. 2009. "Captive Care" (On-line). Accessed November 28, 2009 at http://www.crocodilian.com/paleosuchus/captivecare.html.

Crocodile Specialist Group, 1996. "Caiman crocodilus" (On-line). Accessed November 10, 2009 at http://www.redlist.org/apps/redlist/details/46584/0.

Ferguson, M., T. Joanen. 1982. Temperature of egg incubation determines sex in Alligator mississippiensis. Nature, 296: 850-853. Accessed November 28, 2009 at http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v296/n5860/abs/296850a0.html.

Grana Raffucci, F. 2007. "Caiman crocodilus (reptile)" (On-line). Global Invasive Species Database. Accessed November 17, 2009 at http://www.invasivespecies.net/database/species/ecology.asp?si=1206&fr=1&sts=sss.

Kohler, G. 2003. Reptiles of Central America. Offenbach, Germany: Herpeton.

Mertz, L. 2009. "Alligators and Caimans" (On-line). Accessed November 28, 2009 at http://www.novelguide.com/a/discover/grze_07/grze_07_00439.html#Common_caiman.

Ojasti, J. 1996. "3.3 Caimans" (On-line). Accessed November 18, 2009 at http://www.fao.org/docrep/T0750E/t0750e0b.htm#3.3.1 caiman crocodilus (spectacled caiman).

Ross, C. 1989. Crocodiles and Alligators. New York, New York: Facts On File, Inc..

Triche, N. 2003. "Caiman crocodilus, Spectacled Caiman" (On-line). Accessed October 21, 2009 at http://digimorph.org/specimens/Caiman_crocodilus/.

University of Southern Mississippi, 2009. "“CAIMAN CROCODILUS (LINNAEUS)”" (On-line). Accessed October 21, 2009 at http://nis.gsmfc.org/nis_factsheet.php?toc_id=207#impacts.