A caiman is a crocodilian related to the American Alligator that lurks in waterways of Central and South America. Of the 6 species of extant caimans, 4 occur in the rainforests of Tambopata, Peru. These range from the small, 3 foot long Dwarf Caiman (Paleosuchus palpebrosus) to the intimidating, 15 foot long Black Caiman (Melanosuchus niger). Other species that occur in the Peruvian rainforest are the Spectacled Caiman (Caiman crocodiles) and the Smooth-fronted Caiman (Paleosuchus trigonatus).
The Spectacled Caiman and the Black Caiman are seen by most guests that visit Posada Amazonas, Refugio Amazonas, and the Tambopata Research Center. The other two species are shy, rare residents of rainforest streams and wetlands and are glimpsed by very few guests of the Rainforest Expeditions lodges
Like other crocodilians, Caimans have been around for millions of years. They primarily feed upon insects, crustaceans, and fish although large individuals will eat mammals and birds when the opportunity presents itself. While the small Spectacled Caiman isn’t likely to present any sort of threat to people, especially large individuals of the Black Caiman are potentially dangerous and one of the reasons why local residents of the Tambopata region avoid swimming in oxbow lakes.
The Spectacled Caiman can be separated from the Black Caiman in the field by its light-colored lower mandible and overall, lighter colored appearance. The Black Caiman is much darker, larger, and has dark spots on its lower mandible. The other two species of caimans are much smaller, only occur inside the forest, and are either black (Dwarf Caiman) or mottled with light brown patches (Smooth-fronted Caiman).
A few interesting facts about caimans:
- A Caribbean name: Caimans get their name from the extinct Carib language word used for these neotropical crocodilians.
- The giant, extinct caiman: Fossils of Purrusaurus brasiliensis indicate that this huge caiman used to lurk in the waterways of Peru 8 million years ago. In attaining a length of more than 40 feet, it is one of the biggest crocodilians known to have walked the Earth.
- Dependent on protected areas: Although Spectacled Caimans seem to have healthy populations in many parts of Amazonia, the Black Caiman was hunted to extinction in many areas of its range. At present times, it mostly occurs in protected areas such as the Tambopata National Reserve and is increasing in places that prohibit hunting.
- Carry young in the mouth: After their babies hatch out of their eggs, mother caimans use their mouths to carry and bring them to safe waters.
How to see caimans when taking an Amazon adventure tour:
- Visit an oxbow lake: This is the preferred habitat of the Black Caiman. Although they are more active at night, day excursions to oxbow lakes near Rainforest Expeditions lodges often result in sightings of this large reptile.
- Watch the shore of the river: Spectacled Caimans seem to prefer living in the river in the Tambopata region. One or two are frequently seen during boat rides on the river as they sun themselves on the shore.