There’s always been something strangely fascinating about crocodiles and their relatives . Maybe it’s the way they are portrayed as cold-blooded, cold-hearted killers, who strike violently without mercy or remorse (though let’s be honest, most animals do this). Maybe it’s that these large reptiles have almost no emotional relativity for us mammals (we see a baby seal with huge liquid eyes and think ‘How cute!’, but do crocodilians ever look sad, or loving? Nope. Just angry). Maybe it’s because crocodilians are some of the only surviving dinosaurs, and reminds us of a day when reptiles, not mammals, ruled the Earth. Maybe it’s because they’re just really cool animals.

So today I’m going to write about a crocodilian, but not an extremely well-known one. We had caimans at the Vancouver aquarium so they were what came to mind when I first thought of crocodilians (which is the name for members of Crocodilia, which includes crocodiles, alligators, caimans and gharials). Spectacled caimans are quite a lot smaller than their impressive crocodile cousins, growing up to three meters, with most specimens smaller than 2.5 meters. Still, I wouldn’t want to meet a two meter long aggressive reptile. The spectacled part of the name comes from a bony ridge between this species’ eyes, giving it a look that reminds us of spectacles.

The face of a spectacled caiman, showing the ridge between its eyes. Image By Keven Law from Los Angeles – Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0

Spectacled caimans live in South and Central America, and have been introduced to Florida, Cuba and Puerto Rico. They prefer fresh water habitats, though caimans can be found in salt water. Any sort of body of water is suitable for a caiman habitat, as long as the water covers the caiman’s body. So when you’re walking through some wetlands in Brazil, be careful! Caimans could be lurking anywhere…

Like most crocodilians, caimans are carnivores. They will hunt and eat pretty much anything, from snails and insects to mammals and birds. They hunt at night, using vibrations in the water to detect prey. During the day spectacled caimans bask in the sun (what a life!), to keep themselves warm and mobile. They submerge themselves at midday, when it gets too hot even for these sun lovers.

Reproduction occurs in the wet season, with both males and females advertising for mates. Courtship involves snout touching, back rubbing, and bubble blowing. Which is pretty similar to human courtship practices. Minus the bubble blowing. Unless you’re into that, which is totally cool. Caimans like it too! A couple of weeks after mating, females lay their eggs in a nest they prepared in their mate’s territory.

Image By Fidelio – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0

Once the eggs are laid, the female covers the nest with insulation designed to keep the temperature at appropriate levels. This is very important for caimans, as temperature affects the sex ratio of the eggs. Lower temperatures produce males, while higher ones produce females. Caimans lack the genes that determine the sex of the young, and so temperature is the sole method of sex determination. Mama caimans actually do a wonderful job raising their young, despite what you might think about nasty cold-hearted reptiles. They guard the nest from predators, and keep hatched caimans around for a year and a half, offering them protection from predators.

Caimans are wonderfully awesome animals, but I have to say, during my research for this post I read about the saltwater crocodile, and I was intrigued. But I hope you enjoyed this post, and look for one on saltwater crocodiles in the future.

Cover image By BiacheB – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0