DOI10.47051/EHGA5806

Published March 5, 2023. Updated May 28, 2024. Open access.

Gallery ❯

Spectacled Caiman (Caiman crocodilus)

Reptiles of Ecuador | Crocodylia | Alligatoridae | Caiman crocodilus

English common names: Spectacled Caiman, White Caiman, Common Caiman.

Spanish common names: Caimán blanco, caimán de anteojos.

Recognition: ♂♂ 270 cmMaximum distance from the snout to the tip of the tail. ♀♀ 210 cmMaximum distance from the snout to the tip of the tail..1,2 The Spectacled Caiman (Caiman crocodilus) can be distinguished from the other two caimans inhabiting the Ecuadorian Amazon basin by having a pale greenish iris and a wrinkled eyelid with a triangular projection.3 This species further differs from the Black Caiman (Melanosuchus niger) by lacking dark spots on the mandible and by having a lighter coloration and 2–3 rows of post-occipital plates (instead of 4–5).4,5 The dwarf caiman Paleosuchus trigonatus is smaller, has a chestnut iris, only one row of post-occipital plates, and lacks an inter-orbital ridge (present in C. crocodilus).4,5 The congeneric C. fuscus occurs on the western lowlands of Ecuador and is characterized by having a broader snout and two crests on the first 14–15 segments of the tail (instead of only on the first 12–13 segments).4 Juveniles are pale cream with black transverse bands on the body and tail. Adults are uniform dull pale olive brown (Fig. 1). Males are larger and heavier (65 kg vs 20 kg maximum weight) than females.2

Figure showing variation between individuals of Caiman crocodilus

Figure 1: Individuals of Caiman crocodilus: Amazonian Ecuador () Palmarí Reserve, Amazonas state, Brazil (). ad=adult; j=juvenile.

Natural history: Caiman crocodilus is a commonRecorded weekly in densities above five individuals per locality. caiman in Amazonian Ecuador, with high population densities (up to 33 caimans/km)6 during the low-water season7 and up to 2.5–13.1 times as abundant as the co-occurring Black Caiman (Melanosuchus niger).8 Spectacled Caimans are nocturnal, aquatic, and occur in a variety of freshwater habitats, including lagoons, lakes, swamps, marshes, rivers, water ditches, and seasonally flooded forests, but also in brackish water and peri-urban areas.1,4,9 Their home range is under 10 hectares during the low-water season and increases to 40 hectares during the rainy season.4 During periods of drought, individuals may remain completely embedded in the bottom mud until the rains return.3 Juveniles prefer shallower waters having abundant floating vegetation, where they wait in ambush for prey to pass by.4 Their diet at this stage is primarily composed of crustaceans, mollusks, terrestrial invertebrates, and frogs.4,10 Adults also feed on these prey, but their diet is primarily based on fish, and to a smaller degree on birds, reptiles, amphibians, and small mammals.4

Individuals of Caiman crocodilus reach sexual maturity at 6–7 years old or at a length of about 1.2 m.4 In the Amazon, the breeding season seems to take place year-round.9 Males defend territories by raising the tail and head above the water and vibrating the water on their backs.4 Females are polyandrous11 (mating with multiple males) and they build mount-like nests using leaf-litter and debris.3 These are located adjacent to, but not flooded by, water bodies. Here, they deposit 30–40 eggs that have a mean length of 6.4 cm and take 70–90 days to hatch.4 Hatchlings measure ~22 cm in total length at birth. Juveniles remain in groups and communicate acoustically with their siblings and with the mother.4 Females aggressively defend the nests and the hatchlings.4 Temperature during incubation determines the sex of the hatchlings: low and high temperatures produces females and mid-temperatures result in males.12 The most important predators of the eggs are tegus (genus Tupinambis) and foxes.4 Herons, egrets, and birds of prey are the most important predators of juveniles whereas jaguars,13 larger caimans (including Melanosuchus niger), and the Green Anaconda (Eunectes murinus)14 are the only known predators of adults.4,15

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Conservation: Least Concern Believed to be safe from extinction given current circumstances..16 Although Caiman crocodilus is a widely distributed species that occurs in protected areas, it has been the subject of overexploitation in some countries, including Ecuador, where populations have declined.1,8 The meat and eggs are consumed3 and the skin is used as material for handicrafts and various garments.4 Some populations have disappeared due to the drying of wetlands9 and others are experiencing adverse effects by accumulating mercury associated with artisanal and small-scale gold mining.17 Fortunately, C. crocodilus is now a protected species in many countries and is recovering despite decades of overexploitation.8,16 Finally, the near extirpation of Melanosuchus niger, which has a greater commercial value, has resulted in C. crocodilus now occupying habitats previously dominated by the other species.18 As a result, present populations may be larger than they were historically.18

Distribution: Caiman crocodilus is widely distributed throughout northern South America, including the Amazon basin and Trinidad and Tobago islands.19 In Ecuador, the species has only been recorded at elevations below 517 m along the Amazonian lowlands (Fig. 2).

Distribution of Caiman crocodilus in Ecuador

Figure 2: Distribution of Caiman crocodilus in Ecuador. See Appendix 1 for a complete list of the presence localities included in the map.

Etymology: The name Caiman is thought to have originated from Cariban languages, specifically from the word acayouman, which is the name Arawak peoples may have used to refer to these reptiles. The name crocodilus is apparently classical Latin for crocodile and is derived from the Greek word krokodeilos.20

See it in the wild: Spectacled Caimans can be seen reliably in well-preserved water systems throughout the Ecuadorian Amazon, particularly along the rivers Tiputini and Cuyabeno. They are most easily found at night by detecting their bright orange eye-shine. However, in most areas, individuals are becoming increasingly wary of human presence,8 fleeing when approached.

Special thanks to Mariah Healey for symbolically adopting the Spectacled Caiman and helping bring the Reptiles of Ecuador book project to life.

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Acknowledgments: Special thanks to Ricardo Chiriboga and María Belén Chiriboga of Zoo el Pantanal for prodiving photographic access to specimens of Caiman crocodilus under their care.

Author: Alejandro ArteagaaAffiliation: Khamai Foundation, Quito, Ecuador.

Photographer: Jose VieirabAffiliation: Tropical Herping (TH), Quito, Ecuador.,cAffiliation: ExSitu, Quito, Ecuador.

How to cite? Arteaga A (2024) Spectacled Caiman (Caiman crocodilus). In: Arteaga A, Bustamante L, Vieira J (Eds) Reptiles of Ecuador: Life in the middle of the world. Available from: www.reptilesofecuador.com. DOI: 10.47051/EHGA5806

Literature cited:

  1. Duellman WE (1978) The biology of an equatorial herpetofauna in Amazonian Ecuador. Publications of the Museum of Natural History, University of Kansas 65: 1–352.
  2. Rebêlo GH, Magnusson WE (1983) An analysis of the effect of hunting on Caiman crocodilus and Melanosuchus niger based on the sizes of confiscated skins. Biological Conservation 26: 95–104. DOI: 10.1016/0006-3207(83)90060-5
  3. Dixon JR, Soini P (1986) The reptiles of the upper Amazon Basin, Iquitos region, Peru. Milwaukee Public Museum, Milwaukee, 154 pp.
  4. Morales-Betancourt MA, Lasso CA, De La Ossa V J, Fajardo-Patiño A (2013) Biología y conservación de los Crocodylia de Colombia. Serie Editorial Recursos Hidrobiológicos y Pesqueros Continentales de Colombia, Instituto de Investigación de Recursos Biológicos Alexander von Humboldt (IAvH), Bogotá, 335 pp.
  5. Duellman WE (2005) Cusco amazónico: the lives of amphibians and reptiles in an Amazonian rainforest. Cornell University Press, Ithaca, 433 pp.
  6. Ron SR (1995) Estudio poblacional del caimán negro Melanosuchus niger y caimán de anteojos Caiman crocodilus (Crocodylia: Crocodylidae) en seis lagunas de la Amazonía Ecuatoriana. BSc thesis, Pontificia Universidad Católica del Ecuador, 113 pp.
  7. Brauer KD (2005) Distribución y uso de hábitat de Caiman crocodilus y Paleosuchus trigonatus en el Río Tiputini. BSc thesis, Universidad San Francisco de Quito, 55 pp.
  8. Ortiz Yépez DA (2012) Estudio poblacional de caimanes (Crocodylia: Alligatoridae) en la Amazonía Ecuatoriana. BSc thesis, Pontificia Universidad Católica del Ecuador, 87 pp.
  9. Rueda-Almonacid JV, Carr JL, Mittermeier RA, Rodríguez-Mahecha JV, Mast RB, Vogt RC, Rhodin AGJ, de la Ossa-Velásquez J, Rueda JN, Mittermeier CG (2007) Las tortugas y los cocodrilianos de los países andinos del trópico. Conservación Internacional, Bogotá, 538 pp.
  10. Figueiredo A, Alves-Martins N, Nogueira-Costa P (2021) Predation attempt by the Spectacled Caiman, Caiman crocodilus (Linnaeus, 1758), on the microhylid Elachistocleis carvalhoi Caramaschi, 2010 in the southeastern Amazon of Brazil. Herpetology Notes 14: 1227–1229.
  11. Oliveira DP, Marioni B, Farias IP, Hrbek T (2014) Genetic evidence for polygamy as a mating strategy in Caiman crocodilus. Journal of Heredity 105: 485–492. DOI: 10.1093/jhered/esu020
  12. González EJ, Martínez-López M, Morales-Garduza MA, García-Morales R, Charruau P, Gallardo-Cruz JA (2019) The sex-determination pattern in crocodilians: a systematic review of three decades of research. Journal of Animal Ecology 88: 1417–1427. DOI: 10.1111/1365-2656.13037
  13. Da Silveira R, Ramalho EE, Thorbjarnarson JB, Magnusson WE (2010) Depredation by jaguars on caimans and importance of reptiles in the diet of jaguar. Journal of Herpetology 44: 418–424. DOI: 10.1670/08-340.1
  14. Rivas JA (2000) The life history of the Green Anaconda (Eunectes murinus), with emphasis of its reproductive biology. PhD thesis, The University of Tennessee, 155 pp.
  15. Asanza E (1985) Distribución, biología reproductiva y alimentación de cuatro especies de Alligatoridae, especialmente Caiman crocodilus, en la Amazonía del Ecuador. BSc thesis, Pontificia Universidad Católica del Ecuador, 145 pp.
  16. Balaguera-Reina SA, Velasco A (2019) Caiman crocodilus. The IUCN Red List of threatened species. Available from: www.iucnredlist.org. DOI: 10.2305/IUCN.UK.2019-1.RLTS.T46584A3009688.en
  17. Eggins S, Schneider L, Krikowa F, Vogt RC, Da Silveira R, Maher W (2015) Mercury concentrations in different tissues of turtle and caiman species from the Rio Purus, Amazonas, Brazil. Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry 34: 2771–2781. DOI: 10.1002/etc.3151
  18. Ross J (1998) Crocodiles: status survey and conservation action plan. IUCN/SSC Crocodile Specialist Group, Gainesville, 97 pp.
  19. Balaguera-Reina SA, Konvalina JD, Mohammed RS, Gross B, Vazquez R, Moncada JF, Ali S, Hoffman EA, Densmore LD (2021) From the river to the ocean: mitochondrial DNA analyses provide evidence of spectacled caimans (Caiman crocodilus Linnaeus 1758) mainland–insular dispersal. Biological Journal of the Linnean Society 134: 486–497. DOI: 10.1093/biolinnean/blab094
  20. Uetz P, Freed P, Hošek J (2021) The reptile database. Available from: www.reptile-database.org.

Appendix 1: Locality data used to create the distribution map of Caiman crocodilus in Ecuador (Fig. 2). Go to the section on symbols and abbreviations for a list of acronyms used.

CountryProvinceLocalitySource
ColombiaCaquetáCauchosiNaturalist
ColombiaCaquetáEl DoncelloiNaturalist
ColombiaCaquetáMilániNaturalist
ColombiaCaquetáRío BodoqueroiNaturalist
ColombiaCaquetáSolano, 5 km E ofiNaturalist
ColombiaPutumayoCentro Experimental AmazónicoBetancourth-Cundar & Gutiérrez-Zamora 2010
ColombiaPutumayoJerusalénGeopark Colombia 2022
ColombiaPutumayoLas CameliasCahueño & Barbosa 2022
ColombiaPutumayoPuerto LeguizamoIAvH-R-1710; Borja-Acosta & Galeano Muñoz (2023)
ColombiaPutumayoRío PutumayoIAvH-R-224; Borja-Acosta & Galeano Muñoz (2023)
EcuadorMorona SantiagoCantón TaishaSaritama Rojas & Ortiz Arelis 2010
EcuadorMorona SantiagoMiazalPhoto by Ariana Velez
EcuadorNapoAhuanoiNaturalist
EcuadorNapoAnaconda LodgeiNaturalist
EcuadorNapoArajunoiNaturalist
EcuadorNapoEstación Biológica Jatun SachaVigle 2008
EcuadorNapoLaguna de los CaimanesiNaturalist
EcuadorNapoLiana LodgeiNaturalist
EcuadorNapoNear Río ArajunoiNaturalist
EcuadorNapoPuerto MisahuallíiNaturalist
EcuadorNapoPuerto NapoiNaturalist
EcuadorNapoPununoiNaturalist
EcuadorNapoSacha HambiiNaturalist
EcuadorNapoStream near Anaconda LodgePhoto record; this work
EcuadorOrellanaBloque 18iNaturalist
EcuadorOrellanaBodega NPWPhoto record; this work
EcuadorOrellanaCaño Aguas Negras 1Ortiz 2012
EcuadorOrellanaCaño Aguas Negras 2Ortiz 2012
EcuadorOrellanaCaño BogiOrtiz 2012
EcuadorOrellanaCaño PirañaOrtiz 2012
EcuadorOrellanaCocaiNaturalist
EcuadorOrellanaComunidad DicaroQCAZ 11794; Torres-Carvajal et al. 2019
EcuadorOrellanaEl EnoiNaturalist
EcuadorOrellanaLa Joya de los Sachas, 8 km W ofiNaturalist
EcuadorOrellanaLaguna TaracoaiNaturalist
EcuadorOrellanaMandaripanga camp, 7 km E ofiNaturalist
EcuadorOrellanaNuevo RocafuerteiNaturalist
EcuadorOrellanaRío Cononaco, vía AucaiNaturalist
EcuadorOrellanaRío Tiputini, near ECYiNaturalist
EcuadorOrellanaRío Tiputini, near TBSiNaturalist
EcuadorOrellanaRio Tiputini, near YCSPhoto record; this work
EcuadorOrellanaShiripuno LodgeiNaturalist
EcuadorOrellanaTiputiniDHMECN 515; not examined
EcuadorOrellanaTiputini river, 20 km E of ECYiNaturalist
EcuadorOrellanaVía AucaiNaturalist
EcuadorOrellanaYasuni Scientific StationPhoto record; this work
EcuadorOrellanaYuturiiNaturalist
EcuadorPastazaBalsauraOrtega-Andrade 2010
EcuadorPastazaCaño cerca del Río PastazaiNaturalist
EcuadorPastazaConamboOrtega-Andrade 2010
EcuadorPastazaJuyuintzaOrtega-Andrade 2010
EcuadorPastazaKapawi LodgePhoto record; this work
EcuadorPastazaMontalvoOrtega-Andrade 2010
EcuadorPastazaPavacachiUSNM 211260; VertNet
EcuadorPastazaPindoyacuOrtega-Andrade 2010
EcuadorPastazaRío CononacoiNaturalist
EcuadorPastazaRío PindoyacuiNaturalist
EcuadorPastazaTeresa MamaUSNM 196275; VertNet
EcuadorPastazaTihaunoiNaturalist
EcuadorPastazaZueylániNaturalist
EcuadorSucumbíosCanangüenoOrtiz 2012
EcuadorSucumbíosChalluacocha lakeiNaturalist
EcuadorSucumbíosComunidad DurenoYánez-Muñoz & Chimbo 2007
EcuadorSucumbíosComunidad Kichwa cerca a ZábaloiNaturalist
EcuadorSucumbíosComunidad ZábaloCevallos Bustos 2010
EcuadorSucumbíosGuacamayo EcolodgeiNaturalist
EcuadorSucumbíosKichwa LodgeiNaturalist
EcuadorSucumbíosLa Playita del AguaricoiNaturalist
EcuadorSucumbíosLago AgrioiNaturalist
EcuadorSucumbíosLaguna CuyabenoiNaturalist
EcuadorSucumbíosLaguna GrandePhoto record; this work
EcuadorSucumbíosMateocochaOrtiz 2012
EcuadorSucumbíosNueva VidaiNaturalist
EcuadorSucumbíosPacayacuiNaturalist
EcuadorSucumbíosPañacochaiNaturalist
EcuadorSucumbíosPayaguajeiNaturalist
EcuadorSucumbíosPuerto ProvidenciaiNaturalist
EcuadorSucumbíosReserva CuyabenoiNaturalist
EcuadorSucumbíosRío Aguas NegrasiNaturalist
EcuadorSucumbíosSacha LodgePhoto record; this work
EcuadorSucumbíosSani IslaiNaturalist
EcuadorSucumbíosSani LodgePhoto record; this work
EcuadorSucumbíosSanta Cecilia Duellman 1978
EcuadorSucumbíosSiona LodgePhoto record; this work
EcuadorSucumbíosTapir lodgePhoto record; this work
EcuadorSucumbíosTarapoaiNaturalist
EcuadorSucumbíosWaita Amazon LodgeiNaturalist
PeruAmazonasCaterpizaUSNM 569014; VertNet
PeruAmazonasShiringaUSNM 569006; VertNet
PeruLoretoCachitamaiNaturalist
PeruLoretoIntuto, 40 km N ofiNaturalist
PeruLoretoMazán, 30 km NW ofiNaturalist
PeruLoretoPacaya Samiria National ReserveiNaturalist
PeruLoretoSan Antonio de la LagunaiNaturalist