Caiman, a four-legged reptile of the alligator family. Caimans closely resemble alligators in appearance, with long, thick, tapering tails and elongated snouts. Caimans are generally somewhat smaller, averaging about four to six feet (1.2 to 1.8m) in length. Their bodies are covered with bony plates and are blackish or brownish with various lighter markings. Females lay 20 to 30 eggs in a mound-shaped nest.

Caimans are native to tropical regions of Central and South America, where they live along rivers, streams, and lakes. Spectacled caimans are also found in southern Florida. Once sold as pets there, many were released into the wild when they became too large to keep. The black caiman, which is the largest caiman and also one of South America's largest animals, grows to a length of 20 feet (6 m). It is endangered because of destruction of its habitat.

Caimans are of the genera Caiman, Melanosuchus, or Paleosuchus of the family Alligatoridae. The spectacled caiman is Caiman crocodilus; the black caiman, Melanosuchus niger.

Why Are Black Caimans So Unusual?

Black caimans are the largest caimans. They can grow to be as large as American alligators. But what makes them unusual is that they don’t lose their “baby stripes.”

Most crocodilian hatchlings have markings that help them blend into their surroundings. American alligator hatchlings have yellow stripes to help them hide in grasses along the shore. These stripes fade over time. But the markings on black caimans do not fade.

Black caiman hatchlings have gray heads and black bodies that are marked with rows of white dots. As the hatchlings grow, their gray heads turn brown. But their stripes and dots never fade away entirely.

Which Caiman Likes the Rain Forest?

The Schneider’s (SCHNY duhrz) dwarf caiman lives in the dense rain forest of South America. It spends much of its time on the forest floor. The streams in its habitat are shallow and rocky. The water may not even cover this caiman. Schneider’s dwarf caimans are small. Males grow to a length of only 5 1/2 feet (1.7 meters). Like other crocodilians, these caimans have many sharp scutes, or scales, that stick out. But their scutes are sharper than most. Dwarf caimans also have bony tails that are stiffer than other crocodilian tails. This extra body armor helps protect the caimans from the sharp rocks found in the rain forest streams.

Schneider’s dwarf caimans rarely bask. Instead, they spend much of the day lying in hollow logs or under fallen leaves. They sometimes build their nests beside termite mounds. The heat from the termite mounds helps warm the nest.

Which Is the Smallest Crocodilian?

The smallest crocodilian of them all is Cuvier’s (KYOO vee ayz) dwarf caiman. When it is an adult, it is less than 5 feet (1.5 meters) in length. Like the Schneider’s dwarf caiman, it avoids open areas. But it also avoids the dense forest. Cuvier’s dwarf caimans prefer flooded areas near forests. And they are often found in swift-flowing waters or near waterfalls.

Cuvier’s dwarf caimans are heavily armored. They have thick bony plates along their backs and sides. They also have short snouts and high, smooth foreheads. They are the only crocodilians to have sloping foreheads. These small caimans spend much of the day in their burrows.