American Alligator at Circle B Bar Reserve in Florida.
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The Alligator's Nonnative Cousin in Florida

 

 

 

Images are by the author unless otherwise indicated.

SPECIES SUMMARY

A spectacled caiman.SPECTACLED

CAIMAN

Caiman

crocodilus crocodilus

 

Kingdom: Animalia

Phylum: Chordata

Class: Reptilia

Superorder: Crocodylomorpha

Order: Crocodilia

Family: Alligatoridae

Genus: Caiman

(Image: Matthiue Sontag. Creative Commons license)

CONSERVATION STATUS

International: Lower risk/ least concern

Florida: Nonnative species; stable

 

This article is intended to serve as a brief reference to this species of crocodilian that inhabits Florida in small numbers and seems to be little known to the general public living in or visiting the range of the American alligator.

 

 

The spectacled caiman, a close cousin of the alligator, is the most common crocodilian in the world, inhabiting much of northern and central South America. Central America, southern Mexico, and two places where they don't naturally belong -- Florida and Puerto Rico.

 

The caiman is not to blame for overreaching its natural boundaries -- the pet and tourism industries and its customers are the culprits in this foreign species displacement. The pet industry, from 1950's through the 1980's imported these animals as hatchlings by many thousands in Florida and Puerto Rico (and less so in some northern U.S. states), where they were sold to tourists and locals, and some reports indicate that the reptiles were offered as incentive "freebies" to tourists for purchases of gasoline. These were advertised as "alligators" to potential purchasers.

 

(One can imagine the death and suffering of these animals in the hands of unsuspecting buyers -- tourists have reported to this author that caimans they acquired while on vacation died during the drive home from Florida, or soon after. This is still occurring today.)A pair of hatchling spectacled caimans.

 

Pictured here is a pair of young which are only a few weeks old. Many thousands of these were imported in the period from the 1950's to the 1980's. The "spectacles", represented by the bony ridge circling and connecting the eyes, can be clearly seen on these two hatchlings.

 

Some of these caimans were released or escaped into the wild. In the northern U.S. states, these caimans expire when the regional climate turns cold. However, the results in Florida and Puerto Rico are relatively small groups of caimans, some regularly breeding. Populations have been identified in Florida in Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties, with breeding confirmed at two of those locations. The tropical species probably could not survive as a colony north of southern Florida because of the the more frequent freezing conditions. Some were reported in the more northerly Seminole County in the 1970's but those may no longer live. Even where they thive in Broward and Miami-Dade, they must deal with the presence of their larger and more populous alligator relatives, as well as with human pressures.

 

The caiman is part of a group of crocodilians called Alligatorids, making it a relative of the alligator (see this site's taxonomical list), closer so than the crocodile is. The Spectacled (also known appropriately as the "Common") caiman is the nominal species and there are at least two subspecies, though one of them known to be very rare may no longer exist. This hearty species is abundant throughout its natural range and some are farmed and ranched for the hide market. There are two other identified caimans in the Caiman genus and three others of different genera, all located in the tropics of Central and South America.

 

The reptile may grow up to 8 ft./2.4m in length and the larger ones in Florida are reported at about 6 ft./1.8m in size. The hide is a variation of brown and olive coloration, some sporting large dark brown bands on the length of the body. The "spectacled" descriptive derives from the sight of the thin bony ridge that circles each eye and connects the two -- appearing as a pair of spectacles.

 

A spectacled caiman.

A spectacled caiman photographed in its native habitat.

(Image: Peter Nejenhuis, Creative Commons license)

 

Compared to the alligator the caiman is more secretive and when approached or handled by humans more aggressive. Mating occurs in late spring and summer where warmer and wetter climatic condtions facilitate the activity as well as the nesting process, which is similar to the alligator's.

 

The caiman is not considered a serious invasive threat to Florida since its numbers are kept isolated by natural factors, and there are no reports of significant conflict with humans. It is less likely than the alligator to pose an attack threat to humans because of its diminutive size and shy demeanor.

 

Efforts have been made to remove these from the wild, but have not been a priority for state wildlife officials, who must channel limited resources to deal with many other nonnative animal species (more than 500), some of which are so populous that they are considered "invasive", and pose a threat to local ecosystems.

 

You may learn more about the caiman's status in Florida, as well as that of many other nonnative species, here.

 

 

REFERENCES

 

CROCODILE SPECIALIST GROUP. 2017. Crocodilian Species: Spectacled Caiman (Caiman crocodilus). [cited 12 November 2016].  Gland, Swtizerland: IUCN. Available from: http://www.iucncsg.org/content_images/attach

ments/species_descriptions/Spectacled%20Caiman.pdf. PDF

 

DUPONT, I. 2017. Crocodilians in the "pet" trade. CrocJournal.com, [Internet] [cited 9 July 2017]. Available from: http://www.crocjournal.net/Crocodilians%20in%20the%20pet%20trade%20-%20Dupont.pdf.   PDF

 

FLORIDA FISH & WILDLIFE CONSERVATION COMMISSION. 2017. Nonnative Reptiles: Spectacled caiman - Caiman crocodilus. [cited 12 November 2016].Tallahassee, Florida.  http://myfwc.com/wildlifehabitats/nonnatives/

reptiles/spectacled-caiman/. HTML

 

U.S. GEOLOGICAL SURVEY. 2017. Nonindigenous Aquatic Species Database. Gainesville, Florida. [cited 12 November 2017. Available from: https://nas.er.usgs.gov/queries/factsheet.aspx?SpeciesID=222. HTML

 

VELASCO, A. and J. AYARZAGÜENA. 2010. Spectacled Caiman Caiman crocodilus. Pages 10-15 in Crocodiles. Status Survey and Action Plan. Third Edtion. S.C. Manolis and C. Stevenson, eds. Darwin, Northern Territory: Crocodile Specialist Group. PDF

 

 

 

SUGGESTED ARTICLE CITATION: Dupont, Israel. 2016. The alligator's nonnative cousin in Florida: species summary of the spectacled caiman. LivingAmongAlligators.com [ [insert date cited] ]; November 2016. Available from: http://www. crocjournal.net/laa_caiman.htm

 

 

 

 

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