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
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
is not to blame for overreaching its natural boundaries -- the pet and tourism industries and its
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
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
A spectacled caiman
photographed in its native habitat.
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.