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A Cuvier's dwarf caiman, similar in appearance to an alligator with its spear-shaped head and squat, long body covered in spiked ridges.

Dwarf Caiman

Dwarf caimans are the smallest members of the caiman clan, the South American cousins of our alligators. But the most you’re likely to see of one’s 5-foot length are chocolate brown eyes, protruding nostrils and maybe a bit of bumpy armored scales above the water’s surface. Like other crocodilians, these ambush hunters rely on looking like a partly sunken log.

A Cuvier's dwarf caiman's head shown in partial profile, highlighting the dramatic eye ridges and the flat top of its snout.
The spade-shaped head of a Cuvier's Dwarf Caiman, resting half in the water.

Secretive residents of the deep flooded forest

During the rainy and high-water seasons in the Amazon and Orinoco basins, dwarf caimans live deep in the flooded forests, in lakes or small, fast-moving tributaries, where the bony armor on their necks, backs, tails and even eyelids protects them from injury. During the low-water season, they stalk through the forest at night, moving to different ponds or looking for food. They hunt equally well on land and in water, eating a variety of fishes, including piranhas, and crabs, beetles, frogs, rodents, birds and snakes. They also keep to their forest niche because 12-foot black caimans—aggressive predators about three times the length of a dwarf caiman—dominate larger, open rivers and their sunny banks. Dwarf caimans like their patches of sun among the trees, but you won’t see one basking in the open.

A dwarf caiman's eyes and snout rise out of dark waters.

Caimans by moonlight

Amazon Rising’s exhibits are outfitted with soft overhead spot lighting that clicks on around 7 p.m. (when the daytime habitat lights go off) and dims to dark by 10. This “moonlight mode” gives the caimans and other animals a more natural equatorial environment. Anyone looking for the caimans then might find them by their reddish-whitish glowing eyeshine. The caimans’ large eyeballs are packed with light-gathering cells. And the backs of their eyeballs have a thin coating of reflective tissue that produces sharp images even in low light, a terrific adaptation for a nocturnal hunter.

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