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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

The smallest of the caimans, the most you're likely to see of a 5-foot dwarf caiman are chocolate brown eyes, protruding nostrils and 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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