The Caiman Lizard – Not Your Run-of-the Mill Reptile
By Susana Cortázar
Zoo Miami’s latest exhibit, the 27-acre Amazon and Beyond, houses some of the most exotic animals in the rainforest, one of them being the caiman lizard (Dracaena guianensis). Native to South America – Guyana, Peru, Ecuador, and Colombia – this reptile lives in flooded swamps or river-type areas and basks in the sun on tree branches hanging over the water.
With green bodies and red heads, leathery skin and powerful, modified molars that can crack open an apple snail, the caiman lizard does not an ideal pet make, as it can be quite aggressive, bite and whack you with its powerful tail. At Zoo Miami, however, target training has somewhat mellowed them out but if you come across them in the wild, you should observe them from a safe, non-threatening distance.
Zoo Miami has three adult caiman lizards – one male, one female, one unidentified – and two babies – sex undetermined. Males’ heads are broader and redder, and have a modified scale on their tail, thus distinguishing them from females, although you would have to look at a group to be able to tell the differences and make a sound determination as to their sex.
Photo by Dustin Smith
It takes approximately 30 days from the female ova’s fertilization to oviposition, at which point the female buries the eggs in a nest on the ground, covers it up, and leaves. The clutch – usually 8 to 10 eggs – lies underground anywhere from five to six months, which is longer than with most other lizards. Once hatched, the babies emerge and have to fend for themselves. Hatchlings weigh 25 – 30 grams and measure nine inches (tail included) at birth. At adulthood, they are four feet long, including the tail, and weigh from two to four kilograms.
In the wild, the caiman lizard’s diet consists of clams and big apple snails. At Zoo Miami, however, they are fed a variety of rodents, fish, fruit (bananas and mangoes), and some not-so-tasty foods basted with turkey baby food. Babies are fed crickets and other insects. Aside from being fed such a varied diet, the caiman lizards at Zoo Miami are very well taken care of by the four keepers assigned to them.
The caiman lizards at Zoo Miami also get enrichment such as target training, and as they are in a mixed-species exhibit, they interact with the turtles, fish, and other lizards who share their tank. Additionally, as they are outside, there is the environmental enrichment element. Although neither social nor solitary creatures, they are tolerant of each other.
Zoo Miami Curator of Ectotherms Nicole Atteberry states that although the caiman lizard’s status is of “least concern, they are hunted by poachers for their nice, leathery skin and succumb to larger predators; but the biggest factor is loss of habitat.”
When asked what makes this animal different from other lizards, Nicole says “it’s their aquatic aspect, since not too many lizards are that highly aquatic; they are also pretty smart; and because of their uniquely shaped molars, they feed on the large apple snails.”
“These lizards are called caiman because they look like a crocodile with their armored skin,” adds Nicole, “but they are not crocs; they are lizards.”
And why, oh, why, are people so scared of reptiles? When posed this question, Nicole says people are taught to be afraid of reptiles, as fear is not an innate behavior. She mentions of a study where “three-year olds were placed in a room with a huge snake and none of them was scared. People learn fear from others around them.” She also thinks the fear may have a biblical connotation or that some reptiles, such as snakes, have no limbs “so they are so different from us, it’s hard to make a comparison to self,” she adds.
So even if you’re scared of reptiles, when visiting Zoo Miami, meander over to Amazon and Beyond and check out the caiman lizards. You’ll be able to see them up close but trust me, they won’t be able to get to you. And that’s a good thing, too!