The Smallest Crocodilian

| April 9, 2011

A pair of one-year-old Cuvier’s dwarf caiman (Paleosuchus palpebrosus) can now be seen in their temporary display between the Anaconda and Vampire Bat exhibits on the second level of the Orinoco rainforest. The Dwarf caiman is the smallest living species of crocodilian. Adult males typically reach about five feet in length, while females are up to four feet.

The unique shape of its head, makes it easy to distinguish the Dwarf caiman. It has an unusually short, smooth, pointed skull with an upturned snout. This feature is helpful for burrowing into a riverbank for shelter during the day or for constructing a mound nest. Their skin is heavily armored on the back and stomach, which serves as an added protection from predators and lessens the chance for injury when moving in fast-flowing waters and traveling over land.

Females build nests from vegetation and mud, usually hidden under cover. The clutch size is between 10-25 eggs, with incubation lasting around 90 days. Like other crocodilians, the female guards the nest during the incubation period and tears open the mound when peeps from the hatchlings can be heard. The sex of the offspring is determined by the nest temperature – low temperatures produce females; high temperatures usually produce males.

The diet of juvenile caimans is largely made up of invertebrates, whereas, adults (in addition to aquatic and terrestrial invertebrates), include a greater proportion of fish in their diets. The short, backward-curved teeth aid in their eating of invertebrates, such as crustaceans.

The semi-aquatic Dwarf caiman can be found in South America where it lives in ponds, lakes, swamps and rivers. Although they can legally be hunted for subsistence and are often collected for the pet trade, they are of little commercial value due to the small size and heavy armor of their skin, making it too costly to tan. Listed as CITES Appendix II and IUCN Least Concern, the biggest threats to the Dwarf caiman are due to the pollution and destruction of their habitat.

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