Of the six species of caiman known to science, four inhabit the rivers, wetlands and lakes of Tambopata National Reserve. Of these four species, the most commonly sighted are the black caiman and white, or spectacled, caiman.
Tha black caiman (Melanosuchus niger) is much larger than the white caiman. It can grow up to four meters (13 feet) in length and weigh as much as 300 kilograms (660 pounds). Adult black caimans have no natural enemies, although their young can be vulnerable to nest predators such as anacondas, jaguars and other caimans. The black caiman is most vulnerable to nest predators such as lizards and coatis at the egg stage of its development. Their nests may contain anywhere from thirty to sixty eggs.
Black caimans live and hunt in slow-moving rivers, streams and oxbow lakes, and are found in tropical forests throughout South America. As adults, these massive predators feed on a range of prey, including fish (catfish and piranhas), snakes, capybaras, turtles, birds, otters, deer, monkeys, agoutis and armadillos, while juveniles will eat crustaceans, snails and smaller fish species.
As the largest predator in the Amazon and one of the largest members of the Alligatoridae family (together with the American alligator), and with more than seventy teeth, black caimans have no need to fear the forest’s other top predators. However, they were hunted to the verge of extinction from the 1950s to the 1970s, when their black skins were highly sought after for the making of shoes and handbags. Conservation measures like those implemented in Tambopata National Reserve have allowed the black caiman to make a comeback, and it is now classified as “Least Concern”. Demonstrating how in nature every species has its place, when caiman numbers were reduced by hunting, forest populations of capybara and piranha grew unnaturally high.
The smaller white caiman, also known as the spectacled caiman because of the triangular ridge between its eyes, is found in both Central and South America. Adult males can grow up to 2 meters (6 feet) in length and weigh up to 40 kilograms (88 pounds). They feed mostly on fish, amphibians, reptiles and water fowl, although on occasion they will attack larger prey, such as deer and capybaras. They themselves are vulnerable to the larger black caiman, as well as a range of nest predators. Their nests can contain between 14 and 40 eggs.
The white caiman prefers still water, but will also inhabit rivers and streams anywhere within its broad geographic range.
While cannibalism has been reported among caimans in the wild, and may occur during the dry season when food is scarce, it is possible that such reports stem from misinterpretation of the caiman’s habit of carrying its young in its mouth when moving from one nesting site to another.
All caimans are essentially nocturnal, and one way to spot them at night is by shining a flashlight along the riverbanks and lakeshores where they tend to lurk. The so-called “eye shine” phenomenon causes their eyes to gleam red when exposed to light.
The caiman appears to have featured in the pre-Columbian mythology and religious practices of Peru. Julio C. Tello was the first to identify the creatures on the so-called Tello Obelisk, at the ancient site of Chavín de Huantar, as entwined male and female caimans.