Dwarf caiman (Paleosuchus palpebrosus)

Also known as: Cuvier's smooth-fronted caiman
KingdomAnimalia
PhylumChordata
ClassReptilia
OrderCrocodylia
FamilyAlligatoridae
GenusPaleosuchus (1)
SizeLength: up to 1.8m (3)
Top facts

The dwarf caiman is classified as Least Concern (LC) on the IUCN Red List (1) and listed on Appendix II of CITES (2).

The dwarf caiman (Paleosuchus palpebrosus) is, as suggested by its common name, the smallest of the New World crocodilians (4). Although individuals have been known to grow to lengths of up to 1.8 metres (3), the male typically reaches a maximum of 1.6 metres, while the female rarely exceeds 1.2 metres (5). This diminutive predator has bony upper eyelids and, similarly to other species in the Paleosuchus genus, has a heavy armour on its back composed of bone-containing scales (4). The scales on the tail of this species contain the largest amount of bone of any scales on its body, meaning that the tail is brittle and inflexible, and the tail tip can break relatively easily (3). The snout of the dwarf caiman is short and broad and, unusually, the iris surrounding the pupil of the eye is completely dark (4).

The juvenile dwarf caiman is mostly brown with a black banded pattern. As it matures, the juvenile develops the darker colouration and chocolate brown head of the adult, as well as a white banded pattern on its lower jaw (5).

The dwarf caiman is widespread in South America (5), with a range that extends from Venezuela in the north, down the western coast of Colombia to Ecuador and Peru. This species can also be found in Bolivia, Paraguay, Guyana, French Guiana, Suriname and Brazil (5) (6).

The dwarf caiman is found in numerous aquatic habitats throughout its range. In the central Amazon basin, this species can be found in the flooded forests that surround the major waterways (7). In other areas of its range, the dwarf caiman has been seen living in swamps, lagoons (4), quiet areas of large rivers and around rapids. In Venezuela, this reptile is also found in palm swamps (7).

It appears the dwarf caiman is unable to compete with the spectacled caiman (Caiman crocodilus) and it is only found in habitats that the spectacled caiman is absent from (4).

The adult dwarf caiman conceals itself during the day in burrows below water level which can be up to 1.5 metres long (4). This species only leaves the water very rarely (4).

Very few investigations into the reproduction of the dwarf caiman have been conducted, therefore little information is currently known. This species can be found in pairs and alone throughout the year and no set breeding season has yet been described (5). The female builds its nest in a concealed location, using leaf debris and mud to create a small mound (5). Clutch sizes vary between 15 and 25 eggs (4), and the female guards the nest during the 90 day incubation period (5). Despite a lack of research into post-hatching care by the adults, it has been noted that, particularly during the dry season, hatchlings and females will remain together in a burrow (8). The juveniles will generally remain with the adults until they are around 21 months of age (9).

Dwarf caiman juveniles are found to eat mainly invertebrates such as crustaceans (5), while the diet of an adult is more varied and includes fish, crabs and shrimp (8).

Although the collection of the dwarf caiman for the pet trade and subsistence hunting is legal, data shows that populations have not been significantly reduced and this species is currently thought to be widespread and the population is relatively stable (5). The main threats to this reptile are thought to be habitat destruction and pollution (5) which are being caused by gold mining activities and expanding agricultural and urban areas (7). The tough, bony scales on the skin of the dwarf caiman mean that the skin is tough and difficult to tan (5) and this feature, combined with its small size, means there is little pressure on this species from hunting (7). Unfortunately, the declining populations of more commercially appropriate species and improvements in tanning methods may lead to increased exploitation of the dwarf caiman in the future (5).

The dwarf caiman is also threatened by harvesting for use in traditional medicine. Fresh caiman fat is used in the treatment of rheumatism in certain areas of its range (10) and the teeth are used in amulets, as it is thought that they provide protection from snake bites. The dwarf caiman is hunted for its meat (10) and eggs (7).

International trade in the dwarf caiman is controlled under its listing on Appendix II of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) (2). There is strict export quotas imposed in Guyana (2), where the dwarf caiman is commercially exploited for the pet industry (7). The dwarf caiman is arguably the least studied of all the New World Crocodilians and it would benefit from further monitoring to gain information regarding its abundance and threats to its survival. Population surveys have been recommended and could lead to the designation of protected areas, which would be beneficial for any populations that may be at risk of local extinction. This species would also benefit in the future from research into its interactions with other crocodilian species, as well as its breeding patterns and habitat preferences (7).

Find out more about the dwarf caiman:

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This information is awaiting authentication by a species expert, and will be updated as soon as possible. If you are able to help please contact:
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  1. IUCN Red List (May, 2014)
    http://www.iucnredlist.org/
  2. CITES (November, 2013)
    http://www.cites.org/
  3. Campos, Z., Sanaiotti, T. and Magnusson, W.E. (2010) Maximum size of dwarf caiman, Paleosuchus palpebrosus (Cuvier, 1807), in the Amazon and habitats surrounding the Pantanal, Brazil. Amphibia-Reptilia, 31(4): 439-442.
  4. Neill, W. T. (1971) The Last of the Ruling Reptiles Alligators, Crocodiles and Their Kin. Columbia University Press, New York.
  5. Crocodilians Natural History and Conservation - Paleosuchus palpebrosus (November, 2013)
    http://crocodilian.com/cnhc/csp_ppal.htm
  6. The Reptile Database - Paleosuchus palpebrosus (November, 2013)
    http://reptile-database.reptarium.cz/species?genus=Paleosuchus&species=palpebrosus&search_param=%28%28common_name%3D%27dwarf+caiman%27%29%29
  7. Magnusson, W.E. and Campos, Z. (2010) Cuvier’s Smooth-fronted Caiman Paleosuchus palpebrosus. Crocodiles. Status Survey and Conservation Action Plan. Third Edition. IUCN/SSC Crocodile Specialist Group, IUCN, Gland, Switzerland and Cambridge, UK. Available at:
    http://www.iucncsg.org/365_docs/attachments/protarea/07_P-780bb74f.pdf
  8. Magnusson, W.E., Vieira da Silva, E. and Lima, A.P. (1987) Diets of Amazonian Crocodilians. Journal of Herpetology, 21(3): 85-95.
  9. Campos, Z., Sanaiotti, T., Muiz, F., Farias, I. and Magnusson, W.E. (2012) Parental care in the dwarf caiman, Paleosuchus palpebrosus Cuvier, 1807 (Reptilia: Crocodilia: Alligatoridae). Journal of Natural History, 46(47-48): 2979-2984.
  10. Da Nóbrega Alves, R.R., da Silva Vieira, W.L. and Santana, G.G. (2008) Reptiles used in traditional folk medicine: conservation implications. Biodiversity and Conservation, 17(8): 2037-2049.