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Spectacled Caiman: One Photo, and Make It Snappy
by Richard Garrigues
With deft strokes of his wooden paddle our boatman slowly and silently edged the flat-bottomed skiff in towards the floating vegetation along the creek bank. Staring and squinting at the black water's surface, we tried to see what he had seen.
Eventually, almost everyone's optic nerves were able to convince their brains that what might have easily passed as a partially submerged piece of wood was, in fact, the partially emerged head of a caiman. One or two people in the boat still weren't getting it, and so we nudged even closer. As our starboard came to within inches of the motionless creature, a passenger in the bow leaned over with his camera and clicked off a frame.
Or something to that effect, were the rapid-fire succession of sounds as the camera noise spooked the caiman that disappeared with a great splash of its tail, startling the wits out of at least half the audience, while a Montezuma oropendola chortled overhead—ostensibly as amused by the whole affair as were the boatman and myself who needed a minute or so to finally calm down from laughing at the sight of so many surprised faces.
Unless you get lucky and find one of these reptiles basking on a log or on an open stretch of shoreline, spectacled caimans (Caiman crocodilus) can be notoriously difficult to see, thus often giving the false impression that they are relatively rare creatures of tropical lowland streams. But return to the same area after dark with a good light and you'll very likely be amazed at the number of glowing red caiman eyes all along the channel!
Spectacled caimans are small relatives of alligators and crocodiles. There are none of the former in Costa Rica, but how do you tell a caiman apart from a not yet full-grown American crocodile (Crocodylus acutus)? It's not always easy, but here are a few pointers that ought to help:
The caiman's brow slopes down to the base of the snout, whereas the crocodile has a flat head (although the eyes and nostrils protrude above the plane of the top of the head).
The caiman's snout is not as long and narrow in relation to the entire head as is the snout of the crocodile. The back of the crocodile has spiky ridges, while the caiman does not, and in fact, often reminds me of a floating coconut trunk. Additionally, the body length (not including tail) of a full-grown spectacled caiman is about three and a half feet. Therefore, any crocodilian sighted here that exceeds four feet in body length should be the American crocodile—these beasts can attain total lengths of up to 16 feet (which is a LOT of croc!).
The diet of the Costa Rican crocodilians is similar. The young of both species feed chiefly on insects and as adults they primarily consume fish. However, both crocs and caimans are fairly opportunistic and will take other prey when available, including carrion.
As adults, the crocodiles have no natural predators other than man which hunts them for their skins and is responsible for destroying and polluting their habitats. The situation is similar for the caimans, although being smaller they are reportedly also taken by anacondas where that species occurs in the southern portions of their range, from Panama into the Amazon basin.
Attaining adult size in the wild, however, is not easy for these spectacular animals. A variety of predators eat the eggs, including foxes, raccoons, armadillos and even ants. Of the eggs that do hatch, the majority of the young are taken as prey by hawks, herons, storks, anhingas, anacondas, and raccoons.
In my experience, the most reliable places for finding these two species in Costa Rica are: Caño Negro (going up the Río Frio from Los Chiles) and the Tortuguero/Barra del Colorado region for caiman, and the Río Grande de Tarcoles (near Carara) and the Río Tempisque (around Palo Verde) for crocodiles.
And oh yeah, keep your hands inside the boat.
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