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36 Black Caiman Facts: Amazon’s Huge Apex Predator (Melanosuchus niger)

Posted in: Ecuador Animals, Ecuador Travel, Ecuador’s Amazon Jungle

Did you know that the Amazon jungle is home to giant black caimans? These apex predators can reach lengths of more than 14 feet and over 1000 lbs. In this post, you’ll learn 36 black caiman facts, including their habits, habitats, range, and more. Plus lots of photos and videos.

Black caiman

Safety tip: While black caiman aren’t especially dangerous to humans (more below), it’s a good idea to keep a safe distance. If you’re traveling to the Amazon basin, you should bring a camera with a good zoom and a decent pair of binoculars.

Table of Contents

36 Black Caiman Facts

It’s a gloomy night. There’s a dark shadow gliding through the water. Its shining eyes are focused on a wild pig taking a drink from the river, and in the light of the moon, it makes a sharp, decisive snap.

Congratulations! You’ve just witnessed the hunting process of the black caiman. It’s one of the largest crocodilian species in South America’s Amazon jungle, and it’s also one of the deadliest.

Would you like to learn more about this savage, stealthy species? Here are just a few black caiman facts to get to know them better.

1. What does the black caiman look like?

Black caimans are large and dark-scaled. Despite their name, their coloring can range from a true black to a mottled gray, brown, tan or olive. They have large eyes that are primed for nocturnal hunting, and their snouts are sculpted with bony ridges that extend down their faces.

Additionally, black caimans have white or yellow bands around their flanks that will gradually dull as they get older. It’s a little like humans growing gray hair: Juveniles have vivid bands whereas older males and females have faded ones.

Black caiman facts

2. How big is a black caiman?

Black caimans can get pretty large. They’re easily the biggest species in the caiman family, and it’s possible that they’re the biggest species in the entire Amazon basin.

The average male measures between 7 – 14 feet, but it isn’t uncommon for them to grow up to 16 – 17 feet in length. There are even unconfirmed reports of black caimans measuring as long as 20 feet.

Females tend to be a bit smaller. Their average size is around 9 – 10 feet.

3. How much does a black caiman weigh?

The average weight of a black caiman is 600 – 800 pounds, but the big boys can reach 1,000 pounds or more. There have been reports of specimens weighing as much as 2,400 pounds, but these were probably exaggerated.

Black caiman in Amazon jungle

4. Is a black caiman a crocodile?

No, but you can be forgiven for getting confused. Alligators, crocodiles and caimans occupy a tangled family tree. Here’s how it breaks down:

  • Class: Reptilia (reptiles)
  • Order: Crocodilia (alligators, crocodiles, caimans)
  • Family: Alligatoridae (alligators, caimans)
  • Genus: Melanosuchus (black caimans)

Crocodiles occupy the same class and order, but their family is called “crocodylidae” rather than “alligatoridae.” They come from the same ancestors, but they branch off and do their own thing.

To put it simply, alligators and caimans have more in common with each other than with crocodiles.

5. How did the black caiman get its name?

The origins of “black caiman” are pretty straightforward. It’s part of the caiman species, and it’s covered in black scales.

6. What is the black caiman’s Latin name?

The scientific name of the black caiman is melanosuchus niger. It’s actually Greek and not Latin. It comes from the Greek words meaning “black” (melas) and “crocodile” (soukhos).

7. What is the difference between a caiman and a crocodile?

The biggest difference between a caiman and a crocodile is their snout. Caimans have rounded, U-shaped snouts while crocodiles have sharper and more V-shaped ones.

Another difference can be found in their teeth. Like humans, caimans have an overbite that allows their jaws to comfortably close because their upper teeth slide in front of their lower ones. Crocodiles don’t have this luxury; their upper and lower jaws have an even length, so when their teeth come together, the lower ones tend to jut out like spikes.

There are more differences, but they’re genetic or chromosomal rather than something that can be detected with the naked eye.

8. What is the difference between a caiman and an alligator?

These variations can be harder to spot since caimans and alligators are so closely related. If you know what you’re looking for, however, you can tell where they differ.

For starters, alligators have conical teeth while caimans have sharper, more jagged ones. Caimans also have stronger overbites with upper jaws that are more visibly distended than alligators.

Alligators live in North America. Caimans live in Central and South America.

Alligators are usually bigger than caimans, but black caimans are the exception to this rule.

One surefire way to distinguish between caimans and alligators is to look inside of their mouths. Caimans have orange-tinted gums while alligators have tan or beige-looking ones. Just make sure that you’re being extremely careful when you perform this kind of check!

9. How do black caimans keep warm/cool?

Black caimans spend a lot of time in the water, so keeping cool isn’t as much of an issue as keeping warm.

Their black scales are thought to help with heat absorption as much as camouflage when they’re in dark water, and they’ve been observed sunbathing with their mouths wide open to soak up the warmth. This is called thermoregulation, and it’s common in all crocodilian species, including the black caiman.

10. Are black caiman’s aggressive?

While not the most hostile member of their family, black caimans aren’t to be trifled with, especially during mating season.

They can get quite territorial over their mates, nests and eggs. They also lack the fear instincts that inhibit prey species, so when they see something that they want, they take it.

Black caiman habitat

11. Can a black caiman kill a human?

Yes. The Worldwide Crocodilian Attack Database lists more than 80 attacks on humans by black caimans in the past two decades, and these are just the incidents that were officially reported. Victims range in age from 5 to 60. Some of them survived their injuries; many of them didn’t.

Black caiman attacks in Ecuador: There is just one recorded incident in Ecuador of a black caiman attack. On February 27, 1997, a male was attacked (non-fatal) while catching caiman hatchlings in Imuya Lagoon (Lagartococha), Sucumbios province, Ecuador.

It’s important to note, however, that black caimans aren’t considered “man-eating” animals. They don’t have a taste for human flesh, and they don’t terrorize rural villages. Black caimans kill more out of opportunity than anything else; most of their victims were swimming, bathing, canoeing or crossing rivers with livestock when they were attacked.

Black caimans will see a chance and take it, but they aren’t like Nile crocodiles that will literally stalk human prey.

12. How long do black caimans live?

According to the Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research, black caimans can live for 13.1 years in captivity. We have no idea how long they survive in the wild, but it’s probably a lot less.

13. What eats a black caiman? Predators and Threats

Black caimans are apex predators. They’re at the very top of the food chain. Studies of cougars and jaguars have shown that even these big, dangerous cats will avoid the lakes and swamps where black caimans live.

That said, there are off days for black caimans. Photographers have seen the occasional jaguar take them down, and an entire family of giant otters was seen working together to kill a black caiman that swam into their territory.

Watch on YouTube

Black caimans are also vulnerable when they’re young. A number of snakes, vultures, raptors, rodents and weasels will eat black caiman eggs or prey on them when they’re still young hatchlings. Many of them won’t survive to adulthood – just 1 in 10 will survive their first year.

Long story short, black caimans aren’t invincible. They’re just very strong and lacking in natural, systematic predators.

14. Is the black caiman endangered?

The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has the black caiman listed as “least risk/conservation dependent” (LR/cd).

This means that they aren’t in any danger of going extinct, but their species is still threatened enough that they wouldn’t survive in the wild without conservation efforts.

15. Has the black caiman ever faced extinction?

Yes. Between the 1950s – 1970s, black caimans were hunted to the brink of extinction by people who harvested their black scales for clothes, shoes, medicines and fashion accessories. 99% of black caimans were wiped out as the result of overhunting.

It was only through careful conservation efforts that their population was brought back up to non-vulnerable levels.

16. How many caiman species are there?

There are currently six species of caiman:

  1. Black caimans
  2. Spectated caimans
  3. Cuvier’s dwarf caimans
  4. Smooth-fronted caimans
  5. Broad-snouted caimans
  6. Yacare caimans

There used to be a dozen additional species, including giant caimans with massive skulls and larger-than-life teeth, but they’ve gone extinct. They’re only known to us through fossilized remains.

17. What do black caimans eat?

Black caimans will eat anything that’s unfortunate enough to cross their path. They have a remarkably varied diet that includes monkeys, boars, birds, otters, armadillos, horses, deer, cattle and all kinds of fish and vermin. Whether it comes to them by air, land or sea, they’ll take it down without hesitation.

They’ll even go after animals that are predators in their own right. Young black caimans will feast on piranhas; older black caimans will gorge themselves on pythons.

Some black caimans have been known to cannibalize members of their own species.

Amazon river dolphins have been found with scars that suggest black caiman attacks.

These are hungry animals with absolutely no fear of anything else in the wild, and their diet proves it.

Watch on YouTube

18. How do black caimans hunt?

Black caimans are nocturnal hunters that use their keen vision and hearing to navigate dark terrain in the middle of the night. They usually hunt in the water, but they’ll climb on land to chase after furry or flying prey.

Once they catch their victim, they usually crush or drown it. They have extremely strong jaws, so they can hold a thrashing animal in place with minimal effort.

Their one weakness is that their teeth are used for biting and gripping but not chewing. They can rip a chunk of flesh from a dead animal, but it has to be a chunk that they can swallow whole. If the prey is too big to swallow at once, they’ll leave the carcass in the sun to rot a little. They’ll return to it when the flesh has softened.

19. Do black caiman’s mate for life?

They don’t appear to. Male black caimans may mate with several females in one season.

20. When is the breeding season for black caimans?

Black caimans start breeding at the end of the dry season so that the eggs will hatch during the beginning of the wet season.

This can happen anytime between the months of September – December depending on their particular country. It takes about two months for the eggs to hatch.

Watch on YouTube

21. At what age do black caiman lay eggs?

This is another area where we don’t have a lot of information, but it’s assumed that black caimans reach sexual maturity between 5 – 15 years old. This would put them on par with other members of the caiman species.

Rather than the number of years lived, the most important factor for a growing crocodilian is body length. They’re considered sexually mature when they reach a certain size rather than a certain age. This is generally around 4 – 6 feet.

22. How often do black caimans lay eggs?

Black caimans only breed every 2 – 3 years. Since their hatchlings are quick to mature, it isn’t known why it takes them so long to be in a breeding mood again. It might have something to do with the large size of their nests.

23. How many eggs does the black caiman lay? What do they look like?

Female black caimans lay between 30 – 60 eggs at a time. They have hard, elliptical shells and weigh as much as 5.1 ounces each.

The mother will lay, incubate, guard and nurture them in a carefully-dug nest of sand and soil for their first few weeks of life, but once they start growing, she’ll move them to a new location to decrease the risk of predators catching their scent. She might also help her young during the initial hatching process by using her own teeth to break through the tough, leathery shells of the eggs.

24. How many young black caimans survive to adulthood?

Most black caiman hatchlings won’t make it past their second or third year. There are simply too many animals that prey on them.

Because of their high mortality rate the fact that they lay dozens of eggs at a time is helpful; with more babies, there are more chances for some of the brood to survive.

25. Do black caimans eat their young?

It depends.

Mothers won’t eat their own children, so don’t believe any reports to the contrary. People used to jump to conclusions when they saw female black caimans closing their jaws over their hatchlings, but it’s understood now that moms are simply carrying their babies in their mouths to newer, safer locations. The hatchlings aren’t harmed by it.

Other black caimans might eat a baby, however. They don’t mind a little cannibalism, and weak hatchlings and fledglings can’t defend themselves against bigger and stronger predators. They’re easy pickings.

26. Can black caimans co-exist with other species?

Yes. Black caimans occupy the same regions as jaguars, anacondas and giant otters, and for the most part, they leave each other alone. This isn’t a guaranteed thing, and as I’ve previously outlined, conflicts can and do happen. For the most part, however, the apex predators of the Amazon basin do their own thing without bothering each other.

27. Do black caimans make noise?

Black caimans aren’t particularly vocal, but younger ones might call to their mothers with tinny “umph umph umph” sounds.

Interestingly, caimans and crocodiles make the same noises even though caimans are genetically closer to alligators than crocodiles. These two species were even able to recognize each other’s noises in a scientific study. It’s said that they share a “language” or “acoustic code” even though they’re genetically different.

Where do black caiman live?

Learn more about another Amazon predator: 45 Emerald Tree Boa Facts

28. Do black caimans have red eyes?

It’s true that many black caimans have red-rimmed eyes. The Amazon is full of blood flies that will feed on vulnerable eye tissue and make it irritated and inflamed.

However, you shouldn’t believe tales about “the caiman’s blood-red eyes” or “the sinister red gaze of the black caiman.” They aren’t that red. People just like to tell scary stories about red-eyed, black-scaled alligators.

29. How strong is a black caiman bite?

No one has measured the bite force of a black caiman, so we can’t definitively rank them on a scale of lions, sharks and crocodiles. But we do know that their jaws are pretty strong: They can kill giant river turtles by shattering their hard shells with a single bite.

30. Where does the black caiman live?

Black caimans are native to South America. They live in the countries that make up the Amazon basin, including Bolivia, Brazil, Peru, Guyana, Colombia, Ecuador, and French Guiana.

31. What is the habitat of the black caiman?

Black caimans live in wetlands that are close to slow-moving rivers, lakes and swamps. They’re also partial to grassy areas that have been flooded by the wet seasons of the Amazon.

32. Where do black caiman’s nest?

When it’s time to breed, the female black caiman will build an egg chamber out of dirt, soil, sand or vegetation. She’ll use her hind legs to create a mound of earth that’s protected on all sides from both predators and the elements.

The nest has to be big enough to house 30 – 60 eggs at once, so it’s usually around 2 – 5 feet across. It’s quite the sight when it’s finished.

33. How long does it take for young black caimans to leave their families?

Young black caimans mature quickly. They’re ready to leave the nest and hunt their own food in a matter of months. They’ll stick close to home for a number of years, however, until they’re old enough to fend for themselves against predators.

Their parents will protect them, and there’s safety in numbers with all of their siblings. Some moms will even build their nests close to one another so that multiple broods can live together.

34. Why is the black caiman considered a keystone species?

A keystone species is one that has a large impact on its ecosystem. When the species is limited or removed, it has drastic consequences for the entire area.

This happened with black caimans when they were hunted to near-extinction in the 1950s. The rodent, monkey and piranha populations went way up when they weren’t being preyed on by black caimans, and their increased numbers caused all kinds of problems for local communities. Their crops were raided; their farm animals were killed or driven off.

Other animals suffered as well. The larger populations were using up more and more of the land’s resources, and this affected everything from food availability to habitat sustainability.

Things are better now that black caimans have been successfully repopulated, but this is the impact of a keystone species.

35. Where can I see the black caiman?

There are a handful of black caimans in zoos and national parks, but they aren’t a breed that does well in captivity, so your options might be limited if you want to see them in the flesh. Unless you’re willing to fly to South America and take a wildlife tour, you might have to be satisfied with pictures.

36. Where can I see black caiman in Ecuador?

The black caiman live in the Amazon basin. In Ecuador, you can see them in the northeast, specifically Yasuni National Park.

Black caiman in Ecuador

Crusty Caiman Creatures

These are just a few black caiman facts that you can whip out during your next game of Trivial Pursuit. While everyone else is stumped on the differences between a crocodile and an alligator, you can amaze the entire party by going into detail about the feeding, mating and nesting habits of one of South America’s most interesting predators!

Interested in reading more about the amazing creatures you can see in Ecuador? Check out this post about Galapagos animals, or learn more about the beautiful blue morpho butterfly.

Meet the Author

Bryan Haines is co-editor of GringosAbroad - Ecuador's largest blog for expats and travelers. He is a travel blogger and content marketer. He is also co-founder of ClickLikeThis (GoPro tutorial blog) and Storyteller Media (content marketing for travel brands). Work with GringosAbroad.

1 comment… add one
  • Rob Lamontagne Feb 21, 2019, 1:12 pm

    That was fascinating! Thanks for sharing!

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