- Northern caiman lizard ( Dracaena guianensis ) :
From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
The northern caiman lizard, Dracaena guianensis, is a species of lizard found in northern South America.
Northern caiman lizard
A caiman lizard at the Saint Louis Zoo
Scientific classification :
Binomial name :
The caiman lizard is built similarly to its cousin the tegu, with a large heavy set body and short but powerful limbs. Its head is bulky and often a red or orange color. Their jaws are heavily muscular to help aid in eating its normal prey of snails, crawfish and fresh water clams. It also has a few adaptaions that help it in its watery habitat. It has a long and flattened tail, similar to its namesake, the caiman. The long tail helps the caiman lizard to successfully swim and dive. A clear third eyelid is thought to act like a pair of goggles underwater.
The body of the caiman lizard is very similar to that of a crocodile. It is typically a bright green with slight dark green banding. There are horned raised scales along the dorsal of the back. This help to provide some protection against predators.
These lizards can reach up to 4 ft (1.2 m) long and weigh up to 10 lb (4.5 kg).
Distribution and habitat:
This species can be found in the countries of Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, and the Guianas. It lives in swampy habitats and other wooded areas which are flooded. It is mostly aquatic and is an excellent climber. It spends most of its time basking on branches overhanging the waterways so that if trouble was to arise it would be a quick drop into the safety of the water.
The number of these lizards wild population is unknown. There has yet to be a study on them in their natural habitat. Much of what we know about them comes from captive animals in zoos and aquariums, as well as in the homes of hobbyists.
This species was heavily hunted for their leather. In 1970 they were provided protection and the export of their hides dropped. Now local populations are safe where their habitat is protected. Captive farms have since been set up to provide animals for the leather trade. In recent years a number of these animals have found themselves in the pet trade.
The northern caiman lizard spends most of its time in or near water. At night, it hides in trees and bushes. Caiman lizards in the wild will take a variety of prey: snails, fish, crawfish, clams, invertebrate and other freshwater inhabitants all can make up a caiman lizards diet. However they do specialize in snails. It takes the snail in the jaws, raises its head up so that the prey will slide into the back of the mouth, then crushes it with its back teeth. It then spits out the pieces of shell. The lizard has been known to even kill and eat amazon river turtles by crushing the shell by the edges and eating the softer parts chunk after chunk. It has also been known to burrow like its cousin the tegu.
In captivity :
The caiman lizard has been hard to keep in captivity. Due to their natural diet consisting almost purely of snails, most wild caught adults will refuse to eat anything else. Some zoos and aquariums have had success in keeping and breeding them.
In the last five years, farmed baby caiman lizards from South America have made their way into the pet trade around the world. These hatchlings are more willing to accept other food sources. Even so, this is not a lizard which by any means is easy to keep or raise in captivity. They have strong jaws that are capable of delivering painful bites. Their aquatic lifestyle means they need a large pool or tank, but also need a place to dig and burrow and logs or other suitable material with dry surfaces to bask on. This can be quite hard to accommodate due to their need for high humidity and high basking surface temperatures. Proceeded by the fact that these lizards can grow to be fairly large, up to 4 feet in length, a large enclosure is mandatory to successfully keep them alive.
That being said, some owners claim there is a reward to keeping them. Caiman lizards are intelligent as can be seen in the way they approach a snail that is clinging to the rocks. They can solve problems which many other lizards apparently fail to and can generally recognize their owners, given they have been kept for the right amount of time and are in good health.
Captive diet includes turkey meat (often mixed with Mazuri alligator diet), mussels, clam meat, catfood, fish and some fruits.
Dracaena guianensis - Daudin, 1802 - HD - Guyana Caiman Lizard - Zoologique de Paris - 09/2014
Caiman Lizard Care Sheet :
1- Caiman Lizard Care Sheet
BY ASHLEY RADEMACHER
Care sheet for the Caiman Lizard (Dracaena guianensis)
The Caiman lizard, Dracaena guianensis, is a large, heavy bodied lizard that is well adapted to life in and around water. Caiman lizards are native to South America around the Amazon River Basin from Brazil, and Guyana westward to Peru and Ecuador. While it is a relatively widespread species, little has been published about wild populations of Caiman lizards. In the past, the Caiman lizard was heavily hunted for its skin, but since protection was provided for them in the 1970s, the export has dropped and now these animals are not considered to be under the threat of extinction.
One of the easiest ways to identify a Caiman lizard is by its unique color pattern. These lizards have a body that is olive to bright green in color with a red or orange colored head. The thick tail is brownish to black and may have yellow stripes. As adults, these lizards display some degree of sexual dimorphism as the male has a broader head that is brighter red in color than the female’s. Covered in large, bony scales the skin of a Caiman lizard resembles that of a Caiman- a crocodilian species that also inhabits Central and South America. While its appearance and semi-aquatic lifestyle may suggest that that the caiman lizard is related to these crocodilians, it is actually a cousin of the Tegu and is just as well equipped for life on land and in the trees as it is for in the water.
Caiman Lizard Availability
The Caiman lizard is protected by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) and listed on Appendix II so virtually all Caiman lizards available in the pet trade are farmed or captive bred. Keepers have had more success with acclimating these animals to life under human care than with their wild collected counterparts. While Caiman lizards still are not frequently found in local pet shops, some reptile specialty stores and online resources have been making them available and at a more reasonable price than in years past.
Caiman Lizard Size
Caiman lizards are one of the largest lizards found in the Americas. While females can grow up to four feet, males may reach up to five feet in total length and weigh 8-12 pounds.
Caiman Lizard Lifespan
Not much is known about Caiman lizard lifespan, but with proper care, these animals should be able to live 10 years or longer in captivity.
Caiman Lizard Caging :
With the likelihood of reaching four feet or longer, these animals will need an exceptionally large enclosure as adults. Young Caiman lizards should have an enclosure that measures at least four feet by one foot and is at least 2 feet tall (55 gallon tank). An adult should have an enclosure that is at least 6 feet long, 3 feet wide and 4 feet tall. A large water area should be provided for these lizards as well as a land area and plenty of vertical space with climbing opportunities.
Provide a shelter such as a Habba Hut or Cork Round on the land area. These large lizards may tear up some live plants, but robust live plants can be used to add a naturalistic look, increase humidity and provide cover. Artificial plants may also be used to provide cover and a naturalistic look to the enclosure.
Plenty of sturdy climbing branches should be provided around and especially over the water area. Large cork branches or Mopani Wood can be placed partially in the water to create basking areas. Be sure that branches are secure as these lizards love to climb and dig and they may knock over unsecured cage decorations.
Caiman Lizard Lighting and Temperature
Caiman lizards are tropical animals that require warm temperatures year round in order to thrive. Daytime ambient temperatures should be maintained between 80 and 90 degrees Fahrenheit with a basking area of 100 degrees or higher. Night time temperatures may drop but should not fall below 75 degrees. There are several different heating elements that may be used to maintain the proper thermal gradient in a Caiman lizard enclosure. A halogen spot lamp can be used to provide the basking area. These bulbs burn hotter than standard basking lamps which can be very helpful when working with a large enclosure.
These lizards will spend a good portion of their day basking, so choose a branch that is able to safely and comfortably hold the animal’s weight. If more than one lizard is to be kept in an enclosure, provide multiple basking areas to prevent competition over basking resources. Additional heating elements such as ceramic heat emitters and nocturnal infrared heat lamps may be used to provide supplemental heat when necessary. These animals can be active swimmers, so it is important to protect heat lamps from splashes or to use a splash proof lamp.
While little is actually known about the UVB requirements of these animals, providing UVB is highly recommended. For many reptiles, proper exposure to UVB lighting allows animals to manufacture their own vitamin D3 which is essential for calcium metabolism. Access to proper UVB lighting can, in turn, help prevent and even reverse metabolic bone disease (MBD) in many reptiles. Another important part of the light spectrum is UVA which promotes natural behaviors such as feeding and breeding. In order to maintain healthy Caiman lizards, a 12-14 hour daylight period with access to UVA, UVB and full spectrum visible daylight should be provided. Use a Reptisun® or Powersun® UV to provide UVB, UVA and visible daylight. Use of a timer will automatically control lights to supply a consistent 12-14 hour photoperiod.
Caiman Lizard Substrate
On the land side of the enclosure, several different substrates may be appropriate. A combination that contains cypress mulch, one of the reptile manufacturer’s earth substrate, and clean sand can help maintain high, tropical humidity and allow for some natural digging behaviors.
Caiman Lizard Diet and Feeding :
Caiman lizards are known for their specialized diet of aquatic snails, but they will also take in other food items as well. In captivity these lizards will eat a varied diet that includes canned snails for reptiles, canned shrimp, superworms, crickets, and canned Tegu and monitor food. Fruits such as kiwi, banana, mango, papaya and, red banana can be offered as well. Supplement the diet weekly with a reptile multi vitamin and twice a week with reptile calcium supplement. Food can be offered in a dish but some lizards will happily take it from feeding tongs as well.
Caiman Lizard Water and Humidity :
A large water area should be provided for these lizards. They are excellent swimmers and divers and should be able to fully submerse themselves in their water. A minimum water depth of 12” should be provided for adults to practice natural swimming behaviors. For young Caiman lizards, a pan or tub of water can be provided but should be deep enough for the lizard to go completely under the water. These tropical animals will appreciate water kept between 75 and 85 degrees. A submersible aquarium heater may be used to keep water warm.
Caiman Lizards can be messy eaters and will produce large amounts of waste that will usually end up in the water. A large, high quality aquarium filter can help keep water clean but probably will not eliminate the need for frequent water changes. Aquarium gravel is not recommended in the water area as it can be accidentally ingested and could potentially cause gastro-intestinal impaction. To create a naturalistic looking enclosure, large river stones (too large to fit in the animal’s mouth) may be used in the water area, however, waste and food articles may become trapped between them and foul the water more quickly. A bare bottomed water area for these animals is safe and the easiest to maintain.
Humidity levels for Caiman Lizards should be maintained between 60 and 80%. Use of substrates such as Forest Floor, Eco Earth, and mosses will help can help accomplish this. In a solid enclosure, such as glass, high humidity levels are easy to maintain, however, as a Caiman Lizard grows to its maximum potential, a glass terrarium will hardly be appropriate. Mist the terrarium daily to achieve the required moisture level. An automatic misting system can be greatly beneficial for those who are not able to constantly monitor humidity levels. A water source with a large surface area and the addition of live plants can also help to increase humidity.
Caiman Lizard Handling and Temperament
Although Caiman lizards are not naturally aggressive, they may take some training to become handleable. These animals seem to be very smart and learn quickly. Some keepers have had success with target training their Caiman lizards to assist in handling. With regular handling some individuals can become quite tame while others may never really learn to enjoy being held.
2- Updated Caiman Lizard caresheet
So first off what is a Caiman Lizard? Caiman lizards are a large bodied lizard from South America. Males can be 4 to 5 feet in length and females ranging from 3 to 4 feet, weights range from 8 to 12lbs. From the neck down they resemble the caiman, their name sake; with boney scout scales down the back and a flatted tail they look more like a caiman than their cousins the tegu. Their body can range from teal green to lime to a rich dark green while the head is orange to red in color. They have a blunt nose and a large base to their head to help house the jaw muscles. They have a clear third eyelid that act like goggles underwater. Even there nostrils are designed for an aquatic lifestyle, they are placed on top of the nose and have hinge like valves to prevent water from getting in. They have strong, short limbs that are tucked close to the body when swimming but also can be used for climbing and digging. Despite being adapted at swimming caiman lizards are just as home in the trees as they are in the water. They use those strong arm muscles and sharp claws and can easily scale up most tree trunks.
Caiman lizards are found around the Amazon basin in South America. They are simi-aquatic, often seen basking on branches over hanging a pool of water. This allows for a fast get away, if in danger the caiman lizard will simple drop into the water and swim or dive to safety. It has adapted to have a specialized diet consisting of fresh water invertebrates, fish and mollusk; most famously are fresh water snails. Those large jaw muscles and blunted back molars are special designed for cracking even the largest fresh water snail shell.
Although now becoming very popular as pets and zoo animals, very little is known about their wild habits. What is known about their care and breeding comes from the leather industry. Once wildly collected through its home range, the caiman lizard is now protected. In order to still supply the leather trades with the demand for caiman lizard skins, farming operations were created. These farms produce thousands of animals each year for the trade. It’s only now that there is a high enough demand that they are being exported alive for the pet trade. These are CITES I animals and require special paper work to import into the US. Once in the states no further paper work is needed to ship across state lines. With the animals being farmed or captive born in their home country they are legally allowed to be exported out of the country because they are not depleting the wild population.
People are starting to have more luck with captive breeding in the US. These lizards have gone from a reptile only suitable for the most experience of zoos to something a season reptile keeper can now own and even have luck with breeding.
Is a Caiman Lizard right for you?
Caiman lizards have a bad reputation for being hard to keep in captivity. This was true for wild caught animals. Often times they would arrived infested with parasites, would not take food other than live snails and would later die from starvation or malnutrition. The caiman lizards found on the market today are farmed animals, very similar to the green iguana. They are shipped at a young age which allows importers to adjust them from a 100% snail diet to a varied diet. This along with some major adjustments in reptile husbandry over the last few decades has made caiman lizard ownership much easier.
That being said these lizards are not for everyone. Due to their large size, powerful jaws and sharp claws this is not a good starter lizard. They also have special requirements in diet, humidity, caging and lighting that does not make them a great choice for younger hobbyist. It’s best to have some large reptile experience under your belt before getting into these guys. I have always recommend reptiles like: bearded dragons, leopard geckos or corn snakes as a great first reptiles. Leopard geckos and corn snakes are great starters as they require very little in the way of special set-ups and often are tolerant of owner mistakes. Bearded dragons are great as a beginner reptile even though they require more in the way of setting up. The reason why is because so much is known about bearded dragons, there are thousands kept in the US as pets and almost all health and husbandry issues can be addressed with a simple internet search or calling down to your local reptile store. Once you get out of the realm of the standard reptile, like the bearded dragon, and into the more exotic, like the caiman lizard, you have to start trouble shooting on your own, very little is known about them and this guide can only address what has been found out via trial and error.
Not only is there little to nothing really known about keeping these guys, there is also the size factor. As babies they are only 10 to 15 inches long, mostly tail at that point. By the end of a year they are over 2 feet in length, by the third year they are almost full size at 3 to 5 feet in length. Unlike monitors, they are 100-150% tail, making them stocky in the way of lizards. They are heavy bodied so their cage needs to strong enough to hold them. They are also amazing climbers, diggers and swimmers; all these elements need to be combined to create a suitable housing situation.
For the experienced keeper with the time, resources and understanding these make great lizards. There intelligence and tameness when cared for right is on par with their cousins the tegu. They are rewarding animals and they give back just as much as you put into them.
Before bringing home a caiman lizard
So you really want a caiman lizard still? Ok let’s go through what you need to know and what you need set-up before you bring home your caiman lizard. The most important thing before bringing home any reptile is research. For these guys there is little known about their captive care. This means you will have to do more than a simple internet search. Join message boards where there are other caiman lizard keepers. There is no forum dedicated to just caiman lizards at the moment but places like monitor, tegu and iguana forums seem to have one or two members that keep them. Once you find one ask them questions, at this stage in the game many owners already have a set answer to many basic questions (well at least I do) and they will be happy to answer any questions you may have. Keep in mind they most likely do this as a hobby and don’t have time to answer every little thing there is about caiman lizards, ask direct questions that you may have after reading through this.
Ask yourself a few basic questions that any person wanting to bring in any new pet should answer before getting an animal:
Do I have the resources for the new animal? Most of the time people think resources in the way of money. Will you being willing to spend hundreds on a large cage, buy the specialized diet, vet cost, the cost of the animal it’s self? Space is another resource that people don’t think about. If you are in a studio apartment where you bed does not even fit then maybe a leopard gecko or cat would be a better choice. These guys when full grown can easily need an 8 foot cage. The last resource is time. Many people look at this as the daily time commitment, will I be able to do the daily or weekly requirements? Also think that it’s thought they can live 10 plus years, as more and more is known from these guys I am positive the life expectance will increase, their cousin the tegu can live 15+ years when well taken care of. We cannot predict everything that is going to happen in our lives (I got my tegu when in college with a game plan to settle down with a steady job after college, well a brake up later I found myself in Arkansas far from my home state of California) so not everything can be planned out but there are some things that are known. If you are about to go off to college, a planned move, marriage, birth of a child or other such life changes, you may want to hold on a few years before getting a caiman lizard.
Next ask yourself do I want to dedicate these resources to a lizard? For a true reptile hobbyist this is the simplest answer. I have met people at expose who sleep in the living room because they have converted their bedrooms into amazing habitats for their animals. I am one of those people if I have the extra resources I want to use them on my animals, but I know not everyone is that way, and with reptiles they will not notice if their owners do not buy them a 60” flat screen. That being said anything lacking in their basic care will negatively affect their health and well being. Not having money to buy that new UV bulb might put your lizard in jeopardy of metabolic bone disease. So even if you have the time, space and money for a caiman lizard do you really want to use them on a lizard?
Are you ready for heartache? I don’t know why this is never in any reptile manual I read. Reptiles are hardy animals but often fall victim to husbandry issues. Something as simple as the thermostat did not kick on late at night in the middle of winter can easily kill off a caiman lizard. House fires can start even in well design enclosures. Truth is many reptiles die off each year, even when set-up right and everything is done as best as possible. This is a real possibility and the chance increase even more with wild caught or imported animals. Another heartache might be the fact that your caiman lizard might not be like the stories you hear. I will mention a lot about my first caiman lizard, Bacardi, who was like a puppy dog, others have caiman lizards who will never let anyone near them, you have to remember that each lizard is their own individual.
The last question I want you to ask yourself is why. Why do you want a lizard, let alone a caiman lizard? They get big, they can smell bad, they are cold blooded, they have special diets and set-ups, why would you want something that requires that much work? This question is not to deter you from getting one, I love mine personally, but it’s make sure that this is not an impulse buy. Due to how expensive they are, very few people buy these on impulse, but at expos people see them as cute little foot long hatchlings. It’s sad because a month after expos I will be on sites like fauna, kingsnake and good old craigslist and I will see all sorts of reptiles that people bought at the shows that they can no longer take care of.
If after answering all that you are still willing to go for it the read on.
There is an urban legion out there that says a reptile will only grow to the size of its environment, much like a fish in a bowl. Even fish will outgrow their bowl and same with reptiles. Look at the natural world, one of the largest lizards, the Komodo dragon, lives on an island and yet it grows larger than lizards that live on continents. Having a cage that is too small will only cause unhealthy deformities, normally in the spine.
For a young caiman lizard under the age of a year, a 55 gallon tank will be fine for awhile. It will be tempting to use a turtle set up for caiman lizards, with an all water set up with a small bank or floating dock. These are not fully aquatic reptiles; they are found on the bank and remember they are at home in the branches as much as in the water. Another problem is filtration; the water current cannot be too strong, they like slow moving or non moving pools. The best and easiest set-up to maintain is to have a pool that can easily be removed, dumped and cleaned. I use a galvanized livestock pan from the feed store. It cost around $8, it’s ridged so it’s easy to remove and it’s very durable. Clear Rubbermaid containers can also be used and allows you to watch as the lizard dives and swims. Hatchlings to yearlings do not need a deep pool, just enough to completely submerge in. The pool should be roughly 1/3 to 1/2 the size of the cage, this will aid in keeping the humidity up. The pool should be heated but not too warm, 78 degrees is a good temp. At this temperature in the summer can act as a place for them to cool down while in the winter it can be a warm place at night. Another good reason for 78 degrees is a lot of tropical fish heaters are preset to have a 78 degree thermostat. It was a small 25 watt heater that saved my first caiman lizard from freezing to death. A winter storm caused the ferniest to go out, the thermostat on the reptile cage was not prepared for the low drop in temperature, the water heater on the other hand just kicked on when the water got cool. I woke up to the house temperature being in the 40’s and my caiman lizard curled up along the water heater, he was alive but not happy. A 25 watt submergible heater will heat a 10 gallon tub nicely and is easy on the wallet as well.
The rest of the cage should have substrate; I use cypress mulch but repti-bark, eco-earth, coconut husk or any reptile safe bedding can be used. Woody beddings work best as they hold moister better. You will find keeping the humidity up in the cage will be the hardest battle. Avoid things like pine shavings or small animal bedding as the humidity in the cage will cause these to mold. Carpet can be used; you might need to add a humidifier to the cage.
Furniture for the cage can be as fun as you want to make it. Caiman lizards love to climb, I use lots of sandblasted grape vine and Manzanita to create climbing structures throughout the cage, and I even have some in the pool. Home grown branches can also be used, make sure to disinfect either by baking in the oven or with a 1:10 bleach solution which is thoroughly rinsed and left to dry out in the sun for two days. Make sure all branches are secured so not to fall on top of the lizard. Hide boxes or caves should be provided. Hiding places will help a young caiman lizard feel comfortable in a new home. I used small rubbermaids (not the clear kind) with a hole cut in the side. Filling these with moss makes it a nice humid shelter to avoid preying eyes. I have one on the warm side and one on the cool side. PVC pipe can also be used to create tunnels. Other things can be used like magnetic ledges and reptile hammocks can also be used. My first one loved a reptile hammock that would suction cup to the glass; that is until it no longer held his weight. Live plants can be added but be prepared to replace them often. Caiman lizards like to dig and climb over plants so they may get torn up.
Lighting is another important element to taking care of these guys. Although it’s unknown how important UVB is for caiman lizards, through my own observations I have noticed caiman lizard with a good UVB bulb tend to have a better appetite. I would give brands the bulb types however this will depend on your set-up, what companies are available and new developments. This is another reason to join an online or local reptile community. Asking other reptile keepers is better than the people at pet stores as they are not making money based on what you are buying. Some people might have different preference in bulbs as well. Me and my herp vet always get into an agreement what type of bulb I should be using. I use one type and he uses a different kind, we both get good results mainly due to the fact I have a different set-up. With UVB aside, a basking bulb is needed to create a basking spot of 120F to 130F degrees. This is the surface temp of the area directly below the bulb were the spot light is created, not the ambient temperature. Ambient temperature or the “room” temperature inside the cage should be done in a gradient. The spot light should be located on the side of the cage furthest from the water.
Heating can be done solely with a spot light and water heater in small cages but in cooler areas and large cages other heat might be needed. Day time temperatures should be 90 to 80F on the warm and cool side and should not drop below 75 at night. Supplemental heating can be done with ceramic heaters or over head heat panels. I would avoid heating pads as they do not heat well when there is a lot of bedding down and the humidity of the ground could affect how well they work. Heat rocks often times can burn animals that are use to the heat coming from above and the water from a pool could cause these to malfunction.
Humidity should be kept 60 to 80%. An aquarium with a wired screen top will lose humidity quickly, however there is a cheap and easy modification that will help. Depending on how handy you are; plexi glass can be used to cover roughly ¾ of the tank top, this can also be done with taping a trash/plastic bag over the top or even draping a towel over part of the lid. Make sure to leave enough room away from the lighting to prevent the plexi glass/bag/towel from catching on fire. A daily misting will help keep things moist. The early mention of a hide box will also allow for a place of high humidity if getting the whole cage humid is not working. A humidifier from the local health store (usually $25 to $30) can be modified with some tubing from the hardware store to pump humid air into the cage directly. Using this method you only have to run the humidifier maybe an hour or so a day, this will depend on your set-up.
As caiman lizards get older and bigger a bigger cages and furniture is needed. All the requirements for temperature, humidity and lighting are the same, just more room is needed. The verdict is still out on how big a caiman lizard really needs. What is known is the cage needs to be tall, hold humidity and keep heat in. Taking a page from the tegu lizard care, I would recommend a cage roughly 4 ft wide by 8 feet long by 5 feet high. This will allow for a bigger pool, taller climb structures and more room for a larger lizard.
An adult cage will most likely have to be custom built. There are many new reptile cages on the market and many offer customization. Due to the pool that will be needed make sure that the bottom of the cage is flushed with the ground so that the weight is supported by the floor and not the cage itself. Filtration will be close to impossible at this point and better to make sure the pool has a drain for easy cleaning. Again I turn to stock tanks for an answer, most have spigots build in and they are sturdy and easy to keep clean. Another option is cement mixing tubs at the local hardware stores, they are cheap (under $20) and easy to clean. Due to the pool many people keep them outside and have had great luck. Places like Florida have the high humidity and temperature that are needed, other places will have to add heat sources to make this work.
Picking a healthy caiman lizard
When you are able to see and examine the animal is always best. Check to make sure the eyes are clear and open. Make sure the animal is active, young caiman lizards will often make a huffing and puffing noise when first picked up, a tail whip is not unusual either. The nose should be clear with no crusting around the nostrils or mouth. They should have a plumb tail at the base and the hip bones should not be showing. A full belly is a good indication that the lizard is eating. Avoid animals that have eyes closed, are lethargic or seem skinny. It may be tempting to save a sick animal but this can end up ending badly.
With these guys still being uncommon there is a better chance you will buy online and having them shipped. Go with a dealer that has good references on customer care, make sure they have been around for a few years and most importantly get them on the phone. Calling the place on the phone will allow to talk to a live person and ask questions about the animal: what are the eating, what is your set-up, how old are they, how long are they? These are all important things to ask that can help you make a good choice in animals. From a transaction stand point, make sure this is done via email, this will make things like a guarantee easier to prove when it’s in writing.
When the animal first arrives make sure to take pictures of packing and the outside of the box, take note of the outside temperature when the animal arrived. It is not unusual for tame animals to become defensive after shipping so take care when opening the packaging, also animals may be cool to the touch if not heating pack was in with the animal. Quickly check to make sure the animal is alert, eyes and nose are clear, weight looks good and for any exoparasites such as mites. I always snap some pictures of the animal when it arrives, this way if something is wrong I can send the pictures back to the seller. Once your are satisfied that your new arrival looks health place them in the cage that you have set-up before the caiman lizard arrives. Make sure that the cage is not in the same room as other reptiles, you are going to want to quarantine any new arrival to your house, that way you do not spread anything to your collection. More on proper quarantine procedures in the health section.
Let the new caiman lizard have a few weeks to adjust, offer the same food they seller was using and in the same method. So if they were feeding cat food from a spoon, try to keep up that routine, most of the time lizards will take food from a bowl so that method can also be used in case the lizard is shy.
The first year
What to expect your first year, lots and lots of work. These guys are a labor of love. They can have great personalities and their looks just seem to get better and better with age. Within the first year expect your caiman lizard to double in size, often reaching two feet by the time they are one years old. They will have outgrown their 55 gallon tank and a 4 foot cage or their adult cage should be ready.
At a year males and females are easier to tell a part. Males will have a shorter head then females but it will be wider at the base. The base of the tail is thicker on males and there are three scales that raise up to create a bump the size of a bb. Most owners will know by now if they are male or female as males will often expel their hemipenis when defecating in the water.
There personality at this age will depend highly on how much work you put into your caiman lizard. Some will be calm enough to be picked up and held and others will still be lunging and biting. What really changes at this time when it comes to handling is their size. A larger lizard with a bigger mouth and longer claws, they can do some major damage by this age. As with most lizards however, with sizes comes confidence. Getting bigger will help with the taming process.
For the first year food should be offered every day. Try to give them a varied diet, getting them to eat different things at a young age will help a lot when they are adults. They are more willing to take new things when young, as adults they tend not to branch out as often and this will limit your options. Also try different methods of feeding, from bowls to tongs getting your lizard use to different things will be helpful. Avoid hand feeding, you do not want a bite from one of these guys.
At around two years old expect you caiman lizard to be pushing the 3 and a half foot mark. They grow fast. At this point a four foot cage just will not do, its time to move them into the adult cage. It’s around 4 to 5 years old that they really hit their adult size and weight. The cage should have strong and secure climbing structures and high basking points. The pools should be at least a foot deep to allow for diving, if this is not possible then weekly swims in a suitable bath tub may work. Avoid using aquariums for adult pools, it will be tempting to use the old 55 gallon now but with their strong tails it’s a very real possibility the tank will break.
Food should be offered less frequently now. Also by this point new foods are not so easy to add to a diet. Most adults are feeding on 2 to 3 small meals a week.
Heating and lighting will not change. They should still be kept hot and UV should always be provided. As adults they are more tolerant of smaller temperature changes, but by no means are they cold tolerant at any point in life.
By three years old it is very easy to tell males and females apart, this is the age they are also sexually mature at. Although most won’t breed until there fourth year, people have noted breeding at 3 years of age. Males will have a big block head and be much larger than females at this time.
Diet and Supplementation
A healthy well adjust caiman lizard will often take a variety of foods. People have has success with: shrimp, fish (tilapia, salmon, Pollock, and others), can snails, frozen cooked snails, pinkies, cat food, commercial crocodile diet, hot dogs, ham, carnivore fish diet, ground turkey, eggs, crawfish, clams… the list is fairly long.
Just because they will eat it does not mean this should be in the caiman lizards diet. Out in the wild their diet is low in fat and is made up of mainly fresh water fish, gastropods and invertebrates. They are most famous for taking large apple snails. Looking at their natural diet and trying to mimic that in captivity is hard. Most live snails in the fish store are loaded with parasites and are not intended as food. Growing your own is an option but that can get expense and will have to be started before you get your caiman lizard. Its best to avoid processed meats like ham and hotdogs there are seasonings in these kinds of meat and not to mention they are not the healthiest even for people. Keep to fresh or frozen human grade foods, this will make sure they are safe to eat for human and lizard alike. As for what to feed try to keep to as many natural foods as possible but keep in mind that variety will make sure that nothing is missing from the diet.
When you first get your caiman lizard try to keep it on the same diet it’s been on when at the store, this will help with adjustment. Once you are confident that your lizard is eating trying branching out and see what else they are willing to eat. Getting a young caiman to try new foods will help as they get older to be less picky about what they eat.
Try offering foods in different ways as well. A bowl should be a stable way of giving food, especially to a new arrival. However my first caiman lizard did not figure the bowl out right away, he had been fed using a paper plate and tong fed at the store. Turned out the tong feeding was a blessing in degiuse. He would happily put anything in his mouth if it came off the feeding tongs. This meant introducing new food was pretty easy. Older caiman lizards may enjoy searching for their food. I would submerge a few snails in the bottom of the pool and he would go looking for them. It provided some good metal work out for him.
I add reptile calcium to everything for all my reptiles. I do not use D3 as the amount needed for a healthy reptile is not known. Adding extra calcium along with providing a good quality UVB lighting will allow the lizard to absorb as much or as little calcium as needed.
Live snails? Some people will feed their caiman lizards live snails. This can be rewarding to the lizard but make sure to get a safe source for live snails. Most in the fish stores are loaded with parasites and sometimes flukes depending on location. Most of the parasites in live snails are harmless to fish as the fish do not eat the snails (there are a few species that will eat snails). If you plan to go this route find someone supplying feeder snails or grow your own. Buy a few snails from the pet store and make sure to put them in a clean well filtered and well panted tank. Once eggs are laid move them into a different tank, the offspring will not carry parasites and by hatching and raising them in a separate system than the adults will help prevent them from getting anything. Another method is to heat the tank to warm enough to complete the parasite life cycle. Do not treat any snails with fish medication if you intend to feed them to your lizard.
I only add this because I have been asked if these lizards hibernate like tegus do. The answer is no, which means you get to keep working with your lizard all year long.
Like any reptile, most health issues arise due to something lacking the husbandry. I am going to go over some the common issues with this species, as you will see most are due to set-up and not illness.
Anorexia – I get a lot of people asking how to get their caiman lizard eating. If it’s a fresh import I always ask if the store got the lizard to eat. This is important to know before buying any animal. Getting an animal that is well adjusted and eating already will save a lot of heartache. Next thing to think about is how warm or hot is your cage. Young caiman lizards love it hot. I do not mean as basking spot of 100 or 110, I mean a hot basking temp of 120 to 130. Often time when kept too cold these guys will not eat. Checking your basking spot and make sure the temps are good. What is the humidity, they like it high (60 to 80%) this will help with any dehydration issues, they may soak in the pool but when they are basking they want the cage to be humid. Increase the humidity and see if that helps. Make sure your reptile is getting UV this helps stimulate feeding. You may have a great UV bulb but is it too far away from the animal or is it behind glass and screen? Doing so will make it useless to the animal. Another thing to check is what are you offering and how often. With a new caiman lizard it will take time for them to get use to you and their new surroundings. Offer a variety of foods (not mixed together) and block any outside stimuli, I put a towel over the glass front of my cage. You are going to have to give them time to adjust. It could take 3 to 7 days to get a caiman lizard to start eating. Checking the above gets about 90% of young caiman lizards eating. Sometimes it’s not a husbandry issue at all but a health issue. You need to get the lizard to a vet and take a fecal if possible. Worms and parasites are high possibilities with these guys. I de-worm all my animals when they first come in. There is a whole section of parasites later.
Lethargy – why is my caiman lizard not moving around so much? Or why is he always in the tub? See the above section. Most of the time it’s because the cage is too cold or the humidity is too low. Remember keep them hot and keep the moist.
Stuck shed – Unlike snakes and some lizards Caiman lizards tend to shed in sections this is especially true as they get bigger. If sheds are retained from shed after shed, especially around the legs and toes, increase the humidity and do soakings ones a day. You might have to use vegetable oil with a q-tip and apply to the affected areas. Stuck shed on the body will most likely come off with the next shed.
Eye infections – these are not too common with these guys unless the water is allowed to get dirty. Change the water daily to make sure that the water is clean. Signs of an eye infection is reddening of the eye, scratching or itching the eye, keeping both eyelids closed on the same eye, and using only one eye. A herp vet should be seen to get the right eye drops, and temporary removal of the pool might be needed to make sure that the antibiotic can work. Administering the drops should be done with care as they will often pull their clear eyelid over the eye to prevent the drops from going into the eye, the drops have to go to the eye otherwise they will not work.
Ear infections – being aquatic this is possible. A bulge will be noted just behind and under the ear of the lizard. The lizard might scratch at it or rub their face against things as it they are irritated. A head tilt is not normal for a basic ear infection. Ear infections have to be seen by a vet, most of the time the vet will have to aspirate (make a small hole to drain the infection) just below the ear. Antibiotics will be sent home to combat any infection left over. Again the pool should be removed to allow the open wound to heal.
Parasites – this is a very big section for these guys. As captive bred animals start to come on the market more and more this will solve some problems. There are a few parasites that come to mind that I will talk about. Intestinal worms are the most common. The live in the gut and will often cause animals to go off their food, even animals that are eating may not gain weight or have a slow growth. Every time the lizards eat they are feeding the worms and as long as the worms are fed whatever they do not eat the lizard gets. Eventually the worm population in the gut gets too much for the lizard to manage. Dewormer can be bought at most herp or feed stores however dosage requires a knowledge of the animals weight and all vets I have consulted could not give me a good dosage chart for these guys. Deworming a healthy animal (an animal that does not have worms) will not hurt them so it’s a good thing to do with each import animal. Intestinal worms are the most common, caiman lizards really do not have too much issue with exo-parasites like ticks or mites, they have a thick skin and spend time in and out of the water that no parasite really can survive. If ticks or mites are noted get a reptile safe rite-a-mite (this will work on ticks too ticks and mites are in the same family). A caiman lizard with ticks and mites should be watched to make sure there is nothing else wrong. The last parasite I will mention is a bacterial blood infection. This is brought on by poor quality and has some serious repercussions. The infection will first cause lethargy in the animal, appetite will drop off and behavior may change. Advance stages are easy to recognize but by the time they present its normally too late to save the animal. Advance stages end with organ failure and brain infection; signs are a head tilt, curling of the body, eyes closed, spasms, paralysis (this can often kill the lizard on its own if it hits the lungs or heart) and finally death. I have had the unfortunate luck to watch as my first caiman lizard die from this. I was shocked to hear from the vet that he had seen three other caiman lizards with the same thing that year. From talking to him its sounds like a water quality issue, my filtration system had some major issue that I did not know about until going home and checking everything over. If you find your lizard presenting with a head tilt take it to the vet right away, there are other things like an inner ear infection or vestibular disease that are treatable. If a brain infection is thought to be the cause then an anti-biotic that can cross the blood brain barrier is needed. Keep in mind once the spasms and paralysis has set in permanent neurological and brain damage has already occurred.
Cuts and Wounds – most small wounds should heal fine on their own, keep the water clean and make sure to monitor and small cuts for infection. A dropped tail will scale over fast at the tip and should also not be too much of a concern. Any deep cut or puncture wound should be well cleaned and flushed; the pool should be removed and a shallow wading dish used instead. Deep wounds and puncture wounds can trap infection deep down in the wound, a vet really should look any of those types of wounds.
Your Caiman Lizard and You
Many people now a day’s love to have a reptile that they can handle, while others prefer to have a nice looking display animal for custom vivariums. The caiman lizard is a perfect match for either keeper. With time and work, caiman lizards do calm down to make great pet lizards.
With lizards it’s not about taming them down its more about building trust with your caiman lizard. Allow them to adjust to their new cage, it will be tempting to handle them and start the process as soon as possible, but by leaving them alone you are starting the trust building process. Letting them see you walking by their cage over and over will allow them to start learning that you are not a threat. Once your lizard starts to calm down and does not mind your presence near the cage stay longer at the front of the cage, at this stage its fine to open the cage and place your hand in the cage. Most young lizards might start arching and huffing at your closeness, this is fine back away a little and allow them to calm down. Once the huffing and running away stops it’s time to move on to handling.
Holding and petting should be limited at first, only 5 to 10 minutes to start with. Once they seem comfortable with this handling increase the amount slowly. Caiman lizards tend to calm down quickly once they are in hand. Wear a long sleeve shirt, this serves a few purposes. One it protects you from the sharp nails; you do not want to wince or move when your caiman lizard is on you this will make the lizard nervous. The fabric will allow them to dig into the sleeve and feel more comfortable. Our skin is smooth and they really do not get a lot of traction, so by having the sleeves it helps them feel they that have a better grip.
To really build up trust try laying in an empty bath tub with your lizard and let them crawl over you, this will let the lizard realize you are not a threat and can be fun to climb on. I put a towel down to allow for better traction so the lizard can get around better.
Remember that it takes time to build up a trusting relationship. If it seems like you are not making progress keep with it and remember take it slow. Some animals will be coming from large warehouses where people are not a normal thing for them.
I highly recommend that once you get your caiman lizard use to being handled get them use to their toes getting touched. Touching the toes will get them use to them being messed with and in the long run this can lead to you being able to trim their nails. Their nails are sharp and trimming them will allow for more positive interactions.
BEYOND THE BASICS :
Free roaming :
With these guys getting over 4 feet many people would love to let them free roam a house. In this regards they are very different to tegus in they prefer to be up high rather than on the ground. They would prefer to find a place that is high and in a basking spot and may stay there for hours. All the caiman lizards I have had loved to be taken out on the deck and placed on an old bid perch and just bask in the warm sun. When allowed to free roam they often will find a basking spot and stay there.
As with any reptile and free roaming make sure the room is reptile safe. Remove anything that can easily fall and crush an animal like boxes balanced on one another. Block any areas that not easily accessible to you things like holes were floor board and dry wall meat, heavy desk with gaps underneath, lose window fittings, etc. Make sure the room does not have a draft and the AC is not blaring.
Anytime the animal is allowed to free roam outside of its cage make sure to keep an eye on them. Free roaming is not a trade off for a cage or lack of cage space, it’s more of an enrichment for the animal. I would highly recommend that people do not try and let them free roam as a substitution for a well set-up space-ish cage. There need for hot temperatures, intolerance of cold snaps and high humidity would make it impossible to replicate in a normal house. There have been people who make some amazing green houses inside the homes.
If reptile proofing seems too hard try harness and leash training. I do this so they can go outside without the fear of them running off and me not being able to catch them. This should only be attempted once the animal has tolerated regular handling.
Caiman lizard do calm down a lot with age and this is why I add this section. Even at 2 feet and one year old they seem to have a disposition that could teach people the importance of reptiles. Their bright color and un-treating looks makes them a great tool to get people into reptiles. Many people will never see one of these amazing lizards in life so it’s a rare opportunity. Education via reptiles seems to be a growing trend and should only be done by someone with years of handling reptiles. One bad experience with a reptile is all it takes to turn someone off of them for good. The reptile community has some bad press the last thing we want are more people who believe reptiles are evil animals. Just because you have a caiman lizard that is amazing at home, really think about would really be needed to run an education show.
This is the next big chapter in these lizard future, and I am personally excited to see that breeding is happening right here in the US. Breeding right now seem spontaneous, there is not too many who have been successful yet.
Although I have never had the luck to breed caiman lizards and I am still working on growing my first caiman lizard from hatchling to adult; I have worked with all age ranges of caiman lizard. I am a hobby keeper of reptiles and have been for over 15 years. For the last 6 I have spent focusing on tegus. I got into caiman lizards after seeing one at the local zoo and thinking the amazing cage set up I could make. When I first saw their price drop from $2000 each to something a hobby keeper could afford, I thought why not give it a try. I lost my first caiman lizard to a brain infection, I had him for two years in that time he got me hooked. While I worked primarily with that lizard I got others from people who were overwhelmed by their new pets. I learned a lot from those animals and from consulting others who have been keeping them. Most of the info above is from talking to others and through my own personal experiences. There could be a whole book written on these guys and their care, I tried to get what I thought was important into this short (although now 14 pages of text long) care sheet.
Last thing I want to stress is listen to the animal. Each animal is different. I say basking spots of 120 but some might like it at 115 and some at 140. You lizard will let you know what it likes, if they are constantly under the lights then maybe it’s too cold if they are panting then they are too hot. Some lizards will eat Mazuri other will not, it’s the luck of the draw. Remember that although many calm down and are easy going, some may never want to be handled. All reptiles should be considered wild in behavior, don’t get the animal with expectations that its going to be a puppy dog, if you want an animal that acts like a puppy get a puppy. If an animal turns out not how you wanted to not throw it away or dumb it in the local wildlife area. Remember caiman lizards are thought to live well past 10 years old, with an increase in knowledge and herp veterinary practice the live span might go up. This animal will need you to take care of it for its whole life.
Quick Care Sheet:
Size: 3 to 5 feet
Live expectancy: unknown thought to be 10+ years
Home range: South American, Amazon Basin
Basking Temp: 120 to 130 F
Ambient temp: 80 to 90 F
Night temp: 75 to 80 F
Water temp: 78 to 82 F
Diet: Snails, fish, crab, crawfish, shrimp and invertebrates; in captivity they will take: rat pups, ground turkey, cat food, Mazuri croc diet, fresh fish, shrimp, crab, snails (canned and frozen), and some will even take fruits.
Recommended for experience keepers
Filtration: low flow, best to have pool that can easily emptied and cleaned