Dracaena guianensis / Dracaena paraguayensis
They inhabit rainforest, flooded forests and woodlands, mangroves and swampland areas. They are both aquatic and terrestrial animals but usually never found far from water. Spending most of their time resting on roots or branches overhanging the water during the day, hiding in bushes and trees during the night.
The caiman lizard can reach up to 4 ft (1.2 m) in length and weigh up to 10 lb (4.5 kg). Like their cousin the tegu lizard, they have a large stout and muscular body with short, powerful limbs and long laterally compressed tail.
Their body is covered with large, heavy dorsal scales which resemble those of crocodiles, hence the species common name "caiman" lizard, since caimans are a type of crocodilian.
The northern caiman lizard (Dracaena guianensis) has a bulky head covered in the characteristic reddish or orange color, the body is green. The reddish colored head is much more prominent in males. While the Paraguayan caiman lizard (Dracaena paraguayensis) is not as colorful, with more of a grayish body and head.
Their laterally flattened tail helps them swim, but it can also be used to defend itself from predators. They possess a third eyelid which enables them to have a clear vision underwater.
When threatened, they will drop into the water and quickly swim away from danger. But if escape isn't possible it becomes aggressive and bites or deliver a powerful blow with its whip-like tail.
The caiman lizard has several natural predators including jaguars, large snakes like the green anaconda (Eunectes murinus) and crocodiles. Their top speed is about 10 mph (16 km/h).
They can probably live up to 10 years in the wild and 8 to 12 years while in captivity. The species is poorly studied in the wild and much of our knowledge about them comes from captive animals kept in zoos and aquariums, as well as hobbyists.
Species / Etymology / Taxonomy
The species Dracaena guianensis was first described in 1802 by François Daudin a French zoologist. The genus name is the Latin noun Dracaena which usually means dragon or less commonly, lizard. The species epithet guianensis means "from the French Guiana (Guyana)", in a reference to their native distribution.
There are 2 species of caiman lizards currently recognized.
Northern caiman lizard or Guyana caiman lizard (Dracaena guianensis - Daudin, 1802) - Found in Brazil, Colombia, Peru, Ecuador and the Guianas.
Paraguay caiman lizard (Dracaena paraguayensis - Amaral, 1950) - Found in Paraguay, Bolivia (Santa Cruz) and Brazil's Mato Grosso.
Diet / Feeding
The caiman lizard is a large carnivorous predator that hunts and eats other animals. They use their bifurcated tongue to help them detect prey by the sense of smell.
Their diet in the wild is somewhat limited as they feed almost entirely of large freshwater snails like apple snails.
But they will eat also clams, crabs, insects and on occasion some larger animals like amphibians, crawfish, fish and even mammals like rodents.
With its strong muscular jaws and super developed molar teeth, the caiman lizard easily crushes animal shells to get to the meat inside, spitting out the remains of the shell. Hatchlings and juveniles eat mostly insects at least until their jaws become strong enough to crush snails or mollusks.
The caiman lizard reproduction behavior in the wild is very little is known, it's believed that they behave like other large lizard species such as the Nile monitor (Varanus Niloticus).
The caiman lizard is an oviparous species. Soon after the mating season females lay their eggs in holes dug in riverbanks covering them with debris afterward for protection against predators.
The average clutch contains 8 to 10 eggs, which stay underground for a period of 5 to 6 months until they hatch. The caiman lizard hatchlings are completely independent from birth and no parental care is given to them.
Conservation status and main threats
In the past, it was heavily hunted and thousands of were killed each year for their skin, but they were protected in the 70's and exportations of their hides dropped. Nowadays farms provide captive-bred animals for the leather trade and in recent years some have been exported for the exotic pet trade.
Even though the caiman lizard isn't considered under immediate threat from extinction, their populations have been declining in some areas, mainly due to habitat loss mostly caused by deforestation and pollution. Wild populations are generally safer in areas where their habitat is protected.
The caiman lizard numbers in the wild are widely unknown and few studies have been done on the species in their natural habitat. The species has not yet been assessed for the IUCN Red List but is listed in Appendix II of CITES.