How to tell a caiman from a croc.

Answers to your questions about the news.
Oct. 8 2003 5:57 PM

What Giant Reptile Can You Own?

Still of caimain.
Close inspection of the nostrils reveals this to be a ...

A Siberian-Bengal tiger wasn't the only exotic creature living in Antoine Yates' Harlem apartment. During last Saturday's raid, authorities also seized a 5-foot reptile named Al. Press reports have variously referred to Al as an alligator, a crocodile, and a caiman. What's the difference between the three, and which label is correct?

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Judging by Al's reported size and the nature of the exotic-pets market, it's clear that the reptile is a caiman, most likely a Caiman crocodilus. Colloquially known as the spectacled caiman, after the bony ridges that encircle its eyes, the species is by far the most common crocodilian among those who keep such animals as household pets. Caimans belong to the same family as the American alligator (Alligator mississippiensis); they're more distantly related to crocodiles, which belong to a separate family under the order Crocodylia.

The spectacled caiman is found throughout Central and South America, while the American alligator is confined to the southeastern portion of the United States. The other most noticeable difference is size, as male caimans rarely exceed 7 feet in length; alligators, by contrast, regularly grow to double that size. Other distinctions are more subtle, such as the caiman's slightly pointier head and shorter tail.

The easiest way for laypersons to differentiate caimans and alligators from crocodiles is to examine snout shape. Crocodiles tend to have V-shaped noses, while those of caimans and alligators are more rounded and resemble U's. Also, the upper and lower jaws on crocodiles are of approximately equal length, so the razor-sharp fourth tooth on the lower jaw usually juts out menacingly. The upper jaws on caimans and alligators are oversized, so their bottom teeth get covered up when their mouths are closed. Crocodiles are rarely kept as pets, given their infamous mean streaks and their tendency to grow even larger than alligators. However, some brave souls have experimented with keeping African dwarf crocodiles.

Caimans are popular as pets because of their modest size, as well as the ease with which they can be smuggled into the United States from Central America, where they are abundant. A baby caiman can be purchased for less than $100 from some exotic-pet dealers. They are by no means docile, however, and their powerful bites can inflict serious damage. Laws vary from city to city, with some locales permitting caiman ownership, some regulating it with permits, and some banning it outright. The New York City health code specifically forbids keeping caimans as pets—along with tigers, bats, "all non-human primates," Komodo dragons, wolverines, Tasmanian devils, "all even-toed ungulates," polar bears, and dozens of other potentially dangerous animals.

Anyone interested in getting a caiman should keep in mind that the reptiles can live between 35 and 40 years in captivity. They also grow about a foot per year until reaching maturity between the ages of 4 to 7. Many caiman owners illegally release their pets after the first year or two upon realizing that the animals are no longer manageable once they hit the 2- or 3-foot mark.

Explainer thanks Dr. Adam Britton of Crocodilian.com.

Brendan I. Koerner is a contributing editor at Wired and a columnist for Gizmodo. His first book, Now the Hell Will Start, is out now.