What to Know About Caiman Lizards

Medically Reviewed by Vanesa Farmer, DVM on November 24, 2022
5 min read

Caiman lizards are lizards that live in South America. These are not to be confused with caimans, the alligator cousin that also lives in Central and South America. There are two species of caiman lizards, the more popular of which is the northern caiman lizard, likely due to its bright colors and wider habitation zone.

Caiman lizards, genus Dracaena, are semi-aquatic lizards that live in South America. This genus has two species: Dracaena guianensis, also called the northern caiman lizard and the Guyana caiman lizard, and Dracaena paraguayensis, commonly called the Paraguay caiman lizard.

Caiman lizards spend time on both land and water. They have a clear third eyelid that acts like goggles and lets them see underwater. They often respond to threats by fleeing into the water. They may also climb trees, as they’re excellent climbers. To help protect them from predators like crocodiles, jaguars, and snakes, they have horn-like scales along their backs.

Caiman lizards can vary in size from 2 to 4 feet (.6 to 1.3 meters). They can weigh up to 10 pounds.

Northern caiman lizards are green with shades of red and orange on their heads. Paraguay caiman lizards are usually found in shades of brown, gray, and tan.

Caiman lizards are native to South America. Northern caiman lizards live throughout northern South America in Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, and Peru. They may be on French Guiana as well. They tend to live in forests and wetlands. Paraguay caiman lizards can be found, as their name suggests, in Paraguay, but also in Brazil. They prefer a dryer climate.

Northern caiman lizards spend most of their time in the water or basking on branches near marshes, streams, and flooded woodlands. At night, they hide in trees and bushes.

In the wild, caiman lizards are carnivores and typically feast on invertebrates like snails. Northern caiman lizards will eat crawfish, freshwater clams, and even Amazon river turtles. Caiman lizards have incredibly powerful jaws with short, round teeth. They use their forked tongue to smell and locate prey. When a caiman lizard eats, it crushes its prey with its jaws and breaks apart the shell. It spits out the broken shell and continues to eat the soft body of its prey.

It’s unclear how long caiman lizards live in the wild, but in captivity, they often live at least 8 to 12 years.

Female caiman lizards usually lay five to seven fertilized eggs at a time and bury them in a hole in the riverbank. About six months later, the eggs hatch. The lizards are born independent and don’t need help from their mother.

At one time, caiman lizards were hunted for leather. Regulations were passed in the 1970s to stop this practice, and now some farms raise caiman lizards to supply leather. As a result, wild caiman lizard populations were able to stabilize.  

Caiman lizards today are at risk of habitat loss from both deforestation and pollution. Despite this, both species of caiman lizards are labeled as “least concern” by the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources Red List.

Caiman lizards can make great pets, but only for experienced reptile keepers. Their jaws are so strong that a bite will likely require stitches, and they could even tear your finger off. 

Habitat. Caiman lizards are too large to be kept in an aquarium. They need a large enclosure, at least 8 feet long by 3 feet wide and 4 feet high. Glass is not a safe option for the enclosures, as they can shatter glass by hitting it with their tails. 

Their enclosures need a water area, a dry area, and plenty of plants and branches for them to climb. The water area needs to be at least 1 foot deep and should take up one-third to one-half of the enclosure. If you have a filtration system, you can clean the water area a few times a week. If you don’t, you’ll need to clean it every day.

A caiman lizard’s enclosure needs both UVA and UVB light. Keep the lights next to each other to create your lizard’s basking area. Turn off the lights for at least eight hours every night to give your lizard the darkness it needs to sleep and rest. 

The basking area should be between 120°F and 130°F (48.9°C and 55°C). At night, your enclosure should be between 75°F and 80°F (24°C and 26.7°C), and you’ll need to use a heat source that doesn’t emit light. During the day, the enclosure needs a cooler side and a warmer side. The cooler side should be between 80°F and 85°F (26.7°C and 29.5°C), and the warmer side should be between 85°F and 90°F (29.5°C and 32°C).

The humidity in the enclosure needs to range from 60% to 80%. To keep the humidity high, consider a misting or foggy system and use a substrate, or bottom layer, that helps hold moisture. Good options include:

  • Coconut husk
  • Coconut fiber
  • Cypress mulch
  • Organic soil
  • Sand

There should be enough substrate that your lizard can burrow. Spot-clean the substrate weekly and change it out every few months.

Diet. Caiman lizards can eat a variety of foods, but it’s best to stick with what they would eat in the wild, like snails, shellfish, and insects. Lizards less than a year old need to be fed every day, while adults should be fed every other day.

Cohabitation. In the wild, caiman lizards live alone. It’s not a good idea to house more than one caiman lizard in the same enclosure. Not only would you need a massive space for this, but if they become aggressive with each other, it’s unlikely you would be able to break them apart without risking injury to yourself.

Caiman lizards were named because their large scales looked similar to those on the caiman, a relative of the alligator. Both caiman lizards and caimans are part of the Reptilia class, but after that, they diverge.

There are six species of caimans, and they can vary in size and color. All of them have round noses and wide, flat heads. Caimans are much larger than caiman lizards, ranging from nearly 5 feet to almost 20 feet (1.5 to 6 meters). Caimans also live much longer than caiman lizards, often 30 to 40 years, but some have been found living longer.

Like the northern caiman lizard, caimans prefer swamps, streams, and rivers. Caimans live in southern Mexico and throughout Central and South America.