EXPLORETY

New World reptiles: from the big black caiman to the cutest banded gecko

The largest predator in the Amazon

With a length of up to 17 feet, and a weight of up to 1,000 pounds, the black caiman is perhaps the most famous of the Latin American reptiles. These giants are at the top of their food chain and feed on cattle, monkeys, big cats, dolphins, pythons, boars – basically, any animal that gets too close. Their bite is forceful: they can crush a turtle shell with one snap of the jaws. They usually do not attack humans, unless the human is in their territory or too close to their young.

The black caimans hunt at night, when the dark obscures them entirely due to their dark scales. By the time the victim sees them, it’s usually too late. Because of this beautiful skin, 99% of the black caimans had been killed during the uptick in the leather trade in the 1970s. However, the trade subsided with global conservation efforts, and the predator numbers are back up: it continues to rule the Amazon basin, which includes rivers, lakes, and flooded areas of Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia and Brazil.

Unlike its dark-scaled relative, the white caiman, also known as the spectacled caiman, is hardly a threat. Its name comes from a spectacle-ridge between the eyes, which one could easily imagine as a convenient place for, well, spectacles.

The white caimans are smaller than the black caiman, reaching only up to eight feet and 90 pounds. They mostly feed on fish and crabs, although small mammals are also a part of the diet. The spectacled caimans live in Costa Rica, Panama, Peru, Mexico, Venezuela, Ecuador, Colombia and Nicaragua. The color of these reptiles– usually brown, green or yellow-gray - changes with seasons: the black pigment in the skin expands in the winter so that they can collect more heat. Because the white caiman is not a picky eater, nor does it need as much as its bigger counterparts, so it can push out (or extirpate) another reptilian species: this is what is believed to have happened with the Cuban crocodile in Isla de la Juventud in Cuba and the black caiman in parts of the Amazon.

Fer-de-lance Bothrops asper

The spearheaded murderer

Of the slithering reptiles, the Bothrops asper, or fer-de-lance, which means “spearhead,” and its close relative, terciopelo viper, are the most venomous and can even be lethal to humans, if bites are left untreated. The terciopelo releases a toxin into the blood that can cause clots and kill off tissue.

These snakes can give birth to 100 offspring at a time, and they are crucial to the ecosystem, cleaning the rainforest of rodents that in turn endanger the food supply of larger mammals. The snakes disguise themselves using their mottled skin, and measure up to eight feet in length and four inches in width.

Unlike the dangerous serpents, the milk snakes of Central and South America may appear just as dangerous, but they are nonvenomous. They come in a variety of sizes, with one of the largest – the Andean milk snake – reaching six feet in length. The milk snakes can be distinguished by bands of red, black and yellow or white, and typically feast on bugs, lizards and small mammals. But don’t come too close: harmless milk snakes can be easily confused with other snakes, including the coral snake, which releases a neurotoxin that impedes breathing.

From iguanas to geckos, the cuter reptiles

We don’t often think of them as reptiles, but lizards and geckos are also reptiles, and some are quite famous. The green iguana is one you’ll likely notice, as it can grow to seven feet in length (don’t worry: they are herbivores). These iguanas are quite the acrobats: they can fall up to 50 feet, for example, without hurting themselves, using their back legs to grasp leaves in order to break their fall. And if you’re near a body of water, look out for the Jesus Christ lizard (also known as the green basilisk) – as their young specimens literally walk on water, bicycling their hind legs while using their tails as a counterweight.

Green or Plumed Basilisk Lizard, also known as the South American Jesus lizard for its ability to run on the surface of water.

The more interesting – and more difficult to spot – is the helmeted iguana, also nicknamed the forest chameleon, which lives in rainforests between Mexico and Colombia, and can be recognized by their helmet-like crest, the obvious reason for their name. These reptiles can easily shift back and forth between green and brown hues (in addition to blotches of reddish-brown, olive or black), camouflaging themselves for safety or to ambush insects.

Another remarkable bright lizard with yellow, green and cyan coloring, including spots and stripes, the rainbow whiptail measures approximately 12 inches and runs around in Central America, as well as the northern parts of South America.

And last, try to spot the Central American banded gecko – named so for the white bands on its body. This little guy only emerges at dusk to forage for insects, and with a total length of less than an inch (190 millimeters), half of that being the tail, you must have keen eyesight to catch a glimpse. The banded gecko lives in Guatemala, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Honduras and Costa Rica.

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