Captive Care


Caimans and alligators are popular within the pet reptile hobby. Dwarf caimans are particularly popular due to their small adult size.

But are they a good pet?

You are URGED to read the Captive Care guide at CROCODILIAN.COM. This is written by Dr Adam Britton and includes contributions from many experienced croc keepers and vets. It covers all aspects of selecting a pet, housing it, feeding it, keeping it healthy, lights, heating, water, tank size etc.

The information I'll give here is meant to be an adjunct to that captive care guide, targetting specific things that apply to Paleosuchus species. I'll cover a few of the basics, but not in any great detail.

In answer to the question posed above (are they good pets?), I can say that crocodilians are long-lived, expensive to buy, MORE expensive to house, time-consuming to maintain the enclosure or tank, and are wild animals - so can be dangerous to handle. Any croc over about 2 feet long is capable of a painful bite - and they are QUICK!!!

They are not a novelty pet. How many times on the Herp Forums on the Web do you see people asking for someone to take an alligator off their hands, as it's either too big, or will be eventually. THEY ARE BIG BLOODY ANIMALS, WITH BIG TEETH!!!! If you aren't serious about crocodilians, then go to the zoo or buy a book, but leave the cute little thing in the pet store alone! As for the larger species, if you can't cope with this, then, again, leave them alone!

If you buy one, it is for the long term: you cannot take it back to the shop (usually), you can't just dispose of it in the local lake (it's against the law, cruel to the animal, threatening to native wildlife, and it is acts like this that cause councils to ban the ownership of exotic pets - hence ruining it for others that are more responsible!), and you can't just assume that someone else will buy it eg. a zoo (in fact, zoos will not generally buy a croc anyway - at best they will merely accept a donation). If you are a serious crocodilian lover, and can afford the expense in both time and money to care for and house an adult crocodilian, then you may consider getting one as a pet.

You MUST check out local laws, though. Sadly, some countries, states, councils etc do not allow crocs to be kept as pets. Similarly, some countries will only allow certain species. If you're serious, and the law is on your side, then you need to decide what species you want. This means studying up on crocs and deciding which one is best for you. Check out crocodilian.com and the captive care guide for help here.

Costs

The cost of a dwarf or smooth-fronted caiman will vary. As a guide, in the UK, a baby Paleosuchus will set you back about 350 (about US $500). A larger one is about 600. In the US, the babies seem to be advertised for about $250 - $350.

That's just the start, though. Before purchase, you'll need to have the housing sorted out. This includes the cage or tank, furnishings, lights, heaters, and filters. Most places require a licence of some sort (in the UK you need a Dangerous Wild Animals licence). This means you probably need to be inspected by a vet and local council before a licence is granted - which means vet fees, and licence fees.

As the animal grows, it needs progressively larger enclosures. Perhaps insurance will need to be taken out as well. In the UK, at least, you need 1 million public liability insurance as part of the licencing agreement. Whilst this is usually included in normal house insurance, the insurance company has to supply a letter specifically stating that damage caused by a crocodilian IS covered.

Housing

Size

The size of the cage or enclosure depends on the size of the caiman. German laws will state that the land are needs to be 3 x SVL by 4 x SVL, whilst the water part is 4 x SVL by 5 x SVL. SVL = Snout-vent length - ie. length from the tip of the snout to the vent (or 'bum hole' !). So, for an adult Paleosuchus that is about 4.5 feet long, you'd need a cage where the land was roughly 6ft by 8ft, and the water section was 8ft by 10 ft. That's pretty big, isn't it! How's the living room looking now ?

Just for interest, here are some of the sizes as recommended by zoos:

Switzerland - minimum requirements for keeping wild animals (Animal Welfare Act of 1978)
Animal No. of Animals Land surface Water surface Water volume Additional Specimens - land Additional specimens - water
Paleosuchus & Osteolaemus 1 2.5m² 2.5m² 1m³ 2.5m² 2.5m²
Crocs and gators 1 4m² 4m² 2m³ 4m² 4m²
Swiss guidelines for keeping reptiles in breeding groups in zoo conditions (1979)
Species No. adults Land surface Water surface water volume Temp med (min/max)
Osteolaemus and Paleosuchus 1, 2 8m² 8m² 3m³ 24 (21 / 30)
Data from European Breeding Operations (1990)
Zoo Overall size Water:land ratio pool depth
Cologne (P. palpebrosus)
6m²
3:1
1.2m


P trigonatus. Photo by Myron Wiebe.

Features:

From the Ecology section, we know that both Paleosuchus spend time in burrows, and beneath tree limbs, overhanging vegetation etc. You should therefore provide them with equivalents in captivity.

On the land section, this could be with plants or logs etc. In the water, a piece of cork bark can be left floating for the caiman to lie beneath, and hide behind. I've always had the land section extend over part of the water. In this manner, the caimans can lie in the water beneath the shelf without submerging.

If you keep the caimans with a bark chip etc substrate, or they are kept outside (because you live in a nice, warm climate), then remember that both Paleosuchus species may decide to have a dig around. So take precautions against them either escaping or harming themselves due to this behaviour.

You'll often hear that trigonatus requires just a large dish for water, since it is mainly terrestrial. I don't subscribe to this view. The migration of trigonatus is probably responsible for this perception - but it isn't going to migrate very far in captivity! Indeed, some authors conclude that P trigonatus is adapted better for an aquatic life than, say, Caiman crocodilus. Remember, captivity is always going to be a compromise as far as natural habitat goes.

It's best to provide them with decent-sized water and land sections. If they're kept in tanks with only a dish as the water, then chances are, they will spend most of their time hidden away in a corner of the tank. This shouldn't be taken as a preference for a terrestrial lifestyle!

Heating

Paleosuchus are both tropical creatures, so provide them with tropical temperatures. They are also reptiles, so they use the environmental conditions to thermoregulate (ie. control their body temp.). The above indicates immediately that temperatures in the high 20's celsius should be provided, with a gradient of temperatures slightly above and below in which they can thermoregulate. If you aim at a high of about 33° C and a low of 24 - 25°C within the enclosure, you'll have a 'thermally-happy' caiman. It can select the temperature it prefers.

The water temperature should be about 25 - 27°C for Paleosuchus.

A basking lamp is the best way to provide the daytime environmental temperatures. Whilst trigonatus is rarely reported to bask, it still need the higher temperatures to thermoregulate. P palebrosus basks - mine both spend a good amount of time under the basking lamp! With trigonatus, perhaps the provision of some plant cover will allow it to reach optimum temperatures without openly basking.

I don't think the importance of UV lighting has been decided for crocodilians, yet. Since both Paleosuchus spend time in burrows or retreats during the day in the wild, and don't spend as much time in the open during the day as other species, perhaps their UV requirements are not that great. However, full spectrum UV is vital for formation of D vitamins in most animals, and Paleosuchus do NOT live in total darkness, so I think it's safe to say that they do benefit from UV. Whatever the ultimate findings are, a UV light should be provided for any captive crocodilian kept indoors (if only on the basis that it can't hurt!).


P. trigonatus and dinner! Photo by Myron Wiebe.

Feeding

From the ecology section, we determined that Paleosuchus, like almost all crocodilians, are rather oportune when it comes to their favourite dinner. Most keepers base the diet on appropriately-sized rodents (eg. rat pups). You should try to offer your caimans a bit of variety, too. Say once every 3 or 4 feeds, give them some beef, sprinkled with a decent vitamin/mineral supplement (that has calcium in it!!).

Occasionally, I give mine some fish, or some crickets - just for some variety. Just make sure that the main part of the diet includes whole animals with bones - like the rat pups. This ensures that the caimans are getting the calcium they need. Once a week or so, include the vitamin/mineral mix. Basing a diet on fish has proven to be unsuccessful for captive crocs, and offering just flesh (ie. chnks of beef) is not good for them. Whole animals!

Feeding frequency isn't straight forward! Mine are fed every 2 days, but they only get 2 rat pups each. They are currently 3 foot long. You can feed yours every 3 of 4 days, but give them a bit more. The quantity can be judged by the growth of the caimans. Check the base of their tail, the sides of their tummy, and the neck area. All should be full, but not buldging disproportionately. If these areas start to become hollow-looking, increase either the frequency or amount of feeding.

Dwarf caimans will learn the 'ritual' in feeding. They will anticipate it, and readily jump for the food. After getting a nip on the finger by a leaping caiman, I now use plastic tongs for feeding. They jump up and take the food almost before it's over the tank. So watch the fingers!

Baby dwarfs are almost famous for poor feeding. I've lost one to this, and it's not much more fun for the keeper as it is for the poor little caiman. Upon buying a young Paleosuchus (under about 20"), ensure that it's been wormed etc. Don't try to handle it too much, and let it settle in. Don't hound it around the tank with food, as it may associate the food with an unpleasant experience. Leave the food on the land portion of the cage. Try feeding it live crickets - the movement may start the feeding reflex. With insects such as crickets, 'gut load' them first, so the caiman gets a decent meal with vitamins and minerals (ie calcium) from what ordinarily has little of these things. Make sure the little fellow is not in an area where there's lots of people walking past. These little things get stressed very easily! Often, having a second caiman around kicks the other into eating with a bit more enthusiasm. Rest assured that once they are used to you and their surroundings, it's hard to STOP them eating.

If the problem persists, contact a vet that is familiar with crocodilians - particularly caimans, and Paleosuchus if possible (which is probably unlikely !).

Behaviour

Based mainly on my experience with palpebrosus, I've noted the following:

Breeding

Please refer to the REPRODUCTIONsection for a detailed treatment of reproduction in Paleosuchus species. Below is a summary of some of the main points to keep in mind if you are planning to breed either species.

In Cologne Zoo, the following can be noted:

Another author, Lüthi, reports the following:

Note that the records of successful captive breeding that I have read have incorporated a seasonal temperature variation. Those that breed outdoors are naturally exposed to varying seasonal temperatures. Those that have bred indoors have had a lower Winter temperature than in Summer. Whether this is an important factor in successful breeding, I don't know - but it makes sense, and is noted in many species of animals.


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