Featured Order: Crocodilians of Panama
The Crocodilia is an order of large, predatory, semiaquatic reptiles. They appeared 83.5 million years ago in the Late Cretaceous period and are the closest living relatives of birds. The order Crocodilia includes the true crocodiles, the alligators and caimans, and the gharial and false gharial. Although the term 'crocodiles' is sometimes used to refer to all of these, a less ambiguous vernacular term for this group is crocodilians. In Panama, the usual vernacular names are 'cocodrilo' and 'lagarto' but the later is the most ambiguous and wrong, as we will explain below.
These animals are large, solidly built, lizard-like reptiles, with long flattened snouts, laterally compressed tails, and eyes, ears, and nostrils at the top of the head. They swim well and can move on land in a high walk and a low walk, while smaller species are even capable of galloping. Their skin is thick and covered in non-overlapping scales. They have conical, peg-like teeth and a powerful bite.
Crocodilians are found mainly in lowlands in the tropics. They are largely carnivorous, feeding on animals such as fish, water snails, crustaceans, molluscs, insects, birds, and mammals.
TaxonomyThe three families of cocodrilians are:
- Gavialidae:The gharial and the false gharial. Gharials can be recognised by the long narrow snout, with an enlarged boss at the tip. They are rare and found only in South Asia.
- Alligatoridae: Two species in the genus Alligator, and six species of caimans grouped into three genera. They can be recognised by the broad snout, in which the fourth tooth of the lower jaw cannot be seen when the mouth is closed.
- Crocodylidae: The true crocodiles, twelve species in the genus Crocodylus, and two species in other genera. They have a variety of snout shapes, but can be recognised because the fourth tooth of the lower jaw is visible when the mouth is closed.
In Panama only one species of Alligatoridae and one species of Crocodylidae occur.
In the first family we have the Spectacled Caiman (Caiman crocodilus) which is neither an alligator (lagarto) nor a true crocodile (cocodrilo), making wrong and ambiguous calling him one or the other.
Spectacled Caiman (Caiman crocodilus) by Julio Abdiel Gonzalez
Spectacled Caiman (Caiman crocodilus) by Siu Generis
The Spectacled Caiman (Caiman crocodilus) locally known as 'babilla' is found in much of Central and South America. It lives in a range of lowland wetland and riverine habitat types, and can tolerate salt water as well as fresh; due in part to this adaptability, it is the most common of all crocodilian species. It is a small to mid-sized crocodilian. Males of the species are generally 1.8 to 2 m (5.9 to 6.6 ft), while females are smaller, usually around 1.2–1.4 m (3.9–4.6 ft). The body mass of most adults is between 7 and 40 kg (15 and 88 lb). The species' English common name comes from a bony ridge between the eyes, which gives the appearance of a pair of spectacles.
In the second family we have the American Crocodile (Crocodylus acutus), a true crocodile (cocodrilo).
American Crocodile (Crocodylus acutus) by Julio Abdiel Gonzalez,
the fourth teeth of the lower mandible can (hardly) be seen.
The American Crocodile (Crocodylus acutus) is the most widespread of the four species of crocodiles from the Americas. Populations occur from the Atlantic and Pacific coasts of southern Mexico to South America as far as Peru and Venezuela. It also lives on many of the Caribbean islands. The American is one of the larger crocodile species. Males can reach lengths of 6.1 m (20 ft), weighing more than 907 kg (2,000 lb). On average, mature males are more in the range of 4.1 m (13 ft) to 4.8 m (16 ft) in length weighing about 400 kg (880 lb). As with other crocodile species, females are smaller; rarely exceeding 3.8 m (12 ft) in length.
Despite their large size, American Crocodiles do not regularly attack large animals, as most large crocodilians do. Fish, reptiles, birds and small mammals make up the majority of their diet. On occasion, large mammals such as deer and cattle are taken.
Like any other large crocodilian, the American crocodile is potentially dangerous to humans, but it is not a very aggressive species and attacks are rare; but not unprecedented. The species is often reportedly timid, and seemingly lacks the propensity to attack people as regularly as Old World crocodiles do.
About Alligators and Lizards
The name "alligator" is probably an anglicized form of 'el lagarto', the Spanish term for "the lizard", which early Spanish explorers and settlers in Florida called the alligator. The only alligator in America is the American Alligator (Alligator mississippiensis) but it is endemic to southeastern United States, and therefore does not occur in Panama.
In the other hand, lizards or true 'lagartos' are present in Panama, they are reptiles too but in a totally different taxonomic placement (Squamata order, Lacertilia suborder). Iguanas, geckos, jesus-christ lizards, anolis, whiptails, jungle-runners, among others, are lizards and would be correct to call them 'lagartos'.