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Dwarf Caiman (Paleosuchus palpebrosus) Fact Sheet: Taxonomy & History

Taxonomy and Nomenclature


  • Genus: Paleosuchus
    • From Greek, meaning “ancient crocodilian”; refers to dwarf caiman’s thick bony scales, which are similar to those of early crocodilians (Neill 1971)
  • Species: palpebrosus
    • From Latin; refers to this caiman’s prominent eyelids (Magnusson 1992; Stevenson 2019)

Synonyms (non-comprehensive list)

  • Crocodilus palpebrosus (Cuvier, 1807) (Magnusson 1992)
  • Alligator palpebrosus (Merrem, 1820) (Magnusson 1992)
  • Jacaretinga moschifer (Spix, 1825) (Trutnau and Sommerlad 2006)
  • Champsa gibbiceps (Natterer, 1840) (Trutnau and Sommerlad 2006)
  • Caiman palpebrosus (Gray, 1862) (Magnusson 1992)
  • Paleosuchus palpebrosus (Müller, 1923) (Trutnau and Sommerlad 2006)
  • Also see Magnusson (1992), Medem (1958), and Mook and Mook (1940)

Common names

  • Dwarf caiman, Cuvier’s dwarf caiman, Cuvier’s smooth-fronted caiman (English) (Trutnau and Sommerlad 2006; Magnusson et al. 2019; Stevenson 2019)
  • Chachirre (Spanish) (Medem 1971)
  • Jacaré-paguá (Portuguese) (Trutnau and Sommerlad 2006; Magnusson and Campos 2010; Campos et al. 2019)

Evolutionary History

Evolutionary relationships

  • Caimans and alligators diverged during Cretaceous Period (e.g., Roos et al. 2007; Oaks 2011; Grigg and Kirshner 2015)
    • Approximately 60 to 70 mya
  • Living (extant) Paleosuchus spp. (dwarf and smooth-fronted caimans) are sister taxa to other caiman species (Roos et al. 2007; Hrbek et al. 2008; Oaks 2011; Grigg and Kirshner 2015; Salas-Gismondi et al. 2015; Stevenson 2019)
    • Split from other caimans approximately 40 mya
  • Dwarf and smooth-fronted caimans diverge approximately 10 to 15 mya (Roos et al. 2007; Oaks 2011; Grigg and Kirshner 2015)
    • Based on molecular estimates

Fossil history

  • First unambiguous Paleosuchus fossil from mid-Miocene (Salas-Gismondi et al. 2015)
    • Approximately 14 million years old
    • Found in Peru
  • Dwarf caiman has no known fossil record (Sues 2019)

Closest extant/living relative

  • Smooth-fronted caiman, Paleosuchus trigonatus (Roos et al. 2007; Hrbek et al. 2008)

Cultural History


  • Early scientific studies, 1950s to 1980s, on P. palpebrosus by Frederico Medem (b.1912-d.1984) (Magnusson 1989)

Culture and folklore

  • Dwarf caiman in traditional medicine and culture
    • Teeth used as protection against snake bites (da Nóbrega Alves et al. 2008) or placed in necklaces to ward off snakes (Campos and Muniz 2019)
    • Fat used to treat rheumatism (Brazil) (Alves and Rosa 2006)
    • Skulls hung on walls facing house entrance to scare away spirits and protect house/market (Brazil) (Campos and Muniz 2019)
    • Scales and bones dried, ground, and drunk in wine for medicinal purposes
    • Feet used to make keychains (Brazil) (Campos and Muniz 2019)
  • Generally, caiman mythology not pronounced in indigenous cultures of South America (Wylie 2013)
    • Guyanan origin story: caiman carves woman from a tree; woman later gives birth to village founders
    • Manaus: caiman carries out divine punishment on girl who murders her twin sister
    • Arakmbut shamans of Peru: caimans in dream-myths
      • Caimans provide food to traveler; help traveler out of dangerous situations and to get home
    • Amazonia: motif of a person sitting on the back of a caiman at bottom of lake
      • Caiman alluded to (peripheral in story); jaguar and anaconda more prominent
    • Tello Obelisk at Chavín: carvings of twin caimans
      • Represent “complementary duality”: sky/earth, above/below, material/spiritual
  • Crocodilian narrative associations (Crump 2015)
    • Positive energy/traits
      • Creative energy
      • Power
      • Protection
      • Reason
      • Sexual power
      • Strength
      • Supernatural power
      • Wisdom
    • Negative energy/traits
      • Ability to harm/kill
      • Deceit
      • Evil
      • Greed
  • For general crocodilian folklore, see Wylie (2013) and Crump (2015)



Kingdom: Animalia

Phylum: Chordata

Class: Reptilia — reptiles

Order: Crocodylia — alligators, caimans, crocodiles, gharials

Family: Alligatoridae — alligators and caimans

Genus: Paleosuchus (Gray, 1862) — dwarf and smooth-fronted caimans

Species: Paleosuchus palpebrosus (Cuvier, 1807) — dwarf caiman, Cuvier’s dwarf caiman, Cuvier’s smooth-fronted caiman

Source: Magnusson et al. (2019)

Caiman as Protector

Dwarf Caiman and False Coral Snake from The Insect

Some traditional South American cultures believe dwarf caiman teeth provide protection from snake bites.

"Dwarf Caiman and False Coral Snake" from The Insects of Suriname (1719). Hand-colored etching by Maria Sibylla Merian.

Image credit: Wikimedia Commons / public domain (PD-US).

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