Research Article: The dark side of the black caiman: Shedding light on species dietary ecology and movement in Agami Pond, French Guiana

Date Published: June 24, 2019

Publisher: Public Library of Science

Author(s): Stephane Caut, Vincent Francois, Matthieu Bacques, Daniel Guiral, Jérémy Lemaire, Gilles Lepoint, Olivier Marquis, Nicolas Sturaro, Marco Festa-Bianchet.


The black caiman is one of the largest neotropical top predators, which means that it could play a structuring role within swamp ecosystems. However, because of the difficulties inherent to studying black caimans, data are sorely lacking on many aspects of their general biology, natural history, and ecology, especially in French Guiana. We conducted a detailed study of the Agami Pond black caiman population using a multidisciplinary approach. The aim was to better understand the species’ dietary ecology and movements in the pond, and thus its functional role in pond system. We gathered natural history data, tracked caiman movements using satellite transmitters, and characterized feeding ecology via stable isotope analysis. Our study was carried out over three sampling periods and spanned both wet and dry seasons, which differ in their hydrological and ecological conditions. Our results show that black caiman abundance and age demographics differed between seasons in Agami Pond. In the dry season, Agami Pond is one of the only areas within the marsh to hold water. It thus contains large quantities of different fish species, which form the basis of the black caiman’s diet. Caiman body size, a proxy for age class, was around 1.5 meters. During the wet season, which corresponds to the breeding period for migratory birds (e.g., Agami herons), adult black caimans are present in Agami Pond. Adults were most abundant in the inundated forest. There, most individuals measured up to 2 meters. They also exhibited a particular “predatory” behavior near bird nests, preying on fallen chicks and adults. Juveniles and subadults were present during both seasons in the pond’s open waters. These behavioral observations were backed up by stable isotope analysis, which revealed ontogenetic variation in the caiman’s isotopic values. This isotopic variation reflected variation in diet that likely reduced intraspecific competition between adults and young. The telemetry and microchip data show that different age classes had different movement patterns and that seasonal variation in the pond may influence caiman prey availability and reproductive behavior. The new information gathered should help predict this species’ responses to potential ecosystem disturbance (e.g., water pollution, habitat destruction) and inform the development of an effective conservation plan that involves locals and wildlife officials.

Partial Text

Between the estuary of the Amazon River in Brazil and the Cayenne Peninsula in French Guiana lies a series of large mangrove swamps. Of these mostly stagnant wetlands, the Kaw-Roura Marshes are the most distant from the estuary (a biodiversity hot spot; National Nature Reserve 1998—Ramsar 1993). They are located southeast of Cayenne and cover an area of 94,700 ha. Their inaccessibility by road or river has protected them from human disturbance. Within the vast marshes, there are water bodies covered by mats of floating vegetation as well as a few permanent areas of open water—ponds. Among them, one, Agami Pond, is unique in being surrounded by shrub communities [1]. To study this unique and largely uncharacterized ecosystem, a floating scientific platform, only accessible by helicopter, was built in 2001. Preliminary research has since shown that this pond is used by a population of black caimans (Melanosuchus niger [2]) and that it is the most important breeding site in French Guiana for many species of birds (e.g., the hoatzin [Opisthocomus hoatzin]). Agami Pond also hosts the largest population of the Agami heron (Agami agamia): 1,500 breeding pairs [3].

At the beginning of our study, we had no precise information about the Agami Pond population—only reports that this area was of great interest because of the presence of reproductive adults [11]. Our three sampling trips to Agami Pond confirmed that this area is indeed home to a large population. We captured 76 black caimans in total (75 were sampled; Table 2): all were new individuals (i.e., there were no recaptures based on the absence of microchipped individuals). Most measured between 51 cm and 200 cm in total length (age class B = 35.5% and C = 43.5%). It is unclear if this pattern is attributable to the presence of greater numbers of caimans in these age classes or to sampling bias (i.e., individuals in these age classes were easiest to capture); it is likely that it is a combination of both. However, we did observe differences in the age class distribution between seasons. Reproductive adults (age class D) were observed almost exclusively during the wet season and especially in the inundated forest, while juveniles and subadults (age classes B and C) were present during both seasons in the pond’s open waters. Only three individuals measuring less than 50 cm (age class A) were captured over the course of the whole study; they were present exclusively during the wet season. These results—the absence of recaptures, the seasonal abundance of reproductive adults, and the very low numbers of neonates—could suggest that caimans may move large distances (i.e., at least a few km) among years to feed and/or reproduce.