IBAGUE, Colombia – A secret hides in the depths of the Colombian Amazon: the Apaporis caiman, a species discovered in 1955 by zoologist Federico Medem.
The reptile was lost for decades before being rediscovered by biologist Sergio Balaguera-Reina, professor of environmental biology at the University of Ibague, two years ago.
Medem explored nearly 1,000 kilometers of the River Apaporis, which begins at the junction of the Ajaju and Tunia rivers between the Guaviare and Caqueta departments in the south of the country.
At the Inana Lagoon, he found caimans with unusual characteristics, such as an elongated, v-shaped skull like that of crocodiles and not the usual u-shaped one of their species.
He named them “caiman crocodilus apaporiensis” and formulated the theory that they only existed in the Apaporis basin due to the number of waterways there, including Jirijirimo falls.
Medem hypothesized that these watercourses formed a natural barrier that prevented the animals from spreading to other places.
After his death in 1984, the Apaporis caimans were scientifically forgotten and the area became a stronghold of FARC guerrillas’ fighters.
Until more than 30 years later, Balaguera-Reina decided to follow in Medem’s footsteps.
He says his passion arose when he was doing his undergraduate thesis on the American crocodile in Salamanca Island Road Park in the Caribbean.
“They seem to me to be imposing, strong and striking animals, but they are frowned upon by people because they are strange and even frightening,” he tells EFE.
His first expedition into the Apaporis was in December 2018.
He flew from Bogota to Mitu, capital of the Vaupes department near the Brazilian border, where he rented a small plane that took him to the village of La Victoria in the Amazon.
The biologist then took a small dirt track among the endless shades of green of the jungle that had been used by FARC and abandoned since 2016 when the guerrilla group signed a peace agreement with the government.
He spent eight days investigating the alligator with the help of the village’s 90 inhabitants.
Local leader Alfredo Vargas helped him explore the waters of the Apaporis, which he says are “very interesting biologically because of the torrential rains that generate drastic changes in the landscape.”
“We are used to seeing rivers like the Magdalena, the most important in the country, which is a constant, flat flow from the time it reaches its middle basin until it flows into Barranquilla,” he adds.
The Apaporis is in an area of enormous geomorphological influence with rock formations that create spectacular waterfalls.
The animals living there are “isolated and little known” because the area was inaccessible due to armed conflict and because each trip there costs approximately $2,140, he explains.
When he finally found the Apaporis caiman, the biologist discovered it is a medium-sized animal, with males reaching up to 2.5 meters and females averaging 1.8 meters.
The species has yellowish skin with orange spots on its neck, the result of sediments from the area.
“These colors are not found in other alligators. In addition, its head is pointed and that is a characteristic that occurs in large animals such as crocodiles and not in medium-sized ones,” he explains.
Balaguera-Reina says an endemic species like these caimans should be protected.
He returned to the site several times last year and the results of his studies, which are due to be published soon, show that genetically, the animal is “not so different from others of its species in the area,” but morphologically, it has “distinctive traits that require more analysis.”
The highlight of his research was the hatching season in April last year, when he witnessed infant reptiles emerging from their eggs, he says.
His work will feature in a documentary, “En busca del caiman del Apaporis” (In search of the Apaporis caiman), which will be shown on Colombian television on Friday.