Of all the hidden corners and vast stretches of land on our Earth, the most untamed, diverse, and even alien to us might be the mysterious jungle of the Amazon. Blanketed with more than six million square kilometers of thick vegetation and thousands of bird, mammal, and insect species, it is home to 20 percent of our living organisms. Hiding among these creatures are cures for disease and endangered species that are quickly running out of survival space due to humans' gross deforestation practices. In addition to jeopardizing the wildlife, deforestation contributes to global warming and the pollution of our air due to the loss of trees, therefore increasing levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. However, an introduction to the jungles of the Amazon and its invaluable wildlife supply may encourage further knowledge and protection of our largest source of nature.
Although the surface of the Amazon River Basin is relatively calm, there is an enormous world to be discovered underneath. If a trip to Brazil and the Amazon has ever crossed your mind, probably the first species you've thought about was the fearsome piranha. Allegedly ferocious, this fish has been said to eat humans bite by vicious bite. To the contrary, these fish are not the man-eaters they are made out to be.
Of the twenty species of piranha found in the Amazon, most are vegetarian and of no danger to humans. Their exaggerated reputation precedes them, but upon inspection, the fish are rather small, ranging from eleven to twelve inches in length. Their gold bodies with reddish underbellies are covered in taste buds, which can detect the presence of worthy prey. Their razor sharp teeth are made for slicing through meat easily, and they are drawn to blood. Usually they travel in packs of up to thirty piranhas. Only one of over two thousand species of fish in the Amazon, they live among electric eels, which can deliver a shock of up to 650 volts; the giant pirarucu, which can weigh in at over 330 pounds; stingrays; and over a hundred species of catfish. Most of the fish species of Brazil are vegetarian and migrate toward riverbanks with low-hanging trees, so that they may eat fruit that has dropped and floats on the surface of the water.
Of the 250 primate species in the world, about 75 of them can be spotted along the Amazon. The howler monkey is an example of a primate that is distinguished by a loud, guttural howl used to protect its turf. In places where the howler monkey population is more abundant, significantly more shrieks can be heard due to a greater competition for space.
Squirrel monkeys can also be seen in the Amazon, and are thought to be one of the most peaceful mammals in the wild. Unlike howler monkeys, whose main source of food is leaves, squirrel monkeys feed on mostly insects and fruit. Attractive and small, squirrel monkeys are white around the eyes, and have short soft black fur around the head.
A third example of an Amazonian primate is the uakari monkey, which is sometimes nicknamed "English monkey" since its red complexion and bald head resemble a sunburned person. These monkeys are endangered, living in rapidly declining areas of flooded swamp forest.
The largest mammal species found in the Amazon area is the jaguar. Jaguars can be spotted or solid black, and can weigh up to 260 pounds and span about eight feet in length. They prey on other mammals such as the capybara, monkey, sloth, and deer, hunting at night and usually alone. Classified as "Near Threatened," less than fifty thousand still exist in the wild. Other wild cats include the endangered puma, which is slightly smaller than the jaguar, the ocelot and the jaguarundi. The latter can be spotted more easily due to its daytime hunting patterns.
Another mammal found in these rainforests is the slow-moving sloth. Sleeping eighteen hours a day, sloths creep from tree to tree hanging and climbing up the branches. Classified as edentates, they feed on leaves, and descend from their trees only about once a week to excrete waste.
Another example of an edentate is the anteater. One of the stranger-looking animals in the world, anteaters have a distinctive tubelike snout that easily vacuums up ants and termites to eat from holes and crevices. They can grow up to eight feet long and up to 140 pounds. Normally solitary mammals, anteaters have large claws to protect themselves when encountered by predators such as jaguars and pumas.
Smaller mammal species are also prevalent in the Amazon and can be spotted fairly easily. One of these species is the peccary, or wild boar. These animals travel and hunt in packs of up to fifty peccaries. Sporting considerable teeth and fierce tempers, these boars have a reputation for violence among humans, but usually hunt only smaller mammals.
The capybara is one of the smaller mammals of the jungle, but is also the world's largest rodent, weighing in at about 150 pounds. It resembles a large guinea pig, is a vegetarian, and travels in families of about twenty rodents.
Two of the most popular mammals living in the Amazon River are the pink river dolphin and the Amazon manatee. What is distinctive about the pink river dolphin, or boto as it is sometimes referred, is that it flourishes in a freshwater environment. It is pale pink in color and has a characteristic flexible neck unlike other dolphin species, which allows it to move its head from side to side. They travel in groups of two to four and feed on smaller fish. The pink river dolphin is now classified as "Vulnerable" on the ICUN Red List of Threatened Species due to river development projects.
The Amazon manatee is also classified as "Vulnerable," in part due to the demand for its meat and oil, and is one of the rarer species in the Amazon. They travel in groups of four to eight and are herbivorous, eating up to 8 percent of their body weight in water lettuce in the course of a day, storing food in their fat reserves for the dry season.
The longest viper in the world, the bushmaster, is found in the heart of the Amazon. It can reach a length of twelve feet and is a light tan color with dark brown to black diamond shapes along its back. It has hinged fangs that can be 1.4 inches long and primarily preys on small mammals. The bushmaster has heat sensitive pits that can detect a raise in temperature of only .0036 degrees Fahrenheit, which allows it to find prey easily and also puts out an enormous amount of venom, causing internal bleeding in its prey. Other snakes in the Amazon include boa constrictors and green anacondas, both of which suffocate their prey by wrapping their bodies around it and squeezing.
Other predators inhabiting this area are the alligator, or caiman, and the crocodile. They feed on a variety of insects, fish, birds, and small mammals, and rely on their large teeth and powerful jaws to capture food. These reptiles prefer to hunt at night since the dark can camouflage them better. The black caiman specifically is in grave danger of extinction because of the desire for its skin and meat. People often confuse alligators and crocodiles since they are similar in shape, but they have a few distinctions. The main difference between a crocodile and a caiman is that crocodiles have a more pointed snout than caimans.
There are about twenty species of sea turtle in Amazonia, some of them having inhabited the Earth for 158 million years. The sea turtles of the Amazon are especially protected because of their sensitivity to environmental changes. These changes arise when fishermen throw nets on the beaches and disturb the nests, and when vacationers disrupt or even take the eggs. Special preservation tactics have been put into action to ensure the sea turtles' continued success in the Amazon.
An estimated 30 percent of all life in the Amazon jungle is made up of invertebrate species. It is not an exaggeration or a myth to say that the insects are larger in the Amazon than in most of the world, yet the majority of them are harmless. A vast array of sizes, colors, and characteristics make a simple walk through the forest a variable adventure, as finding these peculiar creatures can be shocking.
The leaf cutter ant is probably one of the better-known species of insect that can be found, feeding on fungus and not the leaves that they are so adept at tearing. With massive jaws, the females (or workers) destroy upwards of 15 percent of the Amazon's leaf production. As part of a gigantic social system comprised of a queen, the workers who are female, and the males whose main task is reproduction, they build enormous, hilly homes with many entrances.
Cockroaches, although they have a poor reputation, actually do not carry disease and mostly do not infest human homes in the tropics. Mostly nocturnal, some four thousand species of cockroach survive on the fecal matter of bats and therefore can often be found in bat caves. They vary in size, but one of the largest, the giant cockroach, fills the palm of a human hand!
Also nocturnal, termites are perpetual team workers, figuring methods of building large nests by chewing and processing copious amounts of wood in their stomachs. They also form a caste system comprising of a queen, workers, and soldiers who are larger with bigger jaws for protection and defense. Though they resemble ants, they are most closely related to cockroaches.
A whole world exists in the canopy of the rainforest among the branches and greenery. Easier heard than seen, over three thousand species of birds call the Amazon jungle canopy home. Some of the birds are native to the South American jungle and some migrate from November to March to the warmer climate. Unfortunately, the diversity of species is endangered due to crop fields destroying and taking over their natural habitat.
The most obvious and well-known bird in the Amazon is the toucan, with its huge colorful bill that can be more than half the length of the bird itself. Although the bill is beautiful, scientists have not discovered the function of it. Toucans are not migratory and live in pairs and small groups. They mostly feed on fruits, but will also eat insects and small lizards. Shy but quite loud, toucans are rarely seen in the wild, but can be heard from up to a mile away.
The largest bird inhabiting the Amazon is the macaw, which can grow to be 35 to 50 inches long. Macaws are also quite colorful. They feed on fruits and nuts, and even red clay to detoxify poisons from leaves that they ingest. Once they find a mate, they are monogamous for life, and they have advanced social and communication skills making them able to mimic human speech.
The harpy eagle, classified as "Near Threatened" on the ICUN Red List of Threatened Species is one of the best hunters in the jungle. The females are significantly larger than the males, so they do the hunting of larger prey like monkeys, sloths, and birds. At a length of nearly forty inches, these birds are equipped with short wings and large claws to be able to weave quickly in and out of branches and snatch up their prey.
The Amazon River Basin has the highest diversity of tree species in the world with numbers of over 80,000 varieties. Unfortunately, the abundance of each type of tree is not the same as the richness of the population. It is our responsibility, therefore, to assist the flourishing species of plants in the Amazon since they provide us with countless medicinal and agricultural benefits.
Because they are a source of survival for most invertebrates they have developed their own defense mechanisms to prevent extinction. Some of the ways in which they do this is by developing tough leaves, tasteless leaves, and even poisonous leaves to keep animals from choosing it as a meal. Their defense mechanisms are quite advanced, but unfortunately, most invertebrates will evolve as well to allow these plants back into their diets.
The tucum palms are a group of trees that grow up to 65 feet tall and have spiny trunks and nutritionally sound fruits. Each fruit provides three times the amount of Vitamin A content than that of a carrot. Its oil is also edible and is similar to coconut oil. They are often steamed or simply cracked open to reveal the sweet liquid inside for drinking. Other uses for this versatile plant are making hammocks, baskets, and sails for small boats with the fibers.
The Pataua palm is slightly taller rising to eighty feet and also sprouts clusters of small fruits with nutritious pulp and valuable oil that the local highly regard for its healthful qualities. The oil is similar in color and texture to olive oil, but has a much greater protein component. When compared to legumes and animal meat, the fruits of the Pataua have 40 percent more protein content. Indigenous communities use this tree's roots and seedling for medicine, and its fiber for blow gun darts and arrow heads.
Among the other useful plant species are the guarana, which has four to five times the amount of caffeine as coffee and is a popular analgesic and diarrhea cure, and the Brazil nut tree whose nuts are sold and eaten around the world. Most of the benefits of the rainforest plants have not been discovered yet. As the jungle species dwindle and human destruction of these resources continues, what will we continue to look for to cure our disease?
A single glance at a small corner of the Amazon jungle would be enough to notice the plethora of life that flourishes here. Wild and mysterious, the Amazon holds secrets that we may never know due to our devastation of it. Scientists predict that less than one percent of the Amazon's plant life has been studied for a link to curing human diseases. The importance of the Amazon in controlling climate and therefore global warming is immeasurable as well. The rainbow of wildlife that fills the Amazon's canopy, floor, and waters can only be described as breathtaking in scope and size. It is not only the largest rainforest on the Earth, it is the only one we have left. It is no small undertaking to save the Amazon, but certainly worth the effort from each of us.
To learn more about the beautiful plants and animals of the Amazon, visit The World & I Online archives:
--"Mythical Jaguars Face Harsh Reality," by Caroline Goldman, August 2006 (href="http://www.worldandischool.com/subscribers/searchdetail.asp? num=25131">Article #25131)
--"The Pantanal: A Celebration of Life," by Douglas Trent, February 2000 (href= "http://www.worldandischool.com/subscribers/searchdetail.asp? num=21072">Article #21072
--"The Pantanal: Land of the Great Heartbeat," by Frederick A. Swarts, February 2000 (href="http://www.worldandischool.com/subscribers/ searchdetail.asp?num=21070">Article #21070
To see more photos of Brazil and the Amazon, and view a multi-media Special Presentation, visit The World & I Online href="http://www.worldandischool.com/worldgallery/ special_presentation.asp">World Gallery.
Alison Duffy is a dancer, writer, and graduate student earning an MFA in Choreography at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. She has worked as a dancer/singer for Holland America Line, and has contributed to North Carolina Dance Theatre's educational outreach program. She has published her work in various dance publications and in The Longwood Guide to Writing.…