The Amazon Rainforest: Earth's Crown Jewel
The Amazon rainforest is nestled in the heart of Brazil, covering 4% of Earth's surface. While that might not seem like much, the billions of acres of lush rainforest hold one-third of all known terrestrial species, among them many plants and animals that have provided science with new medicines and chemicals. Humans pose a significant threat to this stronghold of biodiversity. If the Amazon rainforest disappears, humanity might follow.
A Whole New World
Unlike most of Earth's biomes, rainforests are home to myriad plant and animal life, with hundreds of species coexisting within a square mile. Much like our oceans, rainforests also have stratified "zones" of habitation that boast different food sources, light levels and networks of accessibility.
For those at the top, it's a long way down, but the 200-some feet of interwoven branches between the unimpeded sunshine and the forest floor are home to innumerable natural wonders. The rainforest is teeming with life, from the tiniest insects to the largest predators.
Although 60% of the Amazon rainforest is located in Brazil, the 1.2-million-square-mile natural wonder has roots in a total of nine countries. Brazil, Peru, Colombia, Venezuela, Ecuador, Bolivia, Guyana, Suriname and French Guiana all contain parts of the Amazon rainforest.
Within the natural and political boundaries of the Amazon, some 20 million people are considered to be indigenous to the Amazon Basin. While some of those people live in the forests and along the river, two-thirds of all Amazon natives inhabit the surrounding highlands in Peru.
Diversity of Human Life
The Amazon Basin's indigenous populations are divided into over 400 tribes, each with its own culture and language. Some tribes have made contact with the "outside" world and make use of modern medicine and technology, while others remain uncontacted — as they have been for at least 500 years.
Most of the tribes have communities of farmers and hunters, thriving on a diet of corn, beans, fruit and animals hunted from their surroundings. Some groups are nomadic and live deep in the forest, traveling from place to place.
Among the indigenous groups that hunt, a popular tool of the trade is curare, a poison made from various rainforest plants. Hunters create this potent muscle relaxant by using extracts from plants, especially members of the Chondrodendron and Strychnos families.
The poison is applied to blow darts, spears or other implements. When the tainted weapon strikes its prey, the toxin paralyzes it, making for an easy catch, especially when fishing. Muscle relaxants in modern medicine, as forms of anesthesia, are derived from the use of curare and date back to the early 1900s.
As one might imagine, a rainforest that covers over 1 million square miles is home to beautiful and bizarre examples of nature, from plants that produce mighty poisons to flowers that smell of rotting flesh. The Amazon rainforest is home to some of the best examples of megaflora.
Straddling the boundary between plants and animals, the Amazon hosts some unusual varieties of fungi, including one that turns ants into zombies. And in the river for which the rainforest is named, the Amazon's murky waters conceal some of the strangest sights yet.
A Giant Among Giants
The tallest trees in the Amazon rainforest, the Sumaumeira, tower above the canopy and dwarf the behemoths below. These palm-like trees belong to the Kapok family and can reach heights upwards of 200 feet. Their trunks are impressive, reaching roughly 10 feet in diameter.
While they don't scrape the skies like giant sequoias, giant kapoks aren't far off. Down at the forest floor, these trees ground themselves using buttress roots, which are easily visible above ground as a system of winding tethers or taut sails, anchoring them to the earth.
Mother Nature's Rafts
Who hasn't dreamed of sitting on a lilypad and lazing away the day? While the idea of people-sized aquatic flora seems far-fetched, the Amazon is a treasure trove of incredible natural beauty. Victoria Amazonica water lilies look like something straight out of a fairy tale, with pads spanning 10 feet and stems reaching 20 feet into the water’s depths.
Size isn't all these unfathomable leaves have to offer. These giant water lily pads can support the weight of an adult human, and their white and pink flowers are a sight to behold.
Get Up and Go
If the buttress roots of the giant kapok tree sounded wild, imagine a tree whose roots allowed it to "walk" toward more suitable growing areas. Walking palms or "stilt palms" are believed to do just that.
Their unique system of overland roots supports the bodies of these lowland-dwelling trees, but over time, the roots may change and move. The trees can sprout new roots in the direction of sunlight and better nutrients, or out of the way of fallen trees, gradually moving themselves across the forest floor over time.
On the fringes of the rainforest lives a plant that's a little bashful: Mimosa pudica. It has many names, including "sensitive plant," "shy plant" and "shameplant." Most plants respond to stimuli such as sun and gravity, but this plant reacts to touch in one of the most fascinating displays of thigmotropism.
Unlike the slow-growing tendrils of grapevines that curl around nearby objects, mimosa plants' leaves fold themselves shut when touched or blown on. The leaves naturally open and close with day/night cycles as a means of conserving water.
The Smell of the Outdoors
One of the most well-known plants in the Amazon is the rafflesia. Not to be confused with the equally stomach-churning corpse plant, the rafflesia is a brilliant crimson flower that smells like rotting flesh. If that doesn't qualify this plant as a winner, consider this: It's also a massive parasite.
The rafflesia requires a host to thrive, specifically Tetrastigma vines, which are related to grapes. Rafflesia spread their haustoria (the organs that steal nutrients from the host) inside the stems of the vines, leaving only the large red flowers visible.
Meat Is on the Menu
If putrefying flesh plants aren't your cup of tea, perhaps flesh-eating plants are. The Amazon rainforest is one of the places where pitcher plants are found. These hollow plants resemble overturned bells, or, as their name suggests, pitchers.
While they rely on sunlight and photosynthesis to produce most of their energy, pitcher plants get extra nutrients from snacks that are unfortunate enough to fall into their watery wells. Prey drowns in the water reservoirs within the plants, after which enzymes slowly break down the bodies for the plants to consume.
Chocolate Grows Here
We'd be doing everyone a disservice if we talked about plants of the Amazon rainforest and didn't mention cacao trees. These bountiful evergreens produce fleshy, brightly colored fruit that contains dark brown seeds. These seeds are what we can process to eventually produce the chocolate most of us know and love.
During the Aztec Empire, cacao beans were used as a form of legal tender. Cacao plays a role in both Mayan and Aztec mythology as a gift from the gods. Beverages made from cacao beans often held great ceremonial value.
Java Java Java
Chocolate isn't the only thing to thank the Amazon for. The hot, damp climates of rainforests are exactly what coffee needs to thrive. We don't think much about what coffee plants look like, but the beans we grind and brew are found inside the plant’s fruit.
Coffee plants grow as bushes and reach heights of around 30 feet. They produce fragrant blooms that turn into the colorful, fleshy fruit that contains the beans we harvest and roast. Different climates produce varying bean flavors. As Earth's climate changes, some species are becoming threatened.
Ever heard the song about the ant moving a rubber tree plant? He had high hopes, and he'd certainly have to, considering how big rainforest rubber trees grow! Don't confuse these behemoths with rubber figs, which are houseplants that go by the same name.
True rubber trees grow to be over 100 feet tall and live for over a century. Their milky white sap is the source of their name. Rubber trees are tapped for the latex contained within, and their natural source of rubber is still incredibly valuable today.
A River Runs Through It
The Amazon rainforest is named after the river that runs through it. As the primary waterway and drainage point for all of the tributaries in the Amazon Basin, the waters run murky. The Amazon is not the only major river that runs through the jungle.
The Rio Negro is a blackwater river and one of the largest in the world. Near the city of Manaus, the Amazon and Rio Negro meet, but their waters don't mix. A sharp line divides them as opposing currents, and differing densities keep them separated.
Freshwater dolphins also swim in the murky jungle waters. What's more? They're pink! The Amazon river dolphin, or boto, ranges from light gray in color to a lovely shade of pastel rose.
These unusual dolphins are born with light gray skin, but as they age, they take on a pink hue as their skin thins and their blood vessels begin to show through. Botos are rare and tend to travel in small groups. Despite their elusive nature, or possibly because of it, botos appear in native mythology across the Amazon.
Just a Nibble
More famous than the pink river dolphin is the notorious piranha. Cartoons show these fish stripping a skeleton in a matter of minutes, but how true are those claims? While piranhas do eat meat, they are omnivores, and their interest in humans is relatively low.
They choose to eat other fish, but in high-stress situations or moments of confusion, they have been known to attack. Splashing attracts these sharp-toothed fish. Children playing in the river tend to splash, drawing the attention of piranha schools and leading to occasional attacks.
Run, Forrest, Run!
Above the surface of the water, life is as unusual and diverse as it is below. Before we make it to land, however, the common basilisk deserves a nod. These speedy little lizards can run along the surface of the water, earning them the nickname "Jesus lizards."
Far from a supernatural miracle, these lizards can walk (or, more accurately, sprint for their lives) on water thanks to specialized webbing on their feet and some funky physics. With enough speed, common basilisk lizards can sprint 60 feet across the water's surface.
Invasion of the Body Snatchers
Out of the water and onto the forest floor, the Amazon has a diverse and often unseen collection of fungi. One unsettling species has an unusual way of reproducing. The cordyceps fungus hijacks the bodies of its victims in the name of self-preservation.
Fungal spores enter the body of a host insect such as an ant or a wasp and replace its tissue with mycelial threads. Eventually, the fungus hijacks the host's motor functions, clamps the insect to a suitable branch and bursts from the body like a macabre topiary.
A Hoppin' Place
The rainforest is home to a host of different frog species. Poison dart frogs come in a rainbow of vivid colors, but don't touch them! These frogs' striking bodies produce potent alkaloid toxins that are used by hunters to tip their blow darts.
At the other end of the spectrum, glass frogs trade flashy colors for translucency. Some species take their unusual trait one step further and sport clear bellies, through which you can see their organs. Most glass frogs are bright green, making them difficult to spot against the jungle foliage.
Yet another well-known inhabitant of the Amazon rainforest is the green anaconda. These massive snakes are the largest of their ilk, growing up to 17 feet in length and weighing in at over 100 pounds.
Opting for an aquatic habitat, anacondas spend most of their time in the water, where they wait for their prey to come to them. They'll eat anything they can overpower, though most meals are limited to snacks such as fish, birds and small mammals. Occasionally, large anacondas will tackle a tapir, caiman or another anaconda.
Slow and Steady
There’s a gentler side to the rainforest to counteract all the danger. Sloths are nature's slow-going and laid-back residents that really just seem to be along for the ride. Everything about them is dialed way back, from their slow movements to their metabolisms.
In the Amazon, six species of two- and three-toed sloths can be found ambling through the treetops. Of these six species, two are threatened by humans: the pygmy sloth, which is listed as critically endangered, and the maned sloth, which is listed as vulnerable.
Another gentle beast is the capybara. These strange animals look like the result of one crazy night between a beaver and a tiny hippo, and while they’re actually members of the rodent family, capybaras are unique in their behaviors.
In the wild, capybaras are highly gregarious, traveling in groups of 50 to 100 individuals. In captivity, their need for companionship is sometimes met by substituting other small animals or orphaned young. Their sociable and easygoing nature makes them the perfect friends for fuzzy and feathered fellows from all walks of life.
Cats of Every Size
When you think of jungle predators, big cats like jaguars, pumas and panthers are some of the first candidates that come to mind. While the Amazon has its share of sizeable feline apex predators, it's also home to smaller species of cats.
Ocelots and jaguarundis are smaller than their big-cat cousins, but they dwarf the tiny oncilla (pictured here). Oncillas are roughly the size of domestic cats, though their size makes them no less formidable as predators in the Amazon. Poaching for their pelts has earned them a "vulnerable" conservation status.
Take to the Skies
Toucans are some of the most recognizable birds, and of the toucan family, the toco toucan or giant toucan is probably the most iconic. Their sleek black bodies, white faces and bright orange beaks make for a memorable caricature, though they’re hardly the only birds in the jungle.
Toucans range in size from 24 inches from beak to tail to about the size of an American crow. Short wings make flight among the branches a cinch, and their large beaks help them cool off between meals of rainforest fruit.
Parrots are some of the most intelligent birds we know. They make their homes in tropical and subtropical regions, and the Amazon is home to different species. Macaws in particular are practically synonymous with the Amazon rainforest.
Red, green, blue and yellow plumage sets these birds in contrast with their natural surroundings. Unfortunately, many species of macaw are endangered or extinct in the wild due to habitat loss and trapping. This includes Spix's macaw, which made its way into popular knowledge with the release of the movie Rio.
Master of Disguise
The comical-looking potoo is a master of camouflage, despite having rather silly expressions. These birds have brown, mottled plumage that makes it easy for them to hide amidst branches, away from the eyes of hungry predators.
They feed at dusk, taking flight from their perches among the branches and swooping through the air to catch unwitting insects before returning to their posts. Potoos’ large eyes allow them to see really well in low-light conditions, and their large mouths make it easy for them to catch insects on the go.
Bad Hair Day
Nothing can compare to the hoatzin. These prehistoric-looking avians sport prominent mohawks and vibrant coloring. In photos, they look more like models from a Jurassic Park exhibit than modern living creatures, and everything about them implies that they're from a different time.
Juvenile hoatzin have claws on their wings in the same place that bats have thumbs. They use these claws to climb before they've learned how to fly. Another oddity, their digestive system, has earned them the nickname "skunk birds." Like cows, their stomachs ferment their food before digestion.
King of the Skies
In an ecosystem full of record-breaking flora and fauna, it comes as no surprise that the Amazonian skies are home to one of the largest eagles: The harpy eagle. Harpy eagles can grow to be up to 3.5 feet from beak to tail with wingspans of over 7 feet.
As predators at the top of the food chain, they rule the jungle. Their meals typically consist of monkeys, sloths and occasionally large birds. Despite being rulers of their domain, harpy eagles are threatened by commercial exploitation of rainforest resources.
A Priceless Treasure
Logging and clearing to make way for agriculture and to fuel human demands for paper products have led to the destruction of 20% of the Amazon rainforest. As of 2019, roughly 20,000 square miles of rainforest are cut down annually.
As the trees disappear, animals' habitats shrink and the potential for new species to further scientific advancement succumbs to industry. Without intervention, humanity may eventually lose a major flourishing ecosystem and an essential piece of the global greenhouse cycle. Without the Amazon rainforest, who knows what wonders would be lost?