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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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."
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.