The Amazon Rainforest
Did you know the Amazon Rainforest of South America accounts for over fifty percent of Earth's remaining rainforest? It's home to myriad life-forms, all vying for a stake on planet Earth. And in fact, scientists are still discovering organisms in this river system's seven-million-square-kilometer drainage basin to this day. (1)
The Amazon rainforest is estimated to be at least 55 million years old. Glacial periods and other climate fluctuations caused the rainforest to grow and shrink, but around 55 million years ago, it became tantamount to the modern biological behemoth. Fed by the heavy seasonal rains of central South America, the river we now call the Amazon actually used to run from the middle of the continent to both the Atlantic and the Pacific. Then, tectonic collision caused the Andes Mountains to buckle up in the west (about fifteen million years ago) pooling up the westward flowing half of the river and creating a giant inland sea. Sea creatures adapted to the desalinating water. Finally, around ten million years ago, the entire system began to flow eastwards... and the Amazon river was formed. (2)
Most of the rainforest (60%) is in Brazil while Peru (13%), Colombia (10%), Venezuela, Ecuador, Bolivia, Guyana, Suriname and French Guiana, also contain pieces of this breathtaking concordance of life. The Amazon is home to the most diverse culture of plant life in the world. It also contains a staggering twenty percent of the bird species on Earth and two-and-a-half million different species of insects. (1)
As you probably know, this is an area that is threatened by human development. As many seek to make a living in and around the rainforest, the deforestation rate is still on the rise (as of 2016). Strident efforts have been made to protect from deforestation in Brazil, and so in Brazil specifically we are finally seeing reports of an overall decline in deforestation. But still each year more rainforest is removed to turn over a profit. (1)
Now, onto a couple of the cuties of the Amazon! If these little critters don't convince you to care about the Amazon, I don't know what will!
The Bald Uakari
Average Life Span
between 5.8 and 7.6 pounds
The crimson face of the Bald Uakari is definitely a sight to behold. These little guys are pretty rare, but if you do see one walking down the street you'll certainly know it. Its scarlet mug looks as if it's been tightly pulled over its little skull. That's because it has almost no fat beneath its skin. Bald Uakaris evolved the bright coloration because malarial or otherwise sick primates would've had a pale appearance. (4)
Together, they form troops. A foraging troop may contain just several individuals, but they may flow into groups of a hundred or more, especially to sleep. However, these larger Uakari troops have been reported to stay together for quite some time. Either way, Bald Uakaris are not typically solitary beings—as a rule, they stick together, whether foraging, traveling, or sleeping in the canopies. Bald Uakaris are omnivores who primarily eat seeds and fruits, but you might also find them eating insects, flowers, and leaves. (3) They have a strong jaw, as it is important to many primates to be able to ingest unripe fruits (or crack into a yummy Brazil nut). (5) You'll find these tree-dwelling monkeys in the West of the Amazon basin, in Peru and Brazil. Unfortunately, these areas may be razed for human use, and the Bald Uakari has to live in trees (it is arboreal). Because of this, and also because of hunting, the Bald Uakari's Conservation Status is listed as "Vulnerable." (4)
There are a couple different kinds of Bald Uakari, and all are similarly threatened. These subspecies are the White Bald-headed Uakari, the Ucayali Bald-headed Uakari, the Red rubicundus Bald-headed Uakari, and Novae's Bald-headed Uakari. Their short tails are not considered typical of New World monkeys and they move about the trees with their arms and legs. They may travel as far as 5 km (3 mi) this way in just one day. Males mature after 6 years and females 3, giving birth to just one baby every two years. It takes about a month for an infant to get moving and off its momma's back. Bald Uakaris have a pretty complex series of chirp-like calls to communicate different ideas. Their natural predators include hawks, humans, ocelots, tayras, and boa constrictors. (3)
These squeaky little orange monkeys are so cool. So hopefully, they and all the other members of their ecosystem can remain intact and live in harmony, far from imperial human civilization.
Average Life Span
About 30 years
220 - 350 lbs.
The Boto is better known as the Amazon River Dolphin or the pink river dolphin. Yes, a pink dolphin that lives in the rivers of the Amazon Basin. It exists. And we're not exactly sure how it got there!
There are other species of river dolphin on our planet, but this one is huge! It can grow to be almost eight and a half feet long and weigh over four hundred pounds! (6) That's because they found a good river (Did you know the Amazon is six times more voluminous than the Mississippi?). (2) In fact, no other species of river dolphin tops the Boto in terms of size. Despite this, they are especially good at maneuvering due to neck vertebrae that are not fused, unlike sea dolphins. This allows them to do a circular motion. These guys swim up into flooded forests in the wet season, and as the water recedes, take advantage of the contracting ecosystem. They actually become pickier eaters during this time, then expand their diet in the wet season when hunting is more difficult. But in general, pink river dolphins have a very diverse diet; they will eat crabs, turtles, and over fifty kinds of fish, including piranhas. They'll hunt with you too. Boto have been observed working in tandem with tucuxis and giant river otters to catch fish. (6)
There are three subspecies, separated by shallows and waterfalls in the Amazon system. However there appears to be some contention as to whether these are subspecies or separate species. (6)
Like any other dolphin, Amazon River Dolphins possess a melon in order to maneuver the river by means of echolocation. Why do we call it a melon? Because it looks like a giant cantaloupe on the dolphin's noggin! This fatty organ focuses music made in the nasal cavity. In order to get less cluttered feedback from the jumbled waters of the Amazon, their sonar is a little quieter and also more frequent than their ocean-dwelling cousins. (6)
These dolphins do not train well or live very long in captivity. Oh well, pretty much looks like we'll just have to leave them there where they belong... In the 1950's and 70's, hundreds of Boto were removed from their habitat. That's about when we found out how poorly these dolphins do in captivity. In their natural habitat, they're very interactive and have been observed holding oars, rubbing boats, and even competing with fishermen for food! Males are pretty aggressive, and they'll spar other males often, or even aggress a female who turns them away. This river dolphin tends to be solitary, but can be found in pods of three or four. Offspring stay by the mother for approximately two years. Births occur in May and June after about eleven months of pregnancy. (6)
Something odd happens when a number of Boto congregate: the males pick up random objects (rock, stick, leaves) and swim around with them in their mouths to attract a mate. If a male likes a female, he'll nibble on her fins. Males are much larger than females, weighing ~55% more and measuring ~16% longer. This difference between sexes is called a sexual dimorphism. (6)
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The Boto is a slow swimmer compared with oceanic dolphins. It has a vertically-short horizontally-long dorsal fin and especially large pectorals. (6)
Did I mention we don't know how they got there? Here's a little dolphin history. River dolphins are part of a taxonomic superfamily, since each different kind of river dolphin made its evolutionary river journey independently. It began when all dolphins started to evolve from a land-dwelling quadruped (four-legged). This prehistoric animal caught fish and ate in the shallows. The best hunters in this new habitat could swim faster and farther than their peers. Over time, these superior hunters who could swim far out to sea became dolphins! But a long time after that, the obviously curiously-minded animal had a tendency to swim up river deltas. This tendency created separate chains of river dolphins, each adapted to the river it grew to inhabit. (7) The strange thing about Amazon River Dolphins is we don't know if they originated from the Pacific or Atlantic Ocean. (6) Like, what!? That's crazy.
Being pink, I think they came from outer space.
I think the Boto is mad cute, don't you? Let's keep their habitat clean.
The Amazon Manatee
Average Life Span
264.6 - 595.3 lbs
This aquatic herbivore is one of the four extant species of the Order Sirenia (sea cows). (8) It is descended from four-legged amphibious creatures, and this one is the only manatee purely endemic to freshwater. The Amazon manatee exists throughout the entire basin, but prefers areas with entrances to deeper waters, with plenty of grass and flowering aquatic plants for it to eat. It can eat eight percent of its body weight per day! (9)
As with the Boto, the flood season drastically affects this animal's reproductive and feeding behavior. In the dry season Amazon Manatees retreat either to the main river channels or into the deepest recedes of lakes and oxbows. During this time, they take full advantage of their slow metabolism and for the most part, stop eating.They live off the large fat reserves in their pudgy bodies. During this time they may congregate more often than in the wet season. But for the most part, manatees seem to like their solitude. (9)
They have no back legs but have flippers, which they use to walk along the riverbed. They also hug and pad at each other with them... adorable. Rather than use a blowhole (they consider them overrated), the Amazon Manatee breaches to breathe using its nostrils, and can stay submerged fairly easily for ten minutes. Their whiskery mouth is how they get their generic name, meaning hair in Latin, and the inunguis species name refers to another unique attribute of the Amazon Manatee: it is the only manatee without flippernails. Yeah, most manatees have flippernails. But the Amazon Manatee never has to worry about getting a mana-cure. (9)
Their bisected lips can move independently as they chew. (9) How, uh... unique!
Threats to these include polluted waters, deforestation and subsequent soil erosion, and unfortunately, hunting for its meat and the oil you can extract from this peaceful water-pig. (8) But let's keep 'em bobbing around the murky waters that keep this animal so mysterious.
Average Life Span
This odd bird is definitely cute (and you'll see why below), but it also has a majestic quality to it. The very colorful and archaic-looking Hoatzin inhabits most of the Amazon river basin. It has a spiky crest atop its head, which has dark red eyes surrounded by a blue featherless area. Its neck and shoulders bear streaked dark and light plumage, its belly is sand-colored, and the flying feathers and under-wing are a chestnut color that shades from light to dark. (10) What a show!
It definitely reminds me of a cryptic Pokémon whose history is unraveled as part of one of the handheld games. Fittingly, there is much discussion among scholars over the taxonomy of the Hoatzin and its exact evolutionary story. Essentially, many animals like the Hoatzin once existed, but they went extinct. One of the reasons for this may have been predation by newly-evolved arboreal mammals. We don't know which avian strains are in reality the closest living relatives, and the exact story of the Hoatzin isn't currently clear. One suggestion is that Hoatzins could be quite closely related to doves. (10)
Hoatzins stink. No, literally, they stink. While many birds have a gizzard, the Hoatzin has a giant crop, the first organ food meets once down the oesophagus. Here, the Hoatzin's food sits for a long time to be fermented by bacteria, giving them a nasty manure-like stank. Because of this, they're often called the stinkbird or the flying cow (11). The Hoatzin's diet consists of leaves, buds, and occasionally fruit. (10)
In order to digest this food, the crop is so large that it actually impedes their flying—the pectoral muscles are weak as a result of this giant organ. So they just sit there for extended periods, digesting leaves and caring for the young ones. (10)
The fledglings have some interesting properties. When the Hoatzin is a wee tyke, it has two claws on the tips of its wings. When a predator approaches a family (which averages around four or five strong), the adults make noise and fly around. If the young are startled sufficiently, they will dive down into the flooded waters and swim! Then, they grab onto a tree and climb, climb, climb back up to that nest. Sadly, the vulnerable bird might also become a snack, though. The Amazon is full of predators, after all. Then when the Hoatzin matures, it loses its claws. (10) In fact, there is a common saying amongst Hoatzins: "When you drop those claws, you won't have to fall!"
These claws caused speculation that Hoatzins were related to the extinct Archaeopteryx. But now, biologists believe the bird may have re-developed the reptilian claw out of its own necessity, with the claw already being in the bird genome. (10) What's more, many other birds grow these in utero anyway and are born with out them. (12)
The predators of the Hoatzin include great black hawks, crocodiles, and capuchin monkeys. (10)
Hoatzins are not particularly threatened by humans devouring the rainforest, being listed as Least Concern. (10) But that doesn't mean we shouldn't be concerned about the further existence and balance of the Amazon Rainforest.
The Short-Eared Dog
Average Life Span
20 - 22 lbs.
This is probably the most interesting animal on the list because we know so little about it. It is also, in my opinion, the cutest. The short-eared dog is an extremely unique canid species which inhabits the western Amazon basin. Its ancestors must have crossed continents during the Great American Interchange when the isthmus of Panama was formed. (13) They would have slowly adapted to life in the rainforest, where there is plenty of food.
Short-eared dogs have a preference for fish, but they also eat small mammals like marsupials, agoutis and other rodents, insects, frogs, birds, reptiles and fruits. It has partially webbed digits, which led humans to wonder how aquatic its lifestyle might be. The females are considerably (one-third) larger than the males. (13) Pups are pup-portedly mostly born in the flowering season in May and June. (15) It takes three years for males to reach sexual maturity, after which they begin making strange horny noises. An excited male will spray from its tail glands. (14)
The generic name Atelocynus means "imperfect or incomplete dog." I don't know why... All the parts are there, and nobody's perfect. Nevertheless, it is known for its elusive nature, and generally keeps a good distance from humanity. Because of this, we are still learning about things like its life span or gestation period. But we do know it is pretty solitary and sometimes hunts in pairs. (15)
These very graceful animals are "partly diurnal, partly nocturnal, with peaks of activity around dawn and dusk," according to Renata Leite Pitman, who with her team has evinced nearly all the ecological information we have on record of this species.
There is a risk speculated that other wild dog species could infect this native dog with distemper and do damage to the population. (15)
Threats to this Region
Threats to the Amazon rainforest include road-building, fossil-fuel burning, mining and associated chemicals, oil extraction and oil spills (18), hunting, logging, clearing forest for pasture, pesticides, vehicle emissions, disruption of the water cycle, and global climate change. We have brazenly consumed 20% of the Amazon in the past 40 years. (16)
There are currently plans to build a dam system that would flood 400 square km of rainforest (the Belo Monte dam). This would displace many indigenous peoples; the people of the Xingu river live where the dam is to be built. These people have a right to their livelihood. The government's attitude toward these people is pretty assimilating and callous—they seem to feel pretty justified in allowing the development of the land. (17) If you would like to stand with the Munduruku people who live in this region you can sign this petition. (click "Take Action")
Amazon Watch is an Oakland-based non-profit organization dedicated to advancing the rights of indigenous peoples.
You can help the general health of the Amazon by becoming a discriminating consumer. That is the broadest way to help. You can also simply speak about it, share this article, and support or donate to organizations that protect the ecosystem.
More and more rainforest is taken every year. We can't and shouldn't continue to take these "little pieces." Development encourages more development, and the rainforest and its indigenous people should be respected. We should give the gift of a flourishing Amazon to the coming generations.
The eventual loss of this rainforest would drastically hurt those who live in the future and encourage desertification. It wouldn't take long to make this irreversible mistake. Imagine looking down on our huge mistake from space. And surely the displacement of the indigenous people would be among the records for future people to discover. It would be much better to write into our history that for once we saw a disastrous outcome on the horizon and did what we could to reverse the damage.
What Is Your Spirit Animal
I used many secondary and tertiary sources. This article was designed to bundle available online information and make it fun for you to read. I hope you enjoyed it!
(1) Wikipedia contributors. "Amazon rainforest." Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 29 Aug. 2016. Web. 8 Sep. 2016.
(2) Butler, Rhett. "The Amazon Rainforest." Mongabay.com. Rhett Butler, 09 June 1999. Web. 07 Sept. 2016.
(3) Gron KJ. 2008 July 21. Primate Factsheets: Uakari (Cacajao) Taxonomy, Morphology, & Ecology . <http://pin.primate.wisc.edu/factsheets/entry/uakari>. Accessed 2016 September 7
(4) Wikipedia contributors. "Bald uakari." Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 5 Sep. 2016. Web. 8 Sep. 2016.
(5) Society, National Geographic. "Red Uakari." National Geographic. Notional Geographic Partners, n.d. Web. 08 Sept. 2016.
(6) Wikipedia contributors. "Amazon river dolphin." Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 28 Aug. 2016. Web. 8 Sep. 2016.
(7) Wikipedia contributors. "River dolphin." Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 31 Aug. 2016. Web. 8 Sep. 2016
(8) "Amazon Manatee." WWF.panda.org. WWF, n.d. Web. 08 Sept. 2016.
(9) Wikipedia contributors. "Amazonian manatee." Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 1 Sep. 2016. Web. 8 Sep. 2016.
(10) Wikipedia contributors. "Hoatzin." Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 2 Aug. 2016. Web. 8 Sep. 2016
(11) Obid123. "Hoatzin Bird in the Amazon." YouTube. YouTube, 02 Dec. 2012. Web. 08 Sept. 2016.
(12) Drexel University, AcadNaturalSciences. "The Hoatzin's Ancient Claw."YouTube. YouTube, 23 Mar. 2012. Web. 08 Sept. 2016.
(13) Wikipedia contributors. "Short-eared dog." Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 13 Jul. 2016. Web. 8 Sep. 2016.
(14) Hance, Jeremy. "Short-eared Dog? Uncovering the Secrets of One of the Amazon's Most Mysterious Mammals." Conservation News. Article Published by Jeremy Hance on 2014-07-28., 30 July 2016. Web. 08 Sept. 2016.
(15) Wildscreen Arkive. "Small-eared Zorro Photos and Facts." ARKive. Wildscreen Arkive, n.d. Web. 08 Sept. 2016.
(16) Frontier. "How You Can Help Save the Amazon Rainforest From Deforestation." The Huffington Post. Huffington Post, 12 Nov. 2013. Web. 08 Sept. 2016.
(17) Wikipedia contributors. "Belo Monte Dam." Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 24 Aug. 2016. Web. 8 Sep. 2016.
(18) "Threats to the Amazon." Sky Rainforest Rescue. Sky Corporation, n.d. Web. 08 Sept. 2016.