The Amazon Rainforest

The Amazon Rainforest is a vast tropical rainforest, covering around 5.5 million square kilometres of land within the Amazon Basin, of which 60% is within the borders of Brazil. The Amazon Rainforest is the most species-rich habitats on Earth, containing around 30% of all the world’s species. A single hectare of healthy rainforest may contain more than 500 species of tree and several hundred species of butterfly.

Its status as one of the world’s most important carbon sinks has led to its nickname “the lungs of the world.” The Amazon Rainforest now faces unprecedented deforestation and poaching, leading many climate scientists to believe that it is approaching a crucial tipping point, beyond which it may simply turn into dry savannah. Should this happen, the consequences to all life on Earth would be devastating.

In The Undercurrent, protagonist Curtis Knight visits the Amazon Rainforest of Pará State with his mother. Pará State is home to the Caxiuanã National Forest and the Amazon and Xingu Rivers flow right through it. It is very remote and wild, and is consequently only accessible by boat. Whilst there, Curtis encounters a number of amazing species of tree and animal. Read on to find out more about some of the incredible species that feature in The Undercurrent.

Animals of the Amazon Rainforest

Scarlet Macaw (Ara macao): The Scarlet Macaw can be found widely across the northern half of South America, and is instantly recognisable due to its striking plumage. Its vivid coloration, as well as its intelligence and ability to mimic human speech, has granted it sustained popularity as a captive bird. Whilst it has suffered local extinctions in certain Amazonian regions that have been blighted by heavy deforestation, it remains common, with its conservation status at Least Concern. Scarlet Macaws eat insects and larvae, and are mostly seen individually or in pairs in their natural habitat, although they can gather in strikingly large numbers at clay licks.

Cow-nosed Ray (Rhinoptera bonasus): The Cow-Nosed Ray is a migratory species of eagle ray that is found throughout the Western Atlantic and Caribbean Sea, and can be found as far south as Brazil during the autumn migration. Cow-nosed Rays are gregarious and travel in large groups, preying on clams, oysters and other invertebrates. Their name comes from their distinctive mouthparts, which are located on the underside of the ray’s body. The cownose ray is adapted to its diet of hard-shelled invertebrates with powerful shell-crushing dental plates, and two modified fins on either side of the mouth that are used to hold onto prey using suction. Cow-nosed rays are very numerous, although they are persecuted by commercial fishing, such that their conservation status is Near-Threatened.

Caiman (Caiman latirostris): The Caiman is a small crocodilian that lives in swamps, marshes and mangroves in the rainforests of northern South America. There are several sub-species with the smallest growing to around 1.5 metres and the largest exceeding 4 metres in length. Like other crocodilians, caimans are predators. Their diet consists mostly of fish , but they will also opportunistically hunt birds, small mammals and even insects if the need arises. The smaller Spectacled Caiman is not endangered, although the larger Black Caiman is conservation-dependent, due to habitat intrusion and poaching for its skin.

Musician Wren (Cyphorhinus arada): is a small bird, native to the Amazon Rainforest and parts of the Amazonian Andes. It is most notable for its complex song, which is so beautiful that local folklore holds that all other birds in the jungle stop to listen when the Musician Wren is singing.

Click here to hear the Musician Wren sing.

Jaguar (Panthera onca): One of the Amazon Rainforest’s most distinctive inhabitants, the Jaguar is the Americas’ largest cat, and one of the rainforest’s apex predators. It is threatened by habitat loss and fragmentation, directly driven by deforestation, which breaks up the Jaguars’ naturally large territories, reducing chances to find a mate, as well as reducing population of animals that they prey upon. Other threats to the in jaguar include poaching for its fur and other body parts and trophic cascades of toxic substances in the fish that it eats. A jaguar typically grows to 1.5m in length, with males larger than females. Jaguars are excellent climbers and swimmers, making them perfectly adapted to hunting in the rainforest.

Pink River Dolphin (Inia geoffrensis): Pink River Dolphins are a species of toothed whale that lives in the freshwater rivers and lakes of the Amazon Basin. A Pink river dolphin can grow to 2.5 metres in length, with males exhibiting a much stronger pink colour than females. They have a very wide dietary range, feeding on fifty-three species of fish, as well as river turtles and freshwater crabs. Due to the low average visibility in the rivers and lakes in which they live, Pink River Dolphins have very advanced echolocation capabilities, for which they use a ‘melon’ – a large spherical organ on the head. River dolphins are very vulnerable to water pollution from industrial agriculture, and as such they are classified as Threatened.

Trees of the Amazon Rainforest

Walking Palm (Socratea exorrhiza): is a type of palm tree found only in the Amazon Rainforest. It is a fairly unremarkable tree in all but one regard – its highly unusual ‘stilt roots,’ the function of which is still not entirely known.

 

One popular theory holds that the exposed roots allow it to quickly recover after being felled after another tree falls on it. Another theory holds that, by raising the trunk above the soil level, the walking palm’s roots allow it to grow in swamps and mangroves. Yet another theory holds that the palm tree can actually change its location by sending out new roots in a particular direction and allowing old ones to die, although this theory is more of a myth that an established hypothesis.

Kapok Tree (Ceiba pentandra): the word ‘kapok’ refers to both the tree itself and the white, cotton-like material inside the tree’s oversized seed pods. Kapoks can grow to be enormous – up to eighty metres tall, and up to three metres in diameter.

 

Kapoks have dramatic buttress roots, sometimes reaching up to fifteen metres above the soil level. The flowers of the kapok are and important source of nectar for bees and bats, whilst the seed fibres are used in the creation of blowgun darts by native Amazonian tribes.

Strangler Fig (Ficus citrifolia): A strangler fig begins its life cycle as an epiphyte – a plant that grows on another plant – as a strategy to avoid having to compete for light with the many other trees in the rainforest. The strangler will attack larger trees such as palms, cypresses and oaks, and send multiple trunks around the host tree’s trunk to eventually consume it entirely, starving it of nutrients until it dies.

 

Once this happens, the strangler will live on as a hollow skeleton as the other rots away. Despite this less than charitable behaviour, the strangler fig is considered a keystone species – vitally important to the overall health of the rainforest. Strangler figs produce huge amounts of fruit which provide sustenance for thousands of species, including primates, birds, bats and insects.

Oil Palm (Elaeis oleifera): The outwardly unremarkable oil palm has one of the most controversial histories of any tree on Earth. Whilst oil palm is even now viewed as a ‘miracle product’ with applications as diverse as biofuels, pharmaceuticals, cooking, processed food manufacture, toiletries and animal feed, and has played a central role in rural poverty reduction schemes across the developing world, this ‘miracle’ comes at a heavy price. Oil Palm plantations are responsible for huge amounts of deforestation of the world’s rainforests: current estimates hold that there are around 100,000 acres of palm oil plantations in Pará State alone. Poverty reduction schemes based on palm oil have been heavily criticised for their short term focus, and these plantations have played a great part in pushing the Amazon Rainforest towards an irreversible tipping point from which their can be no return. This has led to various boycotts of palm oil across the world, although palm oil production continues to increase with every passing year.

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