30 Amazing Natural Wonders of the Amazon
The incredible Amazon Basin covers over 40% of South America. The Amazon rainforest spans more than 2.1 million square miles, making it the largest rainforest in the world, and intrepid explorers can find more than 10% of all the world’s species within it.
This sprawling tropical encyclopedia of flora and fauna stretches far beyond Brazil, extending across parts of Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador, Colombia, Venezuela, Guyana, Suriname and French Guiana. Here are 30 of the most amazing natural wonders found in the Amazon.
Golden Lion Tamarin
One of the most distinctive looking animals in the rainforest, the golden lion tamarin would not appreciate your lame jokes about gingers. Measuring less than a foot in length without the tail and weighing just one to two pounds, their earnest faces appear to peep out from the thick reddish fur that covers their bodies.
Human intervention has played a central role in both the devastation and subsequent cultivation of their population: While their population numbers once dipped to 200, the population has recovered significantly in the wild. The precious species also faces significant mortality rates for babies, as only half of all golden lion tamarin newborns survive the first year of their life.
A species of boa, the green anaconda is the largest snake in the world, weighing in at more than 500 pounds, thanks in part to its imposing girth. They can grow to more than 20 feet long, with some even approaching 30 feet.
Anacondas are one of the most terrifying predators in the Amazon. These imposing carnivores will happily feed on larger animals such as deer and pigs, squeezing the breath out of their prey and then digesting it whole. At least at that point, they’re satiated for the next few weeks.
In addition to being the world's largest living rodent, the capybara is arguably the world's cutest rat. It resembles both a guinea pig on steroids and, bizarrely, tennis legend Rafael Nadal. However, some of the world’s top golfers found the presence of capybaras on the course at the 2016 Rio Olympics a bit disconcerting.
Weighing up to 150 pounds, capybaras are herbivores that can consume up to eight pounds of grass per day. They also eat their own feces for the residual nutrients. They can hide underwater without a breath for up to five minutes, helping them avoid predators. However, humans pose the most significant risk to their survival, hunting them for their meat and hides.
The harpy eagle would be a leading candidate to portray a White Walker if HBO ever makes an all-bird version of Game of Thrones. This bird is named after the harpies of Greek mythology, which are described as bird-like monsters with human faces. Fun fact: the design of Fawkes the Phoenix from the Harry Potter series was based off of the harpy eagle.
Harpy eagles are also one of the strongest and largest species of eagles in the world. And if you ever find yourself on the business end of a harpy eagle, you’ll have to contend with talons that are over five inches long. That’s longer than a grizzly bear’s claws!
Otters are pretty cute, floating on their backs and smashing clams on rocks to open them and whatnot. But the giant otter is downright terrifying, measuring up to six feet in length and weighing more than 75 pounds. Amazingly, a giant otter can eat six to nine pounds of food daily.
Though they mostly eat fish, they are occasionally known to dine on small caimans and anacondas as well. And in case it ever comes up on Jeopardy!, giant otters are one of the animal kingdom’s only carnivores with a fur-covered nose. Unfortunately, hunting and habitat loss have combined to make the giant otter an endangered species.
As if being called the rhinoceros beetle and having a huge, intimidating horn wasn’t cool enough, these beetles are also known as Hercules beetles due to their amazing strength. With some species growing up to seven inches in length, these are among the largest beetles in the world.
These beetles also have a cutthroat approach to mating. Males use their horns to compete over females. A male beetle wins the rights to mate with the female when he successfully flips his opponent up off the ground or off of a tree. Scientists should set up a pay-per-view event, because the WWE has nothing on these fearsome beetles.
Victoria Amazonica Lily
Monet would have flipped his beret if he saw these water lilies. The Victoria Amazonica is the largest water lily on Earth, with floating leaves up to 10 feet across and a stalk that can extend more than 25 feet below. Guyana claims it as its national flower and features it on its coat of arms, along with a pair of jaguars armed with a pick axe, sugar cane, and rice stalk.
The leaves of these giant water lilies can support the weight of a human, and they even have armor underneath, with sharp spikes that offer protection from fish looking for a snack. It’s really the ultimate flotation device.
Sure, the boa constrictor can be deadly to humans, but only if you let it coil around you. After all, they make great pets! Just bear in mind, a boa constrictor is a bad choice for households with pets or children. Constrictors can also live for more than 30 years in captivity. So, if you’re not up to snuff on your herpetology and in it for the long haul, just leave these snakes in the jungle where they belong. After all, collection for the pet trade contributes to population decline.
Capable of growing to more than 10 feet in length, the boa constrictor uses its nimble body to ambush prey. They often hang from a tree until a nearby animal is within striking distance. But constrictors also keep humans safe. By gorging on the many rodents around the rainforest, including opossums, they help reduce transmission of the potentially fatal disease leishmaniasis to humans.
The Amazon rainforest is home to nearly 400 billion trees spanning 16,000 different species, but only about 200 of these are “hyperdominant” species, such as the rubber tree. The tallest of all is a species of kapok tree known as the sumaumeira, which can grow more than 200 feet high and 10 feet across.
The sumaumeira tree can sprout up by as much as 13 feet each year, and when these trees produce fruit, it scatters hundreds of thousands of seeds across the open forest. The sumaumeira tree soars at the top of the rainforest’s emergent layer, towering over the canopy.
Despite the NFL team name, there are no jaguars in Jacksonville – even team mascot Jaxson de Ville retired in 2015 – and they are very rarely seen in the United States. While they are the largest cat in the Americas, it is estimated that only 15,000 jaguars remain in the wild.
Jaguars are loners, hunting solo, and capable of climbing trees or swimming for their prey. According to research by scientists at the University of South Carolina, the jaguar has the strongest bite of any large cat species relative to its weight, helped by its shorter jaw. And unlike other large cats, it typically delivers a single fatal blow, crushing the skull of its prey.
The howler monkey gets its name from its distinctive howl, but it’s not the wolf-like call that you might expect. Instead, it’s more like a deep burp after a long drink of soda, a grunt that some say sounds more like Gregorian chant. Now that’s a pretty unpleasant way to wake up at 4 a.m., but fear not, they’re just letting each other know which tree they’re on.
Howler monkeys often live in packs of a dozen or more high up in the tree canopy, and their howls can carry for up to 20 miles. They like to hang around by their prehensile tails, which can be up to five times as long as their bodies.
Fun fact: The spider monkey is actually a type of monkey and not a type of spider, which is reassuring. But despite weighing more than 20 pounds, their spindly limbs and long tail can resemble a giant spider hanging across tree branches.
These monkeys have adapted to life in the trees and do not have opposable thumbs, but they also have a unique patch of skin at the tip of their tail to help them grip. With their frugivorous diet, they also helpfully disperse seeds across the ecosystem.
Poison Dart Frog
Poison dart frogs offer dazzling colors that please the eye, but some also pack enough poison to kill multiple humans at a time. In particular, the golden dart frog reigns supreme as one of the deadliest. The BBC cautions that the golden poison frog has “enough poison to kill 10 grown men, making these frogs perhaps the most poisonous animals alive.”
These frogs epitomize the “look but don’t touch” rule that applies to many things in a teeming rainforest. While their colors may be beautiful, they are meant as a danger warning to other species. Measuring between a half-inch and two inches long, these stunning creatures span virtually the entire color spectrum.
The jaboticaba tree basically looks like it’s breaking out in hives when it bears fruit, because the fruit grows directly on its trunk, known as cauliflory. Understandably, the purple fruit is called tree grapes, as it looks like grapes without the vine.
The skin of the fruit is very tart, but the fleshy interior is sweet and varies in taste. They also ferment quickly after being picked, so it’s best to pluck it fresh off the tree and eat it promptly. This tree has also been introduced to southern regions of the United States, where it can grow up to 15-feet tall.
The puma of South America is technically a subspecies of cougar, sometimes referred to as a mountain lion or panther. With their solid-colored coat, the puma is different in structure and behavior from the large cat species that include lions, tigers, and jaguars.
Pumas can weigh upwards of 100 pounds, and have a vertical leap that can reach 18 feet, with a horizontal leap of twice that distance. So while they’re ineligible to play, they would be very good at pro basketball. The indigenous Runa people of Amazonian Ecuador even have a legend about humans that transform into pumas.
One of the coolest looking creatures in the Amazon, glass frogs are also known as see-through frogs, because of the transparent skin on their underbellies. Their liver, heart and intestines are all visible through this transparent layer. Talk about feeling naked!
Many of these tiny amphibians are less than an inch long, but some species can grow up to three inches. Scientists have discovered certain types of glass frogs that have green bones in addition to an outer layer of light green skin.
The common bladderwort belongs to the genus Utricularia, a carnivorous aquatic plant similar to a Venus fly trap. It grows in swamps and streams without a root system, and has a long stem that sets clever traps for its unsuspecting prey.
Small, hollow bladders grow along the stem, with a closed “door.” If an insect or a small animal touches the small hairs on the stem, the “door” opens and the unsuspecting prey is swept inside by a flow of water. Then the door snaps shut in a fraction of a second, and the merciless plant digests the food at its leisure.
Fun fact: the reptile sometimes called the Jesus Christ lizard is actually a basilisk lizard, and it gets such an exalted nickname by appearing to walk on water – but it’s actually more of a frenetic scamper. Sometimes it helps to be two-feet long and only a few ounces.
Jesus lizards are able to move across water due to their unique toes. The back toes of a Jesus lizard have the ability to unfurl in the water, creating more surface area. As they move across water, these lizards quickly slap their toes on the water hard enough to create tiny air pockets between their feet and the water, holding them up.
Humans love sloths. John Leguizamo voiced one in Ice Age (2002); Chris Sanders voiced one in The Croods (2013); Raymond S. Persi even voiced one that worked at the DMV in Zootopia (2016). Kristen Bell loves them to the point of emotional breakdown. And why not? Sloths are non-threatening, sluggish, and adorable.
Unfortunately, due to human activity, certain species like the pygmy sloth are now critically endangered due to habitat loss. They live in trees that humans cut down. But you can symbolically adopt one through the World Wildlife Fund to help preserve actually existing, non-anthropomorphic sloths for generations to come.
The giant anteater has poor eyesight and no teeth, but don’t despair. They have ferocious skills capable of fending off a jaguar attack. Measuring up to four feet long and two feet high and armed with sharp claws, the giant anteater is a force to be reckoned with.
When not tussling with massive jungle cats, the giant anteater will use its two-foot-long tongue – flicking it more than two times per second – to scoop up ants, consuming more than 30,000 insects per day. They’re savvy enough to avoid ruining a nest, instead taking a snack to satiate hunger and coming back to the mound repeatedly.
As if the name kinkajou wasn't awesome enough, these tropical mammals have distinctively large eyes and ears that jut out adorably, which give them a keen sense of hearing and the ability to avoid predators. Impressively, kinkajous can run backwards just as quickly as they can move forwards. And their name originates from a translation of honey bear, because they love to drink nectar and honey.
What’s not to love? Well, as it turns out, kinkajous don’t make very good pets. A genetic relative of the raccoon, these cute critters are wild animals that can injure owners and other residents of the home when kept as domestic pets. And they like the rainforest, so it’s unlikely a pet owner could replicate their natural habitat.
The sundew, of the drosera genus, has small flowers above some innocent-looking leaves. However, there are hairy little trichomes all over the upper leaves that exude a sweet sticky substance that attracts insects. Once insects are trapped in the substance, enzymes work to digest the prey.
Sundews use nutrients from what they digest to supplement the soil. Once an insect is trapped, it's near-impossible for them to escape. Dozens of different species of sundew are found in Brazil alone, and new species are being discovered each year.
Toucan Sam has hoodwinked generations of people into eating the sugar-packed cereal Froot Loops. A real toucan would never do that, but they do tend to “follow their nose” in order to find food. A genetic relative of the woodpecker, the toucan has a massive bill made of lightweight keratin that can grow to be four times the size of their head. The outsized length of their bill allows them to reach into crevices for food, and it’s also thought to intimidate other birds.
Unfortunately, toucans are not particularly good at flying, due to their short rounded wings and long tail. These proportions make the toucan specially unsuited for flying. On the plus side, their diet promotes seed dispersal, helping to spread plant growth across their habitat.
If you’re ever in the Amazon or Orinoco River basins and you catch a whiff of something horrible, you might be in the presence of a hoatzin. After all, there’s a reason it’s also known as the reptile bird, skunk bird or the stinkbird.
Similar to a cow, their digestive tract ferments the vegetation they eat, hence the smell. Their wild crest somewhat resembles a punk rocker with liberty spikes, and they are so unusual that they have stymied definitive classification.
The Amazon river dolphin, also known as boto, lives in freshwater and turns pink in color as it ages, so it’s no wonder that they are the subject of strange legends. One such legend holds that these dolphins turn into men at night and seduce local women. Another legend claims that these dolphins kidnap those who dare to go swimming alone.
These massive creatures weigh more than 300 pounds and can grow to longer than nine feet. Unlike saltwater dolphins that often travel in pods, the Amazon river dolphin is typically seen in groups of two to four, and sometimes solo. However, their habitat faces continual threat from river development projects for irrigation and hydroelectricity.
The scarlet macaw is one of the most colorful inhabitants of the Amazon. The scarlet macaw has gorgeous coloration, but they can be difficult to spot high up in the trees nestled into a hollow, or when blurring past in flight at 35 miles per hour.
This beautiful palette of colors also makes them a target for poachers who engage in a lucrative black-market trade for them. The scarlet macaw is also known to engage in a strange practice of eating clay along riverbanks, known as geophagy, which may aid in digestion.
Caimans are basically small gators, but are they dangerous to humans? While most caiman species are too small to pose a real danger to humans, the Amazon’s black caiman is large enough to be fatal. So give this cantankerous creature a wide berth. Adult males can grow to more than 13 feet long, and they are not to be trifled with.
On the plus side, caimans can help scientists studying local ecology, because they accumulate many compounds from their habitat in their tissues through consumption of prey. Scientists have found that it’s possible to gauge the level of mercury in an ecosystem simply by measuring the mercury levels in caimans.
Piranha translates to “tooth fish” in the indigenous Tupi language, and those jagged teeth are combined with a powerful jaw. Piranhas even have unique sensors that detect blood in the water, making them similar to a miniature shark. But there are dozens of different species of piranha, and some of them are even vegetarian.
So contrary to Hollywood creature films, you will not be devoured by a frenzied pack of piranhas while on spring break, but the red-bellied variant are known to be more aggressive and could give you a nasty gash on your finger if you’re not careful. As for their long-standing reputation as fearsome killing machines, we can blame President Teddy Roosevelt, who called them “the most ferocious fish in the world.”
The electric eel is not actually an eel, but a relative of the catfish. However, it is very much electric. Electric eels have 6,000 cells called electrocytes that trigger simultaneously when the eel is in danger or attacking prey. They use this incredible ability to stun their prey.
Perhaps the makers of iPhone batteries could take a cue from the electric eel’s potent power-generating biotechnology, as eels can store an enormous amount of potential electric energy. Worse still, these terrifying monsters of the deep can grow up to six to eight feet in length.
Not only do species of the Amazon’s giant catfish grow more than six feet long, but they also migrate further than any other freshwater fish. Catfish spawn 3,595 miles from the Amazon estuary where they spend most of their lives.
A stunningly wide variety of catfish thrive in the Amazon, with more than 1,300 different species cataloged. Some of these giant catfish, such as the Piraiba, can grow up to 10 feet long and weigh more than 500 pounds.