Life in the Amazon

Background - 2 May, 2006
The Amazon is one of the richest areas of the world in animal and plant diversity. There can be more plant species in one hectare of Amazon rainforest than there are in all of Europe.

Sloth (Bradybus variegates) in forest of Peru.

The diversity and contrast of life in the Amazon is startling. The Amazon water lily is the biggest flower in the world with a diameter of two metres. The Caranguejeira spider is bigger than a baseball and one species of monkey weighing 130 grams is about the size of a toothbrush.

The Amazon is also home to 57 endangered species including the jaguar. The jaguar population was all but wiped out by hunting for the fur trade before it was designated a protected species. Even now, virtually nothing is known about the jaguars' lifestyle, but some indigenous cultures of the Amazon revere the jaguar above all forest creatures.

Yet the range of plant and animal species in the Amazon remains largely unknown. Scientists estimate that only 40 percent of all insect species have so far been identified. Over 300,000 species of plants have been identified, but an estimated 20,000 remain undiscovered. In the 1990s alone, seven species of monkeys, two species of birds and dozens of species of frogs and fish have been discovered.

Facts and Figures

  • The total area of the Amazon rainforest (over six million km2 or 2.3 million square miles) is bigger than Western Europe and covers an area equivalent to two thirds of the US.
  • The forest stretches over nine countries: Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, French Guyana, Guyana, Peru, Surinam and Venezuela. The largest part is contained within Brazil.
  • The Amazon basin is the largest reservoir of fresh water on the planet and about one fifth of all running water on the planet flows through the Amazon.
  • The Amazon river is 6,868 km or 4000 miles long. The same distance that separates New York from Berlin. It is almost two times the length of the Mississippi river (3744 km/2340 miles) and five times longer than the river Rhine (1312km/820 miles).
  • During the rainy season from November to June, the main rivers in the Amazon flood vast areas of the forest. The flooded area can spread out up to 200 km from the riverbanks engulfing an area the size of England. In some rivers, the difference in the water level between wet and dry seasons is equal to the height of an eight-story building.
  • Over 200 species of trees can be found in one hectare of Amazon rainforest. One tree has been shown to have 72 different species of ants living in it.
  • There are about 30 times more fish species in the Amazon than in all European rivers.
  • The Amazon river contains over 3000 rare aquatic species including two types of river dolphins, the giant otter, turtles and alligators.
  • During the rainy season, the pink river dolphins move out of the main river and into the flooded forest where they can be seen swimming and hunting among the trees.
  • Jaguars are the biggest cat in the western hemisphere and are known to be far-ranging. Movements of 500 miles have been recorded. Jaguars rarely attack humans, in fact, humans have a longer history hunting jaguars and the demand for their fur has led to a dramatic reduction in population.
  • The sloth's vegetarian diet makes them very successful species in the forest and in many areas they are the most abundant larger mammal.