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Animals need special skills to live in the rainforest

Posted in Animals, Birds, Geography, Nature, Wildlife on Wednesday, 31 October 2012

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This edited article about the Amazon rainforest originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 775 published on 20th November 1975.

Amazon wildlife, picture, image, illustration

Some animals found in the Amazon rainforest

The dense forests that sweep for hundreds of kilometres from the banks of the mighty Amazon provide food and shelter for a vast variety of animals. Many of these creatures that run, climb, creep and fly among the fantastic tangle of trees and undergrowth are to be found nowhere else in the world.

With the exception of the larger land animals, such as tapirs and jaguars, most Amazonian species live, feed and breed in the trees. Even the jaguar spends quite a lot of its time prowling about the lower branches of trees as it hunts the smaller animals on which it feeds.

The towering trees of an Amazon forest are rather like a high-rise block of flats. On the “ground floor” live the larger animals including jaguars, tapirs, agoutis, some species of snakes and various kinds of antelope. Most of them feed by browsing on herbs and shrubs they find growing at ground level.

The animals living on the ground tend to be smaller and more compact than their relatives in other and less-wooded parts of the world. The deer and antelopes are without horns or antlers as these would hinder their progress as they run through the undergrowth.

Many of the ground-floor dwelling animals frequently move to the first floor or shrub layer of the forest in search of food. There they join a variety of birds and insects. Among the latter is the haliconius butterfly and the leaf-cutting ant.

Next comes the second floor or middle layer. This is the home of a variety of species, including the cat-like ocelot, the woolly opossum and various kinds of insect-eating birds.

Above the middle layer is the canopy layer. This is the most densely-populated of all the layers. It is the home of the three-toed sloth, the tree boa, the toucan and other exotic and brilliantly-plumaged birds.

One of the most interesting inhabitants of the canopy layer is the howler monkey. Howlers are the biggest of the many species of monkey living in the Amazon forests. Some are nearly as big as chimpanzees.

The howler’s voice is even more impressive than its size. By means of the special structure of its voice box, it emits a piercing cry that can be heard from a distance of three miles above all the other many sounds of the forest.

Another curiosity amongst the forest monkey tribes is the bald uacari. It gets its name from the fact that the skin of its face and head is practically hairless, while the lack of fat beneath the skin causes the latter to be stretched so tightly that the head has the appearance of a skull.

The top storey of the forest high-rise is called the emergent layer and consists of the tops of the trees. It is the home of birds of prey, such as the harpy eagle; humming birds and other midgets; and a number of brightly-coloured butterflies.

Every species of Amazon-forest animal is specially adapted or designed for life in the trees. Since four-footed and other non-flying animals have to find their food in the trees, they must be expert climbers to reach it. Therefore they are extremely agile and are generally smaller and lighter than are their counterparts in other parts of the world.

Most of the monkeys native to the Amazon forests are distinguished by their exceptionally long tails which they use as an extra limb.

Spider monkeys, so called because of their long limbs and tail, are the master acrobats of the trees. They can swing themselves from tree to tree and from branch to branch at a fantastic speed. Should one miss its grip and fall it saves itself from disaster by looping its tail over the nearest branch.

Capuchin monkeys have a still more remarkable tail. Although it is shorter than that of the spider monkey, the inner surface of the capuchin’s tail-tip is ridged and without hair. This prevents the tail from slipping when it is used as a fifth limb to grasp branches.

Amazon forests are the home of a great variety of reptiles adapted to living in trees. A species of iguana lizard has five very long claws for gripping tree trunks when climbing.

But the most remarkable reptiles are the so-called flying lizards. These have flaps of skin stretching along their sides from the hindlegs to the forelegs. When they extend their legs to jump, the skin spreads out and the lizard glides from tree to tree as though borne on a parachute.

Tree-dwelling sloths, porcupines and anteaters all have very long claws and tails for gripping branches. One species of anteater has jointed soles on the feet, so enabling it to bend its claw right round a branch.

Frogs living amongst the trees have suction pads on the toes so that they can cling with little effort to any smooth or other surface.

Then there are the tree-dwelling snakes, which include the green mamba and the gaboon viper. They are much slimmer than their ground-based relatives, and when they hook the rear end of their bodies to a branch, they can stretch the rest of their bodies a surprising distance to seize their prey.

Another factor that distinguishes most of the animals living in the Amazon forests is their exceptional eyesight. Land-dwelling animals generally hunt their prey by scent. But it is not easy to follow a scent trail through the branches of trees. The forest creatures have to rely on acute vision to detect their quarry.

Loveliest of all the forest birds are the brilliantly-coloured humming birds. There are several hundreds of species, the smallest being little bigger than a bee.

All humming birds live on the nectar of flowers which they suck up through their long, tube-like tongues. All of them have also developed the technique of hovering in front of the flowers from which they draw the nectar. They can even fly backwards for short distances.

The most extraordinary of all Amazon birds is the hoatzin. It is about the size of a crow and nests in the fork of a tree growing on the banks of the Amazon. Young hoatzins have claws at the tips of the wings and use them for climbing about the branches of trees.

Along the banks of rivers are some fantastic creatures. One is a species of otter which grows to a length of seven feet.

Then there is the capybara. This is the largest of living rodents and grows to a length of one metre.

Capybaras spend much of their time in the river, where many of them fall victim to the spectacled caiman. The caiman belongs to the crocodile family and grows to a length of 2.5 metres. It gets its name from the spectacle-like ridges of skin surrounding the eyes.

But the terror of the Amazon is the anaconda. This giant snake, which belongs to the boa constrictor family, crushes its prey by wrapping its coils round the victim. It can be up to 9 metres long. It lurks in ambush among the vegetation along the river bank ready to seize any passing animal.

About the only animal too big for the anaconda to tackle is the manatee. The manatee is rather like a large seal and is about 4 metres long.

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