Because some 15,000 species of wildlife make Amazonia their home, visitors may expect to spot herds, and hordes, of animals. I soon learned that many resident mammals hide away from the river banks in less accessible areas of forest. Others are shy, elusive critters which are difficult to see, or nocturnal creatures that keep different hours than most people.
Wildlife in the Amazon
Even so, my five fellow passengers and I had opportunities to spot wildlife that most people usually have observed in zoos, if at all. We saw giant river otter, three-toed sloth and porcupine. Gray and pink river dolphin made brief appearances near the boat, sometimes following its wake in their search for small fish, turtles, crabs and other staples of their diet. Contrasting with the beauty of their rosy hue were the rather unseemly pig-like grunts and horse-like snorts that they emit.
Our extremely knowledgeable, locally-raised guide, Souza, reported that more than 1,800 species of birds live in trees along the Amazonia river banks, more than enough to make the area any bird-watcher’s paradise.
Greater Ani took flight gracefully as our boat passed beneath the tree branches where they sat. Red-billed Toucan, Scarlet Macaw and Green Ibis lived up to their names in their multi-hued coloration. We watched several Hoatzin, their heads adorned by a fan-shaped crest, demonstrate their reputation as awkward fliers, and builders of rather messy nests.
During twice-daily excursions in an outboard-driven launch, we enjoyed close encounters with other jungle denizens. Souza taught us to distinguish caiman, alligator-like reptiles lying in wait for passing food, from the logs they resemble. And he used a laser to point out long-nose bats clinging to trees on the shoreline.
Hikes through stretches of jungle, following Souza as he hacked a pathway through the thicket with a machete, were also productive. We weren’t lucky enough to spot wild pigs or armadillo, which are on the “may see” list. But Souza did point out what resembled a narrow branch, until two beady eyes identified it as a snake.
I also watched in awe as some of the most magnificent, and largest, butterflies I’ve ever seen flitted around, just a small sampling – I was told – of many hundreds of types that make the jungle their home.
The treetops often came alive with the chatter and scampering of monkeys. Squirrel monkeys peered down at me as I gazed up at them. I saw and heard Golden-handed Tamarins, and the yipping sounds of Capuchins as they foraged in the trees. Howler monkeys lived up to their name, emitting noises that sound variously like a train or the growl of a jungle cat which can carry for two miles.
A pleasant surprise was my fascination with smaller species. I used a flashlight to peer at a fist-sized tarantula hiding in a hole at the base of a tree, and watched a long column of leaf-cutter ants tirelessly carrying pieces of foliage several times their size to their underground lair. I observed Souza scoop up a handful of Teca ants and rub them onto his skin to serve as a natural mosquito repellent.
Equally intriguing was a different kind of life, encountered during visits to several of the isolated Indian villages that line the river banks. Most houses are made of crudely hewn wood planks covered by a metal roof. Small gardens provide vegetables; the surrounding forest adds fruits, nuts and medicinal plants, and the river yields piranha and other fish.
The majority of houses rest on rickety stilts that keep them from being inundated during the rainy season, when the river rises up 40 feet or more. A few are floating structures, which rise and fall with the water.
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