Flora of the Amazon
Tropical rain forests are exceptionally diverse and complex ecosystems; occupying only about seven percent of the earth’s land area, they are home to about half of the world’s plant species. More than 300 tree species can be identified in just one hectare of Ecuadorian lowland forest, connected via a variety of woody climbers and vines. Branches covered with orchids, bromeliads, ferns and other epiphytes form the dense forest canopy, all shaded by the huge Kapok trees (Ceiba spp.).
For thousands of years, humans have made use of a variety of Amazon plants to survive. The Yuca root (manihot esculenta) is a primary food staple, lances and blowpipes are produced out of the iron-wood palm tree Pambil (Iriatea deltoidea), Shamans use the Ayahuasca vine (Banisteriopsis caapi) to produce a hallucinogenic drink for their healing rituals, women knot hammocks and fishing nets with the strong Chambira palm tree’s fibre (Astrocaryum chambira) and men extract Curare from several vines (Chondrodendron tomentosum and others) to poison their darts for hunting.
Fauna of the Amazon
Ecuador is one of the world’s megadiverse countries, in both flora and fauna. However, while the Amazon is home to a nearly immeasurable diversity of species, in many cases, there are few individuals of a given species. Mammals in particular often travel through large territories; searching and a bit of luck are generally necessary to spot them.
Red Howler Monkey (Alouatta seniculus)
Fifteen primate species climb through the eastern Ecuadorian rain forests. At dawn the distinctive sound of the Red howler monkeys (Alouatta seniculus) penetrates the morning mist. With a bit of luck, the smallest monkey on earth, the Pygmy Marmosette (Callithrix pygmaea), can be observed feeding on certain tree saps. The amusing squirrel monkeys (saimiri sciureus) often accompany the white-faced capuchins (Cebus albifrons) for their knowledge of where the best food can be found. The white-bellied spider monkey (Ateles belzebuth), named for its large, slender limbs, is the largest monkey living in Ecuador. Their prehensile tails serve as a fifth hand, a characteristic unique to the species of the Atelidae family, found only in the Americas. The woolly monkeys (Lagothrix spp.), belonging to the same family, are often spotted jumping from branch to branch in the trees.
When night falls, the noisy night monkey (Aotus vociferans) emerges. During the day these small primates sleep in hollow trunks.
Amazon River Dolphin
Two freshwater dolphin species swim and fish in the Amazon streams. The Tucuxi (Sotalia fluviatilis) is one of the smallest dolphins in the world, while the Amazon river dolphin (Inia geoffrensis) is the largest river dolphin on earth, up to 2.80 m in length.
To see, hear or smell a sounder of white-lipped peccaries is an impressive experience. Up to 400 of these animals stroll through the forest in groups, eating whatever does not escape quickly. The indigenous people say that even the Jaguar needs to take care when hunting the piglets.
Hoatzin (Opisthocomus hoazin)
Despite its small territory, Ecuador is home to more than half of South American avifauna. More than 1,600 bird species have been identified in the country, of which 50 percent can be found in the Amazon lowlands. Here the terra firma areas are especially rich in bird species.
The Harpy Eagle (Harpia harpyja) is said to be the most powerful bird of prey in the world, able to catch monkeys from the tops of trees. This very rare bird can still be found in remote areas in the northern and western lowlands.
The Hoatzin (Opisthocomus hoazin) is often found around oxbow lakes. These prehistoric birds feed only on leaves, and the squabs have claws on their wings that they use to move around in the shrubbery until they learn to fly.
Antbirds (Thamnophilidae and Formicariidae) escort army ants and feed on insects the latter flush out on their way through the rain forest. They are very shy and difficult to see as they prefer dense vegetation.
Reptiles and Amphibians
With 464 species, Ecuador is the world’s number three country in diversity of amphibians (behind only Brazil and Columbia), and is seventh in diversity of reptiles with approximately 400 species recorded. Most of Ecuador’s reptiles are found in the hot lowlands, as they do not have mechanisms for internal temperature regulation. Among them is the famous Green Anaconda (Eunectes murinus), the world’s biggest constricting snake growing up to 10m in length. The poisonous Lancehead species (Bothrops spp.) are highly feared and commonly called “equis” because of the “X”-marks on their backs.
The largest South American predator is the Black caiman (Melanosuchus niger), up to 6m in length and the most impressive of the three caiman species that call the Oriente home. From August to December, when rivers are low and sandbanks appear, the Yellow-headed River Turtles (Podocnemis expansa) lay their eggs into the sun-heated sand.
Numerous frog species provide music during Amazon nights. One of the louder voices belongs to the South American Bullfrog (Leptodactylus pentadactylus). During the day, the small but colourful poison dart frogs (Dendrobatidae) are found between fallen leaves. Some species lay their eggs in bromeliads, then carry the tadpoles on their back to larger bodies of water where they undergo metamorphosis.
Small Piranha (Serrasalminae)
The most famous fish are certainly the Piranhas (Serrasalminae). They all have sharp, triangular shaped teeth. But the majority of species are scavengers and rather unthreatening, some eating only fruits.
Since many rivers, including the Amazon itself, are turbid, electric fish are common. They use electric fields to orientate themselves and to help find living organisms for food. Their electricity is also used for defense. The South American electric eel (Electrophorus electricus) can produce a current of up to 2 amperes and 500 volts.
Catfish (order Siluriformes) are also well adapted to the poor visibility of the waters of the Amazon basin. Their barbels, whisker-like organs that house the taste buds of the catfish, enable them to search for food in murky waters and gave the catfish their name. Those of the Loricariidae family are locally called “bagres”; they can grow as long as a person and make for a tasty meal.
Insects and Spiders
The most numerous animals in the tropical rain forests are insects, with as many as 50,000 species in a single square mile of some rainforest regions. In the Amazon, ant species account for about half of the insects, and can be seen nearly everywhere.
The largest species is the Giant tropical bullet ant (Paraponera clavata), with workers reaching a length between 18 and 25mm. Their sting is the most painful and debilitating known for any insect.
The leaf-cutter ants (genera Atta and Acromyrmex) live in huge colonies that can contain more than 8 million individuals. These social insects cut leaves in order to cultivate fungi and live from the fruiting bodies of these fungi.
Among the many spiders that call the Amazon home, the tarantulas (Theraphosidae) are probably the best known. Despite their reputation, the bite of these large, hairy spiders is not deadly to humans. But the New World tarantulas (a species found in Latin America) carry urticating hairs on their abdomen that can be irritating. Tarantulas are sometimes called bird-eating spiders as they are able to catch small birds as prey.