Exploring the rich biodiversity of the Amazon rainforest

The biodiversity of the Amazon River Basin is unparalleled, hosting 3 million different species and over 2,500 different kinds of trees. 

One third of all species on earth live in the Amazon Basin and the Amazon River pumps out 30 million gallons of freshwater into the Atlantic Ocean every day, constituting a large proportion of planet earth’s running freshwater.

This vast biome has the Amazon River running through it stretches across all of central and eastern South America, running from east of the Andes Mountains all the way to the Brazilian Plateau in the south of the Continent. 

The Amazon is the largest tropical rainforest on earth and maintains the world’s hydrologic cycle of rain as well as performing a vital role in climate stability. 

This remarkable area is home to around 30 million people, including around 2.7 million indigenous peoples and several dozen remote tribes who don’t have contact with the outside world. 

Fully 40% of the world’s remaining rainforest is in the Amazon

As the World Bank notes, the Amazon Basin is “a region that hosts 40% of the world’s remaining rainforest, 25% of its terrestrial biodiversity, and more fish species than in any other river system.”

Stretching into Peru, Ecuador, Colombia, Brazil, Bolivia, Venezuela, Guyana, and Suriname and French Guiana (a territorial parcel of land belonging to France), the Amazon Basin has a rich biodiversity unparalleled elsewhere on earth, with many still undiscovered species of fish, wildlife, trees and medicinal plants

The plants and animals in the Amazon Basin are far from just interesting and colorful. They are also scientifically vital and many have functions which are necessary to the proper functioning of our environment and helpful to medicines and substances that we need to stay alive. 

For example, take the deadly poison contained in the fangs of the fer de lance, a type of poison viper in the Amazon. This toxic venom led to the development and production of angiotensin converting enzyme inhibitor (ACE) which saved millions of lives of those suffering hypertension. 

That is just one species in this booming biome full of life, which helps the rain keep falling in healthy cycles around South America and the world. 

In just the decade between 1999 to 2009, 1,200 different species of plants were identified as well as vertebrate creatures. 

The new discoveries never stop and every few days a new species is uncovered. 

This recently included small creatures like the synapturanus danta (tapir frog) discovered in 2022.

Other very unique and interesting creatures that reside only in the Amazon include:

  • The Goliath Birdeater Spider that grow up to the size of a small puppy and eat worms and small mammals for food. Believe it or not, goliath birdeaters are actually harmless to humans and their venom doesn’t hurt us, however. 
  • Glass Frogs that are see-through. You can see its guts from underneath and its heart circulating blood. They are lime-colored and only get to about three inches long once they’re adults. 
  • Amazon River Dolphins are pink in color and like to frolic and play in certain areas of the Amazon and its tributaries. Some indigenous tribes worship them as magical, life-giving creatures. They eat turtles and fish and bring joy to all who see them. 
  • The Poison Dart Frog have dangerous chemicals which they can use to disable and kill threats. Indigenous peoples make poison darts from the chemical that oozes out of their skin as traditional weapons. They are extremely vivid in colors in order to scare off predators who might try to eat them otherwise.  
  • Morpho Butterflies are extremely vivid in color as well and can get up to eight inches long, often bright green or blue. They fly fast and are hard for birds to nab. 
  • Basilisk Lizards or Jesus Christ lizards can walk on water by using its flapped feet to stay buoyant. They can run up to five miles per hour and pick up speed in order not to sink down in the water. 

Forty eight times the size of the United States

The Amazon River Basin is about forty eight times the size of the continental United States. 

The Amazon Basin is the largest rainforest in the world and is bigger than its two biggest cousins the Congo Basin and Indonesia combined. 

The Amazon Basin has numerous types of forests and ecosystems under its one umbrella, including deciduous trees, flooded swamplands, open savannas, rainforests, seasonal forests and over 1,1000 tributary outlets of the Amazon all across the region. 

Various of these tributaries are quite long, with around two dozen stretching over 100 miles each. 

Millions of years ago, the Amazon River actually traveled west and traveled from the inside of Africa when it was part of one larger continent known as Gondwana. 

When the Andes were created a dozen million years ago by the collision of tectonic plates, the Amazon changed course and became a giant inland lake, but still contained many species of fish and other species that adapted from ocean life to swim and survive in the Amazon. 

Around the time the Amazon started going east about ten million years ago in the Ice Age, the Amazon rainforest began springing up and after the thaw, the Amazon went from being a massive lake to becoming a river. 

The modern significance of the Amazon River is immense, with the amount of freshwater it puts out in particular. 

As Rhett A. Butler explains:

“During the high water season, the river’s mouth may be 300 miles wide and every day up to 18 billion cubic meters (635 billion cubic feet) of water flow into the Atlantic. 

“That discharge, equivalent to 209,000 cubic meters of water per second (7.3 million cubic feet/sec), could fill over 7.2 million Olympic swimming pools per day or supply New York City’s freshwater needs for nine years.”

The importance of the tree canopy and climate regulation

biodiversity in amazon 1 Exploring the rich biodiversity of the Amazon rainforest

The incredibly vast amount of trees in the Amazon rainforest and various ecosystems are also immensely valuable to climate stability and the health of the whole environment. 

The tree canopy of the Amazon’s vast rainforest plays a vital role in storing carbon and recycling carbon dioxide as well. 

Destroying it all would release 140 billion metric tons of carbon into the atmosphere, and destroying even 20% of this is devastating. 

At the current rate, around half a billion metric tons of carbon per year is being put out by the Amazon, including natural decomposition of old and decaying trees and ecosystems. 

However this does not count the significant release of carbon from the growing issue of forest fires and slash and burn agriculture. 

Valuing biodiversity

Biodiversity is far more than just a buzzword. 

Diversity of living beings and plants keeps the whole ecosystem healthy and thriving and ensures that future generations of growth and reproduction will take place. 

When you destroy or significantly interrupt these ecosystems, you reap long-term negative consequences. 

As Ashley Thompson writes:

“The balance between all the component parts of a biodiverse system helps to keep the ecosystem and its inhabitants (including humans!) healthy. 

“These processes help purify water, make air breathable, control outbreaks of diseases and pests, support pollination, build fertile soils, and store carbon. Biodiversity is, in a sense, what makes a place breathe, live, and stay healthy and beautiful.”

From Jambo and Ipê trees to blue hyacinth macaws and scarlet macaws, the creatures of the Amazon represent a thriving ecosystem, not just pretty sights and scenes. Many are approaching endangered status as well. 

Many of the unique flora and fauna in the Amazon go into human food, medicine and other products for hair, health and wellness. 

Around one third of all global species live in the Amazon and without a thriving ecosystem they begin to struggle and die off. This includes vital microorganisms which are part of the broader chain of life that keep the system going and keep animals and plants alive and well. 

Currently species of animals are going extinct 1,000 times faster than the natural rate in the Amazon, particularly due to large scale logging and slash and burn agricultural practices. 

At this moment around 1 million species of creatures, insects and fish are at risk of extinction in the Amazon. 

Take the jaguar, for example, one of the largest types of cats in the world and currently down to only 15,000 left in their natural wild environment. This primarily is in the Amazon, but the continuing encroachment on the biodiversity and habitat threatens animals like jaguars. 

In particular, the lack of valuing biodiversity manifests in the deforestation done to clear land for grazing cattle, sell timber and pan for gold and minerals. 

“Deforestation can be sectioned to mining, logging, infrastructure, and agriculture. The mining operations that take place is for gold,” explains Megan Johnson. “This does not only kill the plant and animal life by deforesting but also contaminating the soil and water.”

The central role of the Amazon’s biodiversity

Biodiversity must be valued, not only for its beauty, but also for its life-giving properties of keeping the climate and the whole earth alive and well

As a primary fount of life on earth and biodiversity from the micro to the macro level, Latin America’s Amazon Basin is a wellspring of the future

This region is a gem for the preservation of species and a potential model for how to avoid all the same pitfalls which are beginning to take their toll on industrialized society around the world with climate change and global pollution. 

When you harm the lungs and veins of the world, you end up with problems, and the millions of species and thousands of trees and ecosystem types that thrive in the Amazon are ours to protect. 

Picture of Paul Brian

Paul Brian

Paul R. Brian is a freelance journalist and writer who has reported from around the world, focusing on religion, culture and geopolitics. Follow him on www.twitter.com/paulrbrian and visit his website at www.paulrbrian.com

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