No other place on Earth showcases the diversity of life like the Amazon. The Amazon is a vast region that spans across eight countries, is home to one in ten of all the known animals on earth and contains the largest river basin on the planet.
Spanning an area twice the size of India the Amazon Biome is virtually unrivalled in scale, complexity and opportunity.
We have put together some amazing facts about the Amazon, as well as the top wild animals that you can encounter in this magnificent biome. Read below to find out more.
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The Amazon is a vast region that spans across eight rapidly developing countries in South America: Brazil, Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador, Colombia, Venezuela, Guyana, Suriname and French Guiana.
Not only does the Amazon encompass the single largest remaining tropical rainforest in the world, it is the most biodiverse place on earth. It is home to at least 10% of the world’s known biodiversity, including endemic and endangered flora and fauna.
The Amazon River flows for more than 6,600 km, with its hundreds of tributaries and streams that contain the largest number of freshwater fish species in the world.
This biodiversity is important globally. Every species in this incredibly diverse system represents solutions to a set of biological challenges — any one of which has transformative potential and could generate global human benefits.
Why is the Amazon important?
The Amazon rainforest has long been recognized as a repository of ecological services not only for local people and communities, but also for the rest of the world.
There is a clear link between the health of the Amazon and the health of the planet. The rainforests, which contain 90-140 billion metric tons of carbon, help stabilize local and global climate. Deforestation may release significant amounts of this carbon, which could have catastrophic consequences around the world.
For millennia, humans have used insects, plants and other organisms in the Amazon region for a variety of uses; agriculture, clothing and, of course, cures for diseases. The natural roots of the medicine that you find in your local pharmacy can be traced back to the biodiversity in the Amazon.
Indigenous people such as the Yanomamo and other groups of mixed ancestry (e.g. the mestizos of Peru or the caboclos of Brazil) have perfected the use of chemical compounds found in plants and animals. Knowledge of using these plants is usually held by a medicine man ( shaman), who passes on this tradition to an apprentice. This process has been ongoing for centuries and forms an integral part of people’s identity.
Culture of the Amazon
According to the Coordinator of Indigenous Organizations of the Amazon Basin (COICA), about 9% (2.7 million) of the Amazon’s population is still made up of indigenous people – 350 different ethnic groups, more than 60 of which still remain largely isolated.
The largest tribe in the Amazon is the Guarani, numbering 51,000 people, but they have very little land left. During the past 100 years almost all their land has been stolen from them and turned into vast, dry networks of cattle ranches, soya fields and sugar cane plantations.
The people with the largest territory are the relatively isolated 19,000 Yanomami, who occupy 9.4 million hectares in the northern Amazon. The largest Amazonian tribe in Brazil is the Tikuna, who number 40,000. The smallest consists of just one man, who lives in a small patch of forest surrounded by cattle ranches and soya plantations in the western Amazon. He, as well as some others, elude all attempts at contact.
While not as large as Brazil’s, the indigenous communities of other countries containing tropical rainforests (Bolivia, Ecuador, Peru, Colombia, the Guyanas, Venezuela, and Suriname) all consist of populations with deep and detailed knowledge of the rainforest. Much of this knowledge regards the usage of rainforest species for uses such as food, textiles and traditional medicines.
Indigenous people of the Amazon have a very important role to play in their environment. They have extraordinary knowledge of local animals and plants and have been remarkably successful over millennia in developing different ways of benefiting from the forest biodiversity.
The Amazon biome has grown increasingly dryer over recent decades, making the once nearly fireproof rainforest prone to raging wildfires. Extreme weather events, such as high heat, droughts and floods, are on the rise.
Researchers say that the very wet hydrological cycle that kept the rainforest thriving for millennia is under threat, with the biome enduring greater and greater stress and instability due to worsening deforestation and escalating climate change.
The Amazon holds a vast store of carbon in its plants and soil; so deforestation would not only be a disaster for the region’s biodiversity, and its indigenous and traditional peoples who rely on it for their livelihoods, it could also escalate our current global climate catastrophe.
Animals of the Amazon
The Amazon is our planet’s very own Garden of Eden, where you’ll find a dazzling array of fascinating, bizarre and even deadly animals. In total, scientists estimate there are 2,000 species of birds and mammals here, more than 2,000 species of fish, over 400 amphibians, and almost an equal number of reptiles. If you’re into animal spotting, then you really couldn’t pick a better place to visit!
Here is our list of top Animals of the Amazon to see:
1. Three-toed sloths
One of the strangest creatures on earth, sloths are insanely slow at just about everything. The three-toed sloth is possibly the cutest animal you will ever see, as well as the slowest: they are so slow that algae grows on their coats, allowing them to blend in and hide from predators.
Found in the treetops of the Amazon Rainforest, these lazy creatures prefer to spend their days hanging by their powerful claws from a tree branch, often sleeping. During the night you may see some activity from these mammals, who tend to eat fruit, leaves and shoots during the night.
Three-toed Sloth Quick Facts:
- Sloths sleep for 15-20 hours a day
- They are great swimmers thanks to their long arms
- Three-toed sloths have a very distinctive cry, that sounds a bit like “Ahh-eeee”
- It takes them a month to digest a meal (and you thought your metabolism was slow!)
Where can you go to spot a three-toed sloth?
The Tambopata National Reserve is home to 632 species of birds, 1200 butterfly species, 103 amphibians, 180 kinds of fish, 103 reptiles and 169 different mammals. The reserve’s lake systems and forests provide the ideal habitat for several endangered species of Amazon animals, including the three-toed sloth!
Sloths may be hard to spot at first but with an experienced guide and a keen eye you should have no problems zeroing in on at least one during your journey. The good news? You have all the time in the world to photograph them once you find one!
2. Giant river otters
The Amazon is home to the largest otter in the world. The Giant River Otter can grow up to the length of 1,5 meters and is native to Central and South America. One of the most endangered of all Amazon Animals, due to overzealous hunting, the best chance of seeing Giant River Otters is on an Amazon River cruise in Peru.
Those who get the opportunity to observe this endangered creature are very fortunate indeed. In fact, Tambopata is one of the only places on Earth where this fantastic, large mammal can be seen easily.
Giant Otter Quick Facts:
- Giant river otters are also known as river wolves.
- Like wolves, Giant river otters live in large, complex social groups of extended family members of up to 20 individuals. These family-loving animals spend most of their time together.
- Only 5,000 are left in the wild, making them extremely rare. There used to be many more Giant Otters, but pelt-hunting, deforestation, and human disturbance have greatly endangered them.
- Each Giant Otter is born with uniquely shaped and patterned patches of cream-colored fur on the throat. These beautiful markings can identify each individual animal.
- In addition to being huge, giant river otters also have a large vocabulary. Adults communicate using an array of 22 sounds curious sounds that have different meanings. A short bark or snorting sound can be used to indicate alarm, whereas a low growl is a warning.
Where can you go to spot a Giant River Otter?
Rainforest Expeditions offers a great opportunity to encounter Giant River Otters. Lucky for you, Giant River Otter make their home at Tres Chimbadas Lake, accessible from the Rainforest Expedition Posada Amazonas lodge!
When you visit the oxbow lakes near the Rainforest Expeditions lodges, you’ll get an unparalleled chance to view Giant Otters. This thrill is the result of cautious guides, who are dedicated to ensuring a peaceful, undisturbed habitat for these shy, beautiful animals.
3. Black Caiman
The infamous Black Caiman is the largest predator in the Amazon basin and are known for their black, scaly skin. They are usually found in the slow-moving rivers and lakes in the Amazon region, as well as in the floodplains of the Amazon Rainforest.
This giant predator mostly hunts at night, its black body is perfectly camouflaged in the dark of the night’s sky and the black of the water. It mostly preys on catfish, piranha, birds, turtles, and capybaras. Large black caimans have been known to kill tapirs, anacondas, jaguars and pumas, and even humans!
There are plenty of black caimans in the Amazon region, and so they are considered at a “low risk” of extinction, with an estimated 25,000 to 50,000 black caimans in the wild.
Black Caiman Quick Facts:
- Black Caiman are massive – measuring up to 20 feet long.
- They can live for up to 80 years.
- They love to be warm: black caimans keep warm by basking in the sun and letting their dark scales soak up the sun.
- Black caimans have no real predators in their native home. They are the apex animals. Even big cats, like jaguars and cougars, will avoid the lakes and swamps where the black caimans live.
- Though they’re classified as “least concern” now, it wasn’t always that way. Black caimans used to be hunted and killed for their scales, which were used in fashion. Up to 99% of black caimans were killed. Fortunately for the black caiman, and animal lovers around the world, their numbers have been brought back up.
Where can you go to spot a Black Caiman in the wild?
Rainforest cruises are one of the best operators to contact to ensure that you see a black caiman up close and personal!
The Capybara is the largest (and cutest) rodent in the world weighing up to 140 pounds (50kg). Their name is derived from the Tupi language, from the people who inhabited Coastal Brazil, and means “grass-eater.” This is because fully grown Capybara can eat up to 8 pounds of grass per day.
The natural predators of this Amazon Animal are jaguars, anacondas and caimans, although humans still pose the largest threat as capybaras skin and meat is commercially traded.
Capybara Quick Facts:
- Capybaras enjoy swimming and have webbed toes to help them paddle through waterways easily. Swimming also helps them to escape possible predators, such as anacondas and jaguars.
- Capybaras serve as a resting perch for numerous animals, such as birds and monkeys, who want a break from walking or flying. Capybaras don’t mind this and can be found grazing for food while another animal sits on their back.
- One Amazon tribe calls the capybara Kapiyva or “master of the grasses” in their native language.
Where can you go to spot the Capybara?
Rainforest Expeditions offers a great opportunity to encounter Capybaras. Nearly three in four of the visitors at Rainforest Expeditions see this world-record shattering jungle rodent!
Coasting along the Tambopata River on the way to these lodges, you will travel through one of the most remote, biodiverse places on earth: The Amazon rainforest at its finest. Among the variety of riverbank wildlife, the Capybara is one of the most frequently sighted Amazon animals.
5. Pink river dolphins
Also known as the Amazon River Dolphin, the Pink River Dolphin is one of just three species of dolphin that live in a freshwater habitat. Found in the Amazon and Orinoco river basins, it is usually found in their largest tributaries, lakes and seasonally flooded forests.
The Amazon River Dolphin looks remarkably different from its more familiar, ocean-faring cousin: with a pale pink body, an elongated neck, a long snout reminiscent of a beak and a rounded head.
Like many other aquatic Amazon Animals, the Dolphin is threatened by pollution and various development projects, such as hydroelectric and irrigation schemes, which restrict the river’s natural flow. The River Dolphins have traditionally been spared from tribal hunting because they were believed to be magical creatures. But these days Dolphins are often struck by fishermen’s boats or get tangled in fishing nets.
Pink River Dolphin Quick Facts:
- They are the largest and most widespread river dolphin species in the world.
- Unlike other dolphins, the Pink River Dolphins have flexible necks, which means they can move their heads from left to right!
- Pink river dolphins may live a long life, even up to 30 years. But in captivity their average lifespan is less than 2 years.
- According to tribal folklore, pink river dolphins can be found in some unsuspected places, even on land. As the myth goes – these dolphins, also known as boto, can shape-shift into handsome men who seduce and impregnate women. This legend makes locals think twice when there is attractive newcomer in town!
Where can you go to spot Pink River Dolphins?
It is difficult to find tours and operators that allow you to experience pink dolphins in their natural habitat without handling them. Interacting physically with wildlife can harm them, so it is good to avoid operators that don’t have an ethos for conservation and only exploit animals to get money from tourists.
Uniq Hotels offers the opportunity to stay in the Jungle Palace – the first floating eco-friendly, luxury hotel! This sustainable hotel (with modern, luxurious amenities) is situated right on the Rio Negro, close to the City of Manaus in the centre of Brazil’s Amazon Rainforest. It can’t get much better than that.
If you are on a river cruise, or staying on the river, you should be able to see Pink River Dolphins if you are quiet. My recommendation would be to do what I did to spot them – grab a boat or a canoe and row out on to the river at sunrise. Then you will be rewarded with the most spectacular sight of pink dolphins in their natural habitat – unharmed and untouched by tourism companies.
Jaguars are the only big cat in the Americas and the third biggest in the world after tigers and lions. They look a lot like leopards, which live in Africa and Asia, but jaguars’ spots are more complex and often have a dot in the centre of their rosettes (the spots on their coats).
According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List of Threatened Species, the jaguar is “near threatened” due to poaching and the destruction of the rainforest. Jaguars face a number of threats, including habitat fragmentation and illegal killing.
Jaguar Quick Facts:
- The jaguar is a top-level predator. It doesn’t have any natural predators other than humans, who hunt them for their fur or sport.
- Their name comes from the Native American word “yajuar” which means “he who kills with one leap.”
- Jaguars can see six times better than humans at night or during darker conditions due to a layer of tissue in the back of the eye that reflects light.
- Unlike many other cats, jaguars do not avoid water. In fact, they are quite good swimmers.
- Jaguars live alone and they’re very territorial.
- These powerful cats were worshipped as gods in many ancient South American cultures, and representations of the jaguar show up in the art and archaeology of pre-Columbian cultures across the jaguar’s range.
Where can you go to spot a Jaguar?
Natural World Safaris offer the best safaris to maximise your chances of seeing these elusive big cats.
For the best chances of a sighting, take a boat ride on the river towards the end of the dry season (June to October), when the floods have receded and the predators head to the riverbanks to hunt capybara and caiman.
7. South American Tapir
There are four recognized species of tapirs: Baird’s tapir, Mountain tapir, Malayan tapir and Brazilian tapir. The Malayan tapir is the largest tapir, and the Mountain tapir is the smallest species. All recognized tapirs are classified as vulnerable or endangered by the IUCN.
The Brazilian tapir, or South American tapir, is the largest land mammal in the Ecuadorian and Peruvian Amazon – they can grow up to 6.5 feet long and weigh up to 550 pounds. But this extraordinary animal still moves quickly on land and they are excellent swimmers. Deforestation and hunting are the main threats to the Tapir’s survival.
Tapir Quick Facts:
- The tapir’s nose is flexible. While this prehensile snout is not as flexible as an elephant’s trunk, it’s very good for snuffling around and grabbing leaves and fruit.
- They like to swim and tend to stay close to water to cool down and to remove parasites.
- They use their snouts as snorkels if they need to hide underwater from predators.
- Tapirs are considered living fossils. They’ve been around since the Eocene, having survived several waves of extinction.
- Tapirs are nocturnal, hiding in thick patches of forest to sleep most of the day. So a night walk would be a great way to ensure an encounter with this Amazon Animal.
Where can you go to spot Tapirs?
Tapir Valley offers a Jungle Night Tour that is perfect for spotting Tapirs. You never know what you may see, and you’ll never forget the sights and sensations of nightfall in a pristine, private rainforest. And while sightings of the endangered tapir are rare, the animal is nocturnal, and finding evidence of presence is especially thrilling at night when you know it’s active in the forest, just as you are.
Hiring a local guide during your visit to Tapir Valley supports the work of Bijagua naturalists while providing you with deeper insight into the area. The guides share a profound knowledge of local history, geography and culture. Through years on the trail they have developed the skills to identify numerous bird calls, wildlife and plants.
8. Squirrel Monkeys
Squirrel monkeys are the most common monkey found in the Amazon region. These tree-dwelling monkeys are mostly shy creatures and they are very quiet but they do sometimes squeak and will shriek loudly if they are in danger.
Most squirrel monkeys can be spotted in the tree canopies of the Amazon Rainforest, but you may be lucky enough to see one on the ground in search of food. You can usually spot a squirrel monkey by its distinctive black lips and white ears.
Squirrel Monkey Quick Facts:
- Their tails can be as long as 17 inches!
- They have a 1:17 brain mass to body mass ratio – the largest, proportionally, of all primates! Humans have a 1:35 ratio.
- Unlike most other New World monkeys, they can’t use their tail for climbing.
- The fur on their face is black and white, making them vaguely resemble a skeleton. For this reason, the German name for Squirrel Monkeys is Totenkopfaffen, meaning “Death’s Head Monkey.”
Where can you go to spot Squirrel Monkeys?
Join Nat Hab on one of their many specialised tours throughout the Amazonian rainforest to spot squirrel monkeys in the wild!
Many people travel to the Rainforest to see Amazon Animals with expectations of seeing jaguars, anacondas and giant otters swimming around their boat. The truth is that the Amazon is a habitat where animals often disguise themselves for protection from predators. In order to spot wildlife, you need to be very quiet and patient.
One must remain calm, be patient, and let the jungle come to you. The experience is not only predicated on sightings of megafauna but also taking in the beauty and magic of the ecosystem itself. And what is certain is that you will see elements of the Natural World that will never be forgotten!
We have listed 8 Top Amazon Animals to encounter, as well as the best operators to use when searching for them. The Amazon is extremely important to protect. Your choice of which tourism operators you support can have an impact on the Amazon Animals.