Over the last decade or so, the news from Brazil has been full of heartbreaking reports about deforestation, water pollution, and ever-increasing threats to Amazon rainforest animals.
What’s less well-known is the fact that the Amazon Basin – one of the world’s largest and most biodiverse repositories of plant and animal life – stretches across South America, covering 4.6 million square miles (or roughly 40% of the continent). Though the Brazilian Amazon has been plagued by a seemingly endless stream of environmental issues, the rainforests of Ecuador and Peru remain relatively unspoiled.
The Yasuni National Park area, which protects most of the Ecuadorian Amazon basin, contains 150 amphibian and 121 reptile species, which is more than all of the species found in the U.S. and Canada combined. Ecuador’s Amazon animals also include over 300 species of fish (including three piranha species) and 70,000 insect species per acre of rainforest.
The Amazon rainforest covers approximately 60% of Peru, which is the largest extension in any country after Brazil. Peru has the largest number of birds and the third largest number of mammals in the world. This is largely due to the rich biodiversity found within the Peruvian Amazon region.
So what animals can you possibly expect to see during your Amazon tour? Here’s a look at our favorite animals of the Amazon Rainforest, including mammals, birds, reptiles, and amphibians!
Amazon River Dolphin
The Amazon River Dolphin looks remarkably different from its more familiar, ocean-faring cousin. Its body is pale pink, with an elongated neck that can be moved left and right, a long snout reminiscent of a beak, a rounded head, and a smaller dorsal fin. It feeds on small fish, crabs, and turtles. Like many other aquatic animals in the Amazon, the Dolphin is threatened by pollution and various development projects 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 their nets.
The Capybara is the largest rodent in the world, measuring up to 4 feet in length and weighing up to 140 pounds, with females slightly larger than males. Their name derives from Tupi, a 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. They really like water, and are commonly found in swampy areas, or near lakes and rivers. They’re also very sociable, living in groups of 10 to 30 individuals. During the dry season, different Capybara groups join together for protection: It’s not uncommon for Amazon River cruise guests to see over 100 individuals at once!
Armadillos are peculiar-looking creatures, with their armor-plate casing made of bone and horn. Many species of armadillo can be found in North America. But the largest one, the Giant Armadillo, is only found in the Amazon, where it can reach up to 5 feet long and weigh up to 120 pounds. The Armadillo’s casing can be used for offense as well as defense, and they also possess long front claws and between 80 and 100 teeth (more than any other mammal). They’re nocturnal animals and live in a complex system of burrows. Sadly, hunting and the black market trade are endangering the Giant Armadillo’s survival: Its population numbers have reportedly decreased by 50% over the last 30 years.
Giant River Otter
Otters are common worldwide, but the Giant River Otter is endemic to the Amazon basin. Its body can reach up to around 5 feet in length (plus a 3-foot tail), and it has webbed hands and feet that are perfect for swimming and hunting in the Amazon River’s tributaries. It is often seen feasting of fish and other small prey in oxbow lakes, which are created by slow-flowing rivers changing course, and in other slow-flowing rivers and swamps. Hunting, water pollution and habitat loss are the main causes of their decreasing population numbers.
This is the big cat par excellence of South America, and the Amazon rainforest is one of the Jaguar’s last remaining strongholds. Jaguar numbers are decreasing fast because of illegal hunting and loss of habitat. It’s estimated that only around 6000 individuals survive in the Peruvian Amazon. These big cats are excellent at climbing, swimming, and hunting in the trees. As a result, you may hear them in the jungle, but it’s very difficult to see them through the dense canopy.
The Jaguarundi (a.k.a. Eyra cat) is one of the smaller wild cats found in the Amazon. They have short legs, a long body, and an even longer tail. They also have short, rounded ears and a uniformly-colored coat, which can be either brownish-gray or chestnut red. They typically measure between 21 and 30 inches, with a tail almost as long as their body, and weigh between seven and 20 pounds. Jaguarundis are mainly solitary and active during the day, unlike most felines. Their diet includes small felines, reptiles and ground-feeding birds, as Jaguarundis hunt more on the ground than in trees.
Lophostoma Yasuni Bat
There are hundreds of Bat species in the Amazon, and the Lophostoma Yasuni Bat is definitely one of the most peculiar-looking ones. It’s named after Yasuni National Park, where it is endemic. With its protruding ears (which can reach up to a third of the length of the body) and proboscis, it looks like a fantasy creature halfway between a Gremlin and a Fennec Fox. Like most other Bats, it eats insects. It wasn’t discovered until 2004, so very little is known about it, but scientists suggest it is likely threatened by habitat loss.
It has been estimated that there are around 150 Ocelots per 62 square miles within Yasunì National Park– a remarkable density, given the scarcity of other big cats. The Ocelot is Latin America’s third largest cat, behind the Jaguar and Puma. They’re usually active at night, when they’re out hunting birds, fish or small mammals, and spend the day resting in trees. Ocelots look a bit like large domestic cats, and they have golden fur covered in spots. For this reason, they are also known as the “dwarf leopard.”
The Puma is the second largest cat in the Americas, after the Jaguar. Their habitat range is the largest of any wild carnivore in the Western Hemisphere. They’re found as far north as Yukon, and as far south as the Andes. Pumas are solitary by nature and mostly hunt at nigh. Their prey in the Amazon include monkeys, birds, wild pigs, armadillos, and capybara. Pumas are more closely related to smaller felines like the house cat, with whom they share behaviors such as purring and the inability to roar. Once common, Pumas are increasingly threatened because of loss of habitat and persecution from locals over fear of livestock attacks.
There are approximately 150 species of monkeys found in the Amazon. The Pygmy Marmoset is one of the world’s tiniest primate species, and the smallest one found in the Peruvian and Ecuadorian Amazon. It weighs just over 3.5 oz, and its height is between 4.5 and 6 inches. They live in troops that average around 6 individuals, and they can be found on trees near swamps or streams, feeding mainly on tree sap, insects, small fruit and nectar. Pygmy Marmosets are very small and shy, and thus viewings are extremely difficult.
South American Tapir
There are four Latin American species of Tapir, all of which are classified as vulnerable or endangered by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN). The South American Tapir is the largest land mammal in the Ecuadorian and Peruvian Amazon, but it ranks among the Jaguar’s favorite prey. They can grow up to 6.5 feet long and weigh up to 550 pounds, yet they move quickly on land and are also excellent swimmers. Deforestation and hunting are the main threats to the Tapir’s survival.
Often seen throughout the Amazon Basin, these monkeys are called “Squirrel” because they’re small and agile and spend most of their life in trees, feeding primarily on fruits and insects. However, unlike most other New World monkeys, they can’t use their tail for climbing. On average, Squirrel Monkeys range between 9.8 and 14 inches in height and weigh 1.7 to 2.4 pounds. They have short, brown-grey fur on their head and shoulders, and yellow-ochre fur on their back and extremities. 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.”
The Hyacinth Macaw is the largest parrot in the world by length, measuring 3.3 feet from the tip of its tail to the top of its head. Hyacinth refers to the color of its feathers, which are blue on the entire body with some yellow coloring around its head and feathers. Along with the Scarlet and Blue-Throated Macaw, Hyacinth Macaws can often be seen soaring in the skies of the Amazon Rainforest. Their diets mainly consist of fruit and nuts from native Amazonian palms, which they break with their hooked beaks (which are strong enough to break coconuts!). They use their tongue to reach into the shell of nuts, and their talons to hang onto trees. Sadly, Hyacinth Macaws are endangered: Their main threat is the illegal pet trade.
Also known as the Canje Pheasant (or, more commonly, the “punk-rock bird” due to its mohawk-like crest), Hoatzin are genetically enigmatic,. There’s been some intense scientific debate in recent years about their evolutionary connections to other species. The pheasant-sized bird, whose chicks possess claws on two of their wing digits, is also colloquially known as the Stinkbird due to the manure-like odor caused by its unique digestive system. The noises they make are just as odd, including a bizarre variety of groans, croaks, hisses, and grunts that are often associated with its body movements.
Common throughout Central and South America, King Vultures are arguably among the most beautiful birds of the Amazon Rainforest. They measure between 26 and 32 inches, with a 4-7 foot wingspan. After the Condor, they’re the largest of all the New World vultures. It’s believed that the “King” in their name derived from an old Mayan legend that saw King Vultures as messengers between the living and the gods. Their body is mainly white, with long black feathers on their wings and tails. They have no feathers on their head and neck, but their skin is vividly colored in red and purple shades on the head, orange on the neck, and yellow on the throat. Like all vultures, they’re scavengers helping to keep the ecosystem clean of carrion.
The Spectacled Owl is the only owl species found in the Amazon rainforest. It’s medium-sized, measuring approximately 18-20 inches in height. It has a rounded head and no ear tufts, and a dark-feathered face with markings resembling spectacles made of white eyebrows and other white streaks on the cheeks. The favorite habitat of Spectacled Owls is thick, primary rainforest, but they sometimes move to sparser woodlands when hunting. They’re solitary birds, most active during the night. They hunt very effectively by swooping down from their roost to catch their prey. Any kind of rodent or small mammal can potentially fall prey to the Spectacled Owl… even Sloths!
The Toco Toucan is the largest and best known of the seven Toucan species found in the Amazon. Their plumage is mainly black on the body and white on the face and throat, with a yellow and blue ring of skin around the eyes. The most striking feature is their oversized bill, which is orange-yellow in color and measures between 6 and 9 inches. Since the total length of the species is about 20 inches, they look awkward when flying. But their bill is actually quite light, since it’s hollow. Toucans are sociable birds and are often seen flying in small groups, especially at sunset. They’re omnivores, using their bill to reach for insects, fruit, small reptiles, as well as other birds and their eggs.
AMAZON REPTILES & AMPHIBIANS
The Black Caiman is the largest of the Amazon reptiles, and also one of the largest and most effective predators. They have dark, scaly skin, grow up to 10–14 feet in length, and sometimes exceed 800 pounds in weight. They hunt pretty much any kind of land-based or river-dwelling animal. They’ve even been known to eat old or weak Caimans! There have also been reported attacks on Pumas and Jaguars, but they’re very rare and the species usually avoid one another as much as possible. The Spectacled Caiman is also found in the Amazon rainforest region, but it’s much smaller.
Found in the northern part of South America (including the Amazon), the Green Anaconda is the heaviest and one of the longest known snake species. It usually measures about 15-16 feet long, with weight ranging between 60 and 150 pounds. The Reticulated Python of Southeast Asia is slightly longer, but the Green Anaconda is generally more robust. They’re non-venomous snakes, killing their prey by suffocation before swallowing it whole. They can kill large animals such as Capybara, Tapirs, or even Jaguars, but there’s little evidence of attacks on humans. Anacondas spend most of their time near water: For this reason, they’re also commonly known as “Water Boa.”
Poison Dart Frogs
These strikingly colorful frogs are commonly found in the rainforests of Central and South America. Their vivid yellow and blue markings are nature’s way of warning other species that these tiny amphibians– which measure just 1-2 inches long– are very, very poisonous! Their name is taken from the fact that native South American people used to capture these frogs in order to dip their arrows and spears in their toxic secretions. They’re now under increasing threat, mostly due to poaching for the illegal pet trade.
South American River Turtle
The South American River Turtle, also known as the Arrau Turtle, is the largest freshwater turtle in the Amazon. It can grow up to 200 pounds and measure around 3.5 ft long. They’re mostly vegetarian and play an important role in maintaining a healthy riverine ecosystem. They’re scavengers, so they keep the rivers clean by removing dead leaves, fish, and other organic materials. The presence of River Turtles in the Amazon is considered a sign of the ecological well-being of a given area of the river. However, they are now under threat because of hunting, egg collection, habitat loss, and pollution.