A celebration of life

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Home to more than one third of all species on the planet, ranging from the gentle to the fierce, the Amazon is rife with fascinating creatures – all interesting, many stunning, and some among Earth’s most dangerous.

The nexus between nature’s force and beauty, the Amazon River cuts a majestic swathe through northern South America. The surrounding rainforest encompasses more than 2.6 million square kilometres, within which are contained more than 40,000 plant species as well as creatures of all colours, shapes, sizes – and threats.

Aquarium staffers and scientists often point out that the piranha suffers a bad rap. The dagger-toothed fish aren’t the menace portrayed in movies or other tales. The red-bellied piranha, however, is the exception. Attacks on humans have occurred, though they are infrequent. Rather, red-bellies serve as Amazonian scavengers, schools of which attack sick, injured, or dying creatures when they opt for larger fare than their standard diet of insects, worms, and other fish.

Noted Amazon explorer Major Percy Fawcett often told of a giant anaconda found along the Río Paraguay that was found, caught, and killed, and which measured 24 metres in length. Also known in Brazil as Sucuri, anacondas are more accepted as ranging from 5 to 7.5 metres in length. And, like the piranha, attacks on humans are rare. Sightings are hard to come by, but possible if you know where to look – along the water’s surface, where the snake sits dormant, its nostrils hovering still. Peaceful-looking, until you consider that it’s capable of constricting and swallowing deer and caiman – the Amazon’s equivalent of the crocodile – the anaconda overpowers practically anything it desires to.

Thousands of those caimans can be easily observed in the dry season. Concentrations of up to 15,000 cormorants and herons are seen feeding in the lakes – bubbling over with active fish – that divert from the main river. In the trees, an abundance of monkeys such as the Golden Lion Tamarin share the branches with maned sloths, against a backdrop of beautiful bromeliads and orchids.

One of the Amazon’s most notorious creatures is the tiny Candiru. Its legend is a scientifically-refuted allure to human urine that has made many a man cringe at the tale. However, the parasitic catfish is known to lodge in the gill cavities of larger fish, where it subsists by sucking the blood of its host. Smooth and slimy, the Candiru boasts sharp teeth and backward-pointing spines on its gill covers that make it virtually impossible to remove – features that, with the aforementioned legend, bring second thoughts to that dip in the great river.

For a larger fish, the arapaima is perhaps the Amazon’s most intriguing. Considered a living fossil, it grows up to eight feet long, and is most notable as being an air-breathing fish, using its mouth to take in air as humans do, an advantage in the oxygen-deprived water that is often found in the Amazon.

The true deprivation, of course, would be to travel to South America and allow this core of life known as the Amazon – whose influence stretches far beyond its own boundaries – to go unseen, unappreciated, and unpreserved.

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