The Amazon – A gigantic miracle

The Amazon is one of the most mysterious rivers in the world, and the second longest river (6437 kilometres) in the world at. The length of the river is a tad bit lesser than that of the Nile and the difference is so close that there is still an element of doubt over which river is longer. Unbeatable, however, is the Amazon’s capacity to carry almost 20% of the world’s supply of freshwater, which amounts to more than all the water of the Mississippi, Nile and Yangtze rivers. Discharging a massive 300,000 cubic meters per second into the Atlantic, the Amazon pushes the salty water of the ocean for up to 100 miles off shore. The Amazon is a very wide river, averaging a 2.5 to 10 km width along most of its course and widening further to up to 150 km at the delta region. 60% of Brazil is made up of the Amazon.


Amazon Forests

Left: An aerial view of the Amazon Rainforest (Image: Wikipedia) . Right: Satellite image of the Amazon Rainforest  (Image by NASA)

Origin and course:

The Amazon has its origins in the snow capped mountains of the Peruvian Andes, 5240 metres above sea level, as a not so mighty glacial stream called the Apurimac. On its way down, the Apurimac joins a number of other streams such as the Ucayali and the Maranon rivers, flowing east empties into the Atlantic Ocean. During this epic journey, almost 200 smaller streams and rivers join in, emptying water from the everyday, heavy tropical rainfall.


One of the more interesting natural phenomenons that the Amazon presents is the ‘Meeting of the Waters’ near Manaus in Brazil, where the black waters of the Rio Negro and the silty waters of the Rio Solimoes flow side by side without mixing for a distance of up to 7 kilometres before diffusing into one another.

Amazon River Water

The silty Rio Solimoes (bottom) and the dark, humic acid rich Rio Negro (top) waters with a clear line of demarcation flow parallel to each other due to differing densities before mixing. (Image source: Wikipedia)

On its way down to the drainage basin, a number of smaller streams and rivers empty into the river, swelling its volume and capacity. Being right on the Equator, the area receives everyday tropical showers of up to nine feet every year. Also, the moisture laden Trade winds from the Atlantic move onto land and hit the Andes, where the moisture laden air rises, cools down and the resultant condensation adds to the capacity of the Amazon.


As strange as it may sound, about 13,000 feet below the Amazon flows an underground river, unofficially called the Rio Hamza. Researchers estimate this river to be wider (200-400 kilometres) than the surface river but with much less water flow rate (about a millimetre per hour). It originates deep below the Andes like the Amazon and empties into the Atlantic below sea level. It would be interesting to see if any life forms have evolved in this lightless, subterranean water body.



The extremely fertile region around the Amazon River, regularly receiving plentiful rainfall supports a rich and diverse rainforest ecosystem. The Amazonian rainforest is the largest tropical rainforest in the world and covers 1.4 billion acres of land. The sheer vastness of the forest area is emphasised by the fact that it is part of nine different countries; Brazil, Peru, Venezuela, Ecuador, Columbia, Guyana, Bolivia, Suriname and French Guiana. At a steady 29°C for almost all of the year, the Amazon provides the perfect tropical habitat for broad leaf trees, various species of birds, mammals, insects and reptiles and the river itself providing a rich aquatic habitat. The Amazon jungle contains the richest biodiversity of all land based ecosystems on earth.


A tenth of all known animal and plant species call the Amazon their home and there are plenty more waiting to be discovered.


The Rainforest: The Amazon is the world’s most abundant forest with a wide variety of plant and animal life. The tall gigantic trees of this forest provide an excellent home for wild life and a support for other plant life as well. Aptly named ‘Lungs of the World’, this region drains green house gases like CO and CO2, during photosynthesis, releasing about 20% of all the world’s oxygen supply. Some trees in Central Amazon are 700-1000 years old and have been antique even as Orellana and his crew explored the Amazon. Apart from this the forest is a treasure-trove of medicinal herbs and shrubs. The natives of the jungles always had a forest full of medicines to turn to in case of any emergency. For example, the White Trillium is just a beautiful white flower to a casual observer. But the natives know that chewing on the leaves of this plant is the antidote for snake bite and chewing on its petals eases childbirth, essential knowledge when you live many kilometres away from civilization. Another important medicinal plant of the Amazon is the Cinchona, from the bark of which the drug called Quinone is extracted. This compound has been used to treat malaria, a lethal disease in the wet tropical jungle.


The Opium poppy is the source of medical morphine and codeine, very potent pain killers. Ricin is an extremely toxic compound extracted from the Castor plant, and in very low concentrations relieves constipation. The use of this compound is being investigated for killing cancer cells in a highly specific approach by coupling it with antibodies which are tumour cell specific.


The Periwinkle plant extract, Vincristine and Vinblastine is one of the most common anticancer drug to treat childhood leukaemia and Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. In fact, of the known 3000 plant species that have anti cancer properties, 70% of these thrive in the Amazon rainforest. Scientists and pharmaceutical companies are working nonstop to unravel the secrets of the Amazon before deforestation destroys them forever.


Left: White Trillium plant is the go to medicine for snake bites in the jungles  Right: Periwinkle plant extracts Vincristine and Vinblastine are potent anticancer drugs

The animal life in this immense forest is renowned for diversity and balance. Some of the weirdest, strangest looking, most dangerous animals call the Amazon their home. The Spider monkey probably has the strongest tail in the animal kingdom as it dangles from branches high up in the forest canopy with only its tail to support its two foot body.


The Sloths spend almost all their life hanging upside down in the canopy. It is one of the slowest animals on earth and spends most of its day sleeping, on average up to 18 hours a day.


The Jaguar is a formidable predator in the Amazonian rainforest, relentless in pursuing prey on the forest floor, into the water and also on trees.


Insects are the undisputed kings and queens of the Amazon, making up about 90% of all the animal species In the Amazon. Butterflies, beetles and ants comprise the most represented families of insects. The Longhorn beetle is about 16 centimetres long (length of antennae not included) and is the second longest beetle in the world.


Bringing colour to the forest are the colourful avian species like the Humming birds, Toucans and the Macaws. The Harp eyed eagle is the largest bird species in the Amazon but is critically endangered due to loss of habitat.


The forest also is dotted with numerous species of frogs, and these frogs have moved away from the fresh water pools near the ground for rain water puddles formed in foliage and tree trunks. Some of the most brightly coloured frogs, the Poison dart frogs care highly poisonous and native tribes dab their arrow tips on their backs which carry the poison glands, giving them their sinister name.



Left: A brightly coloured Poison dart frog, advertising its toxicity with its eye catching colour    Right: A native Indian poisoning his arrow tips from the poison glands of the Poison dart frog


The River: The gigantic fish living in the Amazon shock and terrify onlookers. These alien looking fish survive here due to the nutrient rich waters and plentiful food supplies. The Arapaima is a 200 kg behemoth, growing upto 2 metres in length, but is unfortunately facing extinction due to over fishing. The Peacock bass is one of the more aggressive fish in the river, attracting anglers and competitive fishers from all over the world to pit their strength against the fish.


The Black Piranha is the most infamous fish of the Amazon, with a toothy grin that can give nightmares to even the bravest. Capable of stripping a carcass to the bare bones, this fish is a voracious carnivore. Preferring the cold flesh of already dead animals, the Piranhas do not hesitate to kill helpless prey thrashing about in the water. These fish live together and hunt in packs, much like wolves. Their teeth are so sharp, that the natives use Piranha jaws like a pair of scissors, to cut and snip hair, ropes or fabric.


Black Piranha

The Black Piranha and its toothy grin

Bull sharks have often been reported to have wandered into the Amazon from the Atlantic Ocean.


Another dangerous species in the Amazon is the Black Caiman, which is a crocodile like reptile species and is the largest predator in the Amazon.



The Black Caiman basking in the warm tropical sun (Image source: Wikipedia)

The river is also home to the docile and peace loving Amazonian Manatee. These giant mammals can weigh up to 450 kilograms and are vegetarian, grazing all day to fuel their enormous bodies. Also inhabiting these waters is the Amazon river dolphin, which is an expert at navigating through the murky water using echolocation. They emit sound waves in the form of little clicks or beeps, which get reflected back to them if there is an obstruction or prey nearby painting a picture of their surroundings using sound.


Best of both worlds: Some of the most successful species of the Amazon take advantage of both the terrestrial as well as aquatic gifts of the basin.The largest snake species in the Amazon is the Green anaconda, growing up to 30 feet in length and tipping the scales at a massive 550 lbs. It is non venomous but makes up for this by aggressively crushing its prey, suffocating it before it swallows it whole. It is commonplace for the Anaconda to kill and eat such ferocious animals such as Caiman and Jaguars.


Another giant of the Amazon is the Capybara, the largest rodent on earth, weighing close to a hundred pounds. These are highly sociable creatures, living in family groups, feasting on the juicy water plants in marshes and swamps of the Amazon.



The Amazon basin is inhabited by a large number of tribes and small self sufficient communities, who get everything they need for survival from the Amazon itself. These tribes hunt, fish, gather edible plants and also practice simple forms of agriculture. They have lived this way for thousands of years and some tribes continue to remain isolated from the civilized world. When the Spanish came exploring the Amazon, they brought with them many diseases of the Western world like small pox and tuberculosis. Entire tribes were wiped out due to their lack of immunity to these ailments. Many other tribes were ruthlessly massacred by the explorers when they invaded their territory and tried to take over their land. Some native tribes were taken as slaves to work at the Spanish sugar and rubber plantations in Brazil. Today, the natives are left alone, to live life according to their own culture and heritage. Western civilization and selfishness is not welcome among these people who are happy and content to live in the Amazon basin.


Native Amazonian tribes

Native Amazonian tribes people, with their traditional ornamentation (Image source: Wikipedia)


The Amazon basin offers both tranquility and adventure and is an excellent tourist spot. With a wide variety of tourist packages to fit every kind of traveler  the Amazon definitely adds mystery and thrill to any vacation. Wildlife tours offer to take you to the jungle canopy, getting a bird’s eye view of the rainforest and its inhabitants. High up in the jungle among the screeching Macaws and howling monkeys, you might even catch a glimpse of a Jaguar down below. River cruises are popular with those who enjoy their tranquility with a touch of excitement every time they spot a Caiman. People with a more adventurous nature opt for Kayaking, rafting or exploring the forest on one of the numerous hiking paths and maybe even a camp out to get back in touch with nature.


The Amazon basin faces the very serious threat of deforestation to cater to the timber industry and to make way for grazing lands for cattle. Many animal and plant species face critical endangerment due to habitat loss and pollution. The only way to salvage this beautiful tropical paradise is by spreading awareness. Educating the local populations about the wealth that lies in the forests, and to preserve this treasure for future generations will encourage them to preserve the jungle. Logging companies should be educated about selectively culling trees instead of clearing entire stretches of land. Governments should avoid fragmenting the jungle habitat by constructing roads and laying railway tracks. The Amazon contains treasure, much more precious than gold or money. It contains sustenance. Pumping oxygen into the atmosphere every day, it literally is a breath of fresh air, not just to us humans but also every life that needs oxygen to survive. The jungle contains medicinal plants, most of which do not grow anywhere else in the world, helping us find cures for illnesses such as heart disease, migraines, cancer and possibly even AIDS.

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