The Amazon jungle remains one of the Earth's last untouched vistas. Covering over 2.7 million square miles, it is teeming with rare species of animals and plants. Piranhas, anacondas, jaguars, beetles, all kinds of exotic plants, all flourish here and it's estimated that a new species is discovered every three days.
Between 1999 and 2009, 637 plants, 257 fish, 216 amphibians, 55 reptiles, 16 birds and 39 mammals were discovered in the area. This diversity is largely due to the Amazon containing many different habitats. With a constant rainy season, the damp jungle floor and humid atmosphere provide ideal conditions for the growth of many plants and insects.
However, human activities have led to the destruction of 17 % of the Amazon rain forest in the last 50 years. This is slowly leading to the extinction of many species. In this tangled web of life, plants and animals have evolved traits to help them adapt to their changing environment.
Birds use bright plumage, lizards use bright colors, poison, bites, speed and stealth, are all used to survive and thrive. Take the Harpy eagle with its 6 foot wing span, who isn't afraid to swoop and snack on a full grown sloth or the pretty, sweet-smelling yellow and red Amazon sundew that eats insects!
While most of the animals don't go out of their way to attack humans, any boorish trampling through the jungle can disturb them and provoke an attack. It's time to brush up on your Guarani or Spanish; you'll need it to hear the guide warning you about one or more of the following Amazon creatures.
10 Black Caiman
Kicking off this list is the largest member of this group, and of the Alligatoridae family, the black caiman. You may have heard of viscous 'gators, but how many of them grow to 20 feet? This 660 lb river dweller feasts on monkeys, deer even anacondas.
Extremely stealthy and easily camouflaged, this 'gator on steroids has no known predators. These beasts attack and clamp down their jaws with over 5000 lbs of force. They proceed to drown their prey by dragging it into water while rolling over and over, tearing off limbs with each turn.
Noted for its bigger and thicker skull, its acute sense of sight and smell, the black caiman is one tough customer. In 2010, Deise Nishimura, a marine biologist was attacked by a black caiman that had lived under her houseboat for months. It attacked her one day while she was on deck. Luckily she survived, but she lost a leg to the beast.
Another Amazon colossus, the Arapaima can grow over 6.5 feet long. Lacking teeth, the Arapaima is covered in thick armored scales that protect it from any predators. This allows it to live in piranha infested waters without a problem. When cornered or their young is in danger, this freshwater fish charges and basically turns itself into a battering ram.
Hurling its 220 lb body at an attacker, the fish is able to ram predators with a force resembling a car crash! This attack has been known to overturn boats and inflict damage. Just ask the TV personality, Jeremy Wade, who was rammed by a cornered Arapaima in 2002. The effects of that attack led to lasting heart damage.
8 Coral Snake
Remember 'Red and yellow, kill a fellow. Red and black, friend of Jack.' Though true for many coral snakes, following this rule in the Amazon can get an explorer killed.
This coloring scheme may be true for some species in North America, but not in the Amazon. Many species of the coral snake are 'usually' red, yellow and black (in that order), but many species have alternating or totally different colors.
Take the Peruvian coral snake, a largely reclusive and well camouflaged snake that blends well with the forest floor. It may also make its home in the sunlit canopy. While it will flee to avoid humans, if trampled on or disturbed, it will bite. Its venom contains a neurotoxin that paralyses the breathing muscles. Failure to get help will lead to death by respiratory failure in a few hours.
A member of the viper family, the B. athrox is known for its irritable disposition as it strikes with little provocation. Covered in brown scales, it blends easily with trees and the forest floor. However, extreme caution must be taken in areas where this snake is known to frequent.
If bitten, its venom is said to cause nausea, blackouts, massive tissue destruction, internal bleeding, even temporary to permanent loss of 'short term' memory. The locals call it the 3-step snake i.e. you can only take three steps before dying after being bit.
Though it has a relatively short striking range, it is extremely fast, sometimes moving faster than the eye can track. It's so fast that even a mongoose, known to kill king cobras, is given only a 50-50 chance of survival when faced by a fer-de-lance.
6 Poison Dart Frog
Those vivid colors, those limpid eyes, even the tiny size (2 inches), all belie the danger that is the poison dart frog. Not all members of this species are poisonous, as several members have evolved markings similar to their poisonous cousins. This serves to confuse potential predators.
However, the skin of the Golden poison dart frog, Phyllobates terribilis, is coated with a toxin that can kill on contact. This frog is the main source of the venom used to tip the arrows of indigenous South American natives for centuries. The toxin causes the victims nerves to stop transmitting impulses leading to paralysis, bleeding and organ failure within minutes.
5 The Brazilian Wandering Spider
When the Guinness Book of Records certifies a spider as the worlds most venomous, you'd better pay attention. While Phoneutria fera (Phoneutria is Greek for murderess), is native to the Amazon, it has found its way as far north as London when it was accidentally packed up with fruits and sent to a grocery store in London.
Highly aggressive, this 5-inch spider will attack humans if provoked. Rolling back on its legs and flashing its red jaws, it will bite and inject its venom. The venom causes loss of muscle control, breathing problems and asphyxiation.
It's also hard to avoid as it doesn't spin webs or dig a lair. It just wanders where it pleases, making its home in cool dark places during the day and prowling the floor at night.
Oh, and their bite is also known to lead to four hour long erections.
4 Bullet Ants
This giant among ants, grows to a length of one inch. Looking quite fearsome with its rugged exterior and two blunt horns, it's actually pretty tame. Tame, until provoked.
This ant which nests in trees will drop from its nest and bite, if it feels threatened. Their bite is rated "4+" on the Schmidt Sting Pain Index, describing it as 'Like walking over flaming charcoal with a 3-inch nail in your heel'. Some have even described the bite as painful as being shot! The sting can only kill you if you have an allergic reaction to it; but you are guaranteed nausea and local, temporary paralysis.
It's also called the 24 ant, because the pain from the bite lasts unabated for a minimum of 24 hours. These ants can sting MULTIPLE times per second, and will release a pheromone signalling other ants to sting too. Just imagine a whole mass of these on you.
3 Assassin Bugs
Unlike their other Hemipetra cousins, the Reduviidae are terrestrial predators. Characterized by an absurdly long proboscis which is used to stab prey and liquefy them from the inside. This and other adaptations make them a threat to prey much larger than themselves.
However, assassin bugs, cone nose bugs and kissing bugs fall under the scary subspecies of vertebrate blood suckers. This makes them particularly deadly to humans. Apart from the intensely painful stab-bite, they transmit Trypanosoma cruzi, which causes Chagas disease. In the American tropics and sub-tropics alone, this disease causes up to 12,500 deaths a year.
The Amazon is known for more than snakes and bugs; it's a jungle too. This list would be incomplete without acknowledging the plants in the region.
Though resplendent in color and fragrance, the plants in this jungle have had to evolve tough defense mechanisms. Because they can't move, they're easy prey to everything in the jungle; insects, birds, lizards, mammals; everything. Their defenses range from poisons to spines, spikes etc.
One of these plant defences, curare, has been adapted by indigenous tribes to provide poison for their blow darts and arrows. This toxin, D-tubocurarine, is obtained from the Chondrodendron tomentosum. Contact with curare will cause the victims muscles to stop contracting, leading to paralysis and eventual asphyxiation.
From the snapping jaws of the Caiman to the bloody kiss of the fer-de-lance, isn't it odd that the mosquito is considered the deadliest animal in the Amazon?
How is an insect, less than 0.6 inches long, deadlier than a 7 foot anaconda?
For one, there are over 3,000 species of this insect around today; and each one is distinctly different. The female Anopheles is regarded as the deadliest, and it's not just due to the painful bites. The Plasmodium falciparum parasite injected into the blood stream with each bite, causes malaria. Malaria is the cause of death of over 600,000 people across the globe annually.
The initial bite leads to fever, nausea and even a coma, within 15 days. Because P. falciparum has multiple morphologies during its life cycle in the human body, it easily evades the human immune system as it constantly changes surface antigens. It also lives a portion of its life within liver and red blood cells.
Yes, mosquitoes kill more humans worldwide in five minutes than sharks do in a year; it also causes around 200 million cases of hospitalization.
Oh, and mosquitoes are also known to spread Dengue fever.
These tiny, but extremely dangerous critters, deserve their spot at the top of this list.
Sources: theguardian.com, bbc.com, listverse.com, scienceblogs.com, bbc.com
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