life on landjourney into amazonia

Each year, the greatest river on Earth drowns beneath a vast steely mirror. Ribbons of jungle are all that remain to hint at another world beneath the surface. But as the floods of the wet season abate, waters start to fall. And as the Amazon begins to drain, the tops of the trees stretch into blue skies and feel fresh air for the first time in many weeks. In the annual battle for dominance between water and land, the forest now gains the upper hand. Whether high in the canopy, or on the forest floor far beneath, the withdrawal of the waters alters the face of the wilderness.

As the season redraws the map, animals stake their claims and patrol new boundaries. All across Amazonia, emerging environments are reclaimed. Streams are swallowed up by dry land. Summer scorches the earth as the waterworlds and their inhabitants are banished.

Featured Wildlife: Life on Land

jaguarJaguar (Panthera onca)
Its name is an Indian word meaning, "He who kills with one leap." The largest, most powerful member of the Americas cat family, the jaguar is renowned as a stealthy, matchless hunter. Leanly built, jaguars average between three and six feet in length, and between 70 and 350 pounds. With its crushing jaws, which can penetrate a turtle shell, the jaguar tops the Amazonian food chain, feeding on large mammals like deer and tapir, and if necessary, on reptiles. They favor areas of forest near streams and rivers, and prefer to hunt at night, though they are sometimes known to venture out during the day as well. The jaguar's roar can carry several hundred yards, sounding in the dark forest night.

Breeding occurs throughout the year, and when it does, jaguars undertake the task with the same intensity they use to hunt. A jaguar pair will mate up to 100 times a day, taking an average of nine seconds every time. But while mating jaguars are constant companions throughout breeding, they separate just as severely once mating is complete. The male jaguar will leave after two or three days, and plays no role in the upbringing of the cubs, which will not be born for three months.

Yellow-rumped Caciques (Cacicus cela)
Is that the territorial roar of a jaguar? Perhaps. But it could very well be a yellow-rumped cacique. The cacique is a talented imitator, capable of sounding like a wide variety of birds and mammals. But typically, it uses its remarkable vocal range to attract a mating partner. Females are ready to mate after they complete the elaborate process of nest-building; in a cacique colony, there may be as many as 100 active nests at any one time. Where the females can, they use a partially built nest, and they don't hesitate to borrow materials from an absent neighbor. When it is time to mate, males croon their songs and puff up their plumage. They compete with other males for a mating female. Size ultimately determines the victory in these squabbles.

anacondaAnaconda (Eunectes murinusis)
While it may not be the longest snake in the world -- the reticulated python is longer -- the anaconda is certainly one of the longer snakes in the world, and recognized as the heaviest, weighing more than a cow. The anaconda's weight plays a key role in hunting. After ambushing prey at a watering or feeding site, the anaconda coils itself tightly around its victim -- likely some large animal -- and crushes it. Swallowed head first, the prey is gradually ingested and then slowly digested.

The way that the anaconda mates is as unusual as the way that it hunts. A female anaconda, some three to five times larger than the average male, lays an inviting chemical trail. When males respond to it, they do so in great numbers. The female and males, which can number as many as 13, entangle themselves in a mating ball, where they stay for two to four weeks. The female copulates with many of the males, though it is unclear whether more than one male is responsible for fertilizing the eggs. Eventually, the eggs hatch within the female's body, and six months later, she bears live young.

Black skimmer (Rynchops niger)
When the lower half of a black skimmer's beak touches prey, an amazing, instantaneous process occurs. The beak, which contains a good supply of blood and nerves, automatically snaps shut on its victim -- often some kind of fish. Only the three species of skimmers possess this incredible, tactile adaptation. Interestingly, the skimmer's beak is subject to wear and tear of water and hunting, and breaks on occasion, but has the ability to regenerate itself. In captivity, skimmer beaks often grow much longer than they do in the wild.

In addition, the black skimmer's eyes are well adapted to seeing at night, which is when the bird does most of its feeding. Many of the skimmer's favorite foods -- fish, worms and insects -- stay nearer to the surface of their river homes at night than during the daytime. Sadly, when parent skimmers leave their riverside nests to hunt, they leave their young chicks vulnerable to other predatory night feeding birds.

Vampire Bat (Desmodus rotundus)
There are 950 species of bats in the Amazon. As a group, bats are opportunists. As individual species, they are specialists. Each species has its own peculiar strategy for survival. When night falls, bats leave the roost and forage in the waiting forest.

The vampire bats found in Amazonia -- New World Vampire Bats -- are the only true vampire bats in the world, and like the mythological creature with which they are associated, they feed on blood. Everything about a vampire bat, from its padded thumbs to the way it flies, is designed to keep its movements silent. Silence is key for the vampire, for it allows it to land near or on its prey undetected. Food sources include many different kinds of mammals, man among them. Once a vampire is able, it uses its razor-sharp teeth to scoop out a small amount of its victim's skin -- enough to allow blood to flow. The vampire bat does not suck; instead, it laps up the blood, which will not clot thanks to an anticoagulant in the vampire bat's saliva.

tapirTapir (Tapirus terrestris)
Among Amazonia's more ancient inhabitants is the tapir, which is among the world's most primitive large mammals. The region's largest land herbivore, the tapir is recognizable by its unusual proboscis. The proboscis functions like an elephant's trunk, the tapir using it to sweep plants into its mouth.

Like all mammals, the tapir is unable to digest cellulose on its own, but thanks to a handy, symbiotic adaptation, the tapir is able to survive eating plants. Inside a pocket of its large intestine, the tapir harbors a host of microorganisms that help break down the cellulose found in plant material. Since it is an extremely slow and inefficient process, the tapir needs to eat all day long for its diet to be a significant source of energy. Much of what a tapir eats leaves its body undigested, including the seeds of plants. By depositing the seeds in its waste, the tapir plays an essential role in conserving the forest environment.

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Journey into Amazonia
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