Friday, January 8, 2010

Nature's Showcase

Charles Marie de La Condamine observed that the Amazon forest is a perfect symbiosis of land, vegetation, and water. Nothing--not land, not plants, not trees-- is free of water in the Amazon Basin. Water modifies everything it touches, from permanently inundated rivers and oxbow lakes to flood forest and marshes. In terms of expanse and quantity, this water system ranks as the most imposing in the world.

But it is the plant life that makes all else pale by comparison. The innumerable rivers and streams from which the Amazon derives all come from rains which in turn are the product of a climate controlled by…vegetation. Indeed the sheer force of plant energy enriches the warm, tropical waters. And when they recede the exposed land is immediately converted to forest and the spaces within the trees are filled with epiphytic plants.

For years we considered the lowland rainforest to be a rather simple ecosystem. Thanks to satellite imagery, soil studies, and waves of biological investigation, we know that the entire Amazon basin is characterized by the greatest richness of plant and animal species the world has ever known and by an extreme variety of habitats and ecosystems. Far from being a simple forest, the basin is more like a massive green quilt composed of distinct patches, each with characteristic plants, animals, and soils, yet all seamlessly stitched together.

The Peruvian Amazon is exceptionally rich biologically, as seen from some of the more studied groups: over 300 large tree species on just 2.5 acres of land, and that number would more than double if other types of plants were added; nearly 200 species of reptiles; nearly 200 species of amphibians; 16 primate species; and over 700 species of birds. There is no other place in the world that can boast these kinds of numbers. And the Amazon River itself holds over 2000 species of fishes!

The diverse habitats that host this cornucopia of life remain poorly understood. Biologists are describing new species annually from the Iquitos region and still we have barely scratched the surface. For the scientist, adventurer, or nature lover there is simply no better spot on earth!



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