Smithsonian Journeys Dispatches

Tiny Treasures of the Amazon

This posting is courtesy of our friends at International Expeditions, with whom we've planned a better-than-ever Amazon Voyage for February 2010. Photos are courtesy of IE Expedition Leader Jorge Salas, who's captured some of the Amazon's smallest inhabitants.

The Amazon is an integration of rivers and jungles combined to form the largest wilderness area in the world—the Amazon Basin. Occupying over 2.5 million square miles and including major portions of nine South American countries, this area contains an enormous diversity and abundance of fauna and flora. Despite the hundreds of scientists who have explored the Amazon and the masses of data that have been compiled, most of its huge area is only vaguely known with thousands of new species waiting to be discovered. During our Amazon cruise, we help curious travelers discover as many of these hidden secrets as possible.

While most travelers know about the rainforests’ larger residents—macaws, river dolphins and monkeys - here are a few of the Amazon’s tiniest treasures.

Ithomiinae butterfly - These small butterflies are common in the New World tropical forests. Due to the toxins ingested by their caterpillars they are not considered choice food items by predators.

Leptodactylid Frog - Found primarily in Central and South America, this family of frogs may contain over 1,000 species. Many species construct foam nests to house the eggs and tadpoles until they hatch and metamorphose.

Short-Horned Grasshopper - Grasshoppers are abundant from the canopy to the forest floor. Many species are very colorful, others are so well camouflaged they’re almost impossible to see until they move.

Monarch Butterfly Caterpillar - The caterpillar of the Monarch is able to eat the leaves of toxic milkweed plants. These toxins are passed on to the adult form during metamorphosis, making the adults an unpopular food choice to predators.

Tropical Dragonfly - Dragonflies are wide-spread and commonly observed insects. Both the aquatic larval form and the adult are voracious consumers of other insects.

Poison Dart Frog (with young) - This species lays its eggs in the water trapped in the base of epiphytic bromeliads. If the water or food supply in the bromeliad gets too low the tadpole may attach to the adult, who then takes it to a new plant.

Mata Mata Turtle — Chelus fimbriatus - This odd-looking turtle, known from the drainage of the Amazon and Orinoco Rivers, preys on fish and large aquatic invertebrates. Adults may weigh over 30 pounds. The skin flaps and head shape break up its outline making it difficult for prey animals to recognize it before they get too close to escape.

Leaf Toad - There are numerous species of these small toads called leaf toads. They share, in common, the superficial resemblance to a dead leaf on the ground. This camouflage helps them escape the notice of hunting predators. They, in turn, consume small invertebrates they find on the forest floor.