Rainforests have historically covered much of the land area around the equator. These lush, wild jungles provide planet Earth with an abundance of both plant and animal species. Animals in the tropical rain forest form an intricate web of life, each of which is important to the health of the whole.
Insects are invertebrates that make up the majority of the species and individual animals in the tropical rainforest. Though tiny, their impact on the environment is tremendous. This group includes butterflies, spiders, ants and larvae. In the rainforest, however, insects have been known to grow to much larger than other related species. Dragonflies that are 15cm- and 30cm-long walking sticks have been recorded rainforests occur all over the world, and each forest is home to a unique array of diverse insects. However, in all rainforest systems, insects perform similar functions. Through their actions, insects help to break down dead and decaying matter and aerate the soil. They also provide food for larger larger vertebrates and invertebrates.
Amphibians are animals that live part of their time on land and part in the water. This group includes frogs and salamanders. Though there are thousands of species of amphibians in the rainforest, the most colorful and easily recognized species are the poison dart frogs. These colorful fellows are tiny and spend their lives eating bugs from the cool, moist shade of the rainforest understory. Their name comes from the fact that they secrete a toxic poison from their glands, making them deadly to would-be predators. However, native hunters have learned to harvest the poison from the frogs and use it on the tips of their arrows in order to kill prey more efficiently. All amphibians are important to the rainforest system, as they prey on bugs and their larvae, keeping their numbers in check, as well as by providing food to higher vertebrates. (except for the poison dart frog, of course!)
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Reptiles slither along the ground and in the trees of tropical rainforests. Snakes are one of the most abundant of the reptile family. The largest snake species in the world, the Anaconda, lives in the rainforests of South America. Smaller species, such as the boa and the python, also live in the rainforests, feasting on smaller invertebrates as well as small mammals. These species squeeze their prey to death and eat it live, while other species, such as the colorful coral snake, carry deadly poison to attack their prey. Other reptiles that dwell in the rainforest include lizards and turtles.
Rainforests are criss-crossed by waterways that are rich with freshwater fish. Fish are important for the rainforest ecology because they provide food for other animals, especially humans. Fish also cycle rainforest nutrients, digesting plant material and turning it into rich fertilizer, which is important since the soil in rainforests is typically very nutrient poor. Competition for food amongst tropical rainforest fish is tough, leading some species to develop strong survival strategies. The most famous of the rainforest fish is the piranha of the Amazon, a fish that has developed rows of razor sharp teeth and a vicious personality to accompany them.
The tropical rainforest is always alive with the sounds of birds, coo-ing and cawing from the branches high above the ground. Birds of the tropical rain forest are known for their bright color, such as parrots, macaws and toucans. They eat a variety of foods, including seeds, plants and even small animals. An important link in the food chain of the tropical rainforest, birds spread seeds around the forest as they fly, adding to the diversity and richness of the forest.
Mammals are some of the largest, and smallest, members of the rainforest community. Small mammals include rodents, such as mice, squirrels and sugar gliders. Large mammals include the majestic jaguar, the sluggish sloth, possums, racoons and armadillos. Humans are also important tropical rainforest mammals. Native tribes have lived for millenia in harmony with the rainforest community, living off its rich natural diversity. As a group, tropical rainforest mammals eat vegetation, grass, invertebrates, insects and even other mammals and help to maintain the delicate balance of the rainforest food chain.