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Backpacking down the incredible Amazon River

There’s something brilliant and exciting around every turn as you trek your way along the Amazon, which boasts an inconceivable density of diverse life the likes of which are unseen anywhere else on Earth. The hot, humid air is buzzing with life from the soft forest floor to the giant canopies above as the sound of rushing water fills your ears. Humanity feels like a distant memory here.

SHEDD'S TRAVEL BLOG SERIES IS MADE POSSIBLE WITH SUPPORT FROM HILTON HOTELS

Freshwater discus have circular, flat bodies and are popular among home aquarists for their unique patterning and large size when fully grown.

In total, the Amazon River runs through nine countries in South America and supplies 20% of the total fresh water that flows into the world’s oceans annually.

At its widest point, the Amazon River supports life at an impressive scale. Arapaima, one of the world’s largest freshwater fish, can grow upwards of 10 feet here. Just like at Shedd Aquarium, you might hear an arapaima during feeding time. The living fossils make a distinct clapping sound when they eat, creating a vacuum and trapping food with a strong, bony tongue. The arapaima’s strong, flexible red scales also protect it from voracious feeders that share its waters.

As the river narrows a bit, life changes dramatically. The river is taken over by the domineering, exposed roots of the trees that line its banks. Fish dart in between these interlocking roots, creating an entirely new environment. Among the schools are red-bellied piranhas. While not as fearsome as media has suggested, the animals boast a powerful jaw and sharp teeth. For centuries, locals have used the jaws of piranhas for making tools because of their durability.

A closeup picture of an arapaima's oblong, flat-topped head. The fish's jaw is very large and takes up the front third of its enormous face, which from lip to gill is about a foot long. It has small round eyes set near the flat top of its head behind its mouth, and its head ends in large gills for breathing in murky Amazon rivers.

Arapaima, one of the world’s largest freshwater fish.

The red bellied piranha has sharp teeth and a strong jaw for preying on other fish.

A red-bellied piranha.

As you follow the roots of the mangroves upwards, you will see life extend above you that is still rooted in our collective need for water. Green-winged macaws, like Poblano and Serrano at Shedd, may be pruning on the branches, mimicking calls and displaying their incredible colors. Their sharp beaks help them crack open all kinds of nuts, fruits and other food items they find along the forest floor.

Two stunning bright red macaws lift their large, blue-tipped wings in Shedd's Oceanarium.

Poblano and Serrano, two green-winged macaws at Shedd.

Lazily slithering nearby, you might also spot a green anaconda making its way to a prime perching and sunbathing spot. As you might expect, these powerful snakes can grow to mind-blowing lengths. The anaconda at Shedd Aquarium is around 14 feet long! These snakes are just as comfortable in the water as they are in the trees. Ambush hunters, the cold-blooded reptiles conserve energy as they wait for a potential meal to pass within striking distance.

One reptile attempts to stay out of the anaconda's way: The caiman lizard — an animal you might see scurrying across the forest floor or up the trunk of a nearby tree. These lizards are well-adapted for a semi-aquatic lifestyle, diving into the water to scavenge for bugs, fallen fruits and aquatic snails. You’ll recognize them immediately from their coloring, which starts at a brilliant red/orange on the head that fades to a beautiful green at the tail.

Water may seem plentiful here, but the Amazon River basin actually cycles through wet and dry seasons. As such, there are times when the river is overflowing with water and other times when water levels drop by several feet. Remarkably, life here has evolved and adapted to these seasons, with unique feeding and survival strategies that allow life to flourish in both wet and dry conditions. Some animals’ reproductive cycles are even triggered by this change in seasons.

Sometimes though, a drought can lead to conditions where human intervention is needed. Shedd Aquarium’s Animal Response Team went to Bolivia a few years ago to provide aid for some freshwater Amazon river dolphins that became stranded in a lake that had been cut off from its river during the dry season.

An anaconda underwater at Shedd Aquarium.

The green anaconda at Shedd Aquarium is around 14 feet long!

A caiman lizard lounges in its habitat in Amazon Rising, its red head and green body, covered in sharp bumps, distinctive.

Caiman lizards are well-adapted for a semi-aquatic lifestyle, diving into the water to scavenge for bugs, fallen fruit and aquatic snails.

The Amazon River and surrounding basin are a bastion of biodiversity and are critically important in the production of oxygen for our atmosphere. We still have not fully unlocked all of life’s mysteries here. As such, it’s our responsibility to protect it.

The 30 by 30 initiative seeks to grant full protections to 30 percent of the Earth’s wild spaces by the year 2030. By protecting the places wildlife call home, we can do immense good for all species – from caiman lizards to green-winged macaws and everything in between.

For actionable steps to join us in protecting our shared blue planet, stay connected with Shedd Aquarium via our social media and consider joining our new online community: Surge.

And if you’re looking for a taste of the Amazon River a little closer to Chicago, come check out the aquarium’s Amazon Rising exhibit, which mimics the humid conditions of the iconic rainforest. Safe travels!

—Johnny Ford, Assistant Director of Public Relations