We’re going to need a bigger “boat” today: biomes instead of trees.
That’s because the Andes are much larger than Sumatra’s Barisan Mountains, and their rise has reshaped the landscape and climate of a whole continent.
Everyone has heard of the biggest South American biome, though we might not be aware of its many faces.
Most of this is the famous rainforest on that vast floodplain, but the Amazon Biome also extends up into some highland areas, particularly to the north and in Brazil’s central plateaus. As we’ll see below, there’s different ground cover in these places.
We tend to mentally add “Save The” whenever we think of the Amazon rainforest, because we get our information about this natural wonder of the world indirectly through news and documentaries.
And conservation is important.
Many groups are working on this. Here’s one presentation that you might not have seen before.
But to really get invested in the Amazon rainforest, we need to see it as it is. That’s not easy.
Frankly, it’s just too big and diverse for most of us to comprehend.
We’re talking literally millions of square miles of contiguous forest, its plants and animals all thriving in a variety of local habitats.
There is nothing like this place on any other continent.
All we can do is look at the Amazon and try to learn something from it:
However, there is more to Amazonia than the rainforest.
All in all, the Amazon Biome hosts over fifty major ecosystems, including seasonal forests that don’t flood (birds, not dolphins, explore their branches), as well as grasslands and even bamboo forests in some places.
There are other habitats, too.
You might have heard of one of these, though not under its name of Gran Sabana (Big Savanna).
Felid biologists are aware of the threatened jaguar population in this part of southern Venezuela and Guaiana. The rest of us know this place as the Lost World:
Yes, it’s a real place, but (sadly) there are no dinosaurs at the top of those tepuis, though the vegetation up there is unique.
Jaguars, ocelots, and other cats are also found in South America’s second-largest biome.
This tropical savanna in the center of Brazil covers almost a quarter of the country and extends a bit into neighboring Paraguay and Bolivia.
Above ground, it’s a natural mosaic of savanna and well-drained open land, set amid strips of closed-canopy (“gallery“) forest that grows along waterways.
And once more, the wildlife diversity here is amazing:
Savannas like the Cerrado depend on wildfires for existence. The Amazon fires that are currently in the headlines are something different — mostly burning on clear-cut rainforest, I think, but also burning in another Amazonia habitat: Bolivia’s Chiquitano dry tropical broadleaf forest.
This is a paradise for birds and insects, but jaguars and most other mammals stay near the gallery forests.
Underneath the Cerrado is the Guarani Aquifer — the largest freshwater reservoir in South America.
Believe it or not, this aquifer supplies a third of the water flowing through the Amazon and other large river basins.
Like me, you probably thought that all came from the Andes. Nope. South America is full of surprises!
The Cerrado’s underground water also plays an important role in other biomes.
Whoa! There’s the Pantanal, setting for so many jaguar-swimming videos on YouTube! (Note: They can swim the Amazon, too.)
While smaller than Amazonia or the Cerrado, this is the largest tropical wetland in the world.
This biome owes its existence to tectonic forces that deformed the ancient bedrock of South America during the rise of the Andes and the continent’s separation from Africa as the South Atlantic was born.
The rock underlying what is now the Pantanal warped downward, and over time this “hole in the ground” filled up with sediment and became, basically, an inland river delta.
Some of those animals look familiar. Like the plants here, they’ve all wandered into the Pantanal from other biomes, including the Cerrado.
One plant you won’t find here is the cactus. It grows in the Brazilian badlands.
No, I never knew Brazil had desert, either.
The word — pronounced “Ka-cheeng-ga” in videos — reportedly means “white forest” or “white vegetation.”
It’s not true desert, more of a very dry thornscrub environment, but it covers an area that’s about twenty times the size of Texas, making the Caatinga Brazil’s third largest biome!
And, yes, jaguars are very comfortable here, too.
“‘sup?” (According to the video poster, this is the first black jaguar ever caught on camera in the Caatinga.)
We’re going to close with Brazil’s “other” rainforest, but first we need to look at one more arid area. This one isn’t as dry as the Caatinga, and it’s also closer to the Andes.
The Gran Chaco
Climate factors limit rainfall on this plain, southwest of the Pantanal, that extends into Bolivia, Paraguay, and northern Argentina.
The Gran Chaco is downright humid towards the east, but things get more and more parched as you head west and up into the hills.
In Bolivia, this biome is protected in Kaa-lya del Gran Chaco National Park, where jaguars and other cats are often seen.
Not the moment to first realize that jaguars have a much more powerful build than leopards do, as well as absolutely enormous jaws. Fortunately for this tour group, they rarely attack people.
Now, what’s this about another rainforest?
Yes, Brazil has two major rainforests.
The Atlantic Forest
The North Atlantic is a rather chilly place, so it’s difficult for us northerners to realize that a rainforest can indeed thrive on Atlantic shores (in particular, Brazil’s southeastern coast).
But it certainly does.
Here are a few scenes from life underneath that canopy, used in a video supporting a conservation project (not much of the Atlantic Forest is left these days, but people are planting trees and trying to protect wildlife in it).
That’s a lot of information, but now we’ve seen what the major biomes that host South American jaguars look like.
There are other habitats, associated with other South American cats, in these biomes and, in one case, up above tree line. We’ll check those out in coming weeks.
Thank you for your interest!
Featured image: Thomas Quine, CC BY 2.0