Here’s a mystery that has perplexed scientists for centuries: the closer to the Equator, the greater the biodiversity. Why is that? Theories range from higher origination rates in the tropics to the advantages of warmer weather for genetic diversity. While we might not know the exact reason, one thing is certain: the incredible species found near the Equator—and so many more that have yet to be discovered there—serve as reminders of why we need to protect tropical forests. Here are a few fascinating examples of tropical flora and fauna:
Who isn’t a sucker for a pair of baby blues? Certainly nothing makes this species swoon more than intensely blue hoofers—in fact, males perform a high-stepping dance that features their azure assets to charm prospective mates. These amusing creatures, which live all along the western coasts of Central and South America (with about half dwelling on the Galápagos Islands), get their name from the Spanish word bobo, meaning “stupid” or “fool,” for their awkward gait. Albeit clumsy on land, boobies display true grace once they take to the air and water, circling the skies before diving head-first at any sign of fish.
Despite its impressive lion-like mane, the golden lion tamarin has far more in common with monkeys than big cats. Its claw-like nails allow this primate to securely stay aloft and agile, moving from branch to branch; a lengthy tail that can reach up to 16 inches helps, too. Long digits also let this tamarin skillfully forage for food among the forest’s concealed crevices. The fiery orange coat covering these squirrel-sized acrobats is believed to have evolved from a carotene-rich diet and excessive sunlight exposure. Native to South America’s rapidly diminish Atlantic Forest, the golden lion tamarin’s current endangered status is a direct result of the ongoing fragmentation and destruction to its forest habitat.
The poetically—and provocatively—named cock-of-the-rock earned its peculiar moniker from a preference for building nests on the rocky cliffs and in caves of the Andes mountains. By not digesting the seeds of its primarily fruit diet, the cock-of-the-rock—which is the national bird of Peru—also acts as an important seed disperser. Whereas a striking orange crest adorns the males’ heads, making their beaks almost invisible, sexual dimorphism leaves females with far more muted coloring. The male squeals, grunts, and dances to impress during elaborate courtship showdowns with other competing bachelors. That vibrant plumage may be a boon to the males’ love lives, but it also draws the attention of predators, such eagles, hawks, pumas, jaguars, and even boa constrictors. Talk about fatal attraction.
As if bromeliads weren’t cool enough, with their amazing ability to thrive without roots in soil, it turns out one of the world’s most beloved fruits—the pineapple—is a bromeliad. Even cooler? At least three types of bromeliads are carnivorous. With urn-like pitfall traps formed by tightly packed leaf bases, they rely on bacteria to break down their prey (instead of digestive enzymes like other carnivorous plants). Other bromeliads take on a more hospitable approach, acting like mini-ecosystems unto themselves: tree frogs, snails, flatworms, tiny crabs, salamanders, and other animals may spend their entire lives dwelling in one such bromeliad. These are just a few of the more than 2,700 species native to the Neotropics.
Despite its striking and variegated exoskeleton, the harlequin beetle has no trouble hiding within the fungus-covered trees of southern Mexico and South America. The fungus acts as both a food source and the perfect camouflage for the beetle’s eggs. This beetle is also known to host tiny arachnids, known as pseudoscorpions, on its abdomen and beneath its colorful wing covers. Harmless to the beetle itself, these commensal organisms latch on via a silk thread and use their newfound mode of transportation to probe for potential food sources and mates.
The northern glass frog’s translucent skin on its belly and chest are a window into its beating heart and other organs. When illuminated from above, its subtle silhouette remains less obvious to any potential predators below. The rest of the nocturnal amphibian’s body appears lime green, allowing it to blend in with its surrounding foliage. Found in the humid forests of Central and South America, this arboreal frog lives exclusively among the trees, laying its eggs on the underside of leaves nearby streams of water. The territorial males—the ultimate stay-at-home-dads—stand guard over their unborn youngsters day and night to protect them from predators like wasps until the tidepools are ready to hatch and fall into the water below.
These small but mighty insects learned to farm way before humans did. Using their sharp jaws to cut pieces of leaves, leafcutter ants transport these fragments back to underground webs of more than 1,000 chambers. There, the ants cultivate the plant pieces into an extensive fungal garden. By pruning vegetation (they consume more vegetation than any other animal group!), these “farmers” stimulate new plant growth, and, by harvesting their food into fungus, they enrich the soil. Found principally in Latin America and the Caribbean, millions of individual ants make up one colony—and one of the natural world’s most studied social caste systems. Individuals take on specific roles such as defenders of the colony, caretakers, gardeners, foragers, and leafcutters. There are even tiny ones that straddle the backs of larger worker ants and fend off carnivorous flies. It takes a village.