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Video: Amazing species of the Amazon

  1. Transcript of: Amazing species of the Amazon

    BRIAN WILLIAMS, anchor (Los Angeles): Some rare good news on the environment tonight. The World Wildlife Fund is out with a report describing more than 1200 new species discovered in the Amazon over the past decade. They include 216 different amphibians, 55 reptiles, 39 mammals, 16 newly discovered birds. The list includes a pink river dolphin and a baldheaded parrot. The reports warns 17 percent of the Amazon has been destroyed by humans in just the past 50 years. We've put all of the photos of the new species on our Web site , nightly.msnbc.com.

By Contributor
OurAmazingPlanet
updated 11/11/2010 10:47:05 PM ET 2010-11-12T03:47:05

The extraordinary biodiversity seen in the Amazon rainforest — one of the most species-rich ecosystems on Earth — may have evolved mainly due to the rise of the Andes, research suggests.

The Amazon, the world's largest river basin, is home to the largest rainforest on Earth, covering about 2.58 million square miles (6.7 million square kilometers) in nine countries. This area, known as Amazonia, holds a mind-boggling array of life, harboring one in 10 known species in the world and one in five of all birds.

"Many previously unseen species are discovered and documented every year," said John Lundberg, curator of ichthyology at the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia.

The origin of the amazing level of diversity seen in Amazonia has been debated for decades. It was long held that isolated patches of forest served as safe havens during cycles of aridity during the Pleistocene epoch (beginning about 2.5 million years ago and ending 12,000 years ago), refuges that served as incubators for diversity over the past 2.5 million years. However, in the 1990s, support for this idea crumbled after evidence for it was revealed to be a mistake based on how species were analyzed.

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Now, recent findings regarding the timing of changes in Amazonian diversity coupled with research into the slow rise of the Andes Mountains suggests the growth of this mountain range had a profound effect on Amazonia, with the area's diverse nature emerging well before the Pleistocene era — far earlier than previously thought.

The Andes began their rise about 34 million to 65 million years ago, when the tectonic plate diving under the Pacific edge of South America caused uplift. The rising mountains that resulted from the uplift blocked humid air from the Atlantic, eventually increasing rainfall along the eastern flank of what became the Andes. That eroded nutrient-loaded soils off the mountains. The Andes also kept water from draining into the Pacific, helping form vast wetlands about 23 million years ago that were home to a wide range of mollusks and reptiles.

The global drop in sea levels and temperatures that started roughly 10 million years ago led the wetlands to dry up some 7 million years ago, after which point their rich soil became open to colonization by rainforests and a rapidly diversifying collection of trees and other plants. Further uplift of the Andes in the last 2.5 million years or so shifted river patterns and helped create varied landscapes that fostered even more diversity of life.

The emergence of the Panama isthmus connecting North America and South America 3.5 million years ago also led new mammals and birds to immigrate, completing the picture of Amazonia we have today, researchers suggest.

The immense rainforest still holds many secrets, said paleoecologist Carina Hoorn of the University of Amsterdam in the Netherlands. "Comparative work between modern and fossil forests is still needed to fully comprehend the evolution of the tropical rainforest," she told OurAmazingPlanet.

Hoorn, Lundberg and their colleagues detailed these recent findings in Friday's issue of the journal Science.

© 2012 OurAmazingPlanet. All rights reserved. More from OurAmazingPlanet.

Photos: Amazing Amazon

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  1. Beautiful ... and deadly

    The World Wildlife Fund has documented more than 1,200 Amazonian species identified between 1999 and 2009 in a report titled "Amazon Alive!" This brilliantly colored poison-dart frog, Ranitomeya benedicta, was discovered in 2008 in Peru. Poison-dart frogs secrete toxins that can be adapted for medical use as painkillers. (Evan Twomey / Courtesy of World Wildlife Fund) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. A spot of color

    This view of the cryptic forest-falcon (Micrastur mintoni) highlights the bright orange skin around its eyes. The Brazilian bird was discovered in 2002, but scientists still don't know much about the species. (Andrew Whittaker / Courtesy of World Wildlife Fund) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Not easy being green

    The lizard species known as Anolis cuscoensis was discovered in 2008 in Peru's Andean Amazonia. Anoles have the chameleon-like ability to change color, but that's not necessarily a good thing. Green anoles turn dark brown when they're severely stressed or ill. (Steven Poe / Courtesy of World Wildlife Fund) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Newfound frog

    The tree frog known as Osteocephalus castaneicola was identified as a new species after its discovery in the Bolivian Amazon in 2009. (Jiri Moravec / Courtesy of World Wildlife Fund) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Fish with a Mohawk

    Apistogramma baenschi is one of at least 257 new fish species found in the Amazon River and its tributaries over the past decade. This breed of fish, discovered in Peru in 2004, makes a splash with its brightly colored fins. (Kris Weinhold / Courtesy of World Wildlife Fund) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Scary ... or scared?

    Avicularia braunshauseni, discovered in Brazil in 1999, belongs to a class of tarantulas that are known as "pinktoes" because of their characteristically colored foot pads. Avicularia tarantulas are not considered to be aggressive. They prefer to jump and flee as quickly as possible when threatened. They'll occasionally respond to a threat by launching a jet of excrement that can accurately hit a target 3 feet (1 meter) away. (Karl Csaba / Courtesy of World Wildlife Fund) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Study in red and brown

    This ground snake, Atractus tamessari, was identified as a new species in 2006 after its discovery in Guyana. It has a characteristic color pattern of irregular red markings on a medium brown to black skin, with a black-and-yellowish underbelly. (Philippe J. R. Kok / Courtesy of World Wildlife Fund) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. A flash of violet

    Violet flowers stick up from the Bromelia araujoi plant, which was identified as a new Brazilian species in 2008. Such plants belong to the same family as the pineapple. (E. Esteves Pereira / Courtesy of World Wildlife Fund) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Green frog from Guyana

    The frog known as Hypsiboas liliae has a bright green skin that's tinged with blue. The species was first identified in 2006 on the eastern edge of Guyana's Pakaraima Mountains. (Philippe J. R. Kok / Courtesy of World Wildlife Fund) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Monkey seen

    The Rio Acari marmoset (Mico acariensis) was identified as a new species in 2000. The first specimen seen by scientists was being kept as a pet by inhabitants of a small settlement near the Rio Acari in Brazilian Amazonia. (Georges Néron / Courtesy of World Wildlife Fund) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. Glass frog

    The frog species known as Nymphargus wileyi was first described in 2006 in Amazonian Ecuador. Such frogs are known as "glass frogs": While they have a general background color of vivid lime green, the abdominal skin can be transparent - revealing the heart, liver and gastrointestinal tract. (Chris Funk / Courtesy of World Wildlife Fund) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Polly want some feathers?

    The bald parrot (Pyrilia aurantiocephala) caused a sensation when it was described in 2002, mainly because it was hard to believe that such a large and colorful bird could have escaped the world's notice for so long. The Brazilian bird has an extraordinarily bald head, devoid of plumage, but bears strikingly colorful plumage elsewhere. (Arthur Grosset / Courtesy of World Wildlife Fund) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. Sitting in a tree

    This slender-legged treefrog (Osteocephalus yasuni) was first identified as a new species in 1999. It has been found in Ecuador, Peru and Colombia. (Forrest Rowland / Courtesy of World Wildlife Fund) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. Black and white and red

    A vibrantly colored Brazilian snake species known as Pseudoboa martinsi was first described in 2008. It has a black head cap, a large black vertebral stripe, bright red flanks and a uniformly white belly. (William Magnussan / Courtesy of World Wildlife Fund) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. Peppered with poison

    Twenty-four new species of poison-dart frogs were discovered in the Amazon between 1999 and 2009. This one, Ameerega pepperi, was first seen in 2009 in Peru. (Evan Twomey / Courtesy of World Wildlife Fund) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. Bird in the bamboo

    The rufous twistwing of the Peruvian Amazon (Cnipodectes superrufus) was first described by scientists in 2007. The species is restricted to thickets of thorny, 16-foot-high (5-meter-high) bamboo. (Arthur Grosset / Courtesy of World Wildlife Fund) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. Frog with a mask

    The poison-dart frog species known as Ranitomeya summersi was discovered in Peru in 2008. The frog is jet-black, with orange cross-bands that almost seem to be painted on. A black mask hides the Amazonian creature's eyes. (Evan Twomey / World Wildlife Fund) Back to slideshow navigation
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