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Tropical rainforests present challenging conditions to the animals that live there. In this lesson, we’ll explore several of the diverse adaptations animals have developed in order to survive and thrive in the tropical rainforest.

Tropical Rainforest Overview

From the Amazon rainforest in South America to the lush rainforests of Australia and southeast Asia to the basin forests of mainland Africa and Madagascar, our planet is home to some incredible tropical rainforests: wet, warm forests that have no dry season. In addition, tropical rainforests receive lots of sunlight throughout the year, thanks to their proximity to the Earth’s equator. With all that moisture and the energy from the sun, an explosion of biodiversity, an abundance of different living things, exists within these unique ecosystems.Even though tropical rainforests only cover about 7% of the Earth’s surface, these rainforests are home to an estimated 50% of the species on Earth – plants, animals, and everything in between. How do animals, from insects to worms to vertebrates (animals with backbones) adapt to this enormously diverse environment? With so much diversity, animals often run into competition for resources like food and shelter, and some animals have to defend themselves against a barrage of harmful or predatory attacks.

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Let’s take a look at some of the key animal adaptations that have sprung up in the tropical rainforests of the world.

Animal Adaptations

In a volatile and competitive ecological environment like the tropical rainforests, animals need to adapt to survive. To do this, populations of animals develop physiological or behavioral adaptations over many generations. Those that have advantageous adaptations tend to survive and pass on their genes to new generations.A few examples of animal adaptations in the world’s tropical rainforests are camouflage, the times at which they are active, poison and other deterrents, and interdependence on other species.

We’ll explore just a few examples of each of these, but keep in mind that there are many examples of these kinds of adaptations in such a diverse environment.Camouflage is the ability to blend in with the surrounding environment to avoid detection. Many camouflaged rainforest animals, such as walking stick insects which look just like a tree branch and the slow-moving, green algae-covered sloths that hang from trees and blend in with their environment, use camouflage to avoid predators. However, other animals use camouflage to hide themselves while they are hunting. Jaguars, large American cats, are well known for their black spotted coats. These spots mimic the dappled sunlight through the leaves of the rainforest trees, giving the jaguar perfect camouflage as it stalks its prey.Many animals in the tropical rainforests of the world have adapted to either a nighttime or a daytime mode of life in order to survive.

One example is the nocturnal Amazon tree boa, a strikingly beautiful green to tan snake that is nocturnal, or active at night. These tree boas avoid diurnal, or active during the day, predators like birds of prey and primates, by sleeping during the day. At night, they hunt other nocturnal animals like certain rodents, using special infrared receptors located around the snake’s mouth. In addition to being able to hunt with greater safety, nocturnal animals may also find that hunting at night means less competition for food.Another adaptation is poison. The poison dart frog is famous for its bright color, but in the animal world, bright flashy colors mean danger. The toxins and bright colors warn predators of the dangers of eating members of this frog family.

Many members of this frog family excrete a powerful alkaloid toxin, which is similar to the medical drug morphine in its effects. The most deadly of these dart frogs is the golden poison frog, Phyllobates terribilis, which contains enough toxin to kill several human beings. It is interesting to note that these frogs actually get their poisonous skin from sequestering chemicals from some of the animals they prey upon, such as ants, mites, and millipedes. Some of the frogs in this family, however, are not actually poisonous, but have adapted to their environment by mimicking the appearance of the poisonous frogs. In doing so, they take advantage of the dangerous reputation of their poisonous family members.Many rainforest animal species depend on the huge variety of plants in the rainforest to survive.

Animals have adapted to specific ecological niches, roles within their environment based on their physiological and behavioral characteristics. Within these niches, animals often depend on other species to survive, which is known as interdependence. The Australian fig parrot depends heavily on certain fig trees within the Australian rainforests, and the deforestation of these trees has huge implications for the conservation of both the trees and the fig parrots.Animals also depend on other animals in the tropical rainforest ecosystem. For example, some species of caterpillars excrete a sweet chemical substance that feeds species of tropical ants and, in return, these ants will fiercely protect the caterpillar from predators. This type of relationship where both animals receive a benefit from one another is known as mutualism.

Lesson Summary

Tropical rainforests are wet and warm forests with no dry season and a huge amount of biodiversity.

Many animals coexist in the rainforests of the world, from insects and other invertebrates, to vertebrates. These animals have evolved numerous adaptations to help them survive the intense biological competition to survive in the tropical rainforest.Some of these adaptations are:

  • Camouflage
  • Nocturnal and diurnal modes of life
  • Poisonous animals
  • Animal and plant interdependence

These adaptations allow different organisms, including animals, to survive and pass on advantageous capabilities to their offspring.

From the camouflage tactics of jaguars and walking sticks, to the toxic skin of poison dart frogs, many animals have physical characteristics that help them adapt to their rainforest environment. Other animals have behavioral adaptations, like the Australian fig parrots and the nocturnal tree boas of the Amazon. Many insects are also interdependent on one another for food and defense, like some tropical caterpillars and ants, meaning they rely on other animals to survive. Whatever the method of adaptation, animal inhabitants continuously face the diverse and often hostile environment of the tropical rainforests of the world.

Methods of Adaptation in the Rainforest

Rainforest animals have many different adaptations for surviving in their environment
Rainforest scene
  • Camouflage: an animal’s appearance mimics its environment so it can hide from predators or hunt for prey
  • Nocturnal or diurnal modes of life: active only during the night or day, which can help an animal escape from predators or face less competition for food
  • Poison: some animals are covered in toxins to reduce their chances of being eaten
  • Interdependence: when organisms depend on each other for food or protection

Learning Outcomes

Once you are done, you should be able to:

  • List some of the characteristics of Earth’s rainforests
  • Discuss some of the ways animals have adapted to deal with competition and predators
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