BIG in the Wild: Inside the Amazon

The world's largest rain forest houses an abundance of wildlife.

March 10, 2009, 7:01 PM

March 11, 2009 — -- It's home to the world's most vast variety of living creatures with the most birds, freshwater fish and butterflies, yet, countless things remain undiscovered in the Amazon rain forest.

At 1.4 billion acres, the Amazon, which is in Brazil, is the biggest rain forest in size and diversity. Its area matches the size of the continental United States.

The region, which spreads across nine countries and is the source of half of all rain forest land on the planet, also holds the biggest river in the world by volume, the Amazon River. The giant pipeline is 4,000 miles long.

And to officially be called a rain forest, it must get 80 inches of precipitation annually.

The Amazon rain forest's thick shrubbery, grassy marshes and rainbow-colored wildlife were created at least 55 million years ago, according to scientists.

The Amazon rain forest hosts the biggest number of plant and animal species around the globe. In fact, it holds three-quarters of all of Earth's known living things.

One-fifth of all birds live in the area, including the scarlet macaw, which is known as the most beautiful fowl on Earth.

And it's not just animals of the sky that make their homes here. The jaguar and squirrel monkey are among the 300 species of mammals that call the region home.

Then there are the insects — an estimated 2.5 million species of them — that live in the Amazon. As astounding as that number may seem, it's even bigger when you realize a species can be a label for thousands of different kinds of creatures.

Ants are a great example. There are several different kinds of ants — up to 14,000. And a single bush in the rain forest may hold more ant species than the entire British Isles.

The rain forest also has plenty of plant life. The Amazon has the biggest diversity of the world's plant life with more than 400,000 species registered. That doesn't include the countless more waiting to be discovered.

Some experts believe one square mile of the rain forest may hold 50,000 types of trees and 100,000 different kinds of plants.

With that much vegetation, it makes the rain forest the lungs of Earth. Massive tree canopies suck in carbon dioxide by the ton and put out life-giving oxygen.

In fact, about 10 percent of Earth's oxygen comes from the rain forest's leaves. The leaves, whose job includes soaking up as much rain and sun as possible, also make up the rain forest's canopy, which is a dense collection of tree tops.

The canopy is so think that it forms a natural ceiling over the forest and experts estimate 90 percent of the forest's species live in the canopy.

Part of what makes the region so amazing is its extensive river. In some places, the Amazon River is so wide that you can't even see the other side.

During the dry season, it is a little less than seven miles across at its widest point, but during the rainy season that grows to nearly 25 miles across.

All the rainwater floods the river and makes trees, which are 10 to 20 feet high, seem like bushes as the water submerges them.

The water holds more than 3,000 species of fish and marine life. This is where the piranha and the anaconda make their sanctuaries.

With all of its amazing sites and massive potential, today, the Amazon rain forest is fighting an important battle against destruction and devastation.

Combating deforestation is what organizations like the Rainforest Alliance do. It's working to change the policies and standards leading to the destruction. The struggle has brought forth individuals, like Karina Miotto, who have made saving the region a life purpose.

Miotto quit her job as a journalist two years ago and moved to the remote area — drawn by the magical lure of the rain forest and its people. The Sao Paolo native said she "needed to share" her experiences and has emerged as a young, passionate voice in defense of the Amazon. Miotto has written stories, given lectures and is working on a film with Greenpeace to further the cause.

The visual shock of the area's destruction stokes the passion of the rain forest's defenders — the sights and sounds of buzzing saws and scorching flames claiming ancient trees by the score during the last 30 years.

The Amazon has been stripped. From the original 2 million square miles of forest, 18 percent has been lost.

The stretches of green that disappear are about the size of Texas and more is lost daily.

"The real problem that is driving the Amazon rain forest is that anything you do with the forest -- and you cut it down and kill it -- is worth more in the marketplace than the standing living forest," said Steve Schwartzman of the Environmental Defense Fund.

Cattle ranching is the biggest culprit, followed by soy bean farming and then logging. Acre upon acre of forestland is cleared for commerce and some believe, for that, the planet is paying the price.

Not only are we losing the trees that pump oxygen for us to breathe, we're also losing the world's single most abundant home of plant and animal life. And the deforestation is adding to global warming.

Twenty percent of the world's carbon emissions are due to this deforestation.

"Three months ago, Brazil got up and committed to reduce its national deforestation 70 percent by 2017. That is huge. This sets a standard for controlling the emissions of global warming pollution," Schwartzman said.

"The Brazilian government has done something very innovative and really tough that we have not done in our own country, which is any private land owner who buys land, and is going to use it for something has to set aside 20 percent of that land for full protection," said Tensie Whelan of the Rainforest Alliance.

And while new efforts are being made to protect the rain forest, Miotto said her life's work won't be done until the area is restored to its full, green glory.

"I am going to live here as long, all of my life," she said.

Click here to learn more about Uptown Birds pet store, which provided the Amazonian birds featured on "GMA" today.

ABC News Live

ABC News Live

24/7 coverage of breaking news and live events