Nature's riches from the Amazon

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 15 June, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 15 June, 2011, 12:00am


Under the tree shades


Forget about spine-chilling mice climbing from sewers to haunt dai pai dong diners. The world's largest rodent, the capybara, is stockier than rats, but no less endearing than guinea pigs.

The barrel-shaped animal can grow as long as 1.3 metres and weigh up to 65kg - as heavy as a human. It has a short head and a coat of reddish-brown fur. Adults gorge up to 3.6kg of grasses and aquatic plants each day. But they are very picky about what they eat. Their diet is made up of only four to six plants. Like rabbits and cows, they eat their own poop to extract maximum nutrition from their food.

The clever animals graze in the late afternoon when the sun is low in the sky. In daytime, they wallow in rivers. They are skilled swimmers and divers, capable of holding their breath underwater for as long as five minutes. The waters also act as their refuge when threatened.

'When strangers visited the two capybaras, they scuttled into the pond,' Peter Tse Pei-tak, Ocean Park's operations manager for terrestrial life sciences, recalls. 'All we can see are two pairs of eyes and two noses sticking out of the water like hippos eyeing us cautiously.'

Hercules beetle

Pound for pound, the hercules beetle certainly lives up to the name of the Greek god. As the world's strongest animal, it can lift objects 850 times its weight with a huge curvy horn over its head. But only males grow these extraordinary horns that make up more than half of its 19cm-long body.

'They are especially useful in winning over females during the mating season,' explains Charlie Young Yuet-mei, Ocean Park's assistant curator of freshwater and reptile exhibits. 'They use their horns to lift their opponent up and knock him to the ground.'

Females, on the other hand, look distinctly different and were once believed to be a separate species from the males. They have a bigger body, but lack horns altogether. In contrast to the males' olive-green wing case with large black spots, theirs are brownish black.

In reproduction, cream-coloured larvae grow up around rotten logs feeding on decaying wood, leaf litter and dung. The beetle takes a year to pupate, but it lives for only three to four months as adults.

Dazzling the skies

Sun conure

A flock of sun conures flying across the evening sky was said to resemble a beautiful sunset, hence its name. The brilliantly coloured members of the parrot family sport a golden-yellow plumage with an orange-flushed face and belly plus a long green tail.

This species is hugely popular as pets, leading to severe poaching. They are also increasingly vulnerable to a loss of forest habitat. The bird was listed as endangered in the 2008 International Union for Conservation of Nature's Red List. Indigenous people hunt conures for their fascinating feathers, which they fashion into headdresses. Now, overseas zoos and shops collect feathers from moulting captive-bred birds and send them to the tribes in hopes of protecting the species.

Toco toucan

The oversized, colourful bills of toco toucans may appear formidable. In fact, they are more show than substance when it comes to a fight - the 20cm-long bill, which spans one-third of its body length - is made of light and spongy tissue.

The true function behind the bill is to help the toucan reach fruits and acorns on branches that are too weak to support its weight. It is also a good tool to use to skin fruits or scoop up water. 'Our toucans enjoy grabbing a piece of fruit on the tip of their bills, tossing it into the air and catching it with their mouths,' Tse describes. 'They also pitch the fruit to one another during mating rituals.'

When a toucan sleeps, it twists its beak round, resting it on its back, and folds up its tail to its breast. Toucans have long, thin tongues frayed on the sides, like a built-in bottle brush, that they use to clean their mouths. They often gather in large groups and chatter noisily. Their calls can be heard almost a kilometre away.

Haunting the Amazon River

Poison dart frog

Tiny poison dart frogs are only as large as a paper clip, but they pack a powerful punch of poison. For example, the golden poison dart frog has enough poison to kill 10 grown men. They wear some of the most vivid colours to ward off predators.

But Ocean Park's captive-bred blue poison dart frog and dyeing dart frog do not develop venom. 'The frogs draw their poison from prey such as ants, termites and spiders in their native habitat,' Young explains. 'Here we isolate them from those insects and feed them with fruits, so they are harmless.'

Indigenous communities have used the frogs' powerful venom for centuries to tip their blowgun darts to hunt monkeys and other animals. That's how the animal got its common name.


The arapaima is a true prehistoric river monster; fossil records show it roamed the Amazon River alongside Jurassic dinosaurs.

The megafish - the world's largest freshwater fish - reaches a length of more than three metres and weighs up to 180kg. It hunts close to the water's surface and gulps down everything that crosses its path, from fish to waddling birds. It often emerges to breathe with a distinctive coughing noise.

Adult males play an unusual reproductive role by incubating tens of thousands of eggs in their mouths, guarding them aggressively and moving them when necessary.

Indigenous tribes consume the giant's boneless meat, use its bony tongue as a medical remedy and collect its large scales to make jewellery. The fish are also threatened by commercial fishing and game hunting.

'The living fossils have become rare in the wild,' Young says. 'We can no longer find specimens as large as 10 years ago.'

High in the canopies


Kinkajous share Winnie the Pooh's immense passion for honey. After sundown, the red-panda relative emerges to raid beehives and empty flowers of their nectar. Their cat-sized bodies are tailored for a life hunting the sweet golden liquid.

Fully reversible hind feet enable the kinks to run quickly in either direction along branches or up and down trunks. They also hang from their tails - like a fifth limb - and descend headfirst to help themselves to nectar from flowers growing on the edge of branches. Tse notes that kinks have long skinny tongues to slurp honey from hives and remove insects such as termites from their nests. Flowers rely on kinks for pollination. Tse describes: 'As the honey-drinkers go from blossom to blossom in the wild, their cheeks get smeared with patches of white pollen.'

At night, their large round eyes reflect light from a great distance when one shines a torch at them. In the day, they sleep in tree hollows, with the forelimbs covering their eyes and their tails acting like a cosy blanket.

Babies come into the world with their eyes shut and cannot see for a month. But they grow up quickly. At two months old, they can already hang by their tails.

Pygmy marmoset

At 14cm and 160 grams, pygmy marmosets are the smallest of all monkeys. The babies measure only the size of a human's thumb.

But judge them not by their teeny size. The monkeys are expert climbers that can run vertically up and down trees with their claw-like fingernails. They can also leap more than five metres.

'Their diminutiveness gives them an edge over other monkeys, for they can conceal themselves completely by flattening against tree trunks,' Tse says. 'If they don't pop their heads out to scan the environment, you cannot find them at all.'

Being lightweight, the monkeys can climb to treetops on slender branches where they can find untapped sources of food - sap and gum that ooze out of plants.

They communicate by making sharp clicks and whistles. Some noises are so high pitched that humans cannot hear them.

The marmoset has a brownish yellow coat with dense tufts of hair sweeping back from its forehead. Its tail is marked with faint black and tan rings.