by Kathy Kranking
An Amazon dolphin leaps from the water. Looking like a rubbery pink hummingbird, it seems to hover in a shower of droplets. Then it plunges back into the depths of its home, a river in the Amazon region of South America (see map below, on last page).
Amazon dolphins are sometimes called pink dolphins. But they are actually dolphins of many colors. Most adult males are bright pink; most females are light gray. And in the waters of some rivers, they all look orange!
These dolphins live in freshwater rivers instead of the salty ocean. And unlike sea-going dolphins, Amazon dolphins can do something special: For almost half of each year, they swim through the forest! How can this be? Read below to find out!
During the rainy season, so much rain falls that the rivers of the Amazon region flood. And flood. And flood! From March to July each year, the swollen rivers can fill the surrounding forest with more than 20 feet of water, turning it into a sea of trees. Then the dolphins have a whole new "neighborhood" to swim in!
In some rivers where the dolphins live, rotting plants make the water look tea-colored. And when you look at the dolphins through this water, it makes them look orange! (above)
RIGHT AT HOME
Amazon dolphins are built for life in the floodwaters. Unlike sea dolphins, they have very flexible necks (above right). Being bendy helps the dolphins snake their way through tangled underwater branches. Where a large top fin would get in the way, they have just a long, low hump. And their big, wide flippers help with steering.
Instead of relying only on their eyesight in the dim water, the dolphins use echolocation to find their way and hunt for prey. That means they use echoes to locate things. First the dolphins send out clicking sounds. When the sounds hit an object, they bounce back as echoes. The dolphins listen to the echoes to tell where the object is. When they detect fish, they snatch them with their long, toothy beaks.
Many native people of the Amazon think these dolphins are magical. Their legends say that the dolphins are able to take human form and leave their river. They enchant people they meet, leading them back to their golden underwater world among the trees.
Amazon dolphins can be curious and playful. The one top right is grabbing a floating seed with its mouth.
Males often carry objects for another reason: to impress females. A male dolphin will pick up a branch, rock, stick, clumps of weeds, or even a lump of clay. He'll carry the object as he twirls in a circle. Then he'll smash it on the surface of the water.
MOM AND ME
Most Amazon dolphin calves are born between May and July, when the floodwaters are at their highest. A mother has just one calf at a time. After a calf is born, its mother helps it to the surface to breath for the first time.
A newborn calf is about the length of an adult human's leg. By the time it's grown, the calf will be longer than an adult human is tall.
Calves nurse from their moms for more than two years. Even after it has stopped nursing, a calf will continue to hang out with its mom for another year or more (above right).
Amazon dolphins have no natural enemies. But humans cause them lots of trouble. People cut down parts of the rainforest for farms, mines, and other businesses, destroying the dolphins' home. Dolphins drown when they get caught in fishing nets. And sometimes people even hunt and kill the dolphins.
But the good news is that lots of scientists and conservation groups are trying hard to help. They are working to make people obey laws against killing the dolphins. And they're trying to find a balance between human needs and the dolphins' needs. If they're successful, the Amazon dolphin will continue to enchant us for generations to come.