PANTANAL: LAND OF GIANTS
by Ellen Lambeth
Welcome to the Pantanal! It’s the world’s largest wetland—and home to some of the largest animals of their kinds.
The Pantanal (pahn-tuh-NOW) is mostly in the country of Brazil. (Part of it lies just over Brazil’s borders with Bolivia and Paraguay. See map.) It’s about the size of Illinois and has big rivers running through it. During the rainy season (October to April), the rivers flood most of the area, creating large ponds, swamps, and marshes. Scattered shallow pools remain during the dry half of the year. All this water makes excellent habitat for creatures great and small!
Capybaras (kap-ee-BAR-uhz) are rodents—the animal group that includes mice, squirrels, and beavers. And they’re the largest rodents in the world! Capybaras are great swimmers, which is handy for when hungry predators such as jaguars come too close. This mama capy can lead her little ones off the bank to paddle away at a moment’s notice.
You may know that otters are water-loving cousins of weasels. There are many kinds, but the rare giant otter of the Pantanal and elsewhere in South America is the largest. Like its other weasel relatives, it has a long, slender body and a long, strong tail—and webbed feet, of course. And those sharp teeth are just the thing for munching on crunchy fish.
If you’re a tiny ant, you’d better watch out for this giant! It can snag you and 30,000 of your closest friends in a single day! How? With its two-foot-long sticky tongue! Between the wet spaces of the Pantanal are spaces dry enough for ants to burrow underground and termites to build big mounds. That’s where the anteater goes to dig ’em out and zap ’em up. Curious cattle that share the area don’t seem to be a bother.
Macaws are big parrots. And hyacinth macaws (HYE-uh-sinth muh-KAWZ) are the biggest parrots of them all. Not only are they huge, they’re also rare. Good thing these colorful, playful birds have some true-blue human friends working hard to protect them!
Jaguars are the biggest wild cats in the Americas—and the third biggest in the world, after tigers and lions. And nowhere do they grow bigger than in the Pantanal! Unlike most cats, jaguars are happy in water. As you can see, an alligator-relative called a caiman (KAY-mun) is no match for this mighty hunter.
There are about 20 species of armadillos in the world, and this one is the largest. Like all armadillos, it’s covered by scaly armor instead of fur—even though it’s a mammal. And like the giant anteater, it eats termites and ants. Bet you can guess how it gets to its prey. Yep, it digs them out with its giant claws! Those six-inch weapons are sharp, too, so even a hungry jaguar had better beware.
GIANT WATER LILY
The Pantanal doesn’t host only giant animals. It’s also home to a water lily with enormous pads (leaves). Here, a young caiman uses a couple of them as a raft while it rests. The plants’ roots are anchored in the mud under the water. The stems grow up to the surface, where the waxy leaves float. Underneath, the pads have sharp prickles that help keep fish from nibbling on them.
Pound for pound, the anaconda is the biggest snake in the world. (The reticulated python may grow longer, but the anaconda is bigger around and much heavier.) This huge constrictor would have no problem wrapping its heavy coils around a caiman or a capybara—maybe even a jaguar—and squeezing the life out of it.
Meet the jabiru (JAB-ih-roo), the largest stork in the Americas. (The marabou stork of Africa is the world’s largest.) The tall white bird with a bare-skinned head and neck is often seen wading in shallow water. There, it pokes in its huge bill and jabs for meals. Because its favorites include fish, crabs, and frogs, the Pantanal makes a perfect place for a jabiru to dine.
"Land of Giants" originally appeared in the December/January 2016 issue of Ranger Rick magazine. Click here for a close-up view of the photos.