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Animals and Plants of the Rain Forest

Because tropical rain forests are some of the oldest ecosystems on earth, they are home to a diverse population of plants and animals. In fact, around 50% of the world’s plants and animals can be found here—with new species still being discovered.

Rain Forest Animals

  • Baby emperor tamarin
  • Leopard
  • Orange-thighed tree frog on a banana leaf
  • Piano key butterfly

Throughout all the different layers of a tropical rain forest, you’ll find a wide variety of animals. Most of us think of monkeys when we think of rain forests. In Costa Rica, there are abundant howler monkeys and spider monkeys. Other rain forest mammals include sloths, tapirs, jaguars, ocelots, kinkajous, lemurs and agouti.

The warm, moist environment is also an ideal habitat for reptiles and amphibians. Many types of frogs, salamanders, snakes and lizards can be found in almost every layer of the forest.

Butterflies and moths are plentiful in the tropics as well. Many migrate, wintering in a rain forest and spending summers in our backyards.

Picture of a Tree Swallow
Tree Swallow

The tree swallow's scientific name, Tachycineta bicolor, means "swift-moving two-colored bird." You'll hear its cheerful twitters in California, Colorado, Nebraska, and Maryland, among other places.

They winter from Mexico's Atlantic coast to Belize in great numbers. They are occasionally found in other parts of Mexico and Central America as far south as Costa Rica. On rare occasion, they'll be glimpsed in Panama. Birdwatchers also spot them regularly on South America's Caribbean shores.

More Birds

Rain Forest Birds

Rain forests are unequaled in their richness of bird species. Some birds—such as hummingbirds, harpy eagles, spectacled owls, toucans, macaws, quetzals, hornbills and finches—make their home in the forests year-round.

Others are temporary residents. Many of the songbirds we enjoy in our yards every summer spend their winters in the rain forests of Mexico, Central America and South America—relying on the forest for refuge during the colder months.

Rain Forest Plants

Over 200,000 species of plants thrive in rain forests. This abundance is due to the warm, humid environment and includes some of the most beautiful and interesting flora:

  • orchids
  • rubber trees
  • poinsettias
  • cacao trees
  • Venus fly traps
  • passion flowers
  • peace lilies
  • brazil nut trees
  • mahogany trees
  • passion fruits
  • lianas
  • birds of paradise
  • strangler fig
  • quinine
  • Orange and yellow epidendrum orchid
  • Passiflora
  • Cocoa pods
  • Bromeliad

All of the rain forest plants work to provide food and shelter for rain forest animals as well as convert carbon dioxide to oxygen.

Competition at ground level for light and food has led to some unique plant evolution. Some plants live on the branches of other plants and use “air roots” to draw nourishment from the air. Others, like the strangler fig, will wrap themselves around (and ultimately strangle) large trees to fight for survival.

Beyond beauty and interest, tropical rain forest plants contribute to modern medicine. Approximately 25% of all medicines on the market today come from plants found only in tropical rain forests. This includes treatments for a variety of cancers, malaria, multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s disease, high blood pressure and more. But there is still so much untapped potential. According to Michael Blalick, director of the Institute of Economic Botany (part of the New York Botanical Garden), of all the known plant species, “less than 3 percent have been tested for their medical applications.”