The incredible flora and fauna of Misiones

The area of Misiones in north eastern Argentina is one of the most diverse biospheres in the world. The heavily rainforested province is home to the Iguazu Falls, a collection of more than 250 waterfalls that straddle the border of Argentina and Brazil and were declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1984. And while visiting the inimitable falls will no doubt be the main purpose of any visitor’s trip to Misiones, one thing that many people don’t expect is the huge variety of flora and fauna that permeate the jungle’s thicket. Here are some of the most common and also the most unusual plants and animals that can be found in this unique region of Argentina.

Animals:

Coati –

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The coati is a mammal of the racoon family and is native to tropical and sub-tropical South America. It can measure over a meter long and it is often distinguished by its long, pointed snout and the black rings on its tail, similar to that of a raccoon. Coatis are diurnal and inhabit both the trees and the ground. They are omnivorous and use their snout to poke around for food, and their claws to dig and turn over rocks. They have become very adept at opening the bins in touristic areas of the national park, and visitors are advised not to feed or pet them, as they have sharp claws and are known to bite or scratch if you get too close.

Tapirs –

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Tapirs are an ancient species and have been around for more than 40 million years. Brazilian tapirs are those found in Misiones and are on the list of endangered species. They have a very distinctive appearance, with bodies about 2m in length by 1m in height, covered in short black or brown hair which spikes into a crest on their heads. They are herbivores and their flexible, elongated snouts enable them to search for the plants and buds they feed on. They are keen swimmers and are biologically most closely linked to horses, donkeys, zebras and rhinoceroses.

Capuchin and Howler Monkeys –

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Both of these monkeys are native to South American forests. Capuchin monkeys are familiar from countless TV shows and films, and also for being the “organ-grinder monkey”. They are not shy and can be seen clambering around the balustrades and trees close to humans. Again, visitors should avoid getting too close to the monkeys, as they may attack, being wild animals who want to show their dominance. Capuchins are omnivores.

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Howler monkeys are usually heard before they are seen, preferring to stay in the trees. They are well known for their loud, inimitable howls that can travel up to three miles through the rainforest. Although the species found most commonly in Argentina is the brown howler, very often its colouring is black or reddish-orange. Howlers have a diet of fruit and leaves.

Ocelots –

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Ocelots, also known as the dwarf leopard, are wild cats native to South America. Although their faces are similar to that of a domestic cat, their coats resemble that of a jaguar and they were once hunted for their valuable fur. The ocelot can measure up to 1m in length, although they are usually smaller. Ocelots are mainly nocturnal, resting during the day and hunting at night. They are carnivores and usually prey on small mammals and are solitary dwellers and hunters. Ocelots are occasionally kept as pets, and Salvador Dali famously travelled with his pet ocelot Babou.

Birds:

Toco Toucan –

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This bird is also known as the “common toucan” and is the most recognisable of the family, of which there are five genera and over forty species. The bird is native to South America and has is easily identified by its oversized, orange beak, delineated by a black ring where the bill meets the face. Its plumage is also distinctive, with a largely black body but a defined white throat. What looks like a blue iris around the eye is actually a thin piece of bright blue skin, which is surrounded by another ring of bare, orange skin. It is a non-forest bird and can be found more in semi-open areas, making it highly visible in Misiones. They are usually seen in pairs or small groups and feed on fruit, insects and small reptiles and birds.

Pygmy Owl-

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The pygmy owl is one of the most widespread birds in the neotropics, and can be found from the southern United States to southern Argentina. The most commonly seen owl in Argentina is the ferruginous pygmy owl, which has reddish-brown feathers with white tufts of fur on its crown. The owl measures about 15cm in height on average, compared to that of the adult horned owl, which can measure up to 64cm in height, making it one of the smallest of the species.

Blue Dacnis –

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This striking bird can be found from Panama to northern Argentina. The adult male has bright turquoise plumage with black around the eyes and on the throat, wings and tail, while the female is bright green with a blue head. They feed mainly on insects and flowers.

Insects:

Butterflies –

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There are innumerable species of butterflies in Misiones and within the Iguazu National Park alone you will be surprised at the sheer volume of winged specimens in the immediate vicinity. Brightly coloured and friendly, one of the most visible butterflies is the black-patched metalmark, notable for its striking sapphire-blue colour. Another unique fluttering friend is the eighty-eight, easily identifiable by its black, white a red wings with a distinctive pattern emulating the number 88 in white and black rings. The turquoise emperor butterfly is also very common, recognisable by the brilliant blue patches on the back of its black wings. You will also likely see clusters of small, pale butterflies, known as whites, yellows or sulphers.

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Plants:

The jungle in Misiones, or the “selva misionera”, occupies 35% of the landmass of the Misiones province and is home to an incredible amount of trees and plants. There are over 200 recorded species of trees in Misiones and over 2000 types of vascular plants, making it one of the most biologically varied regions on the planet. It is part of the Atlantic Forest, a tropical vegetative region stretching from the northern Atlantic coast of Brazil to Paraguay and Argentina.

There are two distinct territories within Misiones: the jungle and the pine district. The jungle is characterized by the presence of trees such as the palm tree, rosewood, laurels and species of reeds or guadua, or “American bamboo”, while the pine district is dominated by the Paraná or Araucaria pine.

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The Misiones forest is defined by the well defined strata that make up its ground covering. It has five layers:

1st level: Emergent layer formed by trees of 20 – 45 m high.

2nd level: Canopy layer formed by the crowns of the emergent layer above.

3rd level: Intermediate layer formed by smaller trees 3-30 m tall.

4th level: Understory layer formed by shrubs and tree saplings.

5th level: Herbaceous layer dominated by ferns, although small plants, herbs and grasses are also found.

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The most important plant and tree species found in the forest include the Misiones cedar, the “lapacho”, the “timbo”, the “ybira-pitá”, the Paraná pine or “cury”, the “guatambú”, the “peteribí”, the “anchico”, the palm tree, the maco cedar, the “incienso”, the white laurel and the black laurel, rosewood, the “cancharana”,  the “rabo-itá”, the “maría preta”, the white mulberry and the “urunday” among others.