Venezuela is home to an enormous variety of animals and plants, and is one of the most biodiverse regions in the world. The evolution of the country's flora and fauna was the result of two principal factors: the diversity of the landscape, which facilitated the development of numerous, distinct habitats, and the natural history of the continent. After being geographically isolated for 70 million years, South America became linked to Central America when a landbridge (now Panama) emerged from the sea some 3.5 million years ago. Gradually, new species spread from Asia down North and Central America and filtered into South America. Although this movement of wildlife and plants enhanced the biodiversity of the continent, it brought renewed competition and some species became extinct. Moreover, in later years, South America did not encounter the ice ages that engulfed North America and parts of Europe and Asia. As a result, the species that had become established in the continent survived an era that saw the loss of many from northern parts of the world.
Today, there are about 250 species of mammal in Venezuela, including the jaguar, puma, capybara (chiguire), manatee, howler monkey, sloth and two species of fresh water dolphin. The country is also home to the giant otter or 'water-wolf', which is the rarest otter in the world. The bird population consists of over 1,200 species, among which are the condor, hoatzin (guacharaca), flamingo, pelican, several species of parrot, macaw (guacamayo) and toucan and a rare, nocturnal species, the oilbird (guacharo). Venezuela's reptiles include five species of cayman, the common iguana, rattlesnake, boa and the largest snake in the world: the anaconda.
The plant life of Venezuela is as diverse as its wildlife, ranging from the cacti of the desert to the epiphytes of the rainforest. Extraordinary species of flower grow on the isolated, flat-topped mountains of the Gran Sabana (tepui), some of which are endemic to a single plateau. Several thousand species of orchid bloom throughout the year, and there is a huge variety of fruiting trees. Flora of cultural significance includes the moriche palm, which grows in the swamps of the Orinoco delta. Known as the 'tree of life', the moriche plays an essential role in the existence of the Warao Indians, providing food and materials for their daily life.
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