Bizarre and fearsome animals, extraordinary manmade structures dating back thousands of years, scarcely credible natural phenomena – they’re all to be found in the world’s jungles. Read on to shudder at giant spiders, marvel at exquisite architecture and be astonished by the weird and wonderful variety of flora and fauna. Indeed, few of Earth’s habitats can offer as much amazement as the tropical jungle.
20. El Mirador
Guillermo Lozano set the scene for the Smithsonian Magazine reporter Chip Brown as they flew towards the Mirador Valley in Guatemala. He said in 2011, “This is the southern tip of the Mirador basin, it’s shaped like a heart. It’s a self-contained ecosystem surrounded by these ridges. There are five kinds of tropical forest down there.”
Brown was traveling to this remote jungle location to see the ruined remains of the Mayan city of Mirador. This urban settlement is more than 2,000 years old, and it features a range of stunning pyramids – including one that soars 230 feet skywards. Richard Hansen – an archeologist also on board the helicopter that day – has dubbed this city deep in the jungle as “the cradle of Maya civilization.” At one time, the publication notes that as many as 200,000 people lived in Mirador, which stood at the heart of an empire with a population of around one million.
19. Zombie ants
You may believe that in general fungi are fairly innocuous life forms. But the habits of one called Ophiocordyceps unilateralis are likely to make you think again. And this fungus is definitely one to avoid if you happen to be an ant scuttling around on the jungle floor. For it preys on the tiny creatures in a particularly sinister way.
The Ophiocordyceps unilateralis attacks ants by releasing spores that penetrate the insects’ bodies. Once inside, the parasitic fungus begins to control its host’s behavior. It dragoons the ant into leaving its nest to settle on a leaf 10 inches from the ground. That’s where the humidity is just right for the fungus to flourish. What’s more, there’s no happy ending for the insect; death is the inevitable outcome as its captor matures and eats the ant from the inside.
18. Hiding out in the jungle
As we know, World War II finally came to an end in September 1945 when the Japanese surrendered after nuclear bombs had been dropped on Nagasaki and Hiroshima. But one Japanese soldier called Lieutenant Hiroo Onoda believed it was his duty to fight on for his country. So, he and three comrades elected to hide in the jungle of Lubang Island, which is part of the Philippines.
One of the Japanese soldiers surrendered in 1950 and another died that same year. But Onoda and one fellow soldier – private Kinshichi Kozuka – still remained hidden out in the jungle. In 1972 Kozuka was killed in a shootout with Filipino police but Onoda escaped. The latter finally emerged from the jungle two years later and surrendered after nearly three decades as a fugitive.
17. Satanic leaf-tailed gecko
Despite its ominous name, the satanic leaf-tailed gecko does not live up to its moniker in terms of danger. However, it has other qualities which are truly astounding. Its natural camouflage talents make it one of the jungle’s most difficult animals to spot. Indeed, this gecko’s ability to mimic the shape and color of leaves is utterly remarkable.
Uroplatus phantasticus – to give the creature its scientific name – is one of a family of 14 different gecko types found only on the island of Madagascar. Like its cousins, the creature only comes out at night when it stalks its prey – thought to be mainly insects. And the gecko’s camouflage is not just for decoration; with snakes, rats and birds keen to eat it, staying hidden is a pressing necessity.
16. Lost city of Mahendraparvata
The city of Angkor Wat in Cambodia is a well-known wonder of the world. But much less famous is another city in the country’s tropical jungle: Mahendraparvata. Despite the fact that it’s just 25 miles from Angkor Wat, the location of Mahendraparvata was only finally confirmed in 2019. The city – which dates back 1,000 years – is set on the Phnom Kulen Mountain.
Mahendraparvata was known about thanks to ancient texts and local knowledge, but its extent had remained shrouded in mystery. Researchers using a technology called lidar – which fires laser beams from planes – were able to draw up a detailed map of the ancient mountain-top city. Lidar scanning revealed a large and highly sophisticated city set out in a grid pattern, which is now covered by impenetrable jungle.
15. Nazi bolt-hole
A 2015 report in Time revealed an extraordinary find – a Nazi bolt-hole hidden deep in the Argentine jungle. The archeologists involved believed it had been intended as a hiding place for Nazi diehards fleeing Germany after the country’s crushing 1945 defeat by the Allies. Apparently, evidence at the site near the border with Paraguay included German coins and a plate from the Nazi era.
Research project leader Daniel Schávelzon told the Argentine newspaper Clarin, “Apparently, halfway through World War II, the Nazis had a secret project of building shelters for top leaders in the event of defeat – inaccessible sites, in the middle of deserts, in the mountains, on a cliff or in the middle of the jungle like this.” In the event, the secret sanctuary was redundant since the Argentine president Juan Perón allowed Nazis to settle openly in his country.
14. The corpse flower
If you happen to be trekking in the Indonesian jungle, there’s a remote chance that you might come across this flower with the world’s largest bloom. The unattractively named corpse flower – its scientific term is Rafflesia arnoldii – is truly a monster among blooms. It can weigh as much as 15 pounds and it spreads to an extravagant width of 3 feet, according to the Library of Congress.
This extremely rare bloom is a thing of a beauty, though it has a decidedly unwelcome characteristic: it stinks appallingly. Its bouquet is said to be reminiscent of rotting meat – hardly a welcome aroma from a flower. But the gruesome smell is not without purpose; the scent serves to attract the insects that pollinate it.
The increasingly rare Cinchona officinalis tree is found in the Manú National Park in south-western Peru, where the mountains of the Amazon basin and Andes converge. The BBC notes that specimens can reach a height of some 50 feet, and although the tree is unremarkable in its jungle setting, it has a property that has been a lasting boon to humanity.
Peruvian native and biologist Nataly Canales explained the tree’s significance to the British broadcaster in May 2020. She explained, “This may not be a well-known tree, yet a compound extracted from this plant has saved millions of lives in human history.” That substance is quinine – the first drug that proved to be effective in combating the killer disease malaria. Today, synthetic versions of the treatment such as hydroxychloroquine are used around the world.
12. Jesus Christ lizard
The Jesus Christ lizard – also called the Green Basilisk but known to scientists as Basiliscus plumifrons – lives in Central America’s tropical rainforests. Its natural habitat apparently extends from Panama to the south of Mexico. But where did the Jesus Christ name originate? The answer is simple; it can walk on water, just like the Messiah did, according to the New Testament.
More precisely, the lizard – weighing just less than half a pound and growing up to 2.5 feet – can run on water. It can keep up this trick while covering a distance of around 15 feet in around three seconds, National Geographic notes. The secret to this surprising ability is the lizards large splayed feet, with the rear two having flaps of skin between the toes. This unexpected skill also increases the lizard’s chances of evading predators.
11. Pink lake
Lake Hillier is one of the most astonishing sights you’re likely to see in the jungle of Western Australia – or any other jungle for that matter. The water of this lake – set just back from the Pacific – is a startling shade of pink in stark contrast to the blue of the nearby ocean. And the first European to set eyes on this astonishing phenomenon was the English explorer Matthew Flinders in 1802.
But just why is Lake Hillier pink? Well, scientists are not entirely sure how to interpret this bizarre natural anomaly. One explanation is that the lake hosts a particular microalgae called Dunaliella salina. This organism exudes carotenoids – the substances that give carrots their distinctive color. A second theory points the finger at bacteria in the water, while a third posits a chemical reaction between sodium bicarbonate and salt. Nevertheless, the mystery remains unresolved.
10. Drinking turtle tears
In 2018 the Live Science website reported on a stunning phenomenon that had been filmed in the Peruvian Amazon. It involved an apparent partnership between two entirely different species: butterflies and turtles. Tropical entomologist Phil Torres captured the footage as he journeyed through the jungle along the Tambopata River.
Torres witnessed and filmed some eight species of butterfly drinking tears from the eyes of three turtles. In a YouTube video, Torres explains that the insects were probably after the sodium in the turtles’ salty tears – an essential element the insects can’t obtain from flowers. And in the film he describes the episode as “one of the most bizarre, strange, beautiful, fascinating things I have ever seen in my entire life.”
9. City of the Monkey God
It was in 2015 that a team of archeologists made astounding discoveries in the Honduran jungle. Local folklore and rumors had for years mentioned a lost city in a remote part of the forest, and previous explorers had actually found three years later. Meanwhile, the later expedition discovered further extraordinary evidence of what had long been known as the “White City,” or even more enigmatically, the “City of the Monkey God.”
National Geographic notes that the city was built by an unknown people who mysteriously abandoned their homes around 1,000 years ago. So obscure is this culture that it doesn’t even have a name. The researchers found large earthworks, spacious plazas and a stash of stunning stone sculptures. One of the scientists – a Mesoamerican archeologist from Colorado State University called Christopher Fisher – told the publication that one of the sculptures resembled a “were-jaguar.”
8. Goliath birdeater
Goliath, of course, was the giant killed by David with his sling in the Biblical story. This Goliath birdeater, however, is actually the largest spider in the world. This fearsome creature grows up to 12 inches across and weighs as much as 6 ounces, according to National Geographic, and it lives in the northern Amazon region of South America. Furthermore, it’s so big it can actually catch small birds.
In fact, the Goliath spider’s favored prey tends to be insects, although it will also take frogs and rodents, too. The arachnid ambushes its victim and bites into it with inch-long fangs. It then injects venom to finish off the unfortunate animal. As the creature can’t eat solids, it waits for the dead animal to liquefy before consuming the body at its leisure. Goliath spiders also have a highly effective defense mechanism – they shoot out poisonous barbed hairs from their legs. Evidently, this is not a creature to tangle with.
7. Diquis spheres
As you’d expect, Diquis spheres are… spherical. But this is the only thing about them that’s obvious. These extraordinary stone artifacts – called petrospheres – are from the Costa Rican jungle. And some 300 of them have been discovered over the years, according to University of Kansas associate professor of anthropology John Hoopes. Hewn from volcanic rock without the benefit of metal tools, they measure from about the size of a baseball up to 8 feet in diameter, and the largest weigh around 16 tons.
An archeologist called Doris Stone was the first expert to document these enigmatic stone balls in 1943. More were discovered that decade by surveyors working for the United Fruit Company, which was establishing banana plantations in Costa Rica. These stone orbs are from the pre-Columbian era – dating from around 800 to 1550. And the purpose of these strange rocks? Hoopes admitted in a University of Kansas release from 2010, “We really don’t know why they were made.”
6. Sigiriya Fortress
Built some 1,500 years ago, the Sigiriya Fortress is set atop a plug of rock rising precipitously from the jungle of central Sri Lanka. Although local people were aware of its existence, the structure was lost to the wider world until British explorers discovered it in the 1800s. The name means “lion’s rock,” and this astonishing edifice was built by King Kashyapa I.
Kashyapa ruled the Sinhalese empire until his enemies defeated him in 495 A.D. By the 12th century the territorial focus of the Sinhalese had shifted and Sigiriya declined – eventually being overwhelmed by the jungle’s unstoppable encroachment. Various European explorers later found parts of the fortress city but it wasn’t until late in the 19th century that the country’s archeological commissioner Harry C.P. Bell completed a detailed survey of the magnificent structure.
5. Lost WWII bomber
You might expect to come across all kinds of natural wonders in the remote and mountainous jungles of Papua New Guinea. But one thing you’d hardly think to stumble across would be an almost intact American B-17E Flying Fortress bomber from World War II. However, it turns out that the forests of this nation harbor numbers of crashed aircraft from the fierce fighting of that war.
This particular Flying Fortress is known as the “Swamp Ghost.” It crash-landed in the Agaiambo Swamp some eight miles from Papua New Guinea’s north coast in 1942 after running out of fuel. There it remained until 2006 when an American salvager dismantled the plane and transported it to the U.S. Apparently, the Flying Fortress now sits in a hangar at the Pacific Aviation Museum at Pearl Harbor, Honolulu.
4. Boiling river
The world’s jungles harbor some incredible phenomena, but even so, the idea of a boiling river stretches credibility to breaking point. But that’s just what geoscientist Andrés Ruzo discovered in Peru’s Amazonian region in 2011. Hot springs feed the thermal river and for 4 miles it runs at near boiling-point – hot enough to kill any unlucky creature that falls into it.
Ruzo detailed the gruesome fate of animals which fall into the river in an interview with The Daily Telegraph in 2016. He explained, “They’re trying to swim out, but their meat is cooking on the bone because it’s so hot. So, they’re losing power, losing power, until finally they get to a point where hot water goes into their mouths and they cook from the inside out.”
3. Lost Mayan cities
Archeologists have been familiar with a number of stunning Mayan structures for many years, but in 2018 a new discovery stunned the academic and wider world. The find was in the jungle of Guatemala, and it was nothing less than a huge network of previously unknown Mayan cities. The researchers used laser mapping technology to reveal these previously unknown remains.
The experts catalogued an amazing 60,000 structures covering an area of some 810 square miles and hidden in the thick jungle vegetation. It seems that these discoveries are likely to transform our understanding of the extent and sophistication of Mayan society. Brown University professor of archeology and anthropology Stephen Houston told the BBC, “I think this is one of the greatest advances in over 150 years of Maya archeology.”
2. Panamanian golden frog
The Panamanian golden frog has apparently been filmed in the wild just once. And it’s hardly a surprise that footage of the creature was captured in a stream in Panama’s El Vallé de Anton for one of the TV programs fronted by natural history giant Sir David Attenborough. But the bad news is that this exquisite little creature might never be filmed in the wild again.
Like many amphibian species, the Panamanian golden frog – Atelopus zeteki – was devastated by an outbreak of a fungal infection that killed off frogs throughout Central America. Panicked conservationists reportedly collected as many of the Panamanian goldens as they could find and put them in sanctuaries. As the risk of the fungal disease continues, to date none have been returned to the wild and no one has seen them in their natural habitat since 2009, according to George Mason University.
1. Borobudur temple
The Borobudur Buddhist temple is located on the Indonesian island of Java. This stunning structure was built during the era of the Sailendra Dynasty, which held sway from around 650 to 1025 A.D. It is the largest place of Buddhist worship in the world, but the temple fell into disuse around the 15th century as many of Java’s people converted to Islam.
Little is known about the actual building of Borobudur, and even the name’s origin remains obscure. A Dutch explorer called Hermann Cornelius rediscovered the temple in 1814 after it had been concealed under the jungle growth for centuries. Since then, experts and historians have hotly debated its likely antecedents and significance. But what is certain is that Borobudur offers one of the most stunning examples of Buddhist architecture anywhere in the world.