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South American Wildlife

Updated: Dec 21, 2023

Torres De Paine, Chile
Torres De Paine, Chile. Photo Credit: Unsplash/Chris Stenger

South America, the fourth largest continent, is known for its great biodiversity, rainforests, grasslands, mountains, and deserts. It is home to a vast number of amazing species, many of which are not found anywhere else on Earth.

It is bounded by the Caribbean Sea to the North and Northwest, the Atlantic Ocean to the East, Northeast, and Southeast, and the Pacific Ocean to the West. In the Northwest, it joins North America via the Isthmus of Panama, a land bridge narrowing to about 50 miles (80 km) at one point. The Drake Passage, South of Cape Horn, separates South America from Antarctica. During the last Ice Age, around 8,000-12,000 years ago, there was a huge interchange of wildlife between the North American and South American continents via this land passage. Many of the animals, birds, and reptiles from the Ice Age are still found on these two continents.

Here are few examples of South America’s diversified wildlife.


A keystone species, the jaguar is the third-largest member of the cat family, Felidae – only the tiger and the lion are bigger. This big cat lives in the forests of Central and South America, where it is an apex predator (top of the food chain).

Jaguar, the apex predator and keystone species of South America
Jaguar, the apex predator and keystone species of South America. Photo Credit:


The illusive capybara is the world’s largest rodent, growing to around the size of a Labrador Retriever. This freshwater mammal is found throughout much of South America (all countries apart from Chile) and Central America. The capybara is semiaquatic, and never found far from the water. Its toes are slightly webbed for swimming, and it can stay underwater for up to five minutes. It is the jaguar’s main prey.

The world’s largest rodent, the Capybara
The world’s largest rodent, the Capybara. Photo Credit:

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Coatimundi (Coati)

The coati is an agile, fruit-loving, meat-eating omnivore. It is at home in the trees as it is on the forest floor. Weighing as much as a large housecat, this mostly diurnal mammal is endemic to Central and South America, and parts of the Southwestern US. It is related to the raccoon.

Wherever it lives, the coati plays an important mid-level role in food chains. It consumes a wide range of insects, invertebrates, and plant matter (fruit, nuts, roots, leaves), and small vertebrates. It is prey for jaguars, ocelots, jaguarundis, foxes, boas, birds of prey, and sometimes, humans. The coatimundi’s ankles rotate 180 degrees, enabling it to climb down a tree headfirst. It is known for its strong, nimble claws and keen intelligence.

Is it a lemur? No! It is a Coatimundi! Photo Credit:

Maned Wolf

The magnificent maned wolf, which looks more like an overgrown fox, is neither a fox nor a wolf. Scientists have categorized it as a separate species altogether. Its unusually tall legs are believed to be an adaptation to its habitat which consists of very tall grass. So, the canid can see above them while hunting or to use them when in danger.

Endemic to Brazil, the maned wolf is also found in Peru, Bolivia, Paraguay, and Argentina. Its diet consists of small mammals, rodents, birds, insects, fruit, and plant matter. It inhabits open habitat areas like grasslands, shrub habitats, woodlands with an open canopy, mixed forest and grasslands, and wet fields. It is found in higher altitudes of around 3,250 - 6,500 ft. (1,000 to 2,000 m). The current population of maned wolves is estimated to be about 17,000 mature individuals with over 90% of the population in Brazil.

Maned Wolf
The majestic Maned Wolf. Photo credit: nationalzoo-si-edu.jpg

Harpy Eagle

The harpy eagle is one of the largest eagles in the world in terms of weight, although its wingspan is relatively small compared to those of other large eagles. This is an adaptation for flying through the forest canopy. The largest harpy eagles weigh up to 20 lbs (9 Kg). As with many birds of prey, the female is larger than the male. The harpy eagle is one of the most powerful birds of prey. Its prey includes monkeys and sloths, which it plucks out of trees in an astonishing exhibition of stealth, cunning, and power!

Harpy Eagle
One of the most powerful birds of prey, the Harpy Eagle. Photo Credit:

Greater Rhea

The greater rhea is a species of flightless bird native to Eastern South America. It is the largest bird in South America and the largest native, extant bird anywhere in the Americas. As an omnivore, it eats a large variety of foods. The majority of its diet consists of broad-leafed foliage, plant material, fruits and seeds, lizards, insects, and even small birds. Due to the rough plant matter which it regularly consumes, the rhea ingests pebbles which assist in grinding down the food in its stomach.

Interestingly, the male incubates the eggs for 29-43 days. The female does not assist in rearing the young. It is found in Brazil, Paraguay, Uruguay, Argentina and through Bolivia.

Greater Rhea
Greater Rhea. Photo Credit:

Goliath Bird Eating Spider

The largest spider on earth with 1 inch long fangs and 12-inch leg span!

It dines on insects, roaches, crickets rats, bats, rodents, frogs, and lizards. It is venomous but not fatal to humans. But its sting can hurt as if driven by nail.

Goliath Bird Eating Spider
Goliath Bird Eating Spider. Photo Credit:


The hoatzin (pronounced as “HWAT-sin”) lives along the shores of the slow-moving rivers and lakes in the Amazon Basin of South America. It has a vociferous call, beautifully colored appearance, and lives in groups on branches of trees. Amazingly, like cows and goats, they are ruminants - meaning that they chew the cud regurgitated from its rumen and digest food with the help of bacteria. Further, it is the only bird with special foregut compartments instead of a stomach to digest food and takes up to 45 hours for the food to digest. The bacteria also make them emanate a bad odor - that is why they are also called “stink birds”!

As you may know, the Archaeopteryx was a bird-like dinosaur with wings and sharp teeth that lived during the late Jurassic period, approximately 150 million years ago. One of the features of this ancient bird was that it had three claws on its wings, and its wings were developed so that it could fly to some extent or glide. The Archaeopteryx is considered a true ancestor of modern birds.

While not directly related to the Archaeopteryx (and has no extant relatives), the hoatzin is unique in the avian world in that it is the only bird that has two claws on its wings when it is born. The hoatzin chicks use these claws to cling to the branches of a tree if they fall from their nest and also use them to scamper back up a tree if they fall. Sometimes they deliberately or accidentally fall from their nest to escape from a predator such as the great black hawk. In such cases, they use their wing claws to get back into their nest. Another incredible example is that oftentimes the hoatzin chicks fall into the river below after which they expertly swim towards shore and climb up into their tree employing their clawed wings. The chicks start using their winged claws as soon as they are hatched. It is one of nature’s extraordinary examples of inborn intuition. As they near adulthood, these chicks gradually lose these claws.

The Hoatzin. Photo Credit:

Did You Know?

Keystone species are animals considered essential for keeping an ecosystem in balance; without their presence, the ecosystem will fail.


Kids can learn more fun animal and Earth facts with our products!

100% of our annual net profits go to schools and wildlife organizations.

You can also support our mission by donating any amount!

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