South America, the home of the world’s largest rainforest, is second to none when it comes to the diversity and intricate beauty of its wildlife. The continent has it all – from glaciers to deserts, from white-sandy beaches to pristine forests, and from hot volcanoes, high up in the sky, to the cold and quiet underworld of its oceans.
South America offers so much variety of flora and fauna that you could travel the continent for months and only see a small fraction of its diverse wildlife and natural beauty.
In case you are planning a trip to South America anytime soon, make sure to pack a good camera, or maybe even two, because you’re in for some of the most amazing wildlife encounters of your life!
The Incredible Mammals of South America
There are tens, if not hundreds of mammal species that are native to the South American continent. One of the most remarkable mammal encounters is the jaguar, also known as Panthera onca.
The jaguar is a large member of the cat family native to South and Central America and is closely related to the lion, tiger, and leopard. Its present range extends from Mexico, through Central America and into South America, including much of Amazonian Brazil. The jaguar’s habitat ranges from the rain forests of South and Central America to more open country in Mexico, but they are rarely seen in mountainous regions. Known for their strong swimming and climbing abilities, they often prefer to live by rivers, in swamps, and in dense forest with thick cover for stalking prey.
Unfortunately jaguar populations are declining rapidly, and these remarkably beautiful predators are considered an endangered species. The major risks to the jaguar include deforestation across its habitat, increasing competition for food with human beings, poaching, hurricanes in northern parts of its range, and the behavior of ranchers who will often kill the cat where it preys on livestock. Current conservation efforts often focus on educating ranch owners and promoting sustainable tourism.
The Giant river otter is a mammal not to be missed while touring this exotic and biologically diverse continent! These mammals are endemic to South America and live in the river systems of the Orinoco, Amazon and La Plata Rivers. They operate in family groups of up to nine individuals, comprised of a breeding pair and their offspring, and grow to nearly 6 feet in length. Known locally as ‘river wolves’, these otters are highly skilled predators, catching a diet primarily of fish and rarely small caiman and snakes are taken.
They have a staggering nine different vocalizations, the purposes of which are yet to be fully realized, though it’s likely they serve as predator warning signals and contact calls. As one of South America’s top carnivores giant otters have few natural predators, except occasionally for jaguars, pumas and caiman.
Another amazing member of the diverse South American wildlife is the sea lion. This species is found on the Chilean, Ecuador, Peruvian, Uruguayan, Argentine and Southern Brazilian coasts. The full mane of a male southern sea lion gives rise to their lion-like appearance, and also to their other common name of maned seal. They are the most sexually dimorphic of the sea lions, with the males approximately three times the size of females. They live along the shorelines and beaches of South America.
The mating season begins in August when the males come ashore to establish and defend territories before the females arrive, which makes August the most suitable month to observe sea lions and their behavior.
The Moche people of ancient Peru worshiped the sea and its animals. They often depicted South American sea lions in their art. Two statues of this species are the symbol of the city of Mar del Plata.
The diverse marine life of the continent’s surrounding oceans is nothing short of amazing. The wide variety of species can be observed all year around. For example, the Peale dolphins are a little-known species that inhabit the waters around the southern tip of South America, mostly in Argentina and Chile.
Peale’s dolphins are of typical size for its family, but what makes them truly unique is their color. These dolphins have a dark-grey face and chin. The back is largely black with a single off-white stripe curving and thickening as it runs down the back on each side, and the belly is white. Traveling to the southern parts of the continent will enable you to observe this amazing creatures.
Let’s Fly To The South – Latin America’s Birds
South American is incredibly rich in terms of birds population – eagles, hawks, different types of parrots, hummingbirds and many, many more species could be observed throughout the entire continent.
South America is one of the few places (other than Antarctica), where you can observe penguins. The Humboldt Penguin, the Magellanic Penguin and the Galapagos Penguin can be seen on the coasts of Peru, Argentina, Chile and the Galapagos Islands.
Humboldt Penguins for example, nest on islands and rocky coasts, burrowing holes in guano and sometimes using scrapes or caves. In South America the Humboldt Penguin is found only along the Pacific coast, and the range of the Humboldt Penguin overlaps that of the Magellanic Penguin on the central Chilean coast. It is also vagrant in Ecuador, Colombia and Argentina.
The Galapagos Penguin on the other hand, is endemic to the Galapagos Islands. It is the only penguin that lives north of the equator in the wild. It can survive due to the cool temperatures resulting from the Humboldt Current and cool waters from great depths brought up by the Cromwell Current. Due to their adaptation and well-established habitat, the Galapagos Islands are considered to be the safest bet if you want to observe these remarkable creatures on South American soil.
The blue-footed Booby is another incredible bird species that inhabits the South American continent. The Blue-footed Booby is a bird in the Sulidae family and they are most recognizable by their bright blue feet. This distinctive trait is actually sexually selected. Males display their feet in an elaborate mating ritual by lifting one and then the other up, while strutting before the female. Both males and females prefer mates with brighter feet and adjust their parental investment based on the attractiveness of their mate.
The natural breeding habitat of the Blue-footed Booby is tropical and subtropical islands and about a third to a half of all breeding pairs nest on the Galapagos Islands.
King Of The Seas: The Green Sea Turtle
The diverse marine life of the South American oceans is nothing short of astonishing – countless fish species, dolphins and even sharks (including the great white) can be seen while scuba diving or snorkeling.
The green sea turtles are one of the most remarkable animal encounters in the South American waters. These turtles, named for the color of their skin, spend almost all of their lives under water. They are one of the most widespread turtle species found throughout the tropical and subtropical oceans of the world, and their ecology changes drastically according to the stages of their lives.
Traveling in South America is a life-changing experience for any individual. The rapidly growing sustainable tourism industry aims to preserve nature and its wildlife – an initiative that will change the way you perceive traveling. Among the diverse cultures, tribes and exotic local cuisines in South America, there’s a big chance for you to encounter some of these remarkable animal species.