South America has long captivated travellers with its plethora of cultural and natural wonders. It is not just massive – it’s a continent of extreme weather systems, ranging from wet rainforests to the dry high deserts and freezing tundra. While it broke away from Africa and Antarctica 120 million years ago and joined to North America via the Isthmus of Panama 3 million years ago, it now contains an unparalleled diversity of wildlife, both native and introduced over the years.
Today, wildlife excursions are included on a typical visit to South America, mostly to spot iconic fauna like big cats, big birds, and big rodents. Your best bet for spotting wildlife is in the northern regions, home to the Pantanal and the rich Amazon rainforest.
Found throughout much of South America except in the coldest regions in Chile and Argentina, jaguars normally live in dense rainforest and swamp (it enjoys swimming), but can also be found in scrublands and deserts. Jaguars are the largest cats of the Americas, and they vary in size in the different regions. A formidable predator, it kills its prey with one bound, typically by biting directly through the skull thanks to its strong bite force. Jaguars mostly have the appearance of a larger leopard, although sometimes its characteristic spots give way to an all-black appearance due to colour morphology that occurs within the species. These black jaguars are sometimes known as black panthers.
Also known as the Goliath Bird-eating spider, it is the largest species of spider in the world, but despite its name it rarely feeds on adult birds, preferring instead to dine on earthworms and toads (although the spider is ironically part of the local cuisine in the region). This tarantula species can have a leg span of up to 28cm and can weigh up to 175g; it is mostly found in the Amazon rainforest regions of northern South America: Suriname, Guyana, French Guiana, northern Brazil and southern Venezuela. The nocturnal spider is terrestrial, living in deep burrows in marshy or swampy areas. When threatened, they rub their abdomen with their hind legs to release hairs that are harmful to humans.
These tropical rainforest tree-dwellers are known for their usual idleness, which is due to metabolic adaptations for conserving energy. This is because their diet of buds, shoots and leaves take a sloth’s digestive process a month or more to complete, they only urinate and defecate about once a week. There are two different types of sloths (two-toed and three-toed) with six species in total, including the endangered pygmy three-toed sloth and the maned sloth. Two-toed sloths can be found in Ecuador and Brazil, while three-toed sloths are more widespread, extending to Argentina. While arboreal, sloths make competent swimmers, and their tongues can protrude up to 30cm from their mouths when feeding.
The Andean Condor is an absolutely stunning sight when spotted, as it is the largest flying bird on earth, with a wingspan of up to 310 cm. The national bird of Bolivia, Colombia, Chile and Peru, condors play important roles in folklore and mythology in South America. This large black vulture – it is a carrion feeder – is identified by its ruff of white features surrounding the base of the neck and large white patches on the wings, its head and neck are nearly featherless and of a dull red colour. The best place to view these majestic birds is in the morning from the Mirador Cruz del Condor at the 1,200m-deep Colca Canyon in Southern Peru, where you are almost guaranteed to see several circling condors.
The largest of living rodents (weighing up to 65kg), the capybara is a semi-aquatic herbivorous animal native to most of the tropical and temperate parts of South America except Chile. Found in densely forested areas near bodies of water (like lakes, rivers and ponds), they live in big herds of 10-20 individuals and spend most of their time on the banks of rivers, feeding in the mornings and evenings. Capybaras also wallow in shallow water and mud to keep cool during a hot day. With their slightly webbed feet, they are excellent swimmers and can remain submerged up to 5 minutes (they can also sleep in water with their noses out of the water); they are also quite agile on land, capable of running as fast as a horse.
One of the oddest species of monkeys in this continent, bald uakari monkeys can be found in the Amazon rainforest, preferring permanently or seasonally flooded rainforests, and near water sources in Peru and parts of Brazil. These are active monkeys, pouncing in the treetops all day feasting on seeds, fruit and caterpillar, venturing down from the canopy in the dry season. Living in large social groups of nearly 100 individuals, their red faces (the red face indicates their health, as pale-faced ones aren’t immune to malaria) are accompanied by a body of long, shaggy coat that varies from red-brown to orange. Unlike most monkeys, uakaris have very short tails but are nimble without them – they sleep aloft at night high in the rainforest canopy.