The exotic animals of the continent are as unique as South America itself. If you are lucky, you will encounter llamas, sloths, anteaters or armadillos on your walks.
Scarlet face / Red Uakari
You might think that this bald monkey with the scarlet face had been sitting in the sun too long. On the contrary: Uakaris with fiery red faces are in the best of health – in contrast to pale conspecifics who could be infected by malaria or other diseases. The long, shaggy fur of the scarlet faces is orange to reddish brown or has a greyish-white tinge. Unlike other monkey species, they have a shortened tail, but this does not detract from their climbing skills: they use arms and legs to swing from branch to branch.
As the largest representatives among the Sakia monkeys, the Red Uakaris live predominantly in the flooded tropical rainforests of the Amazon basin in northwestern South America. They are sociable, diurnal animals that sometimes gather in groups of up to 100 representatives.
When foraging, however, they divide into smaller groups of up to ten Uakaris. They prefer to eat hard-shelled fruits and seeds, but also insects, leaves and flowers. At night they sleep high in the treetops.
The females give birth to an offspring every other year after about six months of gestation. In human care, these intelligent monkeys can live for about 30 years. However, the red Uakaris are on the verge of extinction: some Indian tribes hunt them for their tasty meat and to sell them as pets. The greatest danger, however, comes from the destruction of their habitat through deforestation of the Amazon rainforest.
Armadillos live mainly in Bolivia, Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay. Their body is almost completely covered by a horn and bone armor. The smallest armadillo, pink fairy armadillo, measures only 15 centimeters and weighs 100 grams. Its largest relative, the giant armadillo, can grow to over one meter long and weigh up to 60 kilos. The female armadillos give birth to their offsprings in caves after up to four months of gestation. The nine-banded armadillo always throws identical quadruplets – a phenomenon in the animal world.
The nocturnal mammals feed mainly on ants, termites and other insects, which they dig up with their sharp claws. But also fruits, birds‘ eggs and small amphibians are sometimes on their menu. With its approximately 15 centimeter long claws, the giant armadillo can easily take apart entire termite mounds. It is even said that it can dig through concrete with its razor-sharp claws.
The armadillos‘ sense of smell is very well developed: They can sniff their prey from six inches underground. And when the maverick armadillos want to sleep, they dig themselves into the ground.
But they also love water; despite their heavy armor, many species can swim well. To prevent their weight from pulling them into the depths, they inflate themselves by swallowing air to such an extent that they can stay on the surface and even swim longer distances.
During enemy attacks on land, armadillos contract and no longer offer predators an attack surface. Only the jaguar is able to crack the armor of the armadillos with its teeth. But this rarely happens, and armadillos can live up to 18 years in the wild. Some are easy to tame and are also popular as pets and pest controllers; these animals can even live up to 30 years. The meat of armadillos is also considered a delicacy in many places in South America, however, which has a negative effect on their population. In addition, humans are destroying more and more of their habitat.
Whoever watches the lively predators playing would like to cuddle them best… But be careful, the cute fellows can snap shut quite a bit. But from a distance the little bears can be photographed without problems.
The most remarkable thing about them is their nose: It is not only quite long, but also very flexible. With it the diurnal animals can dig deeply for food in the ground. As far as their eating habits are concerned, they eat a very varied diet: they not only eat fruit, plants and insects together with larvae, but also spiders, scorpions, small rodents and lizards.
The coati (Spanish: „coatí“, English also: „coati-mundi“ – from an Indio language) feel comfortable in almost all of South America. They are particularly common in the tropical forest areas of Colombia, Venezuela, Brazil and northern Argentina. Their enemies include jaguars, pumas and giant snakes, but also humans who do not like it when the Coatis steal their chickens.
During the day the coatis usually romp around on the ground, at night they climb a tree to sleep. Their long, bushy tail serves them well: with its help they can keep their balance on the branches.
The females, who are responsible for raising the offsprings, live in a group, the males rather as loners. Only during the mating season do the males appear with the females, but they first have to „earn“ their place by grooming or other activities. After that they are driven away again.
The female builds a nest of leaves in the trees for the birth of her offspring. After about two and a half months of gestation it gives birth to between three and six young. Coatis can live to be 15 years old.
As the name suggests, sloths are not one of the most active animal species. In slow motion, they move from branch to branch in the Central and South American rainforests, and nothing seems to upset them.
But what seems like sluggishness to us humans has a purpose in the animal kingdom: Due to their extremely slow movements, sloths hardly attract the attention of their enemies such as big cats and birds of prey. In addition, they are almost always in treetops, where hardly any predator can get to.
Their greenish fur color, which comes from tiny algae in their fur, also camouflages them. Sloths are very good swimmers. If danger is imminent, they also let themselves fall into the water quickly. However, this is often not the ideal solution, because enemies like the Anaconda can lurk for them.
Almost always the sloth hangs with its back down on the branch. Since they are not in a hurry, they can nibble on young leaves, fruits and flowers on their way through the jungle tops. If the treats do not fall directly into their mouths, they pull them towards them with their up to seven centimeter long claws. To see what’s going on behind their backs, all they have to do is turn their head: Their cervical spine is very flexible, allowing them to turn their heads 180 degrees. But this happens only rarely, because most of the time – up to 18 hours a day – they sleep upside down in the tree. Once a year the female gives birth to a single young, also hanging.
Sloths weigh up to nine kilos – depending on the species – and can live up to 40 years. There are two families: the two-fingered and three-fingered sloths. At the moment only a few sloths are threatened with extinction, for example the collar sloth (from the three-finger family). But a permanent danger for all animals is the deforestation of the rainforests, which has already destroyed the habitat of many sloths.
This small bear, which wraps its long tail around branches when climbing, lives in the rainforests of Central America and in northern South America (to southern Brazil). You rarely get to see him, as he almost never descends from the treetops and is also nocturnal.
During the day he sleeps in tree hollows, at night it eats. The Kinkajou (as the Tupí Indians called him) loves fruit like no other animal. Depending on the habitat, his preferred fruit varieties include mangoes, figs, bananas, pineapples and guavas. To a much lesser extent he feeds on leaves, sometimes also insects and birds‘ eggs.
For dessert, there is nectar, which he extracts from the flowers with his long tongue. In order to get tasty honey, the bear also dares to attack beehives. This has earned him the nickname „honey bear“.
The Wickel Bear is about the size of a domestic cat and weighs on average two to three kilos. Although the animals usually go alone in search of food, they can also be found in groups. To protect themselves – as is assumed – from enemies such as ocelots and long-tailed cats, they sleep in small family units. After 115 days the female almost always gives birth to only one offspring. In the first month the baby is blind, but her vision improves in the following weeks, and wrap-around bears do not see very well throughout their lives. They can live to be about 20 to 25 years old.
He is not related to bears, but he loves ants and termites more than anything. Given his size – there are specimens that are over two meters long and weigh almost 40 kilos – you would certainly think that this anteater would be capable of hunting larger prey. But with its thin, tubular snout, which does not seem to match the rest of its strong, furry body, it would hardly be able to devour larger morsels.
To get his delicacy, the Great Anteater destroys the termite mounds with his strong claws and licks up the occupants with his long tongue. The acidity of the termites cannot harm him, as his dense fur offers protection against the attacks of the insects. Unlike other related anteaters, the largest member of the family lives exclusively on the ground – in wet forests, swamps and semi-dry savannahs of Central and South America, for example in Brazil in the Cerrado (species-rich savannah) and the Pantanal (huge wetland). The southernmost distribution area of the great anteater reaches as far as northwest Argentina.
It finds more or less protection in hollow tree trunks and in bushes. Jaguars and pumas – apart from humans – are among its main enemies. However, the great anteater does not let itself be eaten easily. In an erect state, it rams its razor-sharp claws into the flesh of its enemies and inflicts serious injuries on big cats. The females give birth to a single cub after about 190 days of gestation. The little one can then be carried around on the mother’s back for half a year to three quarters of a year, they only become independent with two years. In captivity the animals can reach the age of 26 years, in the wild they are more likely to die.
Every child knows that lamas spit. However, it is not so much humans that become the target of their attacks, but rather their own conspecifics – above all annoying rivals against whom they have to defend their territory. Although llamas belong to the camel family, they do not have humps, but – like the „old world camels“ – sole pads on their feet and a split, movable upper lip. Their fur can be colored black, white, brown or grey.
About 5,000 years ago, the Indians began to breed and domesticate llamas from Guanacos (as it is believed). The Incas kept up to ten million llamas, but after the Spanish conquest and the introduction of horses they lost some of their importance.
Today there are still about three million „New World Camels“, especially in Chile, Northern Argentina, Bolivia and Southern Peru. Not only do they supply wool and meat, but they also continue to serve as load carriers, especially in the impassable terrain of the Andes.
The animals live on the mountain slopes and can also be found at over 4,000 metres. They do not mind the high altitude, as they absorb oxygen from the air in a special way. Llamas feed mainly on grasses, herbs, mushrooms, leaves, buds and lichens, but unlike the „old world camels“ they need regular water.
After eleven to twelve months of gestation, the females give birth to a young (in Spanish: „cría“). Llamas can grow to over two meters in length and weigh up to 150 kilos, with the females often being slightly larger than the males. The camel family in South America includes not only llamas, but also wild guanacos, domesticated alpacas that supply fine wool, and vicuñas. With the latter, however, it is unclear whether they belong to the same genus as the llamas or not. The vicuñas live at an altitude of 3,500 to 5,500 meters and are famous above all for their wool: it is considered the rarest and most expensive in the world.
The capybaras are extraordinary in several respects. Firstly, capybaras are not pigs, but the largest rodents on earth. On the other hand, although they are related to guinea pigs, they are more similar to hippos in their way of life and physique. In the Indio language Guaraní „Capybara“ means „Lord of the Grasses“, because the animals are among the largest grass eaters of South America. They are spread almost over the whole continent and every country has its own name for them.
The Capybaras live near water, in swamps (for example in the Brazilian „Pantanal“) and mangrove forests. They often find their food in grassy savannahs; to sleep they usually find a place on solid ground with their herd (between five and 100 animals, depending on the season).
The females are larger and heavier than the males. The females weigh around 60 kilos, the males around ten kilos less with a head and body length of around 1.30 meters or one meter. Capybaras weighing 80 kilos have also been sighted.
As they have webbed feet between their hoof-like toes, they can move easily in the pasture as well as in the water and even dive. Their rodent teeth, with which they munch on grass, tree bark, herbs, water plants, sugar cane and watermelons, grow to a width of up to two centimeters. Their fur is long, rough and bristly. Capybaras give birth once a year to between two and eight young, which can immediately follow their mother. After two months of suckling, they are already so independent that the mother does not want them around anymore. Capybaras can live up to ten years.
Andean tapir / Mountain tapir
The smallest members of the tapir family belong to the highly endangered species. The last 2,500 or so mountain tapirs are almost all found in national parks in the north-eastern Andes of Colombia, Ecuador and northern Peru. Their main enemy is the human being, whose herds of cattle are increasingly restricting their habitat and who also hunts them for their meat. The shy animals live as solitary animals at altitudes of 2,000 to over 4,000 meters in cloud forests, humid mountain forests and thicket.
Their body seems massive compared to their legs – as with the lowland tapirs; typical for all species is also the small trunk, with which they can smell and feel very well. In contrast to other members of their family, however, the mountain tapirs see better. In addition, a long, dense woolly coat protects their skin from the UV radiation and cold in the high mountains. They are also easy to recognize by their white lips. The animals grow to a height of only about one meter and a length of 1.80 meters.
The smallest deer in the world, with a shoulder height of 25 to 43 centimeters, is hardly bigger than a hare. In South America, two Pudu species can be found in completely different habitats: The North Pudu is at home in the Colombian, Ecuadorian and Peruvian Andes at an altitude of 2,000 to 4,000 meters. It lives alternately in mountain forests and on the high pastures. In Western Patagonia, the southern pudu lives exclusively in deep forests up to 1500 meters altitude.
Apart from the fact that the mini deer only weigh six to 13 kilos on average, they do not look like their large relatives with their stocky body and short legs. Their antlers consist of two unbranched, short skewers that are hardly visible. The fur of the South pudus is red, that of the North pudus dark brown.
The animals eat mainly barks, grasses, fruits, leaves, ferns, buds and seeds. South pudus, which are more numerous and better studied, can do without water for a longer period of time; they absorb liquid to a large extent through their food. Since they are so small, they do not mind climbing even on sloping tree trunks. As loners, they only seek company during the mating season; like the other – large – stags, they only give birth to one young.
Both Pudu species belong to the endangered animals. On the one hand they are hunted by humans, on the other hand their habitat is destroyed. Also the somewhat more common South Pudu has been pushed back even further south of its original habitat in South Chile and Argentina. However, there is still a great chance to see these animals on the Chilean island of Chiloé, for example.