What are Some Extinct Animals of South America?

Michael Anissimov
Michael Anissimov

For approximately 20 million years, between 23 and 3 million years ago, South America was an island continent, with its own unique fauna. The starting point for this diversification was inherited from the supercontinent Gondwana, which consisted of South America attached to Antarctica (which was forested at the time) and Australia for about 150 million years. This unique Gondwanan fauna included numerous marsupials (now divided between Australia and South America), including carnivorous marsupials, ratites (represented today by the rhea, emu, and ostrich), a diverse avian fauna, and unique plants, including many cycads (considered living fossils) and family Proteaceae, with beautiful pink and white flowers. Many of these are not extinct animals or plants, but large numbers of their relatives have gone extinct in the last few million years.

Now inhospitably cold, Antarctica was once a temperate continent with forests.
Now inhospitably cold, Antarctica was once a temperate continent with forests.

Because what we consider to be "typical mammals" evolved in North America and Eurasia, South America did not possess these until it linked up with North America just 3 million years ago, an event known as the Great American Interchange. Before that, the endemic mammals of South America consisted of marsupials, xenarthans (armadillos, anteaters, and sloths), many diverse ungulates (extinct order Notoungulata -- "south ungulates"), litopterns (odd long-nosed mammals that played that role of mid-level browsers, like camelids and horses on other continents), astrapotheres (sometimes called "a cross between a small elephant and a large tapir"), and pyrotheres (large, mastadon/tapir-like ungulates). The majority of these are extinct animals. The entire clade of endemic South American ungulates, the Meridungulata, consists of extinct animals.

Unlike Afro-Eurasia, which was dominated by placental mammals, and Australia, which was dominated by marsupials, South America was a unique evolutionary battleground where placentals, marsupials, and a few odd others ("Terror Birds") competed with each other for supremacy. In the end, the marsupials and the Terror Birds lost out, overwhelmed by Afro-Eurasian placentals which invaded during the Great American Interchange. Many of the marsupials that have not joined the ranks of extinct animals are small and live high in the Andes mountain range, the longest mountain range on Earth. Some of the extinct animals that lived in South America categorized as marsupials include Thylacosmilus, a saber-toothed marsupial predator, and the borhyaenids, otter/wolverine shaped marsupial predators. Opposums were omnipresent and more numerous than today.

Michael Anissimov
Michael Anissimov

Michael is a longtime wiseGEEK contributor who specializes in topics relating to paleontology, physics, biology, astronomy, chemistry, and futurism. In addition to being an avid blogger, Michael is particularly passionate about stem cell research, regenerative medicine, and life extension therapies. He has also worked for the Methuselah Foundation, the Singularity Institute for Artificial Intelligence, and the Lifeboat Foundation.

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Discussion Comments


Aside from human interference, what is the reason that most animals become extinct? Obviously, there are several answers to this, but in my opinion, it may be because some animals aren't smart enough to adapt to their surroundings. For example, look at the dodo bird, which was known to be not too bright.


The last sentence really hit me, and does bring up a very good point about opposums. Even though they are night animals (and we never see them during the day), they still seem to appear a lot less frequently when compared to other nocturnal critters, such as skunks and even owls. In fact, I remember seeing them a lot more I was a kid. Through some more research, maybe scientists and researchers will eventually come to the conclusion that they're dying off. In fact, who knows? Maybe they're having a hard time adapting to the current climate changes.


It's pretty unfortunate that so many of these animals have become extinct. However, on the other hand, it's quite fortunate that we have evidence of their existence, and that even though they no longer exist, through lots of research, we can learn a lot more about them and their descendants.

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