That Time South America Was an Island for 20 Million Years

How do we define a long time? A 245 year old country? Nope, add more zeroes. 20 million years qualifies. Thinking about those millions of years South America was an island blows my chronological socks off. Animals found nowhere else developed there, due to its isolation back in the Miocene era. What is now Panama flooded due to rising seas cutting the southern neighbor off from Central and North America. 20 million years later when the land bridge reappeared, the animals migrated into Central America and some to southern Mexico. What an incubation period!

Five Cute Reasons I’m Glad for this Natural History:

  1. Capybara: Herbivore, good swimmer, the world’s largest rodent! Size up to 80 kg (175 lbs) All over South America, except for in Chile.
Capybara and Company Photo: Clodomiro Esteves Junior

2. Matamata Turtle: exclusive to northern South America, nocturnal, fresh water, snorkel-like nose to vacuum up food

Matamata Turtle Photo: J. Patrick Fischer

3. Sloth: unique to the Americas, hanging around throughout South America except for the southern cone. A giant sloth that was 6 m (20 ft) long lived in South America until 10,000 years ago.

Three Toed Sloth Photo: Francesco Veronesi

4. Emperor Tamarin: Originated in the Amazon Basin, expanded to Central America. Fun fact: named emperor for its resemblance (the mustache) to German emperor Wilhelm II, King of Prussia (1888 – 1918). What began as a joke, is now its official name. I wonder what the first people named it originally.

Emperor Tamarin Photo: Rexness
Wilhelm II. (Taken in 1890) Photo: German Federal Archive

5. Yapok: Water Opossum. Only marsupial that both males and females have pouches. Now ranges from Mexico to Argentina.

Yapok Print Image: Friedrich Specht (late 1800s)

Since yapoks are largely nocturnal, it is difficult to get a good photo. Fortunately, Friedrich Specht made a wonderful illustration and engraving about 150 years ago. Thank you, Herr Specht.

Nature makes very interesting choices when creatures are in isolation. I like the variety and the specialization that occurs. Thank you to the television program Eons for bringing these evolutionary facts to life.

¡Olé! –Rebecca

Rebecca Cuningham

12 thoughts on “That Time South America Was an Island for 20 Million Years

    1. Thanks for your comments, Margaret. Fortunately the Matamata turtle, the capybara and the yapok are not endangered. There are two kinds of sloths (pygmy snd maned) and one species of tamarin (pied) that are critically endangered. The oddest fact I uncovered during my research for this post was that marsupials originated in SA! That was when Australia was still attached. Not sure what to think of that and how it ties into the island period. More to research!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Hi Margaret, thanks for your comments. Opossums are the only marsupials with pouches left in the Americas. There are several varieties, including the yapoks. There were more during the island phase, but they became extinct.

        Liked by 2 people

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