Encyclopedic Entry

South America is a continent of extremes. It is home to the world's largest river (the Amazon) as well as the world's driest place (the Atacama Desert).

Map by the National Geographic Society

Largest Urban Area
Sao Paulo, Brazil (11,016,703 people)

Highest Elevation
Aconcagua, Argentina (6,962 meters/22,841 feet)

Largest Watershed
Amazon River (6,145,186 square kilometers/2,372,670 square miles)

Population Density
22 people per square kilometer

Amount of Renewable Electricity Produced
52% (top producer of renewable energy: Paraguay, 100%)

South America, the fourth-largest continent, extends from the Gulf of Darién in the northwest to the archipelago of Tierra del Fuego in the south.

South America’s physical geography, environment and resources, and human geography can be considered separately.

South America can be divided into three physical regions: mountains and highlands, river basins, and coastal plains. Mountains and coastal plains generally run in a north-south direction, while highlands and river basins generally run in an east-west direction.

South America’s extreme geographic variation contributes to the continent’s large number of biomes. A biome is a community of animals and plants that spreads over an area with a relatively uniform climate.

Within a few hundred kilometers, South America’s coastal plains’ dry desert biome rises to the rugged alpine biome of the Andes mountains. One of the continent’s river basins (the Amazon) is defined by dense, tropical rain forest, while the other (Paraná) is made up of vast grasslands.

With an unparalleled number of plant and animal species, South America’s rich biodiversity is unique among the world’s continents.

Mountains & Highlands

South America’s primary mountain system, the Andes, is also the world’s longest. The range covers about 8,850 kilometers (5,500 miles). Situated on the far western edge of the continent, the Andes stretch from the southern tip to the northernmost coast of South America. There are hundreds of peaks more than 4,500 meters (15,000 feet) tall, many of which are volcanic.

The highest peak in the Andes, Aconcagua, stands at 6,962 meters (22,841 feet) and straddles the Argentina-Chile border. Aconcagua is the tallest mountain outside Asia.

High plateaus are also a feature of the Andes. The altiplano of Peru and Bolivia, for example, has an elevation of about 3,700 meters (12,300 feet). The Patagonia region of Argentina and Chile consists of lower-elevation plateaus and rugged glaciers.

Most plants in the alpine biome are small, and their leaves are stiff and strong to protect them from frost and drought. The largest herb in the world, Puya raimondii, is known as the Queen of the Andes. A Puya raimondii can live for 100 years and can grow to more than 9 meters (30 feet) tall. The leaves of this endangered species all grow from one woody stem, allowing moisture to run down the leaves to the base of the plant.

Outside the Andes, South America has two principal highland areas: the Brazilian Highlands and the Guiana Highlands. Located south of the Amazon River in Brazil, the Brazilian Highlands are made up of low mountains and plateaus that rise to an average elevation of 1,006 meters (3,300 feet). The Guiana Highlands are located between the Amazon and Orinoco Rivers. The heavily forested plateau of the Guiana Highlands covers southern Venezuela, French Guiana, Guyana, northern Brazil, and a portion of southeastern Colombia.

River Basins

South America has three important river basins: the Amazon, Orinoco, and Paraguay/Paraná.

The Amazon River basin has an area of almost 7 million square kilometers (2.7 million square miles), making it the largest watershed in the world. The basin, which covers most of northern South America, is fed by tributaries from the glaciers of the Andes. Every second, the Amazon River empties 209,000 cubic meters (7,381,000 cubic feet) of freshwater into the Atlantic Ocean.

The Amazon River is the life force of the equally vast Amazon rain forest, which makes up about half of the rain forest of the entire planet. This tropical biome has as many as 100 different tree species on a single acre, including the rubber tree, silk cotton tree, and Brazil nut tree. Other important plant species include palms, ferns, and ropelike vines known as lianas that network throughout the rain forest’s dense canopy.

The diversity of animal life in the Amazon rain forest is unsurpassed in the rest of the world. The rain forest is perfectly suited for arboreal, or tree-living, animals. More than 2 million species of insects are native to the region, including hundreds of spiders and butterflies. Primates are abundant—howler monkeys, spider monkeys, and capuchin monkeys—along with sloths, snakes, and iguanas. Thousands of native birds include brightly colored macaws, parrots, toucans, and parakeets.

The Orinoco River flows north of the Amazon. The Orinoco flows in a giant arc for more than 2,736 kilometers (1,700 miles), originating in the Guiana Highlands of northern Brazil and discharging in the Atlantic Ocean in Venezuela. The Orinoco River basin covers an area of about 948,000 square kilometers (366,000 square miles) and encompasses approximately 80 percent of Venezuela and 25 percent of Colombia.

A vast savanna or grassland region, known as the Llanos, is the primary biome of the Orinoco River basin. The Llanos is primarily made up of grasses. Swamp grasses, sedges, and bunchgrass are found in wet, low-lying areas. Carpet grass is found in the higher and drier elevations.

Like most grassland biomes, the Llanos is the perfect habitat for many bird species, including the scarlet ibis, bellbird, and umbrellabird. Important river species include the piranha, electric eel, and the Orinoco crocodile, which can reach a length of more than 6 meters (20 feet).

The Paraguay/Paraná River basin covers almost 2.8 million square kilometers (1,081,000 square miles), which is much of southeastern Brazil and Bolivia, Paraguay, and northern Argentina. The Paraná River includes Iguazu Falls, a massive series of waterfalls that extend for 2.7 kilometers (1.7 miles).

Along with the Uruguay River, the Paraná River empties into the Rio de la Plata estuary between Argentina and Uruguay. The Rio de la Plata is the most populated region of both countries. The capital cities of Buenos Aires, Argentina, and Montevideo, Uruguay, practically face each other across the estuary.

The Paraguay/Paraná River basin supplies water to the plains biome, or Pampas, of South America. The Pampas have rich, fertile soil and predictable rainfall patterns. They are the most important grazing and cropland areas on the continent.

Coastal Plains

A coastal plain is an area of low, flat land next to a seacoast. South American coastal plains are found on the northeastern coast of Brazil, on the Atlantic Ocean, and the western, Pacific coast of Peru and Chile. The coastal plains of northeastern Brazil are extremely dry. The Brazilian Highlands act as a wedge that pushes moist sea winds away from the coastal plains.

The western coastal plains are also extremely dry. They are trapped between the cold Peru Current to the west and the Andes Mountains to the east. The Peru Current brings cold water to the Pacific coast of Peru and Chile. This cold surface water results in thermal inversion: cold air at sea level and stable, warmer air higher up. Thermal inversion produces a thick layer of clouds at low altitudes. These low-lying clouds blanket much of the Pacific coast of South America. They do not allow precipitation to form.

The Atacama Desert is part of the western coastal plain. The Atacama is considered the driest region in the world. The average rainfall is about 1 millimeter (0.04 inches) a year, and some parts of the Atacama have never had rain in recorded history.

Very few plants grow in this desert. Even bacteria, insects, and fungi are scarce. Larger animal species are also rare, and include the grey fox, a type of deer called the huemul, and the viscacha—the largest member of the chinchilla family. Ocean birds, such as penguins, cormorants, and pelicans, are found on the desert coast. While Atacama lacks flora and fauna, it is a rich source of copper and a chief source of revenue for the Chilean economy.

Vocabulary

Term Part of Speech Definition Encyclopedic Entry

alpine

Adjective

having to do with mountains.

Altiplano

Noun

high plateau in the Andes Mountains of South America.

arboreal

Adjective

having to do with trees.

arc

Noun

part of the outline of a circle.

archipelago

Noun

a group of closely scattered islands in a large body of water.

Encyclopedic Entry: archipelago

bacteria

Plural Noun

(singular: bacterium) single-celled organisms found in every ecosystem on Earth.

basin

Noun

a dip or depression in the surface of the land or ocean floor.

Encyclopedic Entry: basin

biodiversity

Noun

all the different kinds of living organisms within a given area.

Encyclopedic Entry: biodiversity

biome

Noun

area of the planet which can be classified according to the plant and animal life in it.

Encyclopedic Entry: biome

border

Noun

natural or artificial line separating two pieces of land.

Encyclopedic Entry: border

canopy

noun, verb

the top layer of a forest formed by the thick leaves of very tall trees.

capital

Noun

city where a region's government is located.

Encyclopedic Entry: capital

chinchilla

Noun

rodent native to South America.

climate

Noun

all weather conditions for a given location over a period of time.

Encyclopedic Entry: climate

cloud

Noun

visible mass of tiny water droplets or ice crystals in Earth's atmosphere.

Encyclopedic Entry: cloud

coastal plain

Noun

low, flat land lying next to the ocean.

Encyclopedic Entry: coastal plain

continent

Noun

one of the seven main land masses on Earth.

Encyclopedic Entry: continent

copper

Noun

chemical element with the symbol Cu.

crop

Noun

agricultural produce.

Encyclopedic Entry: crop

current

Noun

steady, predictable flow of fluid within a larger body of that fluid.

Encyclopedic Entry: current

dense

Adjective

having parts or molecules that are packed closely together.

desert

Noun

area of land that receives no more than 25 centimeters (10 inches) of precipitation a year.

Encyclopedic Entry: desert

drought

Noun

period of greatly reduced precipitation.

Encyclopedic Entry: drought

economy

Noun

system of production, distribution, and consumption of goods and services.

endangered species

Noun

organism threatened with extinction.

Encyclopedic Entry: endangered species

environment

Noun

conditions that surround and influence an organism or community.

estuary

Noun

mouth of a river where the river's current meets the sea's tide.

Encyclopedic Entry: estuary

fauna

Noun

animals associated with an area or time period.

fertile

Adjective

able to produce crops or sustain agriculture.

flora

Noun

plants associated with an area or time period.

freshwater

Noun

water that is not salty.

frost

Noun

thin coat of ice covering objects when the dew point is below freezing.

Encyclopedic Entry: frost

fungi

Plural Noun

(singular: fungus) organisms that survive by decomposing and absorbing nutrients in organic material such as soil or dead organisms.

glacier

Noun

mass of ice that moves slowly over land.

Encyclopedic Entry: glacier

grassland

Noun

ecosystem with large, flat areas of grasses.

gulf

Noun

portion of an ocean or sea that penetrates land.

Encyclopedic Entry: gulf

herb

Noun

type of seasonal plant often used as a medicine or seasoning.

huemul

Noun

deer native to South America. Also called the South Andean deer.

human geography

Noun

the study of the way human communities and systems interact with their environment.

mountain

Noun

landmass that forms as tectonic plates interact with each other.

Pampas

Noun

flat grasslands of South America.

Patagonia

Noun

large plateau in southern South America, stretching from the Andes Mountains to the Atlantic Ocean.

physical geography

Noun

study of the natural features and processes of the Earth.

plain

Noun

flat, smooth area at a low elevation.

Encyclopedic Entry: plain

plateau

Noun

large region that is higher than the surrounding area and relatively flat.

Encyclopedic Entry: plateau

precipitation

Noun

all forms in which water falls to Earth from the atmosphere.

Encyclopedic Entry: precipitation

primate

Noun

type of mammal, including humans, apes, and monkeys.

rain forest

Noun

area of tall evergreen trees and a high amount of rainfall.

region

Noun

any area on the Earth with one or more common characteristics. Regions are the basic units of geography.

Encyclopedic Entry: region

resource

Noun

available supply of materials, goods, or services. Resources can be natural or human.

revenue

Noun

income, or money earned before production costs are subtracted.

rugged

Adjective

having an irregular or jagged surface.

savanna

Noun

type of tropical grassland with scattered trees.

sedge

Noun

grass-like plant native to wetlands.

soil

Noun

top layer of the Earth's surface where plants can grow.

stem

Noun

main stalk of a plant.

surpass

Verb

to go beyond a set limit.

swamp

Noun

land permanently saturated with water and sometimes covered with it.

Encyclopedic Entry: swamp

thermal inversion

Noun

climate pattern where the air is warmer at higher elevations.

tributary

Noun

stream that feeds, or flows, into a larger stream.

Encyclopedic Entry: tributary

tropical

Adjective

existing in the tropics, the latitudes between the Tropic of Cancer in the north and the Tropic of Capricorn in the south.

unique

Adjective

one of a kind.

waterfall

Noun

flow of water descending steeply over a cliff. Also called a cascade.

Encyclopedic Entry: waterfall

watershed

Noun

entire river system or an area drained by a river and its tributaries.

Encyclopedic Entry: watershed

wedge

Noun

triangle shape.

Credits

Media Credits

The audio, illustrations, photos, and videos are credited beneath the media asset, except for promotional images, which generally link to another page that contains the media credit. The Rights Holder for media is the person or group credited.

Writer

Melissa McDaniel
Erin Sprout
Diane Boudreau
Andrew Turgeon

Illustrator

Tim Gunther, Illustrator
Mary Crooks, National Geographic Society

Editor

Jeannie Evers
Kara West

Educator Reviewer

Nancy Wynne

Producer

Caryl-Sue, National Geographic Society

Sources

Dunn, Margery G. (Editor). (1989, 1993). "Exploring Your World: The Adventure of Geography." Washington, D.C.: National Geographic Society.

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