The freshwater and marine fish faunas of South America are the most diverse on Earth, with current species richness estimates standing above 9100 species. In addition, over the last decade at least 100 species were described every year. There are currently about 5160 freshwater fish species, and the estimate for the freshwater fish fauna alone points to a final diversity between 8000 and 9000 species. South America also has c. 4000 species of marine fishes. The mega-diverse fish faunas of South America evolved over a period of >100 million years, with most lineages tracing origins to Gondwana and the adjacent Tethys Sea. This high diversity was in part maintained by escaping the mass extinctions and biotic turnovers associated with Cenozoic climate cooling, the formation of boreal and temperate zones at high latitudes and aridification in many places at equatorial latitudes. The fresh waters of the continent are divided into 13 basin complexes, large basins consolidated as a single unit plus historically connected adjacent coastal drainages, and smaller coastal basins grouped together on the basis of biogeographic criteria. Species diversity, endemism, noteworthy groups and state of knowledge of each basin complex are described. Marine habitats around South America, both coastal and oceanic, are also described in terms of fish diversity, endemism and state of knowledge. Because of extensive land use changes, hydroelectric damming, water divergence for irrigation, urbanization, sedimentation and overfishing 4-10% of all fish species in South America face some degree of extinction risk, mainly due to habitat loss and degradation. These figures suggest that the conservation status of South American freshwater fish faunas is better than in most other regions of the world, but the marine fishes are as threatened as elsewhere. Conserving the remarkable aquatic habitats and fishes of South America is a growing challenge in face of the rapid anthropogenic changes of the 21st century, and deserves attention from conservationists and policy makers.