Though related to raccoons and coatis, Chapalmalania was a large creature, reaching 1.5 metres (4.9 ft) in body length, with a short tail. It probably resembled the giant panda. Due to its size, its remains were initially identified as those of a bear. It evolved from the "dog-coati" Cyonasua, which probably island-hopped from Central America during the late Miocene (7.5 million years ago), as perhaps the earliest southward mammalian migrants of the Great American Interchange. When the Isthmus of Panama rose from the sea to allow further invasions by other North American species, Chapalmalania was unable to compete and its lineage went extinct, after being present in South America for 5 million years.