In a previous entry, we mentioned toxodonts when referring to unicorns and the Camahueto. However there is another aquatic beast that shares a similar body build and bulky morphology –though it lacks horns.
Father Juan Ignacio Molina when describing the animals that could be found in Chile in the late 1700s mentioned a very strange animal:
The hippopotamus of rivers and lakes of the Araucan country, different to the African and similar in height and shape to the land horse but with palmed feet like those of seals. The existence of this animal is universally believed in, all over the country, and there are people […] who say they have seen its skin, which, they say, is covered with soft hair, of a color similar to that of tiny sea wolves.
Molina’s is a very strange hippo; its soft fur makes it very different from the hair-less African variety. Also, its palmed feet differ from the hippo’s sturdy toes. Furthermore, and this is critical, there are no hippopotami in the Americas, they are restricted exclusively to the Old World.
Could Molina have been mistaken?
More Chilean Hippopotami
Sixty years after the publication of Molina’s work, French adventure writer Jules Gabriel Verne would mention Patagonian hippos again.
His book Two Years Holiday: Adrift In The Pacific, published in 1888 and set in 1860, dealt with a group of students stranded on an Island by Patagonia’s South Pacific Coast and their efforts to survive as modern Robinson Crusoes (reminiscent of Byron and his Wager Island ordeal).
Wrote Verne: “An enormous quadruped was rolling in the mud of the bog-woods a hundred steps away. The young hunter recognized it as a hippopotamus”.
The island which in the book was named as Chairman was quite close the Strait of Magellan -and to Wager Island-, is now named Hannover Island, (50°56’ S, 74°47’ W).
Why would Verne place hippos in southern Chile?
He must have researched to render a true picture of the southern Chilean islands, in doing so, he probably came across some reference placing hippopotamus (or a very similar creature) in southern Patagonia and decided to use it in his book.
In fact, right from the first Patagonian explorers, we can find references regarding a large and bulky Patagonian animal.
English explorer Knivet in 1591 saw at the Strait of Magellan “a kinde of Beasts bigger than horses”, he also noted that they were very good, with “great eares about a spanne long and their tailes are like the tailes of a Cowe”.
He added that the Brazilian Indians called this same creature “Tapetywason” implying that the word is of Guaraní origin and that the beast’s habitat extended from Brazil to Patagonia. This is indeed strange. Perhaps he meant that it was the same kind of animal that in Brazil was known under that name.
In the 1870s, Francisco Moreno also reported having heard some “plantigrade” squeals in the forests close to Lake Nahuel Huapi, but he did not see them. The native’s description led him to believe that they were collared pecari – a boar like animal native to tropical South America.
Wrote Moreno: “Though many times I heard the noise that they made at [Lake Nahuel Huapi] when they all ran away […] among the trees, I could not examine any of them at close range nor see their hides”.
Chilean explorer Guillermo Cox in 1862 had also said that on the shores of Limay River by the Nahuel Huapi there were wild pigs which he ate but did not see.
What exactly were these animals? Hippos? pigs? boars? or something else?
We will answer this in a future post.
Update - Sept. 21, 2010
I came across another reference about Patagonian hippos in Chile: read about it in my post on the "sea horse".
 Molina, J. Op Cit. pp. 264.
 Verne, J. Dos Años de Vacaciones. Chapter XVI. pp. 343.
 Purchas, S. Op. Cit. pp. 1233.
 Moreno, F., (2007 b) pp. 73.
 Cox, G. Op. Cit. pp. 194.
 Hiob Ludolf. (1681). Historia Aethiopica. Frankfurt. Online, Here.
Copyright 2009 by Austin Whittall ©