Tierra del Fuego island is the southernmost portion of Patagonia. It lies south of the Strait of Magellan between 52° 27' and 55° 03' latitude S.
The Fuegian archipelago comprises many islands, the largest of which is the Isla Grande de Tierra del Fuego (Big Island of Tierra del Fuego), which is, size wise the 29th largest island in the world with an area of 48.000 km2 (18,540 sq.mi.).
Its western coast is bathed by the Pacific Ocean and its eastern seabord is on the Atlantic Ocean; Drake's Passage lies to the south.
Its southern and south western regions, one third of the island, are mountainous. The Andes, which reach a maximum height of 2500 m (8,200 ft.)at Mount Darwin. This is the densely forested part of the island. It is also where the imposing Fuegian glaciers can be found. The Northern two thirds are covered with shrub-grass and crisscrossed by rivers that have their sources in the Andes.
Saapaim, the beast
Tierra del fuego was left alone by the Spanish conquistadors and its natives lived in peace until the arrival of the protestant missionaries in the 1840s. After some failures (the natives massacred the missionaries), Thomas Bridges (1842–1898) succeeded in setting up the first Anglican mission on the island, at what is now the city of Ushuaia.
Bridges reported a very strange creature, the saapaim. We know that it was not an otter, which the Yagan natives called aiapuk.
In July 1869, Bridges wrote about this animal recording its Indian name “saapaim” and described it as "very shaggy, about as large as a sheep, has very large and powerful claws and front teeth; it lives in the densest forests on the leaves, fungus and sap of trees. It climbs with ease. I think this animal must be a sloth. (Bold mine).
Previously, in 1866, he had written that there were “beavers” in western Tierra del Fuego, though he later (1886) dropped the sloth/beaver likeness and decided that the animal was a fresh-water otter “called saapai by the natives”.
His son Lucas Bridges, who was the first "European" born on the island, said that it was not an otter, but a “coipo that the Yamana called “sayapie”, a large water rat".
Otter, coipo, sloth? What is it?
Both Bridges, father and son disagreed on what saapaim was. Lets look at each of the animals:
The coipo (Myocastor coypus) is also known as “nutria” (Spanish for otter). Some English texts call it the South American beaver yet it is neither an otter nor a beaver. It is a small and stout vegetarian about 63 cm (25 in.) long and weighing about 7 kg (15.4 lb.). It has strong sharp claws and four of its five toes on its rear paws are joined by a natatory membrane, which the four fingered front paws lack. It is riverine in eastern Patagonia and sea-going in southern Chile. In the following image you can see that it looks like a rat-beaver hybrid. It does not resemble an otter at all.
The huillín or Patagonian otter (Lontra provocax) on the other hand is nearly twice as long: 110 cm (3 ft. 7 in.), it can weigh up to 14 kg (31 lb.) and being a carnivore is more fearsome and bold. Though endangered, it still can be found in the coastal waters around Tierra del Fuego. On the mainland they lived in fresh water lakes and rivers, but in Tierra del Fuego they adapted to a marine environment. Slender and svelte, the otter is a slim creature, unlike the chubby coipo.
Two toed sloths are smaller than otters and roughly the same size as the coipo: they measure between 58 and 70 cm (23 to 28 in.)-the three toed sloth is smaller. They weigh between 3.5 and 8 kg (7.7 - 27.6 lb.). Sloths are slow moving arboreal creatures though they also swim across rivers and walk (slowly) along the ground from tree to tree to feed. The following images show sloths, which are very different to an otter or a coipo.
Upper image From . Lower image From .
Identifying saapaim. A midget giant ground sloth?
Thomas Bridges’ original description is not that of an otter or a coipo (they do not climb trees) and they are not "sheep sized". The creature is definitively something else.
It is also surprising that he believed that it was some sort of sloth. Sloths are tropical creatures, they live in the hot humid rainforests of Central and South America.
Yet thirty years later the remains of an extinct giant ground sloth species (mylodon) were discovered in the region just north of Tierra del Fuego (see my post on the incredible Mylodon saga), so there is the chance that saapaim could be a surviving "giant ground sloth" that grew smaller to adapt to its insular habitat.
Insular dwarfism is a process by which large animals reduce their size when their population is constrained to a small environment such as an island. There are several examples of this kind of dwarfism: dwarf elephants in Malta and Crete, the tiny Hobbit prehistoric man at Flores Island and (interestingly) dwarf ground sloths in Cuba and Puerto Rico.
Coincidence? Maybe. Or perhaps the natives' myths still remembered the bygone ages when sloths prowled the island (at the end of the last Ice Age), before dying out.
Going back to Bridges description of saapaim: the powerful claws are interesting because it agrees with the native myths of clawed monsters (see my posts on these beasts Fuegian Beasts Part 1 and Part 2).
However, having front teeth saapaim can’t be an edentate. Size-wise it seems too small to have been a water tiger yet being "sheep sized", it is much larger than any known otter.
Identifying saapaim. A giant rat?
Besides the giant ground sloth, something else had also been found in the Mylodon Cave: the remains of a very large rodent.
Rodents, also known as Rodentia is an order of mammals that are characterized by having two continuously growing incisors in their upper and lower jaws; these must be kept short by gnawing. These are very similar to Bridge's saapaim (with powerful front teeth).
Though most rodents are small (i.e. mice) the largest extant rodent, the South American capybara or carpincho (Hydrochoerus hydrochaeris), can weigh up to 80 kg (180 lb.). Carpincho is an aquatic hog-like animal, bulky and with thick bushy reddish hair. This fits Bridges description (sheep sized and shaggy haired) perfectly.
The team that discovered these remains in 1899 contended that “it is very probable that the amphibian that they [the natives] say walks on land as easily as it swims in the water, is a big rodent”. They were refering to the mythical iemisch monster (also known as "water tiger").
Could saapaim be a big unknown rat?
The Mylodon Cave remains belonged to a rodent that was “much bigger than the carpincho […] but a bit smaller than the Megamys patagonensis”. So this creature was a very big “rat”; the M. patagoniensis were real giants; they were four times larger than any living species of Rodentia, roughly the size of an ox.
A big aquatic rodent, though herbivore could be quite a threat if frightened or protecting its young, it may also explain many of the "lake bull" sightings and other mythical beings like the cuchivilu and, of course, our Fuegian saapaim.
 Bridges, T., (1998). Los Indios del último confin. Sus escritos para la South American Missionary Society. Ushuaia: Zaguier & Urruty. pp. 159.
 Ibid. pp. 15.
 Orquera, L. and Piana, E., (1999). La vida material y social de los Yámana. B. Aires: Eudeba. pp. 144.
 Bridges, T., (1998). Op. Cit. pp. 145.
 Bridges, L., (2008). Op.Cit. pp. 437.
 Sloth Fact Sheet. Xentartha.org
 Coipo and Carpincho images source.
 Otter image Huillín (Patagonian River Otter). SIB.
 Sloth (swimming) image Dawn on the Amazon Captains Blog.
 Sloth (walking) image The Bocas Breeze. September 2007. Vol 4 No. 9. Photo by Tim Billo.
 Hauthal, R., Roth, S., Lehmann-Nitsche, R., (1899). El mamifero misterioso de la Patagonia, Grypotherium domesticum. Revista del Museo de La Plata, v. ix. pp. 445, 446. Read it online, see below:
Anglican Missionary Endeavour in Tierra del Fuego (1832-1916). Historical Review
Copyright 2009-2010 by Austin Whittall ©
Patagonian Monsters Cryptozoology, Myths & legends in Patagonia