Guide to Patagonia's Monsters & Mysterious beings

I have written a book on this intriguing subject which has just been published.
In this blog I will post excerpts and other interesting texts on this fascinating subject.

Austin Whittall

Friday, October 29, 2010

The Tiremenen giants

Tiremenen indians
Tiremenen Indians in Southern Patagonia. Detail of Map. From [1]

The map above [1] by de Moussy, dated 1865, shows on Brunswick Peninsula, just south of Punta Arenas (Chile), a caption stating "Ins. Tiremenen" or Tiremenen Indians.

What is so special about them? Well, they were said to be giants.

These were first described by Dutch Admiral Oliver van Noort in 1599 as “savages of a gigantic stature”[2] who told him that not all Patagonian natives were gigantic, but only one nation out of the five that lived there, the Tiremenen. This apparently happened at the Strait of Magellan.

These Tiremenen were “gigantic people […] who were continually making war upon the other nations”.[3] (I mentioned them in my post on the Patagon Giants).

I had not been able to find any other references to regarding this name until now, and in the mid 1860s. The interesting thing is that the Aonikenk Tehuelche referred to a mysterious people living in that area, but they used another name, not Tiremenen, but Awurwur, I will write about them in my next post.


[1] Carte de la Patagonie et des archipels de la Terre de Feu, des Malouines et des cotes occidentales jusqu'au Golfe de Reloncavi. By Dr. V. Martin de Moussy 1865. Engraved by L. Kautz, r. Bonaparte 82 - Paris. Paris, Imp. Lemercier, r. de Seine 57. (Paris Librairie de Firmin Didot Freres, Fils et Cie., 1873).
Online Map Here.
[2] FitzRoy, R., (1839). Appendix v.ii. pp. 102.
[3] Hawkesworth, J., (1773). Account of the Voyages... the Southern Hemisphere. London: Cadell. v.i.: 12+

Patagonian Monsters - Cryptozoology, Myths & legends in Patagonia
2010 International Year of Biodiversity Copyright 2009-2010 by Austin Whittall © 

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Tachwüll more information


The text on Tatchwell.[2]

While conducting some additional research on the Tachwüll (what can I say, I read all I can on Patagonia and sometimes come across interesting information), I came across an article by Mateo Martinic : "Documentos inéditos para la historia de Magallanes 'Memorándum Referido a los Patagones'", published in 2007.[1]
Martinic presents it as an "unpublished" document which was sent to him by Mrs. Jean Cameron, in charge of the Archives at Falkland Islands, which bears the title "Memorandum respecting the Patagonians". The notes did not indicate the author or the year it was written, and Martinic correctly (as we will see below) dates it to around 1840-41.

There are two parts to this story, one regarding the "unpublished" letter, the other about the "Tachwüll". This post will deal with both.

The "unpublished" letter

Martinic was wrong, the letter had been published before, in 1843 by the British Parliament's House of Commons. [2] It was written in 1842 (Martinic was quite close in his estimated time frame):

The above notes were furnished to the Lieut governor by Captain Allen F Gardiner RN who collected them in Patagonia in the early part of the present year 1842. [2]

The text was mentioned again in print in 1964 [3]. So, it was not "unpublished" after all.

The positive thing is that it mentions some people named Tatchwell, and states that they are natives, not dwarves.

Tatchwell or Tachwüll

I will quote Gardiner's text in full (the part that mentions these natives). By the way, Allen Francis Gardiner (1794–1851) was a British Royal Navy officer and missionary and he starved to death in Tierra del Fuego, after an unsucessful attempt to set up a mission among the Yaghans.

First he stated that "There are five tribes of Patagonians [...] and one on the sea coast west of the Cordilleras [...] [these are the] Tatchwell Cho karro west of the Cordilleras 4,000 [population] "[2]

I am at a loss to explain what Cho karro is. But lets go to Gardiners memorandum; he then gives an account that he got from a man, his wife and son, who belonged to the "Tatchwell tribe":
My comments are in brackets:

The district by the Tatchwell is wet and rainy and heavily timbered with trees of great size tents dress and stature is similar to that of the other Patagonian tribes they have canoes but these are only employed for crossing rivers and are merely a light covered with guannco skins.

[Note that they are "the same size" as the other Tehuelche, these Tatchwell are not dwarfs]

They use no paddles but are towed across by their swimming before with a lasso attached to their tails. This country is represented as about north west of Oazy Harbour [Which is located on the Strait of Magellan at 52° 30' S; 70° 31' W ] but in order to reach it is necessary to travel from thence considerably to the northward as the pass through Cordilleras in that part is better suited for horses than one farther south which they do frequent.

[This is correct, there are no passes south of Lake Pueyrredón 47° 16'S. Because of the Southern Continental Ice Field that reaches from the Pacific Ocean coast to the Andean Peaks between lakes San Martín and Mount Payne.]

In the neighbourhood of this pass there is a large lake with an island in it. This of the country and around the lake is inhabited by a tribe called Thit titch whose chief named Tchucato.

[There are several lakes with Islands in them in the area: Lake Belgrano (47°51'S, 72°10'W), San Martín (48°47'S, 72°50'W), Pueyrredón (47°14'S, 72°05'W) and Buenos Aires (46°24'S, 71°45'W. Though Martinic believes that the natives were talking about Lake Nahuel Huapi (41°01S, 71°27'W), which is too far north in my opinion.

I have heard the name Thucato before, but not Thit Titch]

They are more numerous than all the three Choanik [Tehuelche] tribes wear ostrich feathers on heir heads woollen ponchos and a sort of trowsers cultivate ground and have numerous flocks and herds of sheep cattle and horses. Their is different from that of the Choanik they trade occasionally with the Spanish settlements. Through this people they pass on their way across the Cordilleras and direct their course towards the south west [to go to the Strait of Magellan].

[These Thit Titch natives are without doubt, some Mapuche group, because these were Farmers, cattle breeders and weavers. The Tatchwell live to the west of the Andes]

The lake above mentioned they call Chobit it is about seven days on horseback from Oazy Harbour and thence to the Tatchwell on account of the ruggedness of the route and the forests would occupy ten days more. Another tribe called Eaks was also mentioned by the same individual they a district north of the Tatchwell between the Cordilleras and the sea [to the East, the Pacific Ocean as we will see below] but there is intercourse between the two people as their language differs and in one direction a considerable river which they cannot cross in their canoes runs between them.

[Seven days at about 35 km a day (roughly 20 mi.) is 245 km or 150 mi. Then another 10 days or 350 km (217 mi.), the lake's native name is not recorded though, Chobit sounds a lot like Chubut, the name of a Patagonian River and Province.

The distance from Oazy to del Toro Lake by Mount Paine is about 240 km. And this lake has an island in it. An additional 350 km places the territory of the Tatchwell in the area between lakes San Martín, Belgrano and the mouth of Baker River on the South Pacific Ocean.]

The Eaks are a shorter race than the Patagonians and are habited in ponchos. It appears to me probable that the lake called Chobit by these people is the same from Viedmas testimony is marked on the maps Capar [current lake Argentino or perhaps lake Viedma] and the wearing of feathers in the hair and other circumstances related by the Tatchwell man Wao principally the former is I think sufficient to identify the Thet titch with the Pewenches of which nation they are probably a tribe. [2]

Intrigued by this text and the names of different native groups (new to me) I did some further research: [4]

more text on Tatchwell

The text above was written in 1851 by the South American Missionary Society (of which Gardiner was its first secretary in 1844). Below is the "text version":

the Tatchwell are found far to the westward near to the eastern slopes of the Cordillera fronting the archipelago of Madre del Dios as nearly as I could ascertain from the account given me by a native of that part of the country whom I met in 1842 during my stay in Coazy [sic] harbour . [4]

Which places these Tatchwell on the Chilean side of the Andes, close to Madre de Dios islands. These are located south of Taitao, and of the Gulf of Penas, (50° 15' 47 S, 75°18' 30 W). This is between del Toro Lake and Baker river's Mouth. To the west of the Continental Ice Sheet. If so, the Tatchwell were living in a dreadful environment, and were very likely Alakaluf canoe people which were not Tehuelche but a differente group, with their own language and culture.

Regarding the Eaks which lived to the north of the Tatchwell, the name does not appear in any book or paper regarding Patagonian natives however, I did find an interesting remark [5] which gives the word used by the Northern Tehuelche (Günnuna Kenna or Gennakenk ), also known as Pampa (or Puelche, the name given to them by the Mapuche): [5]

The Pampa called these groups with the following names: Tehuelche = Ehnakena; Mapuche = Telunakena or Iaskas.

So here we have a word Iaskas (the last "s" is the Spanish plural), whose english pronounciation is easkah, which sounds very similar to Gardiner's Eaks. Furthermore, the fact that they wore woven clothes and had domestic animals and were farmers is a clear indication that they were Chilean Mapuche (the only sedentary natives in Patagonia). However Martinic in his paper [1] says that these may be "Pampas Indians" due to the different language (maybe he is referring to the Mapuche speaking "Puelche" and not the "Tehuelche" speaking Gennakenk which bear the same name.


There was a native group, of Tehuelche stock living to the west of the Andes somewhere between del Toro Lake and the mouth of Baker River, in Chile. They lived south of the Mapuche (Eaks). Were similar in dress, tents and size to the other Tehuelche of the Patagonia. They used light rafts to cross rivers. They were not dwarves.

The problem is that the only known natives in that area were not Tehuelche but Alakaluf, another totally distinct group, with their own language and clothing and way of life. They did have canoes but did not venture far inland. They did not have horses and did not ride from the Strait of Magellan to the Madre de Dios Islands.

Regadding my dwarf, the Tachwüll, these mysterious natives, the Tatchwell may have recieved their name from the dwarf, as they lived in the same area, in the mountains and forests which the Tehuelche feared and seldom entered.

This deserves some further research and a letter to the journal (Magallania) to rectify Martinic's paper.

New. Nov. 2, 2010 Today I wrote to Magallania, sending them a "comment" about the author and publication in 1843 of this paper as well as some interesting information regarding the "tatchwell". The letter is online, (in Spanish) at the following link:
Comentario sobre un Memorándum inédito referido a los Patagones (Martinic, 2007) by Austin V. Whittall.


[1] Mateo Martinic B. DOCUMENTOS INÉDITOS PARA LA HISTORIA DE MAGALLANES "MEMORÁNDUM REFERIDO A LOS PATAGONES". Magallania [online]. 2007, vol.35, n.2 [citado 2010-10-27], pp. 159-164 . Disponible en: . ISSN 0718-2244. doi: 10.4067/S0718-22442007000200013.
[2] Accounts and Papers. COLONIES. Session 2 February 24 August 1843. 33. VOL XXXIII. House of Commons papers, Great Britain. Parliament. House of Commons. HMSO, 1843
[3] Boletín de la Academia Nacional de la Historia, (1964), Academia Nacional de la Historia (Argentina). vol. 35, pp. 280.
[4] South American missionary society, (1851). Remarks on the Aborigines of South America from Personal Observation THE PATAGONIANS. In The Voice of pity for South America . London, J. Nisbet & Co. pp 92+
[5] Bórmida, Marcelo, and Casamiquela, Rodolfo (1958). Etnografía gününa-kena. Testimonio del último de los tehuelches septentrionales. Runa, Buenos Aires, vol. 9, nºs 1-2, pp. 153-193

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Patagonian Monsters - Cryptozoology, Myths & legends in Patagonia
2010 International Year of Biodiversity Copyright 2009-2010 by Austin Whittall © 

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Maned Wolf (Aguará Guazú) in Patagonia

maned wolf, aguara guazu
Maned Wolf (Chrysocyon brachyurus ). From the Internet

In previous posts on the Falkland Island wolf, possible Patagonian wolves and the Water Tiger I mentioned the Maned Wolf or Aguará Guazú, whose image is shown above. Today I will give some more details on this stange canid, related of course to cryptozoology in Patagonia.

Current status of the Aguará Guazú

The animal which is South America's largest Canid, was once widely distributed in the continent from the north of Brazil to Uruguay, including Paraguay, Bolivia and Central Argentina. Nowadays it is restricted to central and eastern Brazil, north of Argentina, central Paraguay, and is only found in very small numbers in Bolivia and Uruguay.

It is about 1 meter (3.3 ft.) tall and 1,30 m long (4.2 ft.). It has a reddish coat and a fox-like appearance (like a long-legged red fox). These long legs may have originated as the animal adapted to an environment with tall grasses, as can be found in the wetlands of Southern South America.

It has a sharp dark snout and a mane (hence its name) of black hairs from its head to its shoulders. The mane stands upright when the animal is alarmed. Its red color is interrupted by white areas on the tip of its tail, the inside of its upright ears and its throat. It is omnivorous and eats fruits as well as small animals.

Endangered, it is protected in Argentina and Brazil (where road kills are the most common cause of death). Its environment being encroached by man, is also a threat to its long term survival. Some 24,000 animals survive in the wild and it is listed on CITES "Red List" as Near Threatened.

Did they live in Patagonia?

There has been some debate about this and a lot of inconclusive evidence. Lets go over it:

1. Musters (1870). This English explorer rode from Punta Arenas by the Strait of Magellan all the way to Carmen de Patagones, on the Negro River, with a group of Tehuelche natives (his journal is a very interesting account of their way of life). I marked his itinerary with a blue line and with the number "1" in the map below.

Musters had been told about the "water tiger" and trying to find some animal that could account for it, after discarding the puma and the jaguar, he also discarded the aguará guazú, because, having seen a hide of one of them in Carmen de Patagones at the end of his journey, he was told by the natives that its habitat did not extend into Patagonia.[5]

2. De la Cruz (1806). Who crossed Patagonia in from Concepción in Chile, to Buenos Aires in Argentina. His route is shown in the map "2" with a blue line. He recorded that in Neuquén the native Peguenches [sic] told him that “there are other animals they call oop, whose body is shaped like a dog, which it resembles with its head, snout, legs and tail and with the ears of a cow; they state that the wool that covers it is like that of a sheep, a span or more in length, very soft and of a bright yellow color”.[6] It was named after its high-pitched yell.

maned wolf distribution
Map showing current and past distribution of the Maned Wolf in Argentina. Adapted from [4]

As the photograph above shows, "oop" and maned wolf are both dog-like. However its ears are not cow like (click to see cow ears image). Its mane is long and it has a dense fur, but these are not "a span or more" in length (9 in. or 22 cm).

3. The Natives. Apparently the “Northern Tehuelche” had a specific word to name the aguará guazú. This word was “huica. [1]

I found a reference that states that the “Araucano” (apparently Mapuche or Araucanized Tehuelches - Puelches) called it “guequen” [2].

However, Ernest Moesbach who included the word in his dictionary, does not indicate that it was the name of the maned wolf, he placed it under the following entry:

Guaquén (Huaquén) Guaqui: huaquen
huaqueñ: meter mucha gritería, haber ruido continuo; ladrar del zorro.

Which, translated from Spanish, means: "shout a lot, a continuous noise; the bark of a fox".


Moesbach's dictionary seems to imply that the "quequen" was not a maned wolf, but a variety of fox.

There is strong evidence of the animal having lived close to Patagonia's northern reaches in some wetlands (now dissecated) in Mendoza, La Pampa and San Luis provinces along the now intermitent (due to water usage upstream for irrigation) Chadileuvú - Salado - Curacó river system. Also it had been reported in Buenos Aires province in the XVIIIth century. But there is no fossil or physical evidence that the animal ever lived in Patagonia or in Chile.

Though there is a "Northern Tehuelche" word for it, there is no equivalente Aonikenk word, meaning it was not found south of Río Negro. Furthermore, these "Northern Tehuelche" had expanded outside of Patagonia into the Pampas where, as mentioned above, there were aguaras. The Mapuche word as used in Argentina may have also come from this source as there was a great cultural flow between Tehuelche and Mapuche in this region the former adopting the Mapuche language and the latter embracing many Tehuelche beliefs.

There was probably some other canids in the area, the above mentioned "Andean Wolf" or perhaps some distant relative of the "Falkland Islands Wolf - Fox", but in my opinion, there were no Maned Wolves in Patagonia.


[1] Friedrich Hunziker, Félix Faustino Outes, (1928). Vocabulario y franseario genakenn (puelche). Coni. pp. 280.
[2] José M. Suárez García, (1940) Historia del partido de Lobería. Talleres Graf. San Pablo. vol 1.
[3] Ernesto Wilhelm de Moesbach, (1944). Voz de Arauco: explicación de los nombres indígenas de Chile. pp. 98
[4] Sistema de Información sobre Biodiversidad
[5] Musters, G., (2007). Vida entre los Patagones: un año de excursiones desde el estrecho de Magallanes hasta el río Negro: 1869-1870. B. Aires: Continente-Pax. pp. 104 and ff.
[6] De la Cruz, L. (1835). Descripción de la naturaleza de los terrenos que se comprenden en los Andes, poseídos por los peguenche... B. Aires: Imprenta del Estado. pp. 25-26.

Further reading:

Patagonian Monsters - Cryptozoology, Myths & legends in Patagonia
2010 International Year of Biodiversity Copyright 2009-2010 by Austin Whittall © 

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Chiloe Sea Cow - more information

map of sea cow sightings at Chiloe
Chiloé area where "sea cow" and "water trauco" were sighted".

Copyright © 2010 by Austin Whittall
Continuing with the mysterious Patagonian sea creatures, I will go back to the Patagonian "sea cow" because today I read an interesting post by Alejandra Leighton Naranjo, Anthropologist of the Unidad de Salud Colectiva of Chiloé [1]

She posted the story told to her by an old inhabitant of Mechuque Island, Arsenio Huichaquelen which mentions a "sea cow" and which I quote in full below: (Source: [1]):

The Camahueto and the Sea Cow

[You can read my post on Camahueto, to brush up on this Patagonian unicorn, a bull-like creature with one horn jutting out of its head]

About 60 years ago, Mr. Ramiro Oyarzo, a diving suit diver came across the Camahueto and the Sea Cow while he was diving in the channel between the [Islands of] Cheniao y Aulín. [1]

The channel mentioned by Arsenio is located at approximately 42°15'S and 73°13'W. Aulín Island is part of th Butachauques Islands and Cheniao is part of the Mechuque Islands. Both of these islands are part of the Ancud Gulf, and located between Chiloé Island and the mainland, in Chile. I marked the spot with a red circle in the map above.
Now back to our story:

He barely saved himself because the animals chased him in the deep sea. At that place there is an enclosure where, deep down, the animals lived. Don Ramiro said that that explained why that part of the channel was so bad for sailing.

(The Sea Cow is like a cow, but with fins

The story has both creatures (cow and camahueto) behave like the regular "land" bovines. With an enclosure an all. It also gives them supernatural powers to disturb the waters and imperil navigation.

But lets just imagine that these details are just embellishments that were added to make the story better, and hide the essence of it: the diver came across some weird sea creatures and his mind classed them as sea cow and camahueto.

We can guess that they were not sea wolves or sea lions / seals because the diver would have recognized them. They were surely something else. Maybe a "Southern sea cow" or manatee, or perhaps a walrus? We will never know for sure.

It is interesting to point out that in the same area (see map above), there is another strange being:

The ‘Water Trauco’

Do not mistake it for the minute Trauco, a landlubber evil and perverse dwarf.
This is anothre variety, a sea-run trauco, one that lives in the ocean, quite different to the dwarf.

It lives at Mount Quicaví on the east coast of Chiloé, and is describe as a dangerous male goat. With a long beard and legs similar to those of a guanaco. Its body is covered with fish-like scales and bushy hair. [2] Perhaps some other variety of sea cow.


[1] Relatos de Don Arsenio. Salud Colectiva Chiloé. 01.05.10.
[2] Barrio, J. El Diccionario de Mitos y Leyendas. On line.

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Patagonian Monsters - Cryptozoology, Myths & legends in Patagonia
2010 International Year of Biodiversity Copyright 2009-2010 by Austin Whittall © 

Peace in Patagonia, the South Atlantic and the World

Missile free South Atlantic
A missile free Patagonia.
Copyright © 2010 by Austin Whittall. Adapted from [1]
A very brief reflection. The United Kingdom has announced that they will conduct some "military exercises" that will include some "missile tests" close to the Falkland - Malvinas Islands.

This is in my opinion a gratuitous aggression and as such has led to a formal Argentine formal protest at the UN, and a protest by its Mercosur partners, Brazil, Uruguay and Paraguay.

Twenty eight (28) years have elapsed since the end of the senseless war between Argentina and the UK and, it is time that both countries sit down and settle this issue for once and for all and setting aside these pointless provocations.

Germany which caused so much pain and damage to Britain during World War II, (hundreds of thousands of dead and maimed, thousands of millions of dollars (or GBP) in damages) was quite quickly pardoned and forgiven after that terrible war.

By the 28 years had gone by (1973), the UK and Germany were partners within the EU, and long before that, just 10 years after the end of the war, both sat side by side in NATO. Furthermore, just 4 years after the war, the UK handed over its "occupation zone" and allowed Western Germany to unite and form an independent nation.

With Argentina, on the other hand, after 28 years since the end of hostilities, they keep on launching missiles into the Argentine Sea (i.e. South Atlantic Ocean).

Is it because they are Europeans and we are South Americans?

Argentina is no menace, we hardly have a navy, our air force is under equipped and poorly manned, our army is small and our whole military strategy is aimed at self defense, not aggression.

I have nothing more to say.

You can read the news in English or in Spanish.

The image

[1] Is based on an original cartoon drawn by Liu Yanfeng and published here.

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Patagonian Monsters - Cryptozoology, Myths & legends in Patagonia
2010 International Year of Biodiversity Copyright 2009-2010 by Austin Whittall © 

Monday, October 18, 2010

Patagonian Walrus bicentennial stamp

Patagonian Walrus Stamp
Patagonian Walrus Stamp. Bicentennial issue.
Copyright © 2010 by Austin Whittall. Adapted from [1]

Another of my "fake" stamp issues. This one, commemorates Argentina's bicentennial (1810-2010), and in view of my latest posts, I chose a walrus, the criptid "Southern walrus" or "Patagonian walrus".

The image is from Conrad Gesner's 1558 De Piscium & Aquatilium Animantum Natura.

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Patagonian Monsters - Cryptozoology, Myths & legends in Patagonia
2010 International Year of Biodiversity Copyright 2009-2010 by Austin Whittall © 

Patagonian devils or cattle?

satyr mask
Horned Satyr. A horned devil resembles a horned animal. From [3]

Devils are usually depicted as horned beings in our western and Christian world. In a previous post I mentioned that the Tehuelche groups of Patagonia believed in demons or devils which, surprisingly were "horned" beings (Native prehispanic cattle in Patagonia?).

Today I came across an interesting comment written after the voyage of English Admiral and Privateer Sir Francis Drake, which touched the coasts of Patagonia in 1577. Upon returning to England his Chaplain, Francis Fletcher, wrote an account of this journey and in it, he mentions the Tehuelche natives and their head-dress as follows: (in its original ancient English spelling)[1]

Some of them […] sticke on either side of their heads […] a large and plaine feather, shewing like horns afarre off: so that such a head upon a naked body (if diuels [devils] do appaere with horns) might very nigh resemble diuels [devils]. [1]

Original text in the box below:

So Fletcher gives us an indication that the natives used feathers attached to their heads in a manner that resembled "diuels" or devils. Perhaps the devil connotation was due to the chaplain's religious upbringing and the natives merely did it because they liked how the feathers looked. However, I am inclined to believe that they did it to imitate some sort of horned animal that then roamed Patagonia.

I base this assertion on the comment written by another English explorer, John Narbrough in 1670. While in Patagonia, at San Julián (where Magellan had wintered in 1520 and Drake in 1577), he explored the surrounding areas and discovered that:

The People of the Country have made in a Valley, the form of the Ship in Earth and Bushes, and stuck up pieces of sticks for Masts […] theModel i imagin is to record our Ship, for they cannot have any Records but by imitation. [2]

Original text below:

If Narbrough's comment is valid, then the Tehuelche made a model ship to depict the European ships that had passed through San Julián. Why not do the same to depict a massive Patagonian buffalo with large sharp horns?


[1] Fletcher, Francis, (1854). The world encompassed... London. Haklyut Society. pp. 53
[2] Narbrough, John, (1670). An Account of several late voyages & discoveries to the south and north ... 1694. London. S. Smith and B. Walford.
[3] Image Credits. Name: mask_7032. Description: Satyr, Italian Renascence by Sansovino. Source: F. S. Meyer, Handbook of Ornament (New York: The Bruno Hessling Company, 1917) 96. Retrieved: 18.10.2010. Online:

Patagonian Monsters - Cryptozoology, Myths & legends in Patagonia
2010 International Year of Biodiversity Copyright 2009-2010 by Austin Whittall © 

Walrus in the River Plate (Río de la Plata)

Andrew Battell (1565-1614), was an English sailor, who was part of an expedition led by Captain Abraham Cocke to loot Portuguese and Spanish settlements in South America. However he was captured by the natives in Brazil and handed over to the Portuguese who imprisoned him. He was later rescued and wrote about his adventures.

In his account, he mentions in the River Plate, an: "Isle of Lobos Marinos [Sea wolves] that doth abound with seals and sea-morses[1]

This island, located close (12 km - 7.5 mi.) to Punta del Este city in Uruguay (35° 1' 60 S, 54° 52' 60 W), on the northern tip of the Río de la Plata (River Plate) estuary, is currently the second most important reserve of "lobos" in the world. It has a surface area of only 41 hectares (101 acres).

It is home to two (2) different kinds of seals, the South American Sea Lion or "lobo de un pelo" (Otaria flavescens) and the South American Fur Seal or "lobo de dos pelos" (Arctocephalus australis. Hunting these seals was only banned in 1992 and current population is about 180,000 "Fur seals" and 6,500 "Sea Lions".

But, at least nowadays there are no "sea-morses" or walrus in the Southern Hemisphere. I recently posted on the possible existence of Patagonian walrus in the recent past. Perhaps Battell came across the last survivors of this now extinct species.

Or, he may have mistakenly believed that the sea lions were walrus. Or, besides the two varieties of seals, there were "sea morses" (morse is an old name applied to walrus, it is a Russian word (morss) also found in Lapp (morsk), Englishmen in the 1600s used the word "morse" when referring to walrus.

Though the Isla de los Lobos is not within Patagonia, it is quite close, and to the north of it, so if our mysterious "morse" lived on that island, it would also have lived in the colder Patagonian waters just to the south of it.


[1] The strange adventures of Andrew Battell of Leigh, in Angola and the adjoining regions. (1901). London. Hakluyt Society. pp. 5

Patagonian Monsters - Cryptozoology, Myths & legends in Patagonia
2010 International Year of Biodiversity Copyright 2009-2010 by Austin Whittall © 

Huemul (Huenul) island some more information

Huemul Island, was the site of a secret nuclear laboratory during the late 1940's and early 1950's. Here nuclear fusion experiments were undertaken and later proven fake. The facilities were abandoned and, as we saw in my previous post on Nahuelito as a possible radioactive mutation, the secret plant did not cause any radioactive contamination or mutations.

However, the article led me to read more on this island, and I came across an interesting bit of news: the name is Huenul not Huemul.

Huemul Island

In my previous post I wrote:

The island itself, has a surface area of 75 hectares (188 acres) of which only 10% will be used for touristic purposes. [1] The remaining part of the island is covered by forests. It is located just off the coast between Playa Bonita and Puerto Moreno. In the map above you can see how close it is to the current Centro Atomico Bariloche facilities.

Today I will add to this information:

The official National Parks Lake Nahuel Huapi map (1972),[2] correctly calls the island "Isla Huenul", yes, Huenul with an "N" and not Huemul with an "M" as it often appears on maps.

It describes the island as located 1,300 m from Playa Bonita beach (0.8 mi.), with an altitude of 100 m (328 ft.) above lake level. Its length in a NNW-SSE direction is 1.300 m (0.8 mi.) and its width is about 850 m (0.5 mi.). [2]

Its exact location is 41°06'S, 71°24'W [3].

Huemul or Huenul?

But why is it named Huenul (with "N"). In most maps it figures as Huemul (with "M").

The huemul (Hippocamelus bisulcus) is a stocky Patagonian deer that is about 1 m (3.3 feet) tall and 1.65 m (5.4 ft.) long, and weighs between 40 and 100 kg. (88—220 lb.). Like all deer, males have antlers about 30 cm (1 ft.) long.

Its habitat ranged from 34°S to the Strait of Magellan and from the Pacific Ocean to the edge of the steppe. But now, its limited and endangered population of less than 1,000 individuals lives in isolated pockets within the Chilean and Argentine Andean mountain forests.

So, map makers mistakenly took the island as named after this lovely deer. But, as we will see below, they were mistaken. The island is named after a Mapuche native who used to live there!, his name was Huenul.


Bernardino Huenul lived there circa 1919, and his name in Mapuche language means "above": [3]

"Huenu" means "held high", and "len" means "to be" so, both combined mean: "above". [3]

I checked out the above in Father de Augusta's Mapuche - Spanish language dictionary. His entry under "wenu" (note he does not have words starting with "H", instead he places them unde "W", because "H" does not have a sound in Spanish) includes besides, "high" and "above" the word "heaven", and wenulen means "to be above, to be high". [5] So it seams to mean high in the sense of "raised to heaven".

No explanation give on why "len" turns into "l".

However its first and original name was Isla General Villegas. Which was given to it by the first Argentine naval boat to explore and chart the lake, on December 23, 1883. The ship led by the then lieutenant Eduardo O'Connor sailed up the Limay River and explored the lake during the summer of 188-84. His ship was a tiny steamer, the "Modesta Victoria".[3][4]

Conrado Excelso Villegas (1841-1884) took part of the Argentine military campaigns against the natives in Northern Patagonia, but took ill with tuberculosis, and traveled to Europe seeking a cure. He died in Paris.

O'Connor's team discovered the island, and after raising the Argentine flag on its "highest point", left a board inscribed with the island's name.


[1] Breve Historia del Proyecto Isla Huemul. Bariloche Municipality.
[2] Derrotero del Lago Nahuel Huapi. 1a Ed. 1972. Servicio Nacional de Parques Nacionales. pp. 23
[3] Biedma, Juan Martín, (2004). Toponimia del Parque Nacional Nahuel Huapi. Ed. Caleuche. pp. 109.
[4] La navegación del Modesta Victoria (1883-1884). La Angostura Digital.
[5] de Augusta, Felix, (1916). Diccionario araucano-español y español-araucano. vol 1. pp. 273.

Patagonian Monsters - Cryptozoology, Myths & legends in Patagonia
2010 International Year of Biodiversity Copyright 2009-2010 by Austin Whittall © 

Friday, October 15, 2010

Nahuelito as a possible radioactive mutation

complex at Huemul Island
Huemul Island fusion complex. Copyright © 2010 by Austin Whittall

On the web I have read that Nahuelito may be a mutation produced by radioactivity caused by “nuclear experiments that were done on Huemul Island during the 50’s”. [11]

In today’s post we will look into this assertion and see if it is true or just another wild theory.

Argentina after World War II

Argentina’s military dictators (who ran the country from 1943 until 1946) were, to put it mildly, pro-Nazis and fascists.[12] They were of extreme rightist ideology, and as such, they resisted taking sides during World War II, adopting a neutral position which bordered on supporting the Nazi regime. Only when it was completely clear that the Nazi’s were going to lose the war, did the Argentine government severe its diplomatic ties with the Axis powers (Jan. 1944) and shortly after declare war on them on March 23, 1945.

For those who may not be aware of these facts former President Juan Perón was a Colonel in the Army during this period. He later became president (after winning the general elections in 1946) and after changing the constitution to allow his reelection, was chosen president again in 1952. He then gave his government a dictatorial tint (jailing those who opposed him, censoring the news, etc.). He was ousted by a military coup in 1955. He was also pro-Nazi.

The army had sent him in 1938, on a tour of duty to Spain, Germany and Italy. During his training there, he became convinced that the Axis would win the war and that Mussolini’s fascist dictatorship in Italy was a model to follow in Argentina, and which he did impose during his second term as president.

After Germany surrender, he allowed refugees from Germany to settle in Argentina, and, it is said, embraced escaped Nazi leaders.[13] It is a shameful stain for Argentina’s honor that this happened, and that the "Peronist" regime allowed war criminals to find a safe haven in our country (i.e Adolf Eichmann, Josef Mengele, Erich Priebke, and others).

The former Nazi scientists

In this context, the Argentine government, seeking to position Argentina among the leading countries of the world, also enticed scientists from the defeated Germany to settle in the country.

With their help, Argentina would manufacture and fly the first Jet fighter plane in Latin America (1947) which was perfected (Pulqui II) by famous German aircraft designer Kurt Tank. Unfortunately Argentina’s economic woes killed the project by the early 60’s.

But not only was Peron looking for military technology, he was interested in nuclear energy, not for weapon production but as a source for cheap energy to develop Argentina's steel and aluminum industries.

Richter the bogus nuclear man

Ronald Richter (1909-1991) was a German [3] (actually born in Falkenau which then was part of Austria and now is part of the Czech Republic) refugee, a physical chemist who claimed to have a degree from the University of Prague.

After Argentine authorities contacted Professor Kurt Tank they invited Dr. Richter to work on a nuclear fission reactor. Dr. Richter signed a contract with the Argentine government in October 1948, and in June 1949, he began building his laboratory on Huemul Island.

He chose the place because Lake Nahuel Huapi offered plenty of clean water, and the place lacked dust which could wreak havoc with the delicate instruments needed in the plant. Furthermore, being an island, it was a safe spot to keep spies away.

Richter was not interested in conventional nuclear fission (as in Atomic bombs or current nuclear reactors that generate electricity all around the world) but in fusion using a technology that he had pioneered in Nazi Germany in 1942.

Fusion, unlike fission, is what powers the stars and the sun, it is the energy inside Hydrogen bombs. It releases enormous amounts of energy when two “light” atoms “fuse” into one. (Fission, the stuff of A-bombs on the other hand, is the energy released by splitting large unstable Uranium or Plutonium atoms).

Until today nobody has managed to design or power up a self sustaining fusion reactor that releases more energy than it uses. It is clear that Peron and Richter were aiming high.

He worked hard and soon, in February 1951, claimed that at his Huemul Island reactor he had “succeeded in sustaining a controlled fusion reaction using his shock wave technology”. [1]

Peron immediately saw the political advantages and quickly (prematurely) announced these surprising and ground breaking results to the world on March 24.[9]

Peron had bought from Richter the idea of cheap energy generated by fusion reaction as a way to promote industrialization and help forge a “New Argentina”. [2] He even went as far as announcing that he would sell atomic energy in liter and half-liter bottles for family and industrial use [3]:

very soon we will have a surplus of energy with [the technology that] we are developing at Huemul . We will sell it in bottles of one and half liters [1 and half pints respectively] for industrial and family use, which can be used to provide light, cook food and heat irons [10]

Incidentally, this announcement drove the US to begin its own fusion program. [2] Which still has to produce a self sustaining fusion reactor.

Trials continued and in December, Richter suggested to Peron that some kind of joint venture with the U.S. would quicken the development of this technology.[4]

But then something happened and in March 1952 Richter said that his work was being sabotaged. A commission was sent to investigate in September 1952, which issued a report “Informe del Dr. Jose Antonio Balseiro referente a la inspection realizada en la isla Huemul en setiembre de 1952" , which concluded with the following phrase:

Based on the above mentioned proof and comments, the undersigned considers himself authorized to assert that there is no serious scientific basis in Dr. Richter’s claim that he had attained a controlled thermonuclear reaction, deeply regretting having had to reach this conclusion.

Buenos Aires, September 16, 1952

This marked Richter’s fall.

By November of that year, Richter was sacked and all 300 workers in the fusion pilot plant dismissed. [5] In September 1954 he was denounced at Congress because of the non replicability of his tests. He was held in jail in Congress for a few days.

He would later leave the country, but he returned and died here in 1991.

Dr. Balseiro, who had issued the condemning report would later head the Argentine National Commission on Atomic Energy (CNEA), which successfully developed and built fission reactors for peaceful purposes, one of which was located at the “Centro Atomico Bariloche”, right in front of Huemul Island, on the mainland (see map above).

Huemul island became a familiar pun to the Argentines who came up with the anagram: “Huele a mula” which, in can be roughly translated as “it is a rip-off”, "someone is cheating". [3]


Richter’s fusion plant did not involve uranium or fissionable radioactive material, he merely created hot plasma gas using hydrogen and lithium. Non-radioactive products. So we can not trace any radioactivity to his activities on the island.

The island with its facilities remained in the hands of the CNEA, but lack of maintenance and active destruction by the Argentine Army in 1978 (during a border conflict with Chile, the army used the buildings for military games and shelled the place). [14]

The CNEA handed it over to the government of Río Negro province, which in turn ceded it to the Municipality of San Carlos de Bariloche, which declared it a “Historical, Ecological and Touristic Municipal Reserve” and now (Oct. 2010) is inviting companies to bid in an international tender to manage the Reserve as a tourist attraction.

But lets go back to radioactivity.

After the Huemul fiasco, the CNEA undertook serious research and after finding large uranium reserves in Mendoza province (1951) it purchased a synchrocyclotron (1952), opened the “Balseiro Institute”in Bariloche (1955) and manufactured its first fission reactor (1958), located in Buenos Aires. [8]

At Bariloche there is one low power nuclear reactor, the “Reactor Argentino RA-6”, which began operating in 1982. It is located at the Centro Atomico Bariloche and is used not only for teaching purposes (at the Balseiro Institute), but also for cancer treatment. It is a multipurpose reactor with an output of 500 KW, using enriched uranium (20%) and Uraniuim 235 (80%). [15]

Though it was built on a fault (see my post on “Nahuelito gas and bubbles"), the risk of a nuclear accident is extremely low. And “there is no evidence that it has produced radioactive contamination since it began operating”.[9]

It is supervised and audited by the ARN (Nuclear Regulatory Authority) on a yearly basis and samples are taken from the soil and water in the surrounding areas to check for radioactive contamination. So far none has been detected.[16]

Huemul Island

The island itself, has a surface area of 75 hectares (188 acres) of which only 10% will be used for touristic purposes. [7] The remaining part of the island is covered by forests. It is located just off the coast between Playa Bonita and Puerto Moreno. In the map above you can see how close it is to the current Centro Atomico Bariloche facilities.

Read more about its real name (not HueMul but HueNul).


Richter’s fusion plant did not release radioactivity in the early 50’s.
Current fission reactor has not released radioactivity (1982-2010).
There is no possibility that any local animals could have received radioactive dosage from the CNEAs activities in the area and mutated into lake monsters.

The “mutation due to radioactivity” theory can be dismissed.


[1] Henry Stevens, (2007). Hitler's Suppressed and Still-Secret Weapons, Science and Technology Adventures Unlimited Press, pp. 263.
[2] Leslie Bethell, (1984). The Cambridge history of Latin America. Cambridge University Press. Vol. 6. pp. 502.
[3] Ronald C. Newton, (1992). The "Nazi menace" in Argentina, 1931-1947. Stanford University Press, pp. 379.
[4] New York Times. Argentine Plans Atomic Exchange; Richter, Research Chief, Tells of Negotiations With 'Highly Industrialized' Country. 11.12.1951.
[5] Edward A. Morrows, (1952). Peron's Atom Dream Fades; Director Reported Arrested; Argentine Dream on Atom Explodes. 05.12.1952,
[6] Informe del Dr. José Antonio Balseiro referente a la inspección realizada en la isla Huemul en Setiembre de 1952. Instituto Balseiro.
[7] Breve Historia del Proyecto Isla Huemul. Bariloche Municipality.
[8] CNEA. Website
[9] ParksWatch, Parque Nacional Nahuel Huapi, Amenazas.
[9] La Segunda Tiranía. Comisión 12 Comisión Nacional de Energía Atómica (Capítulo I). Antecedentes para la creación del “Centro Huemul”
[10] Alfonso Crespo, (1978). Eva Perón, viva o muerta Librerías-Editorial Studium, pp. 286.
[11] Anita González. (2004). El monstruo del Nahuel Huapi. Extraño y gigantesco animal concita interés de argentinos. Austral. Temuco.
[12] Ricardo M. Setaro, (1944). Argentina, fascist headquartersAutores. Council for Pan American democracy.
[13] Uki GoñI, (2002). The real Odessa: smuggling the Nazis to Per&oacutEe;n's Argentina Editor Granta.
[14] Ernesto R. Ríos, (2007). Planta Piloto Huemul: se cumplen 56 años … 26.03.2007
[15] INVAP. Reactores RA-6 y RA-8 de Argentina.
[16] Autoridad Regulatoria Nuclear, ARN. Report.

Patagonian Monsters - Cryptozoology, Myths & legends in Patagonia
2010 International Year of Biodiversity Copyright 2009-2010 by Austin Whittall © 

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

New Rare Carnivore discovered in Madagascar

A team of scientists has discovered a new carnivore mammal species in Madagascar. It was first sighted swimming in the largest lake of the Island in 2004. It was photographed in an attempt to identify it. In 2005 one was captured.

This extremely rare animal is a mongoose-like animal, which has been named Durrell's vontsira (Salanoia durrelli), in honour of British conservationist Gerald Durrell (1925-1995). [1]

Madagascar is the world's fourth largest island and is about 1.600 km long (1,000 mi.) and 570 km (350 mi.) wide. It is located close to Africa, in the Indian Ocean. Its isolation led it to develop an endemic fauna as the Mozambique Channel 400 km (250 mi.) wide separates it from Africa.

I posted this, because despite being totally unrelated to Patagonia and its cryptids, it clearly shows us that there are 'critters' out there still waiting to be discovered by science in the early years of the twenty-first century. Perhaps Patagonia also harbors unknown animals in its lonely forests.

Just consider that Madagascar is densely populated (19,448,815 inhabitants living on a surface area of 587,041 km2): 33.13 persons/km2 (85.8 persons/sq. mi.). While Patagonia with a larger surface area of one million km2 (403,000 sq. mi.) and a scanty population of barely 2 million inhabitants has a population density which is 15 times smaller: 2 persons/km2 (5.2 persons/sq.mi.). If new mammals crop up on that densely packed island, what can be expected in Patagonia?


[1] Victoria Gill, (2010) New carnivorous mammal species found in Madagascar. BBC. 11.10.2010

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Patagonian Monsters - Cryptozoology, Myths & legends in Patagonia
2010 International Year of Biodiversity Copyright 2009-2010 by Austin Whittall © 

On Tourism and Cryptids

A cynical point of view regarding cryptozoology: the whole thing is a big lie made up to promote tourism.

This is not a new theme, actually, back in 1922, when an expedition was sent to hunt and capture a plesiosaur in Patagonia, some hinted that the whole thing was a publicity stunt to place Patagonia in the public eye.

In my book, I also suggested the same motive: [1]

Taking a more prosaic tack, some have suggested that the whole issue was made up by a local tycoon, Primo Capraro to promote Bariloche as an international tourist resort and, coincidentially, it was in 1922 that Argentina’s Federal government created the country’s first national park at Nahuel Huapi and set its headquarters in Bariloche.36 Frey was named its first Superintendent. [1]

I have already posted on this supposed PR stunt: Plesiosaur Carnival float which shows the headlines and the pageant at Bariloche to celebrated the expedition.

Russian Tourism and Yeti

Today I came across not one, but two articles on the famed Yeti cryptid, on regarding its appearance in Russia (below),[2] the other about a scientific expedition that is being organized in China to search it [3].

The Russian article is worth quoting regarding the "tourist" aspect:[2]

Creating a non-existant tourist attraction has a long pedigree. Visitors to Verona, Italy, have the chance to see Juliet's Balcony, inspired by the famous scene in Shakepeare's drama "Romeo and Juliet".
Meanwhile the Scottish city of Inverness has traded heavily on the nearby Loch Ness Monster to boost its tourist trade

The article adds: that these reports "about finding Bigfoot as fodder for gullible tourists" and that the site of the sightings was "an emerging tourist destination". [2]

The Russian yeti article can be found following the link below:

China to search for the Yeti

Regarding the Chinese, the Hubei Wild Man Research Association, are seeking international volunteers and funding (about 1 million Euros) from private organizations to search for the Yeti, which was last seen in 2007. Chinese are more open minded about cryptids and the government organized several expeditions in the 1970s and 80s to track down the beast. [3]

This seems to be a more serious effort and not something staged to promote a tourist site.

If you are wondering if yeti has a relative in Patagonia, the answer is yes, The Patagonian Bigfoot, which is not a bigfoot but some variety of hairy hominid that has been sighted all over Patagonia.


[1] Whittall, Austin. (2010) Book in preparation. To be published shortly. The Monsters of Patagonia: A Field Guide to its Giants, Dwarves, Lake Creatures and Forest Beasts
[2] Washington, Tom. Yeti to entice tourists to Siberia. The Moscow News. 12.10.2010.
[3] Peter Foster. China to embark on Yeti expedition . Telegraph. London. UK. 12.10.2010

Patagonian Monsters - Cryptozoology, Myths & legends in Patagonia
2010 International Year of Biodiversity Copyright 2009-2010 by Austin Whittall © 

Miocene South America a map

South America during the Mid Miocene
South America during the Mid Miocene (about 10-14 Million years ago).
Copyright © 2010 by Austin Whittall

In several posts I have written about marine creatures from the Miocene Epoch (which spans from about 23.3 to 5.3 Million years ago). During this period the geography of South America was quite different from what it is nowadays. As the map above shows, vasts parts of the continent were submerged by marine ingressions due to higher sea levels. Some "islands" remained safe and dry (the highlands which comprised the Brazilian and Guyanan shields as well as the rising Proto Andes). All the rest was under water.

Submerged South America

During the mid Miociene, between 10 and 20 million years ago, the sea levels rose and reached a maximum level, some 30 to 40 m (100 - 130 ft.) above current sea levels about 14 million years ago.

Seawater flooded the interior of South America forming "epicontinental" seas. There is still some discussion regarding the exact extension of these seas and if they were all interconnected however the fact remains that most of the Amazon basin and the Paranáa River basin and the Pampas were under the sea.

Parts of Patagonia were submerged (Somuncuráa Plateau and the Deseado shield) kept dry.

Cryptozoological implications

This marine enviornment would have created new access routes for Northern Hemisphere sea-going mammals such as the ancestors of modern seals, manatees and walruses. We have already mentioned the 'Central American seaway" (left red arrow) through Panama which linked the Caribbean with the Pacific Ocean as a route for dispersion. But, as you can see in the map, another narrow seaway connected the Caribbean with the Pebesian Sea (right red arrow). From here these creatures could have moved east into the Amazon or South all the way down to Patagonia.

Could the marine creatures discovered in southern Peru and Northern Chile ('walruses', giant marine sloths and sea cows) have counterparts on the eastern side of the Andes? In fact, the amazonian manatee and all other manatees around the world are said to have originated in Colombia (from the potamosiren). One of the members of the American manatee family (Trichechidae), the ribodon could be found all the way from the coast of North Carolina in the U.S. to Argentina in the south.[1][2]

The lack of fossils in this region which was formerly the coast of these ancient seas may be due to their placement on the eastern foothills of the Andes. An area which is covered by dense jungles in the north and central parts of South America and, in the whole area, by hundreds of feet of sediment deposited there by the rivers dragging soil from the constant erosion of the Andes.

Maybe future exploration may yield new fossils that could help clarify the origin of some of South American cryptids (and hopefully, Patagonian cryptids too).

Quizás futuras exploraciones resulten en nuevos fósiles que puedan explicar algunos de los criptidos sudamericanos (y patagónicos).

This seaway joining the Caribbean and the South Atlantic is worth deeper analysis from a cryptozoological viewpoint as a route for cryptid dispersion.


[1] Daryl P. Domning, (1982). Evolution of Manatees: A Speculative History.
Journal of Paleontology, vol. 56, No. 3 (May, 1982), pp. 599-619.
[2] Evolution of the Sirenia
[3] For the map:

Kirby M.X., Jones D.S., MacFadden B.J., (2008) Lower Miocene Stratigraphy along the Panama Canal and Its Bearing on the Central American Peninsula. PLoS ONE 3(7): e2791. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0002791

Marengo, H.G., (2000). Rasgos micropaleontológicos de los depósitos de la transgresión Entrerriense-Paranense en la cuenca Chaco-Paranense y noroeste argentino, República Argentina. En: F.G. Aceñolaza y R. Herbst (eds.), El Neógeno de Argentina. Serie Correlación Geológica 14: 29-45.

Alonso, Ricardo N., (1999). El terciario de la Puna salte˜ña In: Congreso Geológico Argentino, 1999, Salta. Relatorio XIV congreso geológico argentino, tomo I. , 1954. p.311 – 316.

Bush, Mark B., and Oliveira, Paulo E. de, (2006). The rise and fall of the Refugial Hypothesis of Amazonian speciation: a paleoecological perspective. Biota Neotrop., vol.6, n.1. ISSN 1676-0603. doi: 10.1590/S1676-06032006000100002.

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Patagonian Monsters - Cryptozoology, Myths & legends in Patagonia
2010 International Year of Biodiversity Copyright 2009-2010 by Austin Whittall © 

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Long necked seals in South America

size comparison man vs. long necked seal
Size comparison Long Necked Seal and man.
Adapted from [2] by Austin Whittall

There is a fossil seal, the Acrophoca longirostris (the second part of its name means 'long face' in Latin), which lived in the Pacific Ocean by the coast of Peru and Chile during the Miocene and Pliocene periods (23.3 to 2.5 Million years ago). It has been described as a “swan-necked” seal.

As most 'lake monsters' are described as having 'swan necks', this seal if still alive, would be the ideal candidate to fill in the lake monster's shoes. Lets get the facts:

Swan-necked seals

First the bad news: according to paleozoologist Darren Naish, they were not so long-necked; thought they would “have looked longer in the neck than any extant seal”.[1] These were not mammalian "plesiosaurs".

However Acrophoca had longer cervical vertebrae and a cervical column (neck) than modern extant seals.

Their neck measured 32.9 cm (or approx. 1 ft 1 in), while regular monachine seals’ necks are about 21.8 – 24.9 cm (8.6 – 9.8 in.). To express this in another way, the neck of these Acrophoca represented 21% of the length of their vertebral column while in other terrestrial carnivores and seals it is about 17-19%. Not much of a difference.

Based on this, Naish concludes that “sadly, ‘swan-necked seal’ really is a bit of an exaggeration”.[1]

Regarding its placement within the “seal” family it is a hot topic among seal experts and some have suggested that it is a lobodontin and as such belongs to the group that includes the leopard seal (Hydrurga), the crabeater seal (Lobodon) and Ross’ seal (Ommatophoca).

If this was the case, we should look at these living lobodontins to get an idea of their behavior and appearance. Leopard seals are big carnivores (males can measure up to 3.3 m long and weigh close to 450 kg -11 ft and 1,000 lbs.) It is the top predator in its environment with formidable jaws and canine teeth 2.5 cm (1 in.) long. It feeds on penguins, squid and seals of other species.

Naish and Stig Walsh described some remains of Acrophoca discovered in Chile in 2002, which had longer skulls than the A. longirostris. Perhaps more fossils may indeed turn up and give us a clearer picture of this group of seals and its evolution.

From a cryptozoological point of view, this finding (which came from the same site as those of the "walrus", sea cows Odobenocetops, and the giant sea sloths, Thalassocnus) is very interesting, as a long-necked seal could readily explain many "lake monster" sightings in Patagonia.

Long-necked seals. Some facts

Besides the 'real' A. longirostris, there is another "long-necked" seal, one which despite being described by scientists in the seventeenth and eighteenth century, has not been seen again, and therefore remains a mystery. This creature as depicted in the images (above and below) had a very long neck unlike anything seen in other seals.

The image below (adapted from [2]) shows two seals, one, above is the enigmatic “Long neck’d Seal, or Sea Calf”, and the one below is “The common seal”. I have included a seal skeleton for comparison purposes [3]. But first, lets go to the story.

long necked seal
Long-necked seal and common seal, body and neck length comparison.
Adapted from [2] by Austin Whittall

James Parson wrote a paper in 1751 in which he described five “species” of Phoca, among them he mentioned a Dr. Grew’s “long neck’d seal” from an unknown locality. This peculiar seal was actually part of the Royal Society’s Museum, and as such it was included in a Catalog published in 1681, where it was described as follows:

From his nose end to his fore-feet, and from thence to his tail, are of the same measure [4]

Grew's original text long necked seal
Long-necked seal Dr. Grew's original text. From [4]

Also, “instead of his fore-feet, he hath rather fins; not having any claws thereon, as have the other kinds.” [4]

Parsons described a ‘young´specimen which measured 7.5 ft. (2,28 m) long. We ignore the size of an adult. However, as can be seen above, the specimen was 41% longer than the 'common' seal and its neck and head represented 43% of the total body length (which coincides with Grew's remarks of 50/50 relationship of nose to fore feet and tail to forefeet). In the common seal, the head plus neck is only 26% of the total body length. Indeed it is a very big "long-necked" seal.

What kind of seal was it? It is generally considered as either a mythical or an indeterminable species. its scientific name, as given by Dr. Shaw in his Zoology(1800) is Phoca longicollis or long-necked seal. [6]

Allen [6] contends that the shape of its front feet and its longer neck, make it an "Eared Seal", or an "Otaridae". However Fischer (1827) in his Synopsis) places it with the lobodontins: the Sea-Leopard of Weddell which is an Earless Seal or a "Phocidae".

Allen also asserts that its habitat though unknown must have been either the Cape of Good Hope or Southern South America because no seals from Australia or the North Pacific reached England before 1686. And states that it may have been a Sea-Lion (Otaria leonina).[6] These are "Otaridae" and have visible ears.

By the way,in 1670 Sir John Narborough explored Patagonia from Puerto Deseado on the Atlantic to Valdivia, in Chile, went through the Strait of Magellan twice and spent part of a winter at San Julián. He could have brought the seal with him. Before his voyage we can only mention Cavendish's and Drake's expeditions, but they were more interested in plundering Spanish riches than describing the native fauna.

The Patagonian link

So here we have an earless long-necked seal which may have lived in the Southern reaches of the South Atlantic Ocean, similar to the "sea lion" which can be found on the coasts of Patagonia.

We also have fossil evidence of a "swan necked" seal in Peru and northern Chile, which despite being far from Patagonia, places these creatures in the same part of the globe.

The "long necked" seal is described in Gronovius (1760) Bibliotheca as having a "capite lutrae",[7] that is "with an otter head" (Bold, mine). This detail combined with the possible geographic location, its long neck, lack of ears and size make it a likely candidate to embody our mysterious Patagonian iemisch or water tiger, or perhaps our Strait of Magellan Sea Monster.

Now the bad news: we should bear in mind however that iemisch had clawed paws and a long tail. the long-necked seal lacks both ("not having any claws"). So, perhaps some other species within the group could account for our iemisch.

Piling speculation on speculation we can also imagine that it may even have adapted to freshwater (like the landlocked Lake Baikal seals Pusa sibirica or those at lakes Ladoga adn Saimaa have done in Russia) and running upstream from the Atlantic or the Pacific Oceans, made its home and lived in the Patagonian lakes until quite recently. All this of course is wild guessing.

In my book, based on etymology and some comparisons of the words used by the Mapuches and different Tehuelche Groups to name seals and other aquatic animals, I came upon the possibility of a freshwater seal in Patagonia. Below is an excerpt from my book on this intriguing subject:

Text from Whittall book Patagonia Monsters. Copyrighted material
Excerpt from my book Monsters of Patagonia on freshwater Patagonian seals. Copyright 2010 by Austin Whittall.
seals, cryptids and fossils
Map showing sea lion, sea leopard, fossils of swan-necked seal and also Iemisch. Copyright 2010 by Austin Whittall.

Note: Above, the sea wolf (South American Sea Lion) is also known as Lobo Marino de dos pelos) Otaria flavescens. The "sea lion" mentioned by Allen (Lobo Marino de un pelo) or Otaria leonina is also known as Otaria Byronia.


[1] Darren Naish, (2006).> target="_blank" title="External link">Swan-necked seals. Tetrapod Zoology. 04.02.06
[2] Darren, Naish, (2008).
The Long-necked seal, described 1751. Tetrapod Zoology. 25.09.2008. The image’s original source is Tab VI in: Parsons, J., (1751). A dissertation upon the Class of the Phocae Marinae. Philosophical Transactions 47, 109-122.
[3] Gaston Bonnier Squelettes de phoque et de dauphin
[4] Nehemiah Grew, (1681). Museum regalis societatis or a Catalogue et description of the natural and artificial rarities. W. Rawlins, Ed. pp. 95.
[5] Michael A. Woodley, Darren Naish and Hugh P. Shanahan, (2009). How many extant pinniped species remain to be described? Historical Biology: An International Journal of Paleobiology. 20(4):225-235.
[6] Joel A. Allen, (1974). History of North American pinnipeds. Ayer. pp 214.
[7] Gronovius Laurentius, (1760). Bibliotheca regni animalis atque lapidei, seu, Recensio auctorum et librorum : qui de regno animali & lapideo methodice, physice, medice, chymice, philologice, vel theologice tractant, in usum naturalis historiae studiosorum pp. 203

Further reading

Muizon, C. de, (1981). Les vertébrés fossiles de la formation Pisco (Pérou). Première partie: deux nouveaux Monachinae (Phocidae, Mammalia) du Pliocene de Sud-Sacaco. Travaux de l’Insitut Français d’Études Andines 22, 1-161.
Walsh, S. A. and Naish, D. (2002). Fossil seals from late Neogene deposits in South America: a new pinniped (Carnivora, Mammalia) assemblage from Chile. Palaeontology 45, 821-842.

Patagonian Monsters - Cryptozoology, Myths & legends in Patagonia
2010 International Year of Biodiversity Copyright 2009-2010 by Austin Whittall © 

Friday, October 8, 2010

Patagonian Sea Cows (manatees)

map sea cows and manatees
Map showing current American Manatees and probable "Patagonian sea cow" distribution. Copyright © 2010 by Austin Whittall

In previous posts I have written about different bovine-like aquatic animals found in several Patagonian lakes (Lake bulls). These are definitively bovine because, they phyisically resemble cows and bulls and are also endowed with horns. I also presented some evidence towards the (very faint) possibility that they were actually some kind of bovid species native to Patagonia.

Today I will add some more information on “sea cows”. Which I believe is quite interesting.

Chilean Sea Cows

While reading some new sources on Patagonian lake bulls and cows, I came across the following text, which I will quote in full:

Sometimes certain animals appear in the seas of Arauco [by the region of that name in Chile, between Chiloé and Bio Bio River] that those people call sometimes sea bulls, sometimes sea cows, but which I have not been able to ascertain if they are lamentines or manatees, or if they belong to some other genera; nevertheless I am inclined to believe, based on the vague descriptions that I have acquired that they are manatees or lamentines. The first Spaniards that settled on the large Island of Juan Fernandez caught large quantities of these animals, of whose meat they tastily fed: but the continuous damage they caused them forced them to abandon the vicinity of that island. [1]

At first I was inclined to believe that they were some kind of seal because, they are no known manatees living in the eastern Pacific Ocean or, in cold waters such as those found in Southern Chile. But, manatees are herbivores and there are plenty of algae along the Patagonian Pacific coastline and, there is evidence that manatees once lived in the area (see map above).

Fossil Chilean manatees

Today there are only four species of the marine mammal order Sirenidae, there was another one, Steller’s sea cow (Hydrodamalis gigas) which regrettably became extinct in the eighteenth century.

All of these sirenians are believed to have originated in the Atlantic Ocean during the Eocene (55.8-33.9 Million years ago). Some of them spread into the Pacific Ocean through the Central American Seaway (a channel that linked both oceans long before North and South America merged at the Isthmus of Panamá. It is marked as the red arrow in the map above). From there they moved north towards California, Alaska and northeastern Asia, and south towards Peru and Chile.

Unlike all other mammals (i.e. seals, walruses, dolphins, seals, etc.) the sirenians are the only mammal herbivores of the seas: they eat algae and sea grass (hence the “cow” part of their name).

Extant sirenians are restricted to warm tropical and subtropical waters because they have a very low metabolism and can not thrive in cold waters. Furthermore, warm, shallow coastal waters favor the growth of the aquatic vegetation that they eat. [2] Therefore they are not found along the western coast of South America which is subject to the cold water of the Humboldt current that flows along its shores.

But, there was one exception, one species of sea cow that lived in icy North Pacific waters, Steller’s sea cow, which is now extinct.

Going back to South , fossil remains of a sirenian from the Late Miocene have been recovered from sediments of the Bahia Inglesa in Chile at 27° S. This finding are the southernmost remains found on the Eastern Pacific coast (other remains have been found in Peru and California) and they extend the geographic range of these marine beings into the Southern Hemisphere of the Americas. They lived during the Miocene when the global climate was warmer than present and these waters were not as cold as they are nowadays. [3]

Close by, in Peru there were at least two other species of sea cows, with were unrelated to the extant South American group of manatees. Not surprisingly they were linked to the now extinct Steller’s sea cows of northern North America and to the dugongs of the western Pacific Ocean. These sirenids shared their ecosystem with the "walrus", Odobenocetops and the giant sea sloths, Thalassocnus.

Both sites in Chile and Peru are marked with a red dot in the map above.

Steller´s sea cow ( Hydrodamalis gigas )

This creature was first discovered in 1741, by Captain Bering who found them eating kelp in the cold shallow waters of an island (now named after him), close to Kamchatka Peninsula, Russia. His shipwrecked crew survived the winter by eating them, and they found their meat delicious. News soon spread and all vessels sailing through the area hunted them until there were none left.

Steller's sea cow
Steller's Sea Cow. Adapted by Austin Whittall From [4]

These sea cows seem to have been the last survivors (some 1,500 individuals) of a dwindling population that at one time was a widely distributed species. They and their ancestors H. cuestae, Dusisiren dewana, and D. jordani once spanned the Pacific from Japan to California. [2]

The arrival of humans in America and the Aleutians, and their hunting activities reduced their habitat to Bering Island where, after Captain Bering’s expedition, modern man hunted them to extinction.

Unlike the current warm water sirenians, Steller’s Sea Cow, ate the algae in the freezing waters around the islands where it lived. It was well adapted to the cold Arctic conditions as it had a thich skin (2.5 cm – 1 in.), and an insulating layer of fat between 10 and 23 cm thick (4 -9 in.) . They were enormous and could measure up to 9 m (26 ft) long and could weigh up to 10,000 kg (22,000 lb.).

They lacked teeth but chewed the kelp with two large bony plates that ground the plants, grazing like cows while they bobbed around in the freezing waters (Steller, who described them during Bering’s voyage, said that they could not dive nor submerge as their blubber kept them afloat). Docile creatures that apparently lacked predators, they were easily hunted and killed.

Even though the last sea cow was killed in 1768 (barely twenty seven years after it had been discovered by science), there have been alleged sightings of sea cows since then. The more recent ones are from a whaling boat in 1962 that saw a herd of them [4] and in 2006 a sighting in Washington state, U.S.[5]

Patagonian Manatees?

The coast of Southern Chile, from Chiloé to Cape Horn has abundant algae. One variety known as cochayuyo or cachiyuyo (Durvillaea antarctica), is an edible seaweed which is also found in New Zealand and the South Atlantic. It can reach a length of 15 m (49 ft.) . There are also submarine forests of dense groups of Giant Kelp, Macrocystis. pyrifera, which can be found up to depths of 20 m (650 ft.), and occasionally up to 80 m (262 ft.) deep.

These could provide the food for the “sea cows” of the “Arauco sea”. Perhaps they did not become extinct in Chile and, like Steller’s sea cows, they adapted to a colder aquatic environment with no predators. Arrival of modern man towards the end of the last Ice Age would have placed them in a situation similar to their north Pacific relatives. Perhaps they sought safety at Juan Fernandez Islands which are about 600 km (373 mi.) from Chile (approx. 33ºS; 79ºW) from where they were displaced by the relentless hunting after their discovery in the XVIth century.

I have not been able to find any data on the aquatic resources (i.e. algae) at these islands, because, if the sea cows lived there, they had to have seaweeds to graze on.

If they somehow survived in the fjords and channels of Southern Chile, they could have originated the belief in “sea cows” such as the one that I mention below:[7]

SEA COW: Animal of fabulous beauty that travels about the channels seeking bulls to seduce. It is considered an aquatic version of a bovine, whose legs are flippers, fat of curved horns and fiery eyes. It bewitches bulls and mates with them with such passion that the animal is left impotent and nostalgic…[7].

Steller sea cows are indeed fat and large, but, they lack horns. So, I wonder if it was an embellishment added by the locals, or, simply another creature and not a genuine sea cow. The question remains open.

It is interesting to point out however that according to French naturalist Cuvier [8]:

Which is remarkably similar to what Father Diego de Rosales’ wrote about the mermaid, Pincoya that had been seen several times in the sea by Chiloé in 1632:

a beast that came close to the shore, which surging out of the water displayed a head, face and woman’s breasts, with long fair and loose hair or mane. It carried a child in its arms. When it submerged they noticed that it had a tail and back of a fish, covered with thick scales like small shells.[9]

See also (in the same post), Byron's description of a merman in the Chonos islands in 1741 that had, "an appearance like that of a man swimming half out of the water" [10].

Both are very similar to Cuvier's description.

Could these be sightings of a sea cow?


[1] Estala, Pedro, (1798). El viagero universal o Noticia del mundo antiguo y nuevo. Imprenta de Villalpando. pp. 179

[2] Sirenian International
[3] Giovanni Bianuccia, Silvia Sorbia, Mario E. Suárez and Walter Landinia. The southernmost sirenian record in the eastern Pacific Ocean, from the Late Miocene of Chile. C. R. Palevol 5 (2006) 945–952. doi:10.1016/j.crpv.2006.06.001.
[4] Dietz, Tim, (1992). The call of the siren: manatees and dugongs.Fulcrum Publishing. pp.102.
[5] Colman, Loren, (2006). Steller’s sea cow sighting? Cryptomundo. 16.09.2006.
[6] Image credits: Mooney, Sharon, (2002). Sirenian Evolution. Howard University. Academic Press, 20002.
[7] Renato Cárdenas Alvarez. (1997) El Libro de la Mitología de Chiloé. Anaquel Austral. Ed. Virginia Vidal. Santiago : Editorial Poetas Antiimperialistas de América. 15.09.2005.
[8] Cuvier, Georges, (1832). The animal kingdom: arranged in conformity with its organization. G. & C. & H. Carvill, pp 116.
[9] De Rosales, D., (1877). Historia general de el Reyno de Chile. Valparaiso: El Mercurio. v. i, ii. v. 1. pp. 308- 309.
[10] Byron J., (1996). Naufragio en las costas patagónicas. Buenos Aires: Ediciones del Sol. pp. 63.

Further reading.

Steller's Sea Cow Hydrodamalis gigas.

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