The Fauna Observed While Sailing to Patagonia

By Museo Nacional de Ciencias Naturales, MNCN - CSIC

Museo Nacional de Ciencias Naturales

Many previously undiscovered species of animals were encountered during the expedition led by Magellan and Elcano, and the Italian Antonio Pigafetta kept a meticulous record of them in his journal.

Map of Strait of Magellan (1606) by Jodocus HondiusOriginal Source: Wikimedia

Pigafetta's Journal

A remarkable chronicler from Vicenza traveled aboard the expedition captained by Magellan.

“Inasmuch as, most illustrious and excellent Lord, there are many curious persons who not only take pleasure in knowing and hearing the great and wonderful things that God has permitted me to see and suffer during my long and dangerous voyage … but who also wish to know the means and manners and paths that I have taken in making that voyage; and who do not lend full credence to the end unless they have a perfect assurance of the beginning … I determined … to experience myself and to see those things that might satisfy me somewhat, and that might grant me some renown with posterity.”

Antonio Pigafetta to Philippe de Villiers de L’Isle-Adam, Grand Master of Rhodes.

Bird-of-paradise in bell glassMuseo Nacional de Ciencias Naturales, MNCN - CSIC

Many of his descriptions of the natural world might bring to mind the fantastical imaginings found in the writings of medieval voyagers such as Marco Polo or Pedro Tafur.

Pigafetta's entries, however, were generally based on direct observation, and therefore his descriptions, while seemingly far-fetched, clearly reflect the mentality and view of the world 500 years ago.

Maris Pacifici (1589) by Abraham OrteliusOriginal Source: Wikipedia

It was a world in which every new journey provided an opportunity to discover curiosities and wonderment never seen before.

A new world, circumnavigated for the first time, whose mysteries would be uncovered little by little on epic expeditions like this one.

Longhorn cowfishMuseo Nacional de Ciencias Naturales, MNCN - CSIC

The aim of this exhibition is to compare our historical collections with some of the animal species that Pigafetta described in his journal.

In order to do so, we have taken a series of high-resolution photographs that reveal every detail of these valuable pieces.

We have also included a number of prints from the Van Berkhey Collection, kept in the archive at Spain's National Museum of Natural Sciences (MNCN). This extensive collection of iconography is a unique example of scientific drawings from the 18th century. It is also an extraordinary body of artwork.

Shortfin makoMuseo Nacional de Ciencias Naturales, MNCN - CSIC

Shortfin Mako Shark

“Some large fish with fearsome teeth called tiburoni [sharks] came to the side of the ships, and whenever they find men in the sea they devour them. We caught many of them with iron hooks, although they are not good to eat unless they are small, and even then they are not very good.”

Sharks and seafarers have had to exist side by side as two "species" in the same habitat since the very first boats set sail.

It is a tricky coexistence, with countless tales of castaways devoured by sharks. But they are also fished—often indiscriminately—for their fins, which have a culinary value in some markets.

Sailors spending long days at sea would no doubt have recounted many tales of shipmates who had the bad fortune of finding themselves face-to-face with one.

Red-throated loon (Before 1913)Museo Nacional de Ciencias Naturales, MNCN - CSIC

Red-Throated Loon

“I saw many kinds of birds, among them one that had no anus. Another, [which] when the female wishes to lay its eggs, it does so on the back of the male and there they are hatched; the latter bird has no feet, and always lives in the sea."

Pigafetta's descriptions can seem quite dubious at times. For example, there is no known bird that does not have an anus, though he may have been referring to a bird with an extremely short tail. It is easier to identify the second species, which is likely to have been a Gavia or loon.

These birds swim very low in the water, and their legs are positioned so far back that when they flap their wings to lift themselves up in the water it looks as though they don't have any legs at all. Also, for two weeks after the chicks hatch, they travel on their parents' backs. This could have reinforced the belief that they laid eggs on their backs.

Golden lion tamarinMuseo Nacional de Ciencias Naturales, MNCN - CSIC

Golden Lion Tamarin

“They have … little monkeys that look like lions, only [they are] yellow, and very beautiful.”

Despite the ravages of time, this museum piece allows the beauty of these animals to be seen even now. Their exoticism and colorful fur made them highly prized pets among the aristocracy in the 16th and 17th centuries, and they even appeared in court portraits.

One example is the portrait of Infanta Isabel Clara Eugenia and Magdalena Ruiz, painted by Alonso Sánchez Coello in the late 16th century and kept at the Prado Museum (Museo Nacional del Prado). In this painting, Magdalena Ruiz, a court servant, holds two small monkeys in her hands. One of them is a golden lion tamarin, representing the monarchy's possessions in the Americas.

Collared peccaryMuseo Nacional de Ciencias Naturales, MNCN - CSIC

Collared Peccary

“They have swine that have their navels on their backs…”

It is not surprising that Pigafetta should confuse the small orifice on the peccary's back with a navel, as that's what the indigenous population called it.

Some years later, in 1572, the doctor Francisco Hernández de Toledo arrived in New Spain to lead a scientific expedition. He was able to empirically prove that the orifice was actually a gland that secreted an oily substance with a strong, musky smell, and not a navel as previously believed.

Roseate spoonbill (1862/1866)Museo Nacional de Ciencias Naturales, MNCN - CSIC

Roseate Spoonbill

“…and large birds with beaks like spoons and no tongues.”

Roseate spoonbills (Platalea ajaja) are eye-catching birds that still exist today.

It is remarkable to watch them sweeping the shallow waters with their spoon-shaped beaks, searching for food. They do have a tongue inside their beak, but so short it is barely visible. Just like the elegant flamingo, their pink coloring is a result of their carotenoid-rich diet.

Magellanic penguin (1862/1866)Museo Nacional de Ciencias Naturales, MNCN - CSIC

Magellanic Penguin

“Then proceeding on the same course toward the Antarctic Pole, coasting along the land, we encountered two islands full of geese and seawolves. Truly, the great number of those geese cannot be told; in one hour we loaded the five ships [with them]. Those geese are black and have all their feathers alike both on body and wings, and they do not fly, and live on fish. They were so fat that it was necessary to skin them rather than to pluck them. Their beak is like that of a crow.”

Accounts from many European sailors demonstrate how important the penguin colonies on the southern islands of Patagonia were as a food source.

Records from expeditions such as those led by Magellan, Drake and Cavendish reveal that they caught a large number of penguins to fill up their food stores. It was easy to catch the birds due to their docile nature, having never encountered humans before.

South American sea lionMuseo Nacional de Ciencias Naturales, MNCN - CSIC

South American Sea Lion

“The seawolves are of various colors, and as large as a calf, with a head like that of a calf, ears small and round, and large teeth; they have no legs but only feet with small nails attached to the body, which resemble our hands, and between their fingers the same kind of skin as the geese. They would be very fierce if they could run; they swim, and live on fish.”

Sea lions have been hunted in southern Patagonia since days of old, as a vital source of food and raw materials for local populations.

The arrival of Europeans triggered an exponential shift that reached its peak during the 18th and 19th centuries, when they began to intensively exploit sea lion communities and industrialize the use of their skin and blubber.

It was not until the mid-20th century that this activity began to be regulated and the first protective measures were introduced, saving the species from certain extinction.

Quadro de Historia Natural, Civil y Geográfica del Reyno del Perú (1799) by José Ignacio de Lequanda and Louis ThiébautMuseo Nacional de Ciencias Naturales, MNCN - CSIC


“…he was dressed in the skins of animals skilfully sewn together; and that animal has a head and ears as large as those of a mule, a neck and body like those of a camel, the legs of a deer, and the tail of a horse, like which it neighs. That land has very many of those animals.”

It is believed that the explorers on Magellan's expedition were the first Europeans to ever see these camelids.

The animals were practically sacred to the indigenous people of the region, whose settlements were often established around guanaco breeding grounds. It was a sustainable coexistence, thanks to unwritten rules such as not hunting females or young. But this all changed with the arrival of the Europeans.

Indiscriminate hunting, extensive sheep farming, and the fencing off of fields led to a drastic reduction in guanaco numbers, which reached their lowest levels in the early 20th century.

Greater rheaMuseo Nacional de Ciencias Naturales, MNCN - CSIC

Greater Rhea 

"Incense, ostriches … were also found."

Still incorrectly called an ostrich today, due to the name that the European explorers gave the animal when they arrived in the Americas, the rhea is the largest bird on the continent.

A sacred animal for many South American cultures, its image was even represented in the skies. The Mapuche people identified the Southern Cross constellation (named by Magellan) as a rhea footprint, with the Milky Way representing a hunting ground, and the stars Alpha and Beta Centauri a pair of boleadoras—a hunting tool consisting of weights on the end of interconnected cords.

Patagonian maraMuseo Nacional de Ciencias Naturales, MNCN - CSIC

Patagonian Mara

"…foxes, sparrows, and rabbits much smaller than ours were also found.”

The European rabbit was a species introduced to Patagonia many years later. Perhaps Pigafetta was referring to the mara—undoubtedly the rodent most typical of Patagonia. However, the mara is a very large rodent, and much larger than European rabbits.

Another rodent endemic in the region is the southern viscacha (Lagidium viscacia), which could easily be confused with a small rabbit, although it actually belongs to the chinchilla family.

Credits: Story

Original idea: Cristina Cánovas Fernández, Deputy Director of Exhibitions

Coordination and text: José María Cazcarra Barbanoj

Photographs: Jesús Muñoz Fernández

Quotes from Antonio Pigafetta, taken from The First Voyage Around the World, 1519–22: An Account of Magellan's Expedition. Author: Antonio Pigafetta. Editor: Theodore J. Cachey. University of Toronto Press, 2007.

With the collaboration of:
Deputy Director of Collections and Documentation
Deputy Director of Communication and Scientific Culture

Acknowledgements: Ángel Garvía Rodríguez, Josefina Barreiro Rodríguez, Luis Castelo Vicente, Gema Solís Fraile, Marta Calvo Revuelta, Mercedes París García, Mónica Vergés Alonso, Noelia Cejuela Villagraz, Marisol Alonso Domínguez.

This exhibition is part of the First Voyage Around the World project.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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