The Fauna Observed While Sailing the Pacific

The first circumnavigation of the globe revealed a richer, more diverse world, and with it came the discovery of new species that awed European naturalists.

By Museo Nacional de Ciencias Naturales, MNCN - CSIC

Museo Nacional de Ciencias Naturales

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.

Magellanic penguin (1862/1866)Museo 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.

Tropical two-wing flyingfish by Georg Everhard RumpfiusMuseo Nacional de Ciencias Naturales, MNCN - CSIC

Blackwing Flyingfish

“In that Ocean Sea one sees a very amusing fish hunt: the fish [that hunt] are of three sorts, and are one cubit and more in length, and are called dorado, albicore, and bonito, which follow the flying fish called colondrini, which are one span and more in length and very good to eat. When the above three kinds [of fish] find any of those flying fish, the latter immediately leap from the water and fly, as long as their wings are wet, more than a crossbow's flight. While they are flying, the others run along behind them under the water following the shadow of the flying fish; the latter have no sooner fallen into the water than the others immediately seize and eat them: it is a truly beautiful thing to see.”

Blackwing flyingfish (February 1887)Museo Nacional de Ciencias Naturales, MNCN - CSIC

Although there are many species of flying fish skimming the oceans, it is quite probable that it is this one Pigafetta specifically refers to in his journal.

With an average length of around 8 inches (20 cm), though occasionally reaching 12 inches (30 cm), and found in subtropical waters all over the globe, the blackwing flyingfish is a favorite prey for other large fish such as sea bream, tuna and bonito.

Sailors the world over still see the frenetic hunting sprees that Pigafetta described, and seabirds often join the melee to catch the flying fish from the air.

Giant golden-crowned flying foxMuseo Nacional de Ciencias Naturales, MNCN - CSIC

Giant Golden-Crowned Flying Fox

“…and Gatighan. In the last-named island of Gatighan, there are bats as large as eagles. As it was late we killed only one of them, which resembled chicken in taste.”

There are several species of megabat in the region, but the giant golden-crowned flying fox is the largest. With a wingspan of around 5 feet (1.5 meters), it is not surprising that Pigafetta compared it to an eagle.

Locals still hunt it for food, just as Magellan's expedition did, and this has resulted in it being placed on the list of endangered animals.

Philippine megapode (Second half of the 19th century)Museo Nacional de Ciencias Naturales, MNCN - CSIC

Philippine Megapode

“…and certain black birds as large as domestic chickens, which have a long tail. The latter birds lay eggs as large as those of a goose, which they bury a cubit beneath the sand for the great heat it generates. When the chicks are hatched, they push up the sand, and come out. Those eggs are good to eat.”

Pigafetta's description is almost certainly the first of its kind about a megapode.

They are superb diggers, and in breeding season, mating couples search out an ideal location—normally sandy beaches or warm volcanic earth—and begin to dig a hole in which to lay their eggs. Once well covered and safe from potential predators, they will take 60 to 80 days to hatch, depending on the temperature of the sand. When the baby megapode hatches from its shell, it pushes through the sand by itself, and heads to the nearest trees.

However, the future of these megapodes is uncertain. Deforestation and the fact that these eggs are a sought-after delicacy are grave threats to their survival.

Buru babirusaMuseo Nacional de Ciencias Naturales, MNCN - CSIC

Buru Babirusa

“In that island there are wild boars, of which we killed one that was going by water from one island to another [by pursuing it] with the small boat; its head was two and one-half span long, and its teeth were large.”

Although babirusas are endemic to the Indonesian island of Sulawesi (also known as Celebes), Pigafetta's description of a wild boar with a large head and teeth is clearly reminiscent of one.

The Palawan bearded pig (Sus ahoenobarbus) lives on the Philippine islands of Palawan. It can reach over 5 feet (1.5 meters) long and weigh up to 330 lbs (150 kilos). Just like the babirusa, it is very comfortable in water and often swims from one island to another. It is more likely that this was the animal seen and captured by the explorers.

Saltwater crocodile skull (Crocodylus porosus) (lateral view)Museo Nacional de Ciencias Naturales, MNCN - CSIC

Saltwater Crocodile

“There are large crocodiles there, both on land and sea…”

Saltwater crocodile (1887)Museo Nacional de Ciencias Naturales, MNCN - CSIC

Saltwater crocodiles are very common in Palawan, especially on the southern islands, where there are numerous attacks on humans. They are a protected species, resulting in frequent conflicts between the locals and authorities across the region.

Longhorn cowfishMuseo Nacional de Ciencias Naturales, MNCN - CSIC

Longhorn Cowfish

“We caught a fish that had a head like that of a hog and two horns; its body consisted entirely of one bone, and on its back it resembled a saddle; and it was small.”

Longhorn cowfishMuseo Nacional de Ciencias Naturales, MNCN - CSIC

This description might seem like pure fantasy, but it corresponds perfectly to the small horned boxfish or longhorn cowfish (Lactoria cornuta). This is another example proving Pigafetta's worth as an observer of nature.

With two small horns, a long face, and a body covered in hard, hexagonal scales forming a kind of solid shell, the longhorn cowfish is unmistakable. The saddle that Pigafetta mentions could even refer to the large spine that some species have along their backs.

Phyllium regina by August Johann Rösel von RosenhofMuseo Nacional de Ciencias Naturales, MNCN - CSIC

Leaf Insect

“There are also found trees that produce leaves. When they fall they are living and walk about. Those leaves are very similar to those of the mulberry, but are not so long. On both sides near the stem they have two feet. The stem is short and pointed. They have no blood, but if one touches them they run away. I kept one of them for nine days in a box. When I opened the box, that leaf went round and round it. I believe those leaves live on nothing but air.”

Phasmida, Phyllidae (1882/1885)Museo Nacional de Ciencias Naturales, MNCN - CSIC

This is very likely the first description of a leaf insect by a European. The explorers found themselves to the south of Palawan at that time, on the island of Balabac. There are various species of leaf insects in that area, some of which fit Pigafetta's description exactly.

These insects, together with stick insects, make up a family known as phasmids, whose most striking feature is their ability to camouflage themselves perfectly in their habitat. It is easy to imagine Pigafetta marveling at the wonder of what he thought to be a walking leaf.

Bird-of-paradiseMuseo Nacional de Ciencias Naturales, MNCN - CSIC

Bird of Paradise

“He sent to the king of Spain a slave, two bahars of cloves … and two extremely beautiful dead birds as presents. These birds are as large as thrushes; they have small heads, long beaks, legs slender like a writing pen, and a span in length; they have no wings, but instead of them long feathers of different colors, like plumes: their tail is like that of the thrush. All the feathers, except those of the wings, are of a dark color; they never fly, except when the wind blows. They told us that these birds come from the terrestrial Paradise, and they call them 'bolon dinata,' that is 'divine birds.'"

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

Birds of paradise were considered divine animals for many years. This belief was reinforced when the skins that Pigafetta described arrived at the Spanish court. Birds like these had never before been seen in Europe and, for a long time, the only information about these animals came from legends, and specimens that arrived already dead.

According to the naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace in his book The Malay Archipelago, the natives' method of preservation involved cutting off their wings and legs, wrapping them in palm leaves, and smoking them dry in a hut. This would explain the widely held belief that these birds had no wings or legs, as well as the dark color of all the feathers, except those on the crest.

As for the legs that Pigafetta described—slender like a writing pen, and a span in length—perhaps he was referring to the two long, dark, tubular feathers that stand out among the rest.

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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