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7 Legendary Monsters of South America

It should be no surprise that a continent with extremely high mountains, extensive waterways, and dense rainforests filled with undiscovered species would have many legends of monsters. This is just a brief overview of some of South America's monsters. These legends are often known in more than one nation, with different names for the monsters.

1. Yacumama

The Yacumama is an ancient sea monster that lives in the Amazon River. It's a giant snake with a horned head, sometimes described as up to 160 feet long! The Yacumama engorges itself with water that it uses to spray and stun its prey. In modern times, anacondas in the Amazon rainforest have been described as up to 62 feet long, so there may very well be a real-live version of the Yacumama lurking in the wild. However, anyone encountering such an animal is not liable to stay around long enough to accurately measure it.

2. Cuero

El Cuero means "cow hide." The Chilean monster of that name lives in Lake Lacar in the Andes, and resembles a splayed hide with a hairless head and backbone. The legend may have arisen from sightings of freshwater stingrays, although El Cuero is larger and has eyes on stalks, as well as claws. It also has a mouth protruding from its midsection through which it sucks blood from its victims. In the Amazon region, a similar monster is called the Hueke Hueke, which is also described as a splayed hide, without the blood-sucking proboscis.

3. Hombre Caiman

El Hombre Caiman (the Alligator Man) haunts the coast of Colombia. According to legend, he was a human in love with a woman whose father, a rice merchant, did not approve. El Hombre ate rice in a restaurant and saw his love swimming in the sea, and left to join her. He repeated this habit day after day, until he became an alligator and the two swam away forever. Better finish all your rice, or El Hombre Caiman may come for your wife!

4. Encantado

Amazônia, os bichos / the animals

The Encantado (also known as the Mohana) is a dolphin, but one with evil powers. From Uncle John's Endlessly Engrossing Bathroom Reader:

Encantado means "enchanted one" in Portuguese and refers to a special kind of boto, or long-beaked river dolphin native to the Amazon, that can take human form. Encantados are curious about humans and are especially attracted to big, noisy festivals, which they often attend as musicians, staying in human form for years. How can you recognize one? Look under its hat: They always have bald spots that are actually disguised blowholes. Encantados are usually friendly, but they occasionally hypnotize and kidnap young women and take them back to the Encante, their underground city. Sometimes the women escape and return...pregnant with an Encantado baby.

The legend sounds like a tale told to children to warn them away from dangerous waters -- and to warn young women away from musicians with bald spots. Photograph by Flickr user Luciana Christante.

5. Maricoxi

The Maricoxi is a South American ape-man, possibly analogous to Bigfoot, described by explorer Colonel Percy Fawcett (before he mysteriously disappeared) as enormous hairy savages that threatened his party with bows and arrows, but could not speak except for grunts. The Maricoxi fled when fired upon. Several types of Maricoxi have been described, ranging from dwarf-sized to 12 feet tall.

6. Huallepen

The Huallepen or Guallipen is a Chilean chimera with the head of calf, the body of a sheep, and twisted feet. The monster lives in rivers and lakes, and will mate with livestock, producing deformed offspring. Even the sight of the Huallepen can cause a pregnant woman to bear a deformed child.

7. Madremonte

La Madremonte (Mother Mountain) is a Colombian spirit reminiscent of the Irish Banshee. This large woman with bulging, glowing eyes lives in the forest. Her clothing is made of leaves and moss. Madremonte controls the weather and causes invaders to her territory to lose their way. The closest most people get to her is to hear her screams and wails coming from the woods on a dark night. See a video of La Madremonte in Spanish.

This list would be much longer if I could read Spanish or Portuguese better. Read the entire series on Legendary Monsters.

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Mythical Yetis are Actually Bears, According to DNA Analysis
Walkabout Films via Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0
Walkabout Films via Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0

In 1959, the U.S. government advised hunters that they were permitted to kill a Yeti only in self-defense. The decree was prompted by findings from earlier expeditions—huge footprints, hides, and bones from a large, unidentified creature native to the Himalayas—which explorers thought could be from the mythical hominid that local Sherpas called the Yeti, or "wild man."

But now, researchers at the State University of New York in Buffalo and their colleagues have concluded that folklore about abominable snowmen in the Himalayas was just that. After testing evidence collected from the Tibetan Plateau and from museum collections, they found the biological root of the Yeti legends to be local bears.

In the new study, published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B, researchers analyzed 24 hair, bone, tooth, skin, and scat samples. Nine of the samples were purported to be from Yetis, while the rest were gathered recently from the Tibetan brown bear, Himalayan brown bear, and Himalayan black bear. The team assembled complete mitochondrial genomes for the Himalayan brown bear and black bear for the first time, then analyzed and compared all of the samples. Of the nine allegedly from Yetis, eight were actually from Asian bears. One was from a dog.

While these particular findings suggest that the Yeti stories probably emerged from humans' encounters with bears, the study provides valuable genetic data that could shed light on how the bears evolved. The mitochondrial genomes—which are based on the genetic information passed down only through females—could reveal when the rare subspecies and more common bear species last shared a maternal ancestor, and how genetically dissimilar they are today, Science notes.

The genomic analysis showed that Tibetan brown bears share a close ancestry with North American and Eurasian brown bears. But the Himalayan brown bears branched off from their common ancestral tree about 650,000 years ago, when glaciers expanded over the Tibetan Plateau—which may have separated those bears from the larger gene pool. Understanding how the subspecies evolved could illuminate the environmental history of the region, said Charlotte Lindqvist, an associate professor of biological sciences at SUNY Buffalo and the study's lead scientist, in a statement. The genetic data may assist conservation of these vulnerable and endangered animals.

Lindqvist said that their technique could also be a useful tool for exploring the roots of folklore about large cryptids—as well as real beasts.

"Our findings strongly suggest that the biological underpinnings of the Yeti legend can be found in local bears," she said. "Our study demonstrates that genetics should be able to unravel other, similar mysteries."

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7 Myths About Bats
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iStock

Though in China bats are said to bring good luck, and ancient Egyptians believed they could cure an array of diseases, our feelings about bats are often negative. Perhaps these rumors started because bats are so mysterious—with their nocturnal flying and dank, dark habitats, they’re hard to study! But the world’s only flying mammal isn’t nearly as bad as our fears make it out to be. Keep reading for seven misconceptions, as well as explanations of what really goes on in the batcave.

1. BATS ARE TOTALLY BLIND.

Though we love to talk about things being "blind as a bat," bigger bats can see up to three times better than humans, according to Rob Mies, executive director of the Organization for Bat Conservation. Bat vision varies across species, but none are actually blind. In addition to working peepers, bats also use echolocation (emitting sound to navigate)—which means they probably have a better idea of where they’re going than many of us.

2. BATS ARE FLYING RATS.

Bats belong to the order Chiroptera, not Rodentia; they’re actually more closely related to primates than they are to rodents. They also don’t share behavior with rodents. For example, bats don’t chew on wood, metal, or plastic, and usually aren’t nuisances. In fact, bats eat pests, which brings us to ...

3. BATS ARE ANNOYING PESTS.

Bat flying in a forest at night
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Quite the opposite! According to National Geographic, bats can eat up to a thousand insects in an evening. Their bug-eating prowess is so notable it carries economic importance. A recent study showed that bats provide “nontoxic pest-control services totalling $3.7 billion to $53 billion per year”! Bats also pollinate plants and distribute seeds, and their droppings—called guano—are used as fertilizer.

4. BATS WANT TO DRINK YOUR BLOOD.

Only three of the roughly 1200 existing bat species are vampire bats, and none of them live in the United States or Canada. Vampire bats don’t even really drink blood—Mies says the feeding process is more like that of a mosquito. While mosquitos will take blood from humans, though, vampire bats primarily feed on cattle. Fun fact: a medication called draculin is currently being developed from bats’ saliva, which has unique anti-blood-clotting properties.

5. BATS WILL FLY INTO YOUR HAIR AND BUILD A NEST.

An old myth claims that bats fly into hair, get stuck, and build nests. While it’s possible this rumor started to deter young women from going out at night, bats do sometimes swoop around people’s heads. The reason isn’t because they’re shopping for a new home, however: our bodies attract insects, and bats are after their next snack. So don’t worry—your spectacular updo is safe.

6. IN FACT, BATS DON'T NEST AT ALL.

Unlike birds or rodents, bats don’t build nests. Instead, they find shelter inside existing structures. Caves, trees, walls, and ceilings are favorites, as are rafters of buildings. They don’t always hang upside down, either. According to Dr. Thomas Kunz from Boston University, bats are frequently horizontal when roosting in small crevices, not vertical.

7. BATS WILL ATTACK YOU AND GIVE YOU RABIES.

Three bats hanging upside down on a branch
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Nope. Shari Clark, president of the Florida Bat Conservancy, says that statistically bats contract rabies much less frequently than other mammals. And if they do get rabies, it manifests differently than in raccoons or foxes. Rabies-infected bats become paralyzed and can’t fly or roost. This means that as long as you stay away from bats on the ground that are behaving weirdly, you’re pretty much in the clear. Phew.

All photos courtesy of iStock.

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