|Posted by Jim Bevan on October 5, 2012 at 4:50 AM|
The waterways of South America are home to many ferocious predatory species. The most infamous are the piranha that inhabit rivers such as the Amazon and Orinoco, rumored to have reduced hundreds of humans to skeletons in mere minutes, though their infamous carnivorous nature has been greatly exaggerated by the media over the decades (in reality, they’re only a threat to humans in very large schools and if they’ve been agitated by the presence of fresh meat.) Other predators native to the continent that have gained a reputation as man-eaters include caimans, parasitic canduri, and even the massive arapaima. Millennia ago, indigenous tribes that lived near these waters would take great caution to avoid these carnivores. But according to legend, there were some creatures, far more bloodthirsty than the species previously mentioned, that could strike outside of the water. The Tehuelche tribe of Patagonia feared one such monster, which they called “water tiger” for its savage nature; the iemisch.
Despite the name, the iemisch did not resemble a tiger, though it was claimed to be as large as a puma. It was covered with short, coarse brown hair, and had a rounded head with no visible external ears. Its toes were webbed, with three on each foot of its forelegs, four on each of its hind legs, and a large otter-like tail. Cementing its status as a deadly predator, the iemisch had a large set of canines, which it would frequently put to use. They were said to attack humans or animals that crossed the rivers they dwelled in, dragging them below the water to devour the unfortunate victims. But staying away from the water didn’t grant safety from an iemisch attack. If truly determined, they would pursue their prey on land and drag them back to a river or lake where they had an advantage, or dig a burrow to trap any unfortunate animal or native that wandered into it. Since sharp stones and fire were said to be unable to pierce its hide, the Teheluche were right to fear such a cunning carnivore.
The iemisch would have remained a creature of native legend had it not been for several encounters in the 19th century, both anecdotal sightings from natives, and from outside sources. In the 1870s, Argentinian geographer and explorer Ramon Lista came across a strange animal in the province of Santa Cruz; it resembled a giant pangolin, but was covered with hair instead of scales. Despite the lack of armor, bullets were unable to penetrate its skin. The story later reached paleontologist Florentino Ameghino, who compared Lista’s encounter to legends told by the Patagonian Indian tribes. Ameghino wondered if there was a possibility that some ancient species, most likely from the Pleistocene era, had managed to survive into the modern day. His theory was bolstered in 1895 when a rancher discovered an apparently fresh hide in a cave; the skin was studded with hardened calcium pocks, suggesting that it was thick enough to resist impacts as strong as spears or even bullets. Ameghino was convinced he had solved the mystery; the iemisch was in fact a species of giant sloth (Mylodon) that had survived extinction. A plausible answer, but giant sloths were most likely herbivorous species. Why would these beasts inspire tales of man-eating monsters?
In 1900, French naturalist Andre Tournouer encountered what he believed to be a iemisch emerging from a stream, and his records describe the creature as being nothing like a sloth, giant or otherwise. It looked as it did in traditional tales: small, rounded head, no external ears, large canines, and webbed toes. He shot at the thing, but it disappeared after submerging under the water. Tournouer later came across cat-like tracks in the sand, which his native guide told him belonged to a “water tiger.” Sightings and alleged remains of iemisch were sporadic throughout the early 20th century, but there was still no confirmation on what the beast truly was, or if it even existed. Some paleontologists, including George Gaylord Simpson, believed it was just invented by the natives to scare gullible foreigners. While stories of its ferocity may have been exaggerated, there is a likely real-world candidate as to its true identity.
Several prominent cryptozoologists, including Bernard Heuvelmans and Roy Mackal, have theorized that the iemisch is a giant South American otter, a rare mutation that occasionally allows them to grow larger than their standard length of 6 feet. Larger than average size is seen in every species, and the giant otter is an apex predator that will attack even larger animals like caimans or anacondas for food, commonly striking at the head. The physical similarities further cement this theory. It’s likely that in ancient times, some Telehuche saw a giant otter feeding on large prey, or even the corpse of a human, and the legend was born. It makes sense, much more than Ameghino’s Mylodon theory, at least. And while the iemisch may be a monster born of fear and exaggeration, it still serves a valuable purpose; a reminder that the jungles and waters hold many dangers that can catch the unprepared off guard, and may lead to an early demise.
Categories: Manic Expression's Monster Extravaganza