In search of live plesiosaurs in Patagonia

Once in Argentina with the CMFPE, Elmer S. Riggs was required to write and submit a fossil collecting permit application to the Minister of Justice and Public Instruction. He then waited more-or-less patiently as the application made its way slowly through bureaucratic channels over the next two weeks. Meanwhile, with his application pending and nothing more pressing to attend to, he enjoyed the sights of Buenos Aires and La Plata, including several “hotly-contested” horse races in Palermo, a “splendid boulevard,” parks “rivaling anything we had seen in the U.S.,” and “splendid monuments.” During this long interval he had “plenty of time to see the city and to become acquainted with the Museums.” Years later Riggs wrote that “there are many attractive places in the parks and plazas of the Argentine capital. The abundance of palms,” and other tropical vegetation added “beauty and luxuriance” to the landscape.

Clemente Onelli, zoologist and Patagonia explorer
Clemente Onelli, zoologist and Patagonia explorer

At some point Riggs met with zoologist and Patagonian explorer Clemente Onelli. Their meeting probably took place during a visit to the local zoo, where Onelli was director. Onelli shared a fantastic story with his Chicago visitor. In January 1922, he had received a letter from Martin Sheffield, a native Texan and adventurer then living in Patagonia. Sheffield claimed to have sighted a strange animal swimming in a lake near the remote town of Esquel: “I saw in the middle of the lake an animal with a huge neck like that of a swan, and the movement in the water made me suppose the beast to have a body like that of a crocodile,” he wrote. This, coupled with other, similar reports, brought plesiosaurs to the zoo director’s mind. Intrigued by the possibility of finding a living animal alleged to be extinct in the wilds of Patagonia, Onelli organized a well-publicized expedition aimed at capturing the beast. Armed with elephant guns and dynamite, the expedition set out from Buenos Aires on 23 March 1922. They reached the lake near Esquel, but finding no sign of the plesiosaur, they turned back empty-handed with the onset of winter.

Clemente (center) and his expeditionaries.
Clemente (center) and his expeditionaries. Source: Patagonian Monsters.

An Associated Press story then circulated widely in North American newspapers linking Riggs to the hunt for Patagonian plesiosaurs. According to an article in the Chicago Post, for example, Riggs listened “with interest” to Onelli’s account of the unsuccessful search for the mysterious monster. Riggs could not be tempted away from his fossil expedition, though he toyed with the reporter gamely: “‘If I meet that Plesiosaurus,’ said Prof. Riggs to Prof. Onelli, ‘I’ll put a lariat around his neck and lead him direct to the Buenos Aires zoo.’” Riggs’ American Museum colleague William Diller Matthew read a similar article in New York. “I noted in the newspaper despatches an interview with Dr. Riggs,” Matthew wrote in a letter to George F. Sternberg, “in which he promised to lead the live plesiosaurus home by the tail, evidently refusing to take that story as seriously as the reporter wanted him to.”


Patagonia has given rise to more than its fair share of fantastic stories of monsters, giant men and lost cities. (For more information on this, see Patagonian Monsters.)  And though Riggs never was distracted by the search for a live plesiosaur, he went on at least one wild goose chase with another Patagonian adventurer named Gerhard Wolf. More on the mysterious Dr. Wolf will appear in a future post.

The plesiosaur tango was one of several cultural byproducts of the search for plesiosaurs in Patagonia
The plesiosaur tango was one of several cultural byproducts of the search for plesiosaurs in Patagonia

8 thoughts on “In search of live plesiosaurs in Patagonia”

  1. I’m surprised Onelli would stick his neck out–potentially risking his reputation–by organizing a “well-publicized expedition” without more evidence of the creature’s existence. Riggs, of course, kept a wise distance.

    1. I imagine O’Neill didn’t go out there to find of a plesiosaur as much as he went out there to see what people might’ve mistook for a plesiosaur. Consider it due diligence in order to ward off people with overactive imaginations.

      That said, I’m a total sucker for cryptozoology tales, the more ridiculous, the better. I think you HAVE to have an active imagination to really enjoy paleontology, and sometimes it’s fun to just let it run wild once in while.

      1. Stay tuned, Bob, as their are more weird cryptozoology (and other) tales to come!

  2. I think Onelli’s approach was that any publicity is good publicity. Also, I think he was genuinely a believer in this and other cryptozoological stories coming out of Patagonia. Thanks for your comment, LB.

    1. Thanks, CD. Nahuelito – the Argentine counterpart to the Loch Ness Monster – could use a devoted fan like you! Thank you for the comment.

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