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22 April 2016

What Does Science Say About Don Quixote’s Fantasy Animals?

Estimated reading time Time 5 to read

Miguel de Cervantes mentions over 100 different types or species of animals or “beasts” in Don Quixote. Most are real animals: horses, donkeys, sheep, pigs, dogs, cats and so on. But there are also many mythical, imaginary and fantastical animals such as unicorns, basilisks, the phoenix, endriagos… There are also some more enigmatic ones such as “the zebra” ridden by a famous “moor”, or sketchily described ones such as the “fish” that produce the “cavial” consumed by Sancho in the company of some pilgrims. Now that 400 years have passed since the death of Cervantes, it is worth asking what has happened to these fantastical and enigmatic animals.

The fantastical animals

Author: Arturo de Frias Marque, via Wikimedia Commons

Some of the fantastical animals mentioned in Don Quixote, such as the endriagos, have disappeared from our culture. In contrast, others like unicorns or basilisks have been “reconverted” into real animals: the first have today evolved into a species of rhinoceros (the Indian rhinoceros Rhinoceros unicornis), and the second a genus of reptiles (the genus of Basiliscus lizards comprising several species whose most “fantastical” feature is that they are capable of “walking” on water). And other imaginary animals such as dragons which, contrary to popular opinion, do not appear in the text of Don Quixote (although then they were known as serpents or adult snakes, which are mentioned in the text), have now come to denote certain species of lizard such as the Komodo dragons.

But we are seeing a new explosion in our world today of a series of “fantastical animals” obtained through the application of new biotechnological techniques such as cloning, transgenesis, stem cells, gene editing and so on. Examples worth considering include “fluorescent” animals which glow in the dark because the fluorescein gene from jellyfish has been inserted into their original cell or zygote. This has produced everything from fluorescent worms to monkeys.

A fluorescent cat beside a normal cat / Image: Mayo Clinic

It has yet to produce multicolored goats –“cabrillas”– like the ones Sancho claimed to have seen after his flight on the horse Clavileño. But it has achieved, for example, transgenic goats that produce a human blood coagulation factor in their milk, something that is being used in the fight against a range of problems and accidents. This factor is produced by the company rEVO Biologics in Framingham, Massachusetts, and is used above all to prevent perioperative haemorrhage and during childbirth in patients with blood coagulation problems.

The “cavial” fish

When Sancho returns from his adventure as the governor of the island of Barataria and is searching for his master, he comes upon a group of pilgrims, among whom the moor Ricote is subsequently discovered to be traveling. After his expulsion, he returns to the village of Don Quixote and Sancho. Together they share a meal in a meadow, which includes what Cervantes calls “cavial”, taken –he says– from “fish eggs”.

This lack of precision is curious in Cervantes, as whenever he talks of animals in general and fish in particular he does so with great accuracy. For example, when he talks of fish he mentions sardines, trout, salmon, twait shad, cod, pollack and so on. Perhaps this lack of definition by Cervantes indicates the lack of knowledge there was at that time about the specific fish that produce caviar. And here the question is whether from that day to this the nature of these fish has been clarified, particularly on the Iberian Peninsula, the territory where the work of Cervantes takes place.

Now we know that authentic caviar is obtained from different species of sturgeon. On the Iberian Peninsula, where sturgeon was caught until the 1970s, it was until recently claimed that there was only one single species, known as the Atlantic-European sturgeon (Acipenser sturio). But genetic research by the group of which the author of this article is a member in museum samples has uncovered the possibility that two more species reached the peninsula: one, Acipenser naccarii, believed to be endemic to the Adriatic, and another, Acipenser oxyrinchus, closely related to the Atlantic-European sturgeon, but which was thought to live only on the eastern Atlantic coasts of North America (de la Herrán et al. 2004).

The sturgeon caught in the waters off Gijón. / Image: Centro de Experimentación Pesquera-Principado de Asturias

Similarly other authors have also shown through a series of genetic studies on old material that the Atlantic-American sturgeon A. oxyrinchus also recently inhabited the Atlantic coasts of western Europe, and a specimen belonging precisely to this species was caught a short while ago off the coasts of Gijón (Asturias, Spain) (Elvira et. al. 2015).

These analyses are not only of theoretical-academic interest, but may be useful for recovering surgeon with native species. Specifically, in this case it is worth noting that whereas A. sturio is practically extinct, A. naccarii and above all, A. oxyrinchus still have some natural populations that could be used for their recovery in our region.

The “zebra”

The most enigmatic animal to appear in Don Quixote is the “zebra”. Specifically in chapter 29, the priest, who has accompanied the barber on a mission to bring the knight errant back to his home, comes upon him, and when Don Quixote gives him his horse –as the priest is on foot– he tells him he is content to ride on the back of the mules they have with them, imagining nonetheless that he is mounted on Pegasus –a mythological winged horse– or on the “zebra” ridden by the famous moor Muzaraque.

How did Cervantes come up with this animal? Of course this is not an actual “zebra”, a species from South Africa that was “discovered” by the Portuguese after Cervantes’ day. That this is more likely a horse that lived wild on the Iberian Peninsula towards the end of the 15th century, as mentioned in a number of works of literature, such as that of Enrique de Villena in 1423 (Arte Cisoria. chap VI and VIII. It can be seen in the Cervantes Virtual Library). These would have been very large horses with a gray striped hide that lived in forested areas. The zebras most likely met a similar fate to the sturgeon: they were hunted –they were highly prized not only for their ferocity, but for their meat and their tough hide– and their habitat was destroyed with the felling of many of the forests in which they lived, which ultimately led to their extinction. For this reason the only traces of these animals are now to be found in literature –such as in Don Quixote–, in place names –there are many places in Spain and Portugal that include a reference to these animals, such as Piedrafita do Cebreiro in Lugo, Cebreros in Avila and Las Encebras in Alicante, or Monte dos Zebros in Beira Baixa in Portugal–, and in some old drums presumably made with their hide.

But what animal was this? From the time of Cervantes to the present day there have been various hypotheses about its nature, ranging from those who claim it was a type of horse –thought by some authors to be native to the Iberian Peninsula, and by others to be some Euro-Asiatic species–, to others who incline to the idea that it was not a horse but a species of ass that was imported and subsequently naturalized, and even to others who affirm that it did not die out but gave rise to a new breed of horse –the Portuguese sorraia.

Author: Oelke / Image:

In this case, after conducting a variety of paleontological, archaeological, historical, philological, biological and genetic studies –among others– the real nature of these animals remains unclear. The most likely hypothesis is the one that claims that it could be a species of Euro-Asiatic horse among whose last redoubts was the Iberian Peninsula. Maybe, when DNA is obtained from reliable remains of these animals –bones, hides from shields or others– we will be able to reach a conclusion as to its nature.

And as Cervantes would say: ”That’s all very well”… but it is bound to continue.

Manuel Ruiz Rejón

Granada University, Autonomous University of Madrid


De la Herrán, R. et al. 2004. Genetic identification of western Mediterranean sturgeons and its implications for conservation. Conservation Genetics. 5(4): 545-551.

Elvira, B. et al. 2015. Current occurrence of the Atlantic sturgeon Acipenser oxyrinchus in Northern Spain. A new prospect for sturgeon conservation in Western Europe. PlosOne, Dec. 30, 10(12),e0145728.

Nores et al. 2015. The Iberian zebro: what kind of a beast was it? Anthropozoologica. 50(1):21-32.


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