Puzzle 24

John Baez

Q: In which part of the world is it most likely for a woman to claim that her child's father is a dolphin?

A: Amazonia. Inia geoffrensis is an unusual species of pink freshwater dolphin that lives in the Amazon River and Orinoco River systems. Brazilians call it a boto. They are playful and will sometimes initiate contact with humans. It seems they entered Amazonia in the Miocene, about 15 million years ago, when this region was an enormous freshwater lake, open to the sea.

Legends of the region feature botos who become handsome men at night and seduce girls. This sort of "were-dolphin" is called an encantado. Illegitimate children are often blamed on these dolphins. Some anthropologists have even reported birth certificates listing a boto as the father!

Candace Slater has studied the encantado folktales in her book Dance of the Dolphin. The anonymous review on Amazon.com (!) says:

In folktales told throughout much of the Brazilian Amazon, dolphins take human form, attend raucous dances and festivals, seduce men and women, and carry them away to a city beneath the river. They are encantados, or Enchanted Beings, capable of provoking death or madness, but also called upon to help shamanic healers. Male dolphins--accomplished dancers who appear dressed in dapper straw hats, white suits, and with shiny black shoes--reportedly father numerous children. The females are said to lure away solitary fishermen.
In a footnote on page 99 of her book, Slater writes:
People did mention various cases in which so-and-so was said to be the Dolphin's child as a cover-up for sexual activity on the part of a man who did not wish to assume paternity. They did not, however, recount instances, such as that cited by Melba C. Caldwell and David K. Caldwell, in which "the father of the [illegitimate] child is dutifully recorded on birth certificates in some districts as bouto" ("More about the Ugly Dolphin," p. 311). Janet Chernela notes findings similar to mine in northwest Amazonia (Chernela, personal communication, 11 January 1992). It is possible that people were ashamed to tell me about "filhos do boto", but I doubt this because of the great number of other intimate details they readily revealed. Most recorded cases in which a woman names the Boto as her child's father involve reports to authorities. Lisa Swanson (personal communication, 9 April 1993) says that a relative of hers who works as a doctor in the Ecuadorian Amazon frequently hears such attributions from his female patients.


Some nice photos and videos of botos are available at the last site.

For more fun try these: