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Robinson Crusoe Island: A Wildlife Guide

In Daniel Defoe’s famous novel Robinson Crusoe, the hero is washed up on an island that seems to fit the description of somewhere in the Caribbean, with a variety of animals including colonies of giant turtles. However, the real life castaway island that inspired Defoe’s work is actually found in the Pacific Ocean, in the Juan Fernández Archipelago some 419 miles west of the Chilean mainland. The real Robinson Crusoe Island may not have turtles, but it is incredibly rich in flora and fauna, and many of the plants and animals are found nowhere else in the world. Robinson Crusoe Island was designated as a National Park in 1935 and named a UNESCO World Biosphere in 1977 in recognition of its importance as a unique habitat for many species of plants, birds and insects.

 

juan fernandez fur seals


Fauna

Whilst there is a large variety of birds and insects on Robinson Crusoe Island, there is in fact only one non-introduced mammal to be found there, the Juan Fernández Fur Seal. Domestic animals such as goats and rabbits were introduced to the island but represent a threat to the local wildlife by grazing on endangered native plants. Here are just some of the wild animals you can expect to see on the island:

Juan Fernández Firecrown - This red hummingbird is found solely on Robinson Crusoe island and is critically endangered. Males are about 12cm long and cinnamon in colour with dark wings, a metallic red crown and a thin, needle-like black beak. Females are completely different with a green back, a blue-green crown and a white belly. Although they are endangered, males are frequently seen in summer in the island’s only town, San Juan Bautista, where they come to look for nectar.

Magellanic Penguin - This medium-sized penguin is found throughout Chile and Argentina and also stops by Robinson Crusoe Island. Adult Magellanic penguins have white stomachs and black backs and a characteristic double black band under the chin. The waters around the island are rich in the cuttlefish, sardines, krill, squid and other crustaceans that form the bulk of the penguin’s diet.

Juan Fernández Fur Seal - The Juan Fernández Fur Seal holds the title of being the only non-introduced mammal found on the island. It was thought to be extinct for a time due to being hunted aggressively for its fur during the 16th century. However a remaining population of 200 individuals was re-discovered and then protected, and there are now as many as 10,000 animals on and around the island. These seals are generally dark brown to black in colour but may also have a covering of longer hairs with yellow or tan tips.

Masafuera Rayadito - This small brown bird is another of Robinson Crusoe Islands endemic species. It lives in humid mountain scrub, amongst tree ferns and other native plants, high up on the island at elevations above 800 metres. It is most often observed in pairs, foraging through leaf litter in the woods for insects. It nests in small cavities in the rock anywhere above 1,200 metres.
 

robinson crusoe island forest

Flora

Many of the plants found on Robinson Crusoe island have adapted to their unique location and of the 146 native species of plant found there, 101 are found nowhere else. As the island is not heavily populated, it is still possible to find pristine native forest to explore. Your best chance of seeing native plants and trees is by climbing above 500 meters, as the slopes lower down have been planted with introduced conifers and eucalyptus trees in an attempt to control soil erosion. Here are some interesting plants to keep a lookout for:

Cabbage Tree (dendroseris litoralis) -  The cabbage tree is an evergreen belonging to the daisy and sunflower family that grows as a shrub and can reach up to five metres in height. It is most often found on cliffs, headlands and also in the only town on the islan, San Juan Bautista. It has large yellow flowers that provide an important source of nectar for the endangered Juan Fernández Firecrown, which in turn pollinates the trees.

Tupa (lobelia tupa) - The tupa is found on Robinson Crusoe Island as well as throughout the central region of Chile’s mainland. This pretty perennial shrub grows up to four metres tall and has grey-green foliage and red, trumpet-shaped flowers. The tupa is also known locally as Devil’s Tobacco as its latex is known to produce hallucinogenic effects and it was considered a sacred plant by the native Mapuche people of Chile.

Juan Bueno (rhaphithamnus venustus) - The endangered Juan Bueno tree is found only in the native forests higher up on Robinson Crusoe Island. The tree has dense branches with bright green waxy leaves and red-blue flowers that are tubular in shape. It also has weak spines that are thought to be leftover from its mainland ancestors that needed to protect themselves from herbivores. The tree is another important source of nectar for the Firecrown hummingbird.

Ajo Dulce (ochagavia elegans) - Ajo dulce, or sweet garlic, is a small flowering plant belonging to the same family as the pineapple. The plants form in large colonies on largely inaccessible cliffs. They produce thin, grey-green leaves and lavender-coloured, trumpet-shaped flowers that gather into a spike. When the flowers die back the plant produces a fruit that bears a strong resemblance to garlic cloves.

If you’ve been inspired to check out Robinson Crusoe Island’s unique flora and fauna for yourself, take a look at Cascada’s Robinson Crusoe Island Tour!