1840, May: Mystery Tracks on Kerguelan Island

Time for a brief geography lesson: the Kerguelan Islands are also known as the "Desolation Islands"... and there's a good reason. The islands are located in the southern Indian Ocean approximately 2,051 miles away from the nearest populated location! The islands form an archipelago of just 2,786 sq miles in area, with most of that being the main island called Grande Terre (2,577 sq miles) and the rest of it divided up among 300 smaller islands. The weather is always cold with frequent high winds, though the water remains ice-free -- and generally rough -- all year long.

Kerguelan Islands
Yes... the Kerguelan Islands are at the tip of that pointer. Not good for vacations.

        So it's remote, small, and unpleasant. It's also where Captain Sir James Ross found himself in May 1840 as part of an expedition that was doing a survey of the flora and fauna of the main island. There was relatively little vegetation on the island, only eighteen distinct species, and the island was "destitute of even a shrub," with only partial coverage from grasses, mosses, and lichens. There were frequent snow storms during their stay; and in the time the party was on the island, they saw no land animals... but they did find some odd prints.

        A party under one Lieutenant Bird that had detached from the main group to do a survey ran across what was described as "the singular footprints of a pony or ass." Each print was three inches in length and two and a half in width, had a small and deeper depression on each side, and were "shaped like a horse shoe." The footsteps were traced in the recently fallen snow for some distance, but were lost when they reached a large rocky expanse free of snow. Ross could only speculate that the animal responsible for the prints had been "cast on shore from some wrecked vessel."

        The native animal population of the islands sports only insects; any animal that's larger is either from the ocean or air -- such as seals, penguins, and seabirds -- or introduced -- such as the islands' present day feral cat population, which hunts the birds. But at the time of the 1840 expedition, there should have been no introduced species; so why would anyone take a horse to such a remote area? And if a ship wrecked, why would a horse be the only survivor in arctic waters? Perhaps stranger still is the timing of the incident: if an alien animal happened to accidentally be introduced to the island, it could not have been there long before Ross' expedition arrived... the island is inhospitable to animals not built for arctic conditions. So what are the odds a horse was accidentally introduced to the island just a little before an expedition came to notice it?

A Related Incident?

        Rupert T. Gould, in his 1929 book Oddities, speculated that Captain Ross' odd discovery might be related to another set of odd prints that are now more famous... the "Devil's Hoofmarks" that appeared in the snow across the Devonshire, England, countryside one night in 1855. These prints seem to have appeared in just a few hours, and stretched across around 100 miles of countryside; the prints themselves appeared to be made by a small hoof, and were in single-file as if the creator had hopped the whole distance.

        Given Ross' description of the prints he found, he felt the tracks he saw were an explainable event; and the phrase 'singular footsteps' doesn't mean the prints were single-file -- as the Devonshire tracks were -- just that they stood out as unusual at the time. Though the presence of a pony or ass on the remote island is still extremely odd, Sir Ross likely didn't feel this was related to any cause of the Devonshire tracks. You can read more about the Devil's Hoofprints by following the 'See Also' link below.

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