One of the 12 southern constellations devised by the Dutch navigators Pieter Dirkszoon Keyser and Frederick de Houtman at the end of the 16th century. It represents the South American bird with a huge bill.
The Dutchman Petrus Plancius gave it the name Toucan when he first depicted it on a globe in 1598, and Bayer followed suit on his atlas of 1603. But de Houtman, in his catalogue of 1603, called it Den Indiaenschen Exster, op Indies Lang ghenaemt (“the Indian magpie, named Lang in the Indies”, the word “lang” referring to the bird’s long beak). De Houtman was apparently describing not a toucan but the hornbill, a similarly endowed bird that is native to the East Indies and Malaysia. This suggests that the original inventor was in fact Keyser, who had visited South America before his voyage to the East Indies and could have seen the bird there. In some depictions which used de Houtman’s catalogue as a source, such as Willem Janszoon Blaeu’s globe of 1603, the bird was shown as a hornbill rather than a toucan, complete with casque above its bill, but the original identification as a toucan won out.
Tucana’s brightest star, Alpha Tucanae, marking the tip of the bird’s beak, is of only third magnitude, but the constellation is distinguished by two features of particular interest: firstly, the globular star cluster 47 Tucanae, rated the second-best such object in the entire sky, so bright that it was labelled in the same way as a star; and the Small Magellanic Cloud, the smaller and fainter of the two companion galaxies of our Milky Way. Incidentally, 47 Tucanae is not a Flamsteed number; it comes from its listing in Johann Bode’s catalogue called Allgemeine Beschreibung und Nachweisung der Gestirne, published in 1801 to accompany his Uranographia star atlas.
None of the stars of Tucana are named, and there are no legends associated with it.
Tucana, holding in its beak a branch with a berry, as seen in the Uranographia star atlas of Johann Bode (1801). Behind its tail lies Nubecula Minor, the Small Magellanic Cloud (just visible at the lower right edge of the image), which is now part of the constellation.
© Ian Ridpath. All rights reserved