Posted by: Rob Viens | January 4, 2014

Having Dinner with Darwin’s Rhea

One of my favorite “Darwin stories” took place on January 3rd, though Darwin barely notes the incident in his diary.  He mainly talks about taking down a large guanaco:

“During these days I have had some very long & pleasant walks. — The Geology is interesting. I have obtained some new birds & animals.  I also measured barometrically the height of the plain which must so lately have been beneath the sea; it has an altitude of 247 feet. — Yesterday I shot a large Guanaco, which must, when alive, have weighed more than 200 pounds. — Two males were fighting furiously & galloping like race horses with their ears down & necks low; they did not see me & passed within 30 yards; & then I settled the contest by shooting the Persecutor.” (Jan 3, 1833)

More interesting than the guanaco is the “new bird” that he collected, and even more entertaining is how he collected it. The story plays out a little better in Voyage of the Beagle, starting back in northern Argentina when he heard tell of a rare “ostrich:

“When at the Rio Negro in Northern Patagonia, I repeatedly heard the Gauchos talking of a very rare bird which they called Avestruz Petise. They described it as being less than the common ostrich (which is there abundant), but with a very close general resemblance. They said its colour was dark and mottled, and that its legs were shorter, and feathered lower down than those of the common ostrich. It is more easily caught by the bolas than the other species. The few inhabitants who had seen both kinds, affirmed they could distinguish them apart from a long distance. The eggs of the small species appeared, however, more generally known; and it was remarked, with surprise, that they were very little less than those of the Rhea, but of a slightly different form, and with a tinge of pale blue. This species occurs most rarely on the plains bordering the Rio Negro; but about a degree and a half further south they are tolerably abundant.” (Voyage of the Beagle)

This rare bird turns out to be the Lesser Rhea, which along with the Greater Rhea is one of two living species of Rhea (for more on Rheas and other ratites see A Wish for Wing that Work). Finding new species, especially large mammals or birds, was especially exciting for Darwin, who had plans of returning to England will all sorts of new discoveries.  In the world of “new species”, the first person to discover and describe the species gets naming rights, as well as their name (and year of discovery) linked to the species name for all eternity.  New species meant respect of the scientific community, fame in zoological circles and a certain degree of immortality.  Darwin was in it to win it…

Greater Rhea (from Wikipedia Commons) – Darwin had seen a lot of these in his travels.

Greater Rhea

So it makes it all the more amusing that before he realized what he was doing, Darwin found himself eating the bird that he wanted to immortalize him:

 “When at Port Desire, in Patagonia (lat. 48°), Mr. Martens shot an ostrich; and I looked at it, forgetting at the moment, in the most unaccountable manner, the whole subject of the Petises, and thought it was a not full-grown bird of the common sort. It was cooked and eaten before my memory returned.” (Voyage of the Beagle)

Can you imagine that moment of insight when he realized what he was doing?  Something like, “Mmm, this is a really good ostrich.  It is even better than that last one I ate with the gauchos….maybe because it was a just a tender young bird.  You know…because it was smaller… a lot like that Avestruz Petise I have been looking for….wait a minute… Holy $h!^!  This is the rare bird I have been looking for these last 6 months!  Everybody stop eating now!  Gather up all the bones, quick!”

And sure enough that is what he did.  Darwin ran around collecting all the crewed on remains and gathered them up. He presumably even dug through the feathers and claws that had been removed before cooking and saved those, too.  Then he sent the whole thing back to England so the “new” species could be described and cataloged. And the best part… it was this specimen, described by John Gould back in England, that was identified as a new species and put on exhibit in Zoological Museum in London!

Here is how Darwin wrapped up the story:

“Fortunately the head, neck, legs, wings, many of the larger feathers, and a large part of the skin, had been preserved; and from these a very nearly perfect specimen has been put together, and is now exhibited in the museum of the Zoological Society. Mr. Gould, in describing this new species, has done me the honour of calling it after my name.” (Voyage of the Beagle)

I have to wonder if it is still on exhibit – can you imagine seeing the very Rhea that Darwin ate before realizing that he was eating a new and rare specimen!

Darwin’s Rhea aka the Lesser Rhea (by John Gould from Zoology of the Voyage of the Beagle)

Darwins Rhea

As for the fame, well, it was a mixed bag.  It turns out that Darwin’s nemesis, the French naturalist Alcide d’Orbigny, who had traveled through the area a few months before, had already described the species (see Darwin’s Nemesis and the Naming of Species).  So naming rights, and the immortality that goes along with it, went to him (the full species name is Rhea pennata d’Orbigny, 1834). However, John Gould’s common name for the species stuck and even today the Lesser Rhea is more commonly known as Darwin’s Rhea. Not that Darwin’s immortality is not already pretty secure…(RJV)

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