Charles Darwin once discovered the rare bird he had been looking for for years – halfway through eating it for Christmas dinner.
When you imagine Darwin, you might imagine him in the Galapagos taking diligent notes while observing a finch, perhaps noting small differences between it and another very similar finch. You probably don’t immediately think of him riding a giant tortoise or eating endangered species as if they were party snacks – but Darwin did both of those things, with the latter leading to a particularly harrowing incident in which he consumed a vital lost piece of his work.
Arriving at San Cristóbal Island in the Galapagos on his first voyage, Darwin regularly – and without considering their suitability for transport – walked around with tortoises, which he also considered food.
“Often I would get on their backs, and then giving a few raps on the back of their shells, they would rise and move away,” he wrote, “but I had great difficulty in keeping my balance.”
Darwin – a famous member of Cambridge University’s Glutton Club who met to feast on “birds and beasts before unknown to the human palate” – naturally ate the animals, which he preferred roasted or in soup form.
“While we dwelt in this upper region we lived entirely on turtle meat: the breast roasted (as the Gauchos make carne con cuero), with the flesh on it, is very good,” Darwin wrote of the animals. “And young turtles make excellent soup; otherwise the meat is indifferent to my taste.”
As great a naturalist as he was, Darwin was hungry. In December 1833, while at Port Desire, one of the ship’s crew shot a rhesus to eat for Christmas dinner. Darwin searched for a long time for a bird he named “Avestru petise”, now known as Darwin’s Rhea. He was interested because of the small differences between it and another species of rheas that lived in the north of the island. For years, the birds eluded him – but they weren’t ready to escape his stomach.
Darwin thought he was eating a young rhesus that Christmas, but he was actually eating the elusive petise that would one day be named after him. He jumped up during the meal and tried desperately to salvage the remains of the bird, managing to get a feather, its head, legs and several larger feathers.
With his remains in tow, he went to study the remains (the biological matter formerly known as “lunch”) and became convinced that there were two species of rheas in South America, of which he was right.