It all began on November 25, 1497. Vasco da Gama’s ship bordered the south tip of the African continent. On that day, the crew parked near what is now Mossel Bay, South Africa, and with surprise, they discovered birds never seen by European eyes before. In his diary, a crew member noted: “… there are birds as big as ducks, but they cannot fly and bray like donkeys.” Some say that the crew of the expedition of Bartolomeu Dias de Novaes were the first to observe penguins, sometime between 1487 and 1488.
More than four centuries later, in 1838, the anonymous navigator’s diary was published, and then it was learned that this man might have been one of the first non-native individuals to observe penguins. What kind? There is no certainty, but it is very likely that they were African penguins (Spheniscus demersus), which still live in the area today. However, before the nineteenth century, the story that Antonio Pigafetta wrote in his diary was better known. At the beginning of January 27, 1520, the crew of the ship led by Fernando de Magallanes observed some large birds, which they called geese.
These fascinating animals were Magellanic penguins (Spheniscus magellanicus), named after the Portuguese explorer. “… we found two islands full of geese and sea lions, but the geese were so many that it was impossible to count them; we filled the five ships with them for an hour. These geese are black, and they have feathers all over the body of the same size and shape. They do not fly and feed on fish, and they are so fat that were difficult to pluck, but we took off their skin. They have beaks like those of a raven. ”
For millions of years, penguins were virtually unknown creatures. Perhaps the natives of the southern hemisphere were already accustomed to seeing penguins, but it cannot be known. The truth is that the Europeans were the first to document the observation of these birds, whose physical characteristics seemed strange to them. Because of their black and white plumage and their inability to fly, they compared them with the great auk (Pinguinus impennis), which at that time were called “Penguins.” After some time, these birds became extinct, and the geese got the name of penguins.
During the following centuries, more Sphenisciform species were discovered and added to the sailor’s menu to withstand the long offshore travels. Their feathers, fat, bones, eggs, and skin began to be used, first to subsist and then to trade. The penguin oil business prospered, and at the same time, the number of penguins. These, almost devoid of predators on the ground, curious and without fear of humans, were easy targets.
As explorations discovered more lands to the south, they also found more penguin species and some began to investigate them. The French explorer Jules Dumont d’Urville saw the Adélie penguins (Pygoscelis adeliae) in 1840, the Snares penguins (Eudyptes robustus) appeared in 1874, and the Gentoo Penguins (Pygoscelis papua) had their first scientific description in 1781, from the pen of Johann Reinhold Forster. The collection of Fossils began, and the evolution, reproduction, behavior, and other natural habits of penguins started to be studied scientifically.
With the beginning of the twentieth century, naturalists had already realized the significant problem that the exploitation of penguins was causing, and some began to argue against their hunting. Nevertheless, although their meat is not the tastiest, their killing continued. In 1902 the geologist Otto Nordenskjold offered a party in the east of the Antarctic Peninsula, where they served different dishes elaborated with penguin meat.
Dr. William Sladen was a pioneer in the scientific investigation of Adelie penguins and Lancelot Richdale in the yellow-eyed penguins (Megadyptes antipodes). From being hunted, they began to be the object of scientific research. Also, they began to be better-known thanks to their appearance in books, films, and television programs. Nowadays, penguins are very cherished animals!
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