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  • Cited by 4
  • Print publication year: 2006
  • Online publication date: August 2009

8 - Ecology and life histories



Long before the arrival of Europeans in the Americas and Australasia, indigenous peoples were familiar with marsupials and some of their unusual habits. These earliest natural historians used marsupials for food and garments, and incorporated some into ceremonial traditions and oral histories. Written documentation followed later. The first marsupial brought to European attention was a Brazilian opossum presented in 1500 to Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand of Spain by the explorer Vincente Yáñez Pinzón. The pouch and the numerous young of this animal led Her Majesty to consider it an ‘incredible mother’ (Archer 1982). Almost half a century later, in 1544, a manuscript probably written by António Galvão, Portuguese Governor of the Moluccas, described the pouch and succession of single young nursed by a ‘ferret-like’ animal that he called kusus (Calaby 1984). This was most likely the ornate cuscus Phalanger ornatus, the only cuscus found in Ternate where Galvão resided. The first Australian marsupial recorded by Europeans was a wallaby, described in 1629 by Dutch seaman Francisco Pelsaert, from the western coast of New Holland. Pelsaert was also intrigued by the pouch, but thought erroneously that the young grew directly out of the nipples in the pouch's protective shroud. Marsupials remained objects of curiosity for centuries after their discovery by Europeans, with many thousands of unfortunate animals being shipped back to the Old World for menageries, zoos and private collections.