Darwin's octopus

Charles Darwin to John Stevens Henslow (18-May-1832):

St Jago [modern-day Porto Praya in the Cape Verde Islands] is singularly barren & produces few plants or insects.—so that my hammer was my usual companion, & in its company most delightful hours I spent.—

On the coast I collected many marine animals chiefly gasteropodous (I think some new).— I examined pretty accurately a Caryophyllea & if my eyes were not bewitched former descriptions have not the slightest resemblance to the animal.— I took several specimens of an Octopus, which possessed a most marvellous power of changing its colours; equalling any chamaelion, & evidently accommodating the changes to the colour of the ground which it passed over.—yellowish green, dark brown & red were the prevailing colours: this fact appears to be new, as far as I can find out.

Darwin was hopelessly wrong about the colour-changing ability of octopuses being a new observation. But never mind: the good news is that one of Darwin's St Jago octopuses is still alive and kicking preserved for posterity in Cambridge, and I have photos to prove it:

Darwin's octopus
Darwin's octopus
Darwin's octopus label
The accompanying label

Richard Carter, FCD

Writer and photographer Richard Carter, FCD is the founder of the Friends of Charles Darwin. He lives in Hebden Bridge, West Yorkshire.WebsiteNewsletterMastodonetc…


  1. I'm almost certain that the label isn't Darwin's: his writing was usually a lot more untidy and spidery. It's possible that it might be Henslow's writing, as Henslow took receipt of most of Darwin's specimens from the Beagle voyage. But I'm guessing the writing is actually that of a later curator.

  2. Postscript: According to the book A Voyage Round the World, which I picked up in Cambridge the same day:

    The Cambridge University Museum of Zoology has in its collection two specimens of octopus, in alcohol, from St Jago. S. F. Harmer, Superintendent of the Museum of Zoology, who catalogued the specimens in 1901 [see date on label in my photo], notes that one was labelled no. 73, and Darwin had written that this was 'same as (50)'. Harmer suggests that 'The second specimen has no label, but is probably the no. 50 alluded to under 73.' The story is more convoluted because a third specimen is listed by Darwin as no. 122, 'St Jago same as (50)' under 'Feb.-March' 1832. So the unlabelled specimen could be either no. 50 or no. 122. Sadly, therefore, we cannot now be sure whether this [i.e. the specimen in my photo] is the very one that he first observed changing colour so magically.

    In answer to Kevin Z's question in the comments above, I am guessing that the handwriting on the label is that of S. F. Harmer.

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