Tag Archives: beagle voyage

How to get a large animal into a small boat

At the start of autumn, I sometimes help my farmer friend to bring her free-range beef cattle down from the local moor where they have been grazing throughout the summer. In winter, I help her to move them between various fields to ensure that they have enough grass to eat. In spring, I help return them to the moor.

Cows on moor

Some of my friend's cattle on the local moor.

Such experiences have given me a deep contempt for cattle, which I no longer try to conceal. Semi-wild cows are unbelievably stupid and wilful creatures. No force on Earth can compel them to go where they have decided they don't want to go—even when it is in their own best interest.

But I've never had to get a cow into a boat.

Fortunately, if I ever find myself in the position of needing to get a cow into a boat, I now know exactly how to do it thanks to Charles Darwin, who observed how it is done and recorded the technique for posterity in his useful animal-husbandry manual, The Voyage of the Beagle:

The road to Cucao was so very bad that we determined to embark in a periagua. The commandant, in the most authoritative manner, ordered six Indians to get ready to pull us over, without deigning to tell them whether they would be paid. The periagua is a strange rough boat, but the crew were still stranger: I doubt if six uglier little men ever got into a boat together. They pulled, however, very well and cheerfully. The stroke-oarsman gabbled Indian, and uttered strange cries, much after the fashion of a pig-driver driving his pigs. We started with a light breeze against us, but yet reached the Capella de Cucao before it was late. The country on each side of the lake was one unbroken forest. In the same periagua with us, a cow was embarked. To get so large an animal into a small boat appears at first a difficulty, but the Indians managed it in a minute. They brought the cow alongside the boat, which was heeled towards her; then placing two oars under her belly, with their ends resting on the gunwale, by the aid of these levers they fairly tumbled the poor beast heels over head into the bottom of the boat, and then lashed her down with ropes.

So now we know. Thanks, Charles.

Darwin performs a blind test… on some condors

Charles Darwin was a great experimenter. In his later life at Down House, he conducted scores of weird and wonderful experiments on pigeons, fowl, plants, seeds, dogs, his own children, you name it; he would experiment on it. But he also found time to conduct some experiments during the Beagle voyage. He even got to perform an experiment on that most iconic of South American birds, the condor.

canyon del colca - condor

Condor, Canyon del Colca, Peru (cc gudi&cris)

Darwin describes his condor experiment in The Voyage of the Beagle. He gets off to what would nowadays be thought of as a pretty bad start:

April 27th. … This day I shot a condor. It measured from tip to tip of the wings, eight and a half feet, and from beak to tail, four feet.

He then describes the range and habits of condors before getting on to his experiment on some live, captive condors:

Remembering the experiments of M. Audubon, on the little smelling powers of carrion-hawks, I tried […] the following experiment: the condors were tied, each by a rope, in a long row at the bottom of a wall; and having folded up a piece of meat in white paper, I walked backwards and forwards, carrying it in my hand at the distance of about three yards from them, but no notice whatever was taken. I then threw it on the ground, within one yard of an old male bird; he looked at it for a moment with attention, but then regarded it no more. With a stick I pushed it closer and closer, until at last he touched it with his beak; the paper was then instantly torn off with fury, and at the same moment, every bird in the long row began struggling and flapping its wings. Under the same circumstances, it would have been quite impossible to have deceived a dog.

…a classic blind test—although it seems strange to use the phrase when experimenting on the sense of smell.

Darwin goes on to observe:

The evidence in favour of and against the acute smelling powers of carrion-vultures is singularly balanced. Professor Owen has demonstrated that the olfactory nerves of the turkey-buzzard (Cathartes aura) are highly developed, and on the evening when Mr. Owen's paper was read at the Zoological Society, it was mentioned by a gentleman that he had seen the carrion-hawks in the West Indies on two occasions collect on the roof of a house, when a corpse had become offensive from not having been buried, in this case, the intelligence could hardly have been acquired by sight. On the other hand, besides the experiments of Audubon and that one by myself, Mr. Bachman has tried in the United States many varied plans, showing that neither the turkey-buzzard (the species dissected by Professor Owen) nor the gallinazo find their food by smell. He covered portions of highly-offensive offal with a thin canvas cloth, and strewed pieces of meat on it: these the carrion-vultures ate up, and then remained quietly standing, with their beaks within the eighth of an inch of the putrid mass, without discovering it. A small rent was made in the canvas, and the offal was immediately discovered; the canvas was replaced by a fresh piece, and meat again put on it, and was again devoured by the vultures without their discovering the hidden mass on which they were trampling. These facts are attested by the signatures of six gentlemen, besides that of Mr. Bachman.

The degree to which certain birds use smell to detect food is still a controversial topic. Most birds seem to have a poor sense of smell, but others such as kiwis and certain sea birds do seem to make use of it while foraging/hunting for food. Although turkey vultures seem to have a good sense of smell, experiments have shown that it does not appear sufficiently acute to detect odours from high altitude.

167 years after Darwin performed his condor experiment, the controversy continues.

The Falklands fox: foolish dog of the south

The hapless fox from the Chiloé Archipelago wasn't the only canid remarked upon by Charles Darwin in the popular write-up of his world tour. Amongst the others was the Falklands fox, which Darwin writes about in chapter 9 of The Voyage of the Beagle:

The only quadruped native to the island; is a large wolf- like fox (Canis antarcticus), which is common to both East and West Falkland. I have no doubt it is a peculiar species, and confined to this archipelago; because many sealers, Gauchos, and Indians, who have visited these islands, all maintain that no such animal is found in any part of South America.

Molina, from a similarity in habits, thought that this was the same with his "culpeu"; but I have seen both, and they are quite distinct. These wolves are well known from Byron's account of their tameness and curiosity, which the sailors, who ran into the water to avoid them, mistook for fierceness. To this day their manners remain the same. They have been observed to enter a tent, and actually pull some meat from beneath the head of a sleeping seaman. The Gauchos also have frequently in the evening killed them, by holding out a piece of meat in one hand, and in the other a knife ready to stick them. As far as I am aware, there is no other instance in any part of the world, of so small a mass of broken land, distant from a continent, possessing so large an aboriginal quadruped peculiar to itself. Their numbers have rapidly decreased; they are already banished from that half of the island which lies to the eastward of the neck of land between St. Salvador Bay and Berkeley Sound. Within a very few years after these islands shall have become regularly settled, in all probability this fox will be classed with the dodo, as an animal which has perished from the face of the earth.

How the Falklands fox (also known as the Falklands wolf or warrah) got to the Falkland Islands, which lie 480km from the South American mainland, is still something of a mystery. Recent genetic analyses show that the animal's closest living relative is the maned wolf of South America. But these analyses also indicate that the two canids' lineages diverged over 6 million years ago—and canids do not appear in the South American fossil record until 2.5 million years ago. From this we can infer that, if absolute genetic dating is to be trusted (concerning which, I personally entertain some doubts), the two lineages most likely evolved in North America. We should expect, therefore, to find more recent ancestors of the Falklands fox in the South American fossil record. One possible candidate for such an ancestor is Dusicyon avus from Patagonia, which went extinct 6,000 to 8,000 years ago.

It is believed that the ancestors of the Falklands fox must have crossed over to the islands during the last ice age (which ended 11,500 years ago), when the lower sea-level probably caused a land-bridge between the Falkland Islands and the South American mainland. Darwin's view was that they might have crossed to the Falkland Islands on icebergs (see below). Another, very unlikely suggestion is that the fox is descended from domesticated foxes transported to the islands by the Yaghan people of Tierra del Fuego, who used culpeos as hunting dogs. But there is no archaeological evidence that any humans visited the Falkland Islands before the British first arrived there, and, as Darwin himself pointed out (see above) culpeos are quite distinct from Falkland foxes.

Falklands Fox

The Falkland fox "Canis antarcticus" from Mammalia, Part 2 No. 1 of The Zoology of the Voyage of H.M.S. Beagle by George R. Waterhouse (Charles Darwin ed.)

En route home to Blighty aboard HMS Beagle in 1835, Darwin wrote up some Ornithological and Animal Notes from the voyage, in which he included some observations about the Falklands fox:

Out of the four specimens brought home in the Beagle, three will be seen to be darker coloured, they come from the East Isd. The fourth is smaller & rusty coloured, & is from the West Isd. — Mr Lowe, who has been acquainted with these Islands for twenty years, & who is an accurate observer of Nature, asserts that this difference between the Foxes of the two Isds is invariable & constant. He says he has long since observed it. — An accurate comparison of these specimens will be interesting. I have omitted to add that the difference was corroborated by the officers of the Adventure. —

So, perhaps the Falkland fox was actually two species living on the two main Falkland Islands. If so, it would have made another wonderful example of closely related species living on adjacent islands, as was to be the case with Darwin's more famous examples of the Galápagos mockingbirds, tortoises and finches. Indeed, Darwin wrote about the Falkland fox again in passing in his ornithological notes, in an extremely famous passage about the Galápagos mockingbirds, in which he first questioned the stability of species:

… I have specimens [of Galápagos mockingbirds] from four of the larger Islands; the two above enumerated, and (3349: female. Albermarle Isd.) & (3350: male: James Isd). — The specimens from Chatham & Albermarle Isd appear to be the same; but the other two are different. In each Isld. each kind is exclusively found: habits of all are indistinguishable. When I recollect, the fact that the form of the body, shape of scales & general size, the Spaniards can at once pronounce, from which Island any Tortoise may have been brought. When I see these Islands in sight of each other, & possessed of but a scanty stock of animals, tenanted by these birds, but slightly differing in structure & filling the same place in Nature, I must suspect they are only varieties.

The only fact of a similar kind of which I am aware, is the constant | asserted difference — between the wolf-like Fox of East & West Falkland Islds.
— If there is the slightest foundation for these remarks the zoology of Archipelagoes — will be well worth examining; for such facts would undermine the stability of Species.

But, by the time Darwin came to edit The Zoology of the Voyage of H.M.S. Beagle, he was no longer of the opinion that the Falklands fox comprised two distinct species, commenting:

… Mr. Gray, of the British Museum, had the kindness to compare in my presence the specimens deposited there by Captain Fitzroy, but he could not detect any essential difference between them.

Had Darwin been more convinced that the Falklands fox comprised two species, he might well have given it/them more prominence in On the Origin of Species. As it was, however, the poor creature only earns a passing mention:

… as yet I have not found a single instance, free from doubt, of a terrestrial mammal (excluding domesticated animals kept by the natives) inhabiting an island situated above 300 miles from a continent or great continental island; and many islands situated at a much less distance are equally barren. The Falkland Islands, which are inhabited by a wolf-like fox, come nearest to an exception; but this group cannot be considered as oceanic, as it lies on a bank connected with the mainland; moreover, icebergs formerly brought boulders to its western shores, and they may have formerly transported foxes, as so frequently now happens in the arctic regions.

Nowadays, the Falkland fox is known by the scientific name Dusicyon australis, meaning literally foolish dog of the south—a reference to the animal's absence of fear of humans.

Perhaps it was this lack of fear which was the beast's undoing. For Darwin's prophesy turned out to be tragically accurate: the once-common species was hunted by American fur traders in the 1830s, and was later persecuted by Scottish settlers wishing to protect their sheep.

It is believed that the last individual Falkland fox was killed at Shallow Bay, West Falkland in 1876.

Further reading: Alas, poor warrah… New Scientist (20-Dec-2003) [subscribers only link]

The Chilean Earthquake

February 20th. - This day has been memorable in the annals of Valdivia, for the most severe earthquake experienced by the oldest inhabitant. I happened to be on shore, and was lying down in the wood to rest myself. It came on suddenly, and lasted two minutes, but the time appeared much longer. The rocking of the ground was very sensible. The undulations appeared to my companion and myself to come from due east, whilst others thought they proceeded from south-west: this shows how difficult it sometimes is to perceive the directions of the vibrations. There was no difficulty in standing upright, but the motion made me almost giddy: it was something like the movement of a vessel in a little cross-ripple, or still more like that felt by a person skating over thin ice, which bends under the weight of his body. A bad earthquake at once destroys our oldest associations: the earth, the very emblem of solidity, has moved beneath our feet like a thin crust over a fluid; - one second of time has created in the mind a strange idea of insecurity, which hours of reflection would not have produced. In the forest, as a breeze moved the trees, I felt only the earth tremble, but saw no other effect. Captain Fitz Roy and some officers were at the town during the shock, and there the scene was more striking; for although the houses, from being built of wood, did not fall, they were violently shaken, and the boards creaked and rattled together. The people rushed out of doors in the greatest alarm. It is these accompaniments that create that perfect horror of earthquakes, experienced by all who have thus seen, as well as felt, their effects. Within the forest it was a deeply interesting, but by no means an awe- exciting phenomenon. The tides were very curiously affected. The great shock took place at the time of low water; and an old woman who was on the beach told me that the water flowed very quickly, but not in great waves, to high- water mark, and then as quickly returned to its proper level; this was also evident by the line of wet sand. The same kind of quick but quiet movement in the tide happened a few years since at Chiloe, during a slight earthquake, and created much causeless alarm. In the course of the evening there were many weaker shocks, which seemed to produce in the harbour the most complicated currents, and some of great strength.

—Charles Darwin
The Voyage of the Beagle, Ch. 14

The earthquake that Darwin witnessed first-hand in 1835 destroyed the town of Concepcíon. Here's hoping today's massive Concepción earthquake is less severe.

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

Inspecting the Beagle's bottom

175 years ago today, HMS Beagle was laid ashore on the banks of the Santa Cruz River. I have written one of my rambling posts about the event over at the Beagle Project blog. I repeat it below for the sake of providing some much-needed content to this blog:

Keel Overhauled: 175 years ago, a rather ticklish operation

In early 1827, during her first voyage in South America, HMS Beagle, under the command of Captain Pringle Stokes, was beating a hasty retreat from storms in the Strait of Magellan when she struck a submerged rock near Port Desire, damaging a large section of her false keel. In December 1833, during her second voyage under Captain Robert FitzRoy, Beagle was leaving Port Desire when she once again struck a rock. FitzRoy was convinced that it was the same rock. Charged with accurately mapping the South American coast for shipping, the ever-fastidious captain returned to the spot the following month to try to locate the rock, but to no avail. The ship's carpenter, Jonathan May, assured FitzRoy that Beagle must have knocked the top off the rock with her keel.

Being about to pass through the Strait of Magellan, FitzRoy did not want to risk having a damaged hull on his ship. Although Beagle was still watertight, any damage to her copper sheathing would leave her timbers open to attack from the South Pacific's notorious wood-boring worms.

One of the books in Beagle's well-stocked library was the sealer and Antarctic explorer James Weddell's snappily entitled:

A voyage towards the South Pole performed in the years 1822–24. Containing an examination of the Antarctic Sea, to the seventy-fourth degree of latitude; and a visit to Tierra del Fuego, with a particular account of the inhabitants. To which is added, much useful information on the coasting navigation of Cape Horn, and the adjacent lands.

Weddell's book did indeed contain much useful information. In one section about the Santa Cruz River he wrote, "The rise of the tide is so great in this river, being thirty-two feet, that the keel of the largest ship may be examined, by laying her on the ground". FitzRoy decided it was time to inspect Beagle's keel. He made for the Santa Cruz and, 175 years ago today, on 16th April, 1834, Charles Darwin recorded in his Beagle Journal:

16th The Ship was laid on shore; it was found that several feet of her false keel were knocked off, but this is no essential damage; one tide was sufficient to repair her & after noon she floated off & was again moored in safety. Nothing could be more favourable than both the weather & place for this rather ticklish operation. —

The event gave us one of the most iconic images of HMS Beagle: this magnificent engraving based on a sketch by Beagle's newly installed artist in residence, Conrad Martens:

Beagle laid ashore

The Beagle laid ashore, Santa Cruz River, 16th April 1834.

To commemorate the event, FitzRoy named the spot at which they beached Beagle Keel Point. He calculated the point's latitude and 'relatively right' longitude to be: 50° 06' 45" S and 4h 33m 34s W respectively. This converts into decimal as 50.1125°S and 68.3917°W, the point indicated by the pin on this clickable Google map:

Google Map of 50.1125S 68.39166667W

The co-ordinates of Keel Point calculated by FitzRoy.

FitzRoy's calculations were pretty spot-on. The beach with the jetty to the south west of the pin is still known as Punta Quilla (Keel Point). This modern photograph of the beach clearly shows the same low, crumbling cliffs depicted in Martens' image.

I wonder if the good people of Punta Quilla know how their beach got its name, and whether they will be celebrating its 175th birthday today.


Darwin in Liverpool

Looks as if I missed an opportunity to meet Charles Darwin in the flesh this week. Well, nearly:

Paul Nettlefield as Charles Darwin

Paul Nettlefield as Charles Darwin.

Half a mile from where I work, Paul Nettlefield was playing the part of my hero at the World Museum, Liverpool. And get this, for a prop, he had a 100% genuine specimen from the Beagle voyage: an ovenbird [Cinclodes patagonica] which Darwin collected in Wolsey Sound in the Straits of Magellan in 1834. It still bears the label Darwin tied to it.

Note to self: must get down to the museum one lunchtime. There's a Darwin display!

You can read the full story in the Liverpool Daily Post.


Charles Darwin took justifiable pride in his powers of observation. In his autobiography written towards the end of his life, he wrote:

On the favourable side of the balance, I think that I am superior to the common run of men in noticing things which easily escape attention, and in observing them carefully.

Yet even Darwin's legendary attention to detail occasionally let him down. Such as the time recorded in his Beagle Diary, when he managed to travel an entire day with gauchos in Patagonia without realising that the people wearing chaps weren't all chaps:

The Spaniards, whom we some time since thought were Indians, have been employed hunting for us & have generally bivouacced near the coast. — They offered to lend me a horse to accompany them in one of their excursions; of this I gladly accepted. — The party consisted of 9 men & one woman; the greater number of the former were pure Indians, the others most ambiguous; but all alike were most wild in their appearance & attire. — As for the woman, she was a perfect non descript; she dressed & rode like a man, & till dinner I did not guess she was otherwise. —

Apparently, Charles Darwin didn't have much of an eye for the ladies.

Syms' place

Syms Covington

Syms Covington (c. 1816–1861)

On Sunday, I was pleased to see in the Sydney Morning Herald (my butler reads it) that the post office built by Syms Covington in the gold-rush town of Pambula, New South Wales is still standing, and in good working order.

Syms Covington was a cabin-boy aboard HMS Beagle. Sixteen months into the voyage, Darwin hired him as his servant, the arrangement lasting for the remainder of the voyage and beyond. In addition to more menial duties, Covington accompanied Darwin on a number of inland trips and assisted him in the collection and preparation of specimens.

On returning to England, Covington remained in Darwin's employ until 1839, when he emigrated to Australia. The two old shipmates continued to correspond intermittently until Covington's death in 1861. Covington had suffered from deafness from his youth and, on one occasion, Darwin posted him an ear-trumpet.

Syms Covington's Beagle journal is available online. His post office is now a Thai restaurant, named, rather pleasingly, Covington's Thai.

12-Jan-1836: Darwin in the Land of Oz

I'm not a particularly adventurous traveller, yet the only time my travels have crossed paths with those of HMS Beagle (albeit 164 years apart) happened on what is for me is the opposite side of the world, in Sydney, Australia. I arrived there in November, 2000; HMS Beagle, with Charles Darwin aboard, arrived there on 12th January, 1836.

Beagle at anchor

HMS Beagle at anchor in Sydney, 1836.

Here's how Darwin described his initial feelings on arriving in Australia in chapter 19 of 'The Voyage of the Beagle':

January 12th, 1836. - Early in the morning a light air carried us towards the entrance of Port Jackson. Instead of beholding a verdant country, interspersed with fine houses, a straight line of yellowish cliff brought to our minds the coast of Patagonia. A solitary lighthouse, built of white stone, alone told us that we were near a great and populous city. Having entered the harbour, it appears fine and spacious, with cliff-formed shores of horizontally stratified sandstone. The nearly level country is covered with thin scrubby trees, bespeaking the curse of sterility. Proceeding further inland, the country improves: beautiful villas and nice cottages are here and there scattered along the beach. In the distance stone houses, two and three stories high, and windmills standing on the edge of a bank, pointed out to us the neighbourhood of the capital of Australia.

At last we anchored within Sydney Cove. We found the little basin occupied by many large ships, and surrounded by warehouses. In the evening I walked through the town, and returned full of admiration at the whole scene. It is a most magnificent testimony to the power of the British nation. Here, in a less promising country, scores of years have done many more times more than an equal number of centuries have effected in South America. My first feeling was to congratulate myself that I was born an Englishman. Upon seeing more of the town afterwards, perhaps my admiration fell a little; but yet it is a fine town. The streets are regular, broad, clean, and kept in excellent order; the houses are of a good size, and the shops well furnished. It may be faithfully compared to the large suburbs which stretch out from London and a few other great towns in England; but not even near London or Birmingham is there an appearance of such rapid growth. The number of large houses and other buildings just finished was truly surprising; nevertheless, every one complained of the high rents and difficulty in procuring a house. Coming from South America, where in the towns every man of property is known, no one thing surprised me more than not being able to ascertain at once to whom this or that carriage belonged.

Darwin was to spend less than a month in New South Wales, before Beagle headed for Tazmania on the next leg of her long journey home.