Charles Darwin and the Falkland Islands
HMS Beagle dropped anchor on 1st March 1833. Aboard was a young naturalist, Charles Darwin, twenty four years of age. His experiences during the Beagle’s round-the-world voyage changed his life and laid the foundation for the revolutionary work on evolution that has made him famous. He made two visits to the Falkland Islands (1st March – 6 April 1833 and 9 March – 7 April 1834).
Darwin’s first recorded impression of the Falklands was accurate enough:
“… the land is low and undulating with stony peaks and bare ridges; it is universally covered by a brown wiry grass, which grows on the peat”.
But he was not too impressed by what he saw:
“The whole landscape … has an air of extreme desolation”
He beach combed along the shores of Berkeley Sound, explored well to the north and to the south of Port Louis, and travelled overland with a group of gauchos to a point close to the present settlement of Goose Green and Darwin.
After a while he confessed to being a little bored:
“This is one of the quietest places we have ever been to”.
He observed the processes of gradual erosion and deposition but also speculated that the stone-runs might have been created by earthquakes shaking rocks masses from nearby mountains:
“… the bottoms of the valleys are covered in an extraordinary manner by myriads of great loose fragments of the quartz rock … spread out into level sheets or great streams.
A modern interpretation invokes the effect of countless freeze-thaw cycles during the last ice age. The stone runs were impassable on horseback, but the Wickham Heights also posed something of an obstacle as Darwin noted:
“There is one main range of quartz rock hills, whose broken barren crests gave us some trouble to cross”.
Their precise route is uncertain, but Patrick Armstrong’s research suggests that they may well have picked their way across close to Smoko Rocks. As he crossed the hills Darwin noted the folding of the rock beds and imaginatively described:
“… the curved strata … piled on each other, like the ruins of some vast and ancient cathedral ”. In his more prosaic, scientific account, he accurately noted hills that were “… anticlinal with a broken summit”.
Even the main range was similarly arched:
“… strata on its northern flank dip northward; on the summit … they are horizontal; on its southern side they are almost vertical with a southerly dip.”
Darwin’s second visit to Port Louis had just been the scene of a murderous rampage by renegade gauchos that had claimed the life, amongst others, of Matthew Brisbane, an intrepid Scottish sea captain and at the time a partner in the Port Louis cattle ranching venture. Darwin reported:
“… complicated scenes of cold-blooded murder, robbery, plunder,
suffering, such infamous conduct in almost every person …”,
Nevertheless he soon boldly set out on a horse-back journey of exploration with two of the surviving gauchos as guides. As he noted later, fortunately:
“… they had no temptation to murder me and turned out to be most excellent …”.
During the journey south Darwin and the gauchos lived off the land, butchering wild cattle as required, and spent two uncomfortable nights sleeping under their saddles. The weather was consistently bad; their horses floundered in mud and they were not sorry to turn for ‘home’. Even then, whilst fording the Fitzroy River estuary, they were caught out by a rising tide with Darwin complaining that:
“I suppose my horse fell at least a dozen times … to finish our misery … the sea … was up to the top of the horses backs and the little waves from the violent winds broke over us”.
He was also rather disappointed at the lack of wildlife seen:
“Few sorts of birds inhabit this miserable looking country …”
He summed up his trip dismissively:
“… excepting some little geology nothing could be less interesting”.
He noted that the foxes (warrahs) from East and West Falkland were different, long before he made comparable observation on the birds of the Galapagos.
But despite that claimed absence of interest Darwin was assiduously collecting all manner of zoological and botanical specimens. Sadly during the Beagle’s first visit, the young ship’s clerk had been drowned whilst trying to retrieve a shot duck, a tragedy for which Darwin felt partially responsible:
“… the motive which urged him to strip and swim after the bird he had shot, was probably a desire to get it for my collection”.
During his student days at Cambridge he had been an avid collector of beetles so not surprisingly the Falklands insects were targeted, with dead and decaying animals proving a rich source. Many specimens, including fish and some of the marine invertebrates were preserved in ‘spirits of wine’, other specimens were dried, plants were pressed, birds were skinned and dissected, with some organs pickled, and the stomach contents noted – one preserved sample consists of rats’ teeth taken from the stomach of a hawk. Uneaten rats, mice, rabbits and hares were all sampled, as was the ill-fated warrah.
At the time of Darwin’s visit the native Falklands fox, the warrah, was still common. Its presence puzzled him:
“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 a quadruped peculiar to itself ”.
He was also struck by reports of subtle differences between the warrahs of East and West Falkland and this interest, together with several other notes in his scientific journal, suggests that Darwin was already beginning to think about the development of animals in isolation, on islands. This theme was to prove fundamental to his later ideas on evolution, and the warrah is the subject of the only specific reference to the Falklands in “The Origin
of Species” (wherein Darwin speculated on an original arrival by iceberg) – but by then the unfortunate animals were nearing extinction. Noting their inquisitive nature 5 and complete lack of fear Darwin had predicted that:
“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”.
Sadly, he was right. The last known warrah was shot at Shallow Bay, West Falkland, in 1876. The skulls illustrated were collected by the Beagle expedition and are now held by The Natural History Museum, London.
Darwin noted animal behaviour too, as when describing penguins. He was aware that there were four different varieties in the Falklands but seems to have encountered only Magellanics of which he wrote:
“… this bird is commonly called the jackass penguin, from its habit, whilst on shore, of throwing its head backwards and making a loud strange noise, very like the braying of an ass …”.
He also noted that the Striated Caracaras (Johnny Rooks):
“They were constantly flying on board the vessel …and it was necessary to keep a good look out to prevent the leather being torn from the rigging … These birds are very mischievous and inquisitive; they will pick up almost anything … a large black glazed hat was carried nearly a mile …”.
The steamer ducks also caught his attention, but were than subjected to a rather extreme experiment:
“These clumsy logger-headed ducks make such a noise and splashing that the effect is exceedingly curious …The head is so strong that I have scarcely been able to fracture it with my geological hammer”.
He did not describe the kelp-beds of Berkeley Sound as ‘ecosystems’ but described the tight network of relationships of the organisms within them in a remarkably integrated way.
The folded strata of the islands confirmed in his mind that he lived in a dynamic, changing world, evidence of which he found in the fossils he discovered at Port Louis an important link in the subsequent development of continental drift theories and also understanding therefore that the climate and environment must have changed:
“The whole aspect of the Falkland Islands, were however changed to my eyes from that walk; for I found a rock abounding with shells; and these of the most interesting age”.
He described the behaviour of birds (penguins, caracaras) at a time when morphology (focuses on how animals are built and how they work) and appearance were considered more important, opening the way for his later psychological (focuses on understanding behaviour) studies (Expression of Emotions in Animals and Man).
He noted that some invertebrate forms he found in the Sound produced tens of thousands of eggs, and yet were not numerous – just a step away the ideas of competition and natural selection expressed in On the Origin of Species.
He observed the appearance and behaviour of the feral cattle and horses: one of his entry points to evolutionary ideas, much later, was through the study of domestic animals (Animals and Plants under Domestication).
He wondered about the mechanisms of dispersal of plants and animals to the islands, noticing that some of the forms found on the Falklands were similar to those of South America.
Darwin was also acutely aware of the friction between Britain and Argentina over the Falklands and regretted that the islands seemed destined to continue:
“… a bone of contention between nations”.
There are grounds for believing that his visit to the islands was of considerable significance in the development of his ideas.
Our Natural History Collection is varied and contains a range of biological and geological material. We have taxidermy displays, skins, whole skeletons, bones, fossils and rocks.
Our collection includes examples of rare fossils and bones collected right here in the Islands, like for example, the now extinct Warrah and Colleen's 'starfish' (pictured above).
The area is dominated by a 7 metre diorama that feature various birds that include a King Penguin, Rockhopper, Gentoo, Black Browed Albatross as well as the majestic and impressive Royal Albatross, plus others.
With thanks to
The historic heart of Stanley
Falkland Islands Museum & National Trust