Posted by: Rob Viens | May 21, 2012

Stomping through the Forest like a Herd of Gomphotheres

This month, Darwin seems to have alternated “working days” with “leisure days” (or at least days where he stays at the cabin to organize his collections).  May 21st was an “on” day, and found Darwin off in the forest looking for new things to explore.  Only problem was that he kept scaring all the interesting things away:

“Took a long scramble through the woods; the bottom is so thickly strewed over with dry sticks & leaves, that in walking one makes as much noise as a large quadruped would. This is very disagreeable, as it puts all birds & animals to flight, & likewise destroys that quietness which is the principal charm of these forests.” (May 21)

Basically, Darwin felt like an elephant stomping through the forest – or more appropriately for South America, an extinct gomphothere stomping through the forest. Yes – this is a shameless attempt to bring in one of my favorite fossil proboscidea (elephants and their extinct relatives) into the blog, Gomphotheres were 4-tusked, shovel-mouthed, ancestors to elephants, whose fossils are found throughout the Americas.   They were the only proboscids to ever live in South America, and their bones are even found at archeology sites, suggesting that they did not go extinct that long ago. Anyway, I digress…

Gomphothere painting by Charles Knight (1901) and a skeleton of the genus Platybelodon from China (from Wikipedia Commons):

gomphothere reconstruction

Platybelodon skeleton

I can relate to Darwin’s situation – sometimes the forest is just so thick, you can’t help feeling like you are announcing your presence to the whole world.  Especially in contrast to the typical quiet stillness of the woods.  The same is true for other animals, too.  I was once in some thick brush in Kenya and almost jumped 10 feet in the air when I heard what sounded like an elephant running around me.  I never found out for sure what it was, but in the end I think it was a small bush pig of some sort.  It sure sounded a heck of a lot bigger than it was!

Darwin continues with another description of just how impenetrable the forest can be:

“This morning has been the fourth attempt to reach the sea by crossing a mere band of wood, each time I followed a track made by the woodmen, but as soon as that ended I was utterly disabled by the thickets from proceeding even five yards further.” (May 21)

Ah – a “mere band of wood” can be very deceiving. In this case, Darwin was most concerned about the thickness of the brush – which can be very overwhelming.  I have never been to Brazil, but I have been to underbrush so think that it could take hours to travel a half mile. It can be very frustrating – and very tiring.

This situation was probably made worse for Darwin by the fact that it was a “narrow band of forest”.  In the heart of a dense forest, light does not easily reach the forest floor and it can be quite open and easy to walk.  But when you approach the edges of the forest (or places where trees have fallen) – sunlight fuels a “fire” of growth and the underbrush can be truly impenetrable.  The worst forest I ever crossed was a clear cut that had been growing back for about 40-50 years – it was all underbrush (and since it was Alaska, it was filled with lots of nasty Devil’s Club).

Thick forests surrounding the River Paraíba do Sul by Johann Mortitz Rugendas (around 1820)

painting of the Rio Paraiba by Rugendas

Lastly, Darwin wraps up the day with some comments on the weather:

“To night there has been a good deal of lightning, & the air very sultry. Therm. 75°. — As far as I am able to judge, it would seem that in hot countries, the effect produced on the body increases in a greater ratio than the temperature; that is to say, if at present the thermometer was to rise to 85° the debilitating effects would be more than double, than if it was at 80°. ” (May 21)

And to think – it was rapidly approaching winter in Rio – good thing Darwin wasn’t there 4-5 months earlier! (RJV)

PS – It is a funny mixture of relief and sadness as I leave Beetle Mania Week! behind.  On one hand it has been a challenging exercise to focus on one topic for a week, but on the other hand, I’m already missin’ the little fellas.


  1. Challenge to myself for this week: work the word “gomphothere” into conversation! If I manage, I’ll share here.

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