Posted by: Rob Viens | August 16, 2012

The Sweet Smell of Burning Capybara Poop

After all the excitement of yesterday, August 16th was a quiet day for Darwin.  He writes:

“Spent the day in examining the rich produce of yesterdays labor.— The Beagle goes to sea the day after tomorrow for her first cruize.” (Aug 16)

With little detail to add about the snakes, lizards, beetles and scorpions that Darwin discovered hiding under rocks yesterday, let me add a few more observations he made about the capybara. In particular, I include these to give a small example of Darwin’s thoroughness as a scientific observer.

Capybara and young (from The Capybara web site)

First – Darwin was often quite detailed in describing the specimen.  Yesterday’s capybara was:

“a female & weighed 98 pounds.— Girth 3ft..2: Length from tip of snout to the tail 3ft..8½: Height from toes to top of shoulder 1ft..9.” (Zoological Notebook)

Second, as a proper naturalist he studied the inside as well as the out.  In this case he dissected the capybara examined it stomach:

“In the stomach and duodenum of a capybara which I opened, I found a very large quantity of a thin yellowish fluid, in which scarcely a fibre could be distinguished. Mr. Owen informs me that a part of the œsophagus is so constructed that nothing much larger than a crowquill can be passed down. Certainly the broad teeth and strong jaws of this animal are well fitted to grind into pulp the aquatic plants on which it feeds.” (Voyage of the Beagle)

It’s not all blood and guts though.  Darwin also spends time observing and recording the capybara’s behavior (while it’s still alive):

“[Their] tameness may probably be accounted for, by the Jaguar having been banished for some years, and by the Gaucho not thinking it worth his while to hunt them. … When the female is swimming in the water, and has young ones, they are said to sit on her back.” (Voyage of the Beagle)

And, lastly, what would a description of an animal be without describing the smell of its burning dung:

“The dung in shape is rounded oval; when dried & burnt smells like, but pleasanter, to Cedar wood.” (Zoological Notebooks)

I’ve always liked the smell of burning cedar.  Maybe I should get a pet capybara and a wood stove… (RJV)

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