Posted by: Rob Viens | October 15, 2012

“Beautiful Lizards” of the Pampas

Darwin’s next entry was on October 15th (which is good because the last couple weeks have been busy for me, too). The big news was that the renovations of the schooners was done:

“On Sunday the Schooners came down from the creek & anchored alongside.— Their appearance is much improved by their refit; but they look very small.— “La Paz” is the largest, carrying 17 tuns; La Lievrè only 11 & ½— Between the two they have 15 souls.— Mr Stokes & Mellersh are in La Paz; Mr Wickham & King in the other.— They sail on Wednesday; I look forward to our separation with much regret; our society on board can ill afford to lose such very essential members.— I am afraid the whole party will undergo many privations; the cabin in the smaller one is at present only 2 & ½ feet high! Their immediate business will be to survey South of B. Blanca: & at the end of next month we meet them at Rio Negro, in the bay of St Blas.” (Oct 13/14/15)

This was a big deal. Darwin had been left behind in Rio (in May) while the Beagle returned to Salvador for a month. However, in that case, Darwin was left in a nice house in a big city with a lot of resources.  This time, a potion of the crew (including Darwin’s friend John Wickham) would be on their own, sailing along the remote coast of Patagonia with two very small boats. I always have to remind myself that it was 1832 – help was a long way off.

Around this time Darwin also describes a lizard in his Zoological Notebook – one that clearly caught his eye:

“This is the most beautiful lizard I have ever seen: back with three rows of regular oblong marks of a rich brown: the other scales symetrically coloured either ash or light brown.— many also irregularly bright emerald green.— beneath pearly with semilunar marks of brilliant orange on throat.” (Zoological Notebook)

Thomas Bell, who later identified Darwin’s reptile samples, called this lizard Proctotretus pectinatus.  The currently accepted name is Stenocercus pectinatus a species that is primarily found in Argentina.

Image of Proctotretus pectinatus from Zoology of the Voyage of the Beagle Vol 5:

Proctotretus pectinatus

There are currently 60 species within the genus Stenocercus (commonly called the whorltail iguanas – no close relationship to the marine iguanas Darwin would famously “toss” in a few years). The whorltails belong to the family Tropiduridae – the New Word ground lizards. Interesting relatives include the lava lizards (gotta love that name) and the thornytail iguanas.

Although not the same species, below is a picture of the spiny whorltail iguana from Peru (from Wikipedia Commons):

spiny whirltail iguana

In any case, it must have been something for the world’s greatest naturalist to call this lizard “the most beautiful lizard I have ever seen”. Didn’t stop him from pickling it though…(RJV)

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  1. […] (Described earlier in “Beautiful Lizards” of the Pampas) […]


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