Posted by: Rob Viens | November 21, 2012

“Mail Order” Specimens

This week Darwin was busy packing up his specimens for a major shipment back home. On the 19th he briefly wrote:

“Employed in packing up specimens of Nat: History for England.” (Nov 19)

It was the second time Darwin sent crates of specimens back to John Henslow and would be the last time until he returned from his long journey to points south.  Along with numerous examples of plants and animals, this set of crates contained Darwin’s important fossil finds from Bahia Blanco (see Darwin’s Sloth)

In the letter that accompanied the shipment, Darwin discussed the samples he collected but also continued to express his dissatisfaction with the droll sandy hillocks of this part of the world. He writes:

“I expect to find the wild mountainous country of Terra del. very interesting; & after the coast of Patagonia I shall thoroughily enjoy it.— I had hoped for the credit of dame Nature, no such country as this last existed; in sad reality we coasted along 240 miles of sand hillocks; I never knew before, what a horrid ugly object a sand hillock is:— The famed country of the Rio Plata in my opinion is not much better; an enormous brackish river bounded by an interminable green plain, is enough to make any naturalist groan. So hurrah for Cape Horn & the land of storms.” (Correspondence to John Henslow, Oct 26-Nov 24, 1832)

Of course, Darwin realizes that he is just “venting” his frustration.  In the next line he notes:

“Now that I have had my growl out, which is a priviledge sailors take on all occasions, I will turn the tables & give an account of my doings in Nat: History.” (Correspondence to John Henslow, Oct 26-Nov 24, 1832)

While in the muddy streets of Buenos Aires, Darwin uncovered some new clues to the location of more fossils and obtains the bones of “giants”:

“We have been at Buenos Ayres for a week.  It is a fine large city; but such a country; everything is mud; You can go no where, you can do nothing for mud.— In the city I obtained much information about the banks of the Uruguay.— I hear of Limestone with shells, & beds of shells in every direction.— I hope, when we winter in the Plata to have a most interesting Geological excursion in that country.— I purchased fragments of some enormous bones; which I was assured belonged to the former giants!!” (Correspondence to John Henslow, Oct 26-Nov 24, 1832)

I’ll come back to a few other comments from this letter later but I’ll wrap up with a short aside for today:

This shipment got me thinking about the many plants and animals that we ship today via postage stamps. For example, to commemorate some of the iconic species found along the shores of the Rio de la Plata, Uruguay released a set of postage stamps in 1970 depicting animals of Uruguay. Interestingly, all of these animals were encountered by Darwin in the past couple of months.  They include the:

Puma (see On Naming the Puma)

1970 stamp of puma

Armadillo (see Ostrich Dumplings and Armadillo Steaks)

1970 stamp of armadillo

Capybara and Coypu (or Nutria) (see Stalking the Wild Mega-Rodent)

1970 stamp of capybara

1970 stamp of coypu

and the Black Tego (more on this on in my next post)

1970 stamp of tegu

And although they are not the same as the type Darwin found, here is another set of stamps depicting the “Fossils of Uruguay”:

stamp of fossils of Uruguay

This is not terribly uncommon – many countries have placed animals on their postage stamps.  However, I find it interesting that in 1832 Darwin had to travel half-way around the word in order get a glimpse of these species.  Today we can see them peering at us from a postcard or package of imported coffee. (RJV)


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