Posted by: Rob Viens | February 18, 2013

A Curious Lack of Beetles

The weekend found Darwin performing one of his favorite pastimes – climbing mountains in search of a good view.  And to make it all the sweeter – he also found a few beetles.  The buildup to the weekend excursion started last week, while the captain was checking up on Woolya Cove. Darwin notes:

“On the 13th, a party of eight under the command of Mr Chaffers crossed Hardy peninsula so as to reach & survey the West coast. The distance was not great; but from the soft swampy ground was fatiguing. — This peninsula, although really part of an island, may be considered as the most Southern extremity of America: it is terminated by False Cape Horn. — The day was beautiful, even sufficiently so as to communicate part of its charms to the surrounding desolate scenery.— This & a view of the Pacific was all that repaid us for our trouble.” (Feb 11-15)

Ah – those squishy and “desolate” Magellanic Moorlands. I can almost hear the sounds of the crew marching through the soft, wet peat. I recall the felling well, although I had the benefit of having rubber boots that went up to my knees when I spent time in the Alaskan peatlands.  I have to remind myself that Darwin had no such benefit, and I’m sure it did not take long for the whole crew to have wet feet. (You can find a little bit about Edward Chaffers – the ship’s master who was apparently in charge of the small survey party – on an earlier post.)

On the next day, Darwin continues his trekking, only to end up on the top of a tall “hill” – which to the young naturalist could mean anything from 1000 to 4000 feet high.

“The same party started again & for the same object, but our course was rather different: Having ascended a more lofty hill, we enjoyed a most commanding view of the two oceans & their islands.— The weather was beautiful; indeed ever since being in harbour Tierra del has been doing its best to make up for the three miserable weeks at sea.” (Feb 16)

I love the image of standing on top of a mountain and seeing Pacific on one side and the Atlantic on the other. I suspect that there are few places you can really do this.  Maybe on some tall peaks in Central America, but probably a sight that not many have enjoyed.  And Darwin had good weather, too!

It is very possible that this particular peak was 1700-foot high “Kater’s Peak”, which Darwin refers to in his Zoological Notebook. The very peak where he encountered a few of the beetles that he loved so much. Here is what he had to say about beetles in Tierra del Fuego – with some annotation thrown in:

“In the Coleoptera the only genera which are abundant are some few Harpalidous & some few Heteromerous — they are chiefly found under stones high in the mountains (such as Katers peak, 1700 feet high) together with Lycosa (Arachnidæ)’ (Zoological Notebook)

The two beetle names where a little tricky to track down, as they are no longer used today.  Harpalidous refers to a type of Caribid beetle of the genus Harpalus. The Caribids are a large group of beetles more commonly known as “ground beetles”.

Harpalus affinis (a European species, from Wikipedia Commons)

Harpalus affinis

The “Heteromerous” Darwin refers to is a member of the “superfamily” of beetles now called the Tenebrionoidea.  They include about 30 families including the “blister beetles” that secret a chemical that causes blisters (duh) and the “ant-like beetles” which (big surprise) look like ants.  Based on a specimen that Darwin collected that was part of traveling collection (Chanopterus brevipennis), I suspect he was describing some ant-like beetles

Scydmaenus tersatus (a species of ant-like beetle, from “Fauna Germanica (1908) Die Käfer des Deutschen Reiches. Band 2“)

Scydmaenus tersatus an ant-like beetle

Darwin continued to describe the lack of interesting beetles in his notebook.  Alas, there would be nothing here to brag about to his cousin and fellow beetle enthusiast, William Fox:

“Scarcely any other Coleoptera, excepting a few Curculios are found … Yet there were no Orthoptera, few diptera, still fewer butterflies & no bees, this together with absence of flower feeding beetles (Cycliques) throughily convinced me, how poor a climate, that of Tierra del F is.” (Zoological Notebook)

By the way – curculios are weevils. For a lot more info on Beetles and Darwin’s interest in them, see the week of posts staring with Beetle Mania!, from last spring.

After a few days of “mucking” about, Darwin decided to spend Sunday as a true day of rest, simply commenting:

“Divine service & a quiet day.” (Feb 17)

Another week in Tierra del Fuego, then it is off to he Falkland Islands… (RJV)


  1. Thanks for sharing this – so interesting to read Darwin’s comments in context.

    • My pleasure – thanks for reading along!

  2. Three things come to mind: I love beetles. Seeing the two oceans – a wonderful experience for a traveler! And, sometimes expectations get in the way of experience. Granted, there may not have been the diversity Darwin sought, but why was that? The peat soil is an inhospitable environment, leading one to look at what IS there, and why. (Not his fault however – we stand on Darwin’s shoulders when we note the adaptation of plants and animals to difficult conditions – those that live on serpentine soils, for example) The scene certainly must have been amazing.

    • Thanks for the comments! I bet Darwin was not too disappointed by the lack of diversity. he did love the little things and grand views, so he was probably pretty content. And it is interesting to speculate (as you suggest) about the importance of seeing different degrees of diversity in different locations. I’m sure it played some role in the germination of the ideas forming in his head in the years to follow. Thanks again for the thoughts!

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