Posted by: Rob Viens | September 16, 2013

Pampas Foxes and Other Strange Companions

Over the next couple of weeks, Darwin followed a string of General Rosas’ military outposts (postas) across northern Argentina.  In the interest of catching up (and keeping up during an incredibly crazy week), I thought I would just let Darwin speak for himself as he describes the journey.

Darwin’s next leg was from the Sierra de la Ventana to Posta #3, where he ended up waiting for a couple of days for some traveling companions.  The wait gave him a chance to describe some of the local animals, plants and people. Here are his observations of a few:

Posta 3 and the “friendly Indians”:

“Proceeded on to the 3rd Posta, in company with the Leutenant who commands it. — The distance is called fifteen leagues; but it is only guess-work & generally too much. — The road was uninteresting over a dry grassy plain, & on our left hand at a greater or less distance were low hills, a chain of which we crossed close to the Posta. — Before our arrival we met a large herd of cattle & horses, guarded by fifteen soldiers, but we were told that many had been lost. — It is very difficult to drive animals across these plains; if a lion or even a fox approaches the horses in the night, nothing can prevent their dispersing in every direction; and a storm will have the same effect. — A short time since, an officer left Buenos Ayres with 500 horses; when he arrived at the army he had under twenty.

Shortly afterwards we perceived by the cloud of dust that a party of horsemen were approaching; my companions perceived at a great distance, by the streaming hair, that they were Indians. — The Indians often have a narrow fillet round their heads, but never any covering; the long black hair blowing across their faces heightens to an uncommon degree the wildness of their appearance. — They turned out to be a part of Bernantio’s tribe going to a Salina for salt. The Indians eat much salt, the children sucking it like sugar; it is a curious contrast with the Gauchos, who living the same life, eat scarcely any. — My companions seemed to think there was not the slightest danger in meeting these gentlemen, & they know best. — but I heard the Commandante of Bahia Blanca tell one of our officers, that he thought it unsafe for two or three to visit them, although they are professedly the most friendly Indians.” (Sept 11)

“Strange” companions and “salted meat”:

“When at Bahia Blanca, General Rosas sent me a message to say that an officer with a party of men would in a day or two arrive there, & that they had orders to accompany me. As the Lieutenant of this Posta was a very hospitable person I determined to wait a couple of days for the soldiers. …

…Our party had been increased by two men who brought a parcel from the next Posta to be forwarded to the General. — there were now besides myself & guide the Lieutenant & his four soldiers.— These latter were strange beings — the first a fine young Negro; the second half Indian & Negro; & the two others quite non descripts, one an old Chilian miner of the color of mahogany, & the other partly a mulatto; but two such mongrels, with such detestable expressions I never saw before. — At night, when they were sitting round the fire & playing at cards, I retired to view such a Salvator Rosa scene. — They were seated under a low cliff, so that I could look down upon them; around the party were lying dogs, arms, remnants of Deer & Ostriches, & their long spears were struck in the ground; further, in the dark background, were horses tied up, ready for any sudden danger. — If the stillness of the desolate plain was broken by one of the dogs barking, a soldier, leaving the fire, would place his head close to the ground & thus slowly scan the horizon. Even if the noisy Teru-teru uttered its scream, there would be a pause in the conversation, & every head, for a moment, a little inclined. — (The next sentence has been deleted. It runs: ‘There was too much appearance of danger, if a little fear is like salt, this assuredly was salted meat.) What a life of misery these men appear to us to lead. — They are at least ten leagues from the Sauce Posta, & since the murder committed by the Indians, twenty from another. The Indians are supposed to have made their attack in the middle of the night; for very early in the morning, after the murder, they were luckily seen approaching this Posta. — The whole party however escaped with the troop of horses, each one taking a line for himself, & driving with him as many horses as he was able. — The little hovel, built of thistle stalks, in which they slept neither keeps out the wind or rain, indeed in the latter case, the only effect the roof had was to condense it into larger drops. They have nothing to eat excepting what they can catch, such as Ostriches, Deer, Armadilloes &c & their only fuel is the dry stalks of a small plant somewhat resembling an Aloe. The sole luxury, which these men enjoyed was smoking the little paper cigars & sucking Mattee. — I used to think that the Carrion Vulture, the constant attendant on these dreary plains, whilst seated on some little eminence, seemed by his very patience to say, “Ah when the Indians come, we shall have a feast”.”(Sept 12)

On Hunting  for dinner:

“We all sallied forth to hunt; we had no success. — there were however some animated chaces & good attempts to ball various animals. The plain here abounds with three sorts of partridges; two, very large, like hen-pheasants. — Their destroyer, a small pretty Fox, is also singularly numerous; we could not in the course of the day have seen less [than] 40 or 50 of these animals. — They were generally near their holes; but the dogs killed one.— Two of our party had separated themselves from us; on our return we found they had been rather more successful, having killed a Lion & found an Ostriches nest with 16 eggs. — These latter afforded us an excellent supper.” (Sept 13)

Pampas fox (from Wikipedia Commons):
pampas fox

OK – I can’t help but add a few words on Darwin’s fox encounters…

There are about 6 species of fox in South America (or zorro as they are called in that part of the world).  It seems likely that Darwin encountered the pampas fox (Lycalopex gymnocercus) – also called Azara’s zorro  after Félix de Azara. Azara was a Spanish naturalist who lived in the vicinity of the Rio de la Plata from 1781 to 1801. While in the area he traveled the countryside in order to create an accurate map of the region and catalog the birds and other animals that he observed. Upon returning to Europe he published Voyage dans l’Amerique meridionale depuis 1781 jusqu’en 1801. It does not appear that Darwin had the book on the Beagle, but later writings suggest that he thought highly of Azara.

Félix de Azara in 1805:

Felix e Azara

There are several genus of fox found in the world (incorporating 37 species) – including the more familiar red fox (genus Vulpes).  The vulpes are considered to be the “true foxes”, while others genus are sometimes referred to as “false foxes”.  Of course, if the South American species had been “discovered” first, that could just as easily been flipped.

Six species of Lycalopex are found in South America – including the pampas fox and another that would go on to be named Darwin’s fox (but that story will have to wait a year or so).  In addition, the genus Dusicyon consists of the now extinct Falkland Island fox/wolf – another species we’ll revisit later. The pampas fox inhabits the grasslands of northern Argentina, Uruguay and Paraguay, and (as Darwin notes) eats almost anything it can catch including ground dwelling birds. (RJV)

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