Posted by: Rob Viens | February 9, 2014

Meandering Through the Straits of Magellan

On the 26th of January the Beagle entered the Straits of Magellan. It would not be the last time Darwin saw the east coast of South America, but that day would be coming soon.

The straits are one of the more prominent features named after the famous Portuguese explorer, however, it is hard to throw a rock in coastal Patagonia and Tierra del Fuego and not find a place that Magellan didn’t touch in some way. Darwin was always acutely aware of those that came before him (being an avid reader) and he pondered Magellan’s first trip through the straits as he made his own first trip through the passage:

“Came to an anchor in St Gregory Bay; these days we have beaten against strong Westerly gales. — the tide here rises between 40 & 50 feet & runs at the rate of between 5 & 6 miles per hour. Who can wonder at the dread of the early navigators of these Straits?” (Jan 29)

Although the strait generally makes for a safer route to the Pacific (compared to Drake Passage to the south – see “A More Disagreeable Way of Spending Time”), it is not devoid of hazards. As Darwin points out the tides can be quite extreme in the eastern end of the straits, and the winds can be very strong as they pass through the gap.  In places they are only a little over 1 mile (~2 km) wide – combined with other factors this can make navigation difficult.

Straits of Magellan (from Wikipedia Commons – click for a larger image)

Map of the Straits of Magellan

The straits mark the southern end of the South American mainland – with islands of Tierra del Fuego forming the land to the south. Magellan was the first European to “discover” the 570-km-long passage, and since it was on All Saints Day (Nov 1) 1520, he named it the Straits of All Saints (Estrecho de Todos los Santos). However, after the survivors of Magellan’s voyage returned to Spain, King Charles V began calling it the Straits of Magellan, and the name stuck. The first real accurate mapping of the straits was actually done on the first Beagle voyage by Phillip Parker King. FitzRoy was here to fill in some of the details.

For the first few days in the straits Darwin describes his encounters with the local people, who he referes to as the Toldos.  I believe these are more accurately the Tehuelche people, whom Magellan referred to as the Patagons (see Ringing in the New Year in Tehuelche Territory). I’ll let Darwin describe his initial impressions:

“On shore there were the Toldos of a large tribe of Patagonian Indians. — Went on shore with the Captain & met with a very kind reception. These Indians have such constant communication with the Sealers, that they are half civilized. — they talk a good deal of Spanish & some English. Their appearance is however rather wild. — they are all clothed in large mantles of the Guanaco, & their long hair streams about their faces. — They resemble in their countenance the Indians with Rosas, but are much more painted; many with their whole faces red, & brought to a point on the chin, others black. — One man was ringed & dotted with white like a Fuegian. — The average height appeared to be more than six feet; the horses who carried these large men were small & ill fitted for their work. When we returned to the boat, a great number of Indians got in; it was a very tedious & difficult operation to clear the boat; The Captain promised to take three on board, & every one seemed determined to be one of them. — At last we reached the ship with our three guests. — At tea they behaved quite like gentlemen, used a knife & fork & helped themselves with a spoon. — Nothing was so much relished as Sugar. They felt the motion & were therefore landed.” (Jan 29)

Patagonian at Gregory Bay by Conrad Martens

Patagonian by Conrad Martens

“A large party went on shore to barter for mantles. &c. The whole population of the Toldos were arranged on a bank, having brought with them Guanaco skins, ostrich feathers &c &c. The first demand was for fire-arms & of course not giving them these, tobacco was the next; indeed knives, axes &c were of no esteem in comparison to tobacco. — It was an amusing scene & it was impossible not to like these mis-named giants, they were so throughily good-humoured & unsuspecting. — An old woman, well known by the name of Santa Maria, recognized Mr Rowlett as belonging formerly to the Adventure & as having seen him a year & a half ago at the R. Negro, to which place a part of this tribe had then gone to barter their goods. Our semi-civilized friends expressed great anxiety for the ship to return & one old man wanted to accompany us. — Got under weigh & beat up to Elizabeth island & there came to an anchor. Some Patagonians near Peckets harbor made three large fires, as did also the Fuegians on the more distant Southern shore. — Which signs of their proximity we are sorry to see.” (Jan 30)

“The Ship came to an anchor in Shoal Harbor; but it was found inconvenient; she then doubled Cape Negro & again anchored in Lando Bay. — The boats were lowered & a party went on shore. — no good water could be found.” (Jan 31)

Next stop – the delightful Port Famine… (RJV)

Posted by: Rob Viens | February 6, 2014

Earth, Wind and Tierra del Fuego

Yikes – time sure does fly!

After recovering from his lack of water, the middle of January found Darwin in transit – first back to Port Desire to pick up the Adventure, and them back south to the Straits of Magellan.

With little vegetation in Port San Julian (and Port Desire) the geology lay naked and exposed, and Darwin took advantage of the opportunity to examine the rocks. In true naturalist form, he managed to discuss geology, biology, history and archeology in one short diary entry:

“Went out walking, & found some fine fossil shells. — The country precisely resembles that of Port Desire. — it is a little more uneven, & from the absence even of brackish water, there are fewer animals. The Guanacoe who drinks salt water is of course to be seen. — Two things have been found here for which we cannot account: on a low point there is a large Spanish oven built of bricks, & on the top of a hill a small wooden cross was found. Of what old navigators these are the relics it is hard to say. — Magellan was here & executed some mutineers; as also did Drake & called the Island “true justice”. ” (Jan 14)

He actually discusses the geology in much more detail in Voyage of the Beagle.  Here are his first impressions:

“The geology of Patagonia is interesting. Differently from Europe, where the tertiary formations appear to have accumulated in bays, here along hundreds of miles of coast we have one great deposit, including many tertiary shells, all apparently extinct. The most common shell is a massive gigantic oyster, sometimes even a foot in diameter.” (Voyage of the Beagle)

This is the oyster that Darwin refers to as Ostrea patagonica (now Crassostrea pataginica), which was deposited in the late Miocene (around 5-10 million years ago) – another of the many species first described by d’Orbigney.

Here is an image of a Miocene oyster from Patagonia from the blog Coleccionismo a Full (follow the link for more images of the author’s collection):

Patagonian oyster fossil

Darwin goes on to describe the layers of rock found in the region.  I particularly like how he considers the amount of time it would have taken to pulverize all that rock:

“These beds are covered by others of a peculiar soft white stone, including much gypsum, and resembling chalk, but really of a pumiceous nature. … These white beds are everywhere capped by a mass of gravel, forming probably one of the largest beds of shingle in the world: it certainly extends from near the Rio Colorado to between 600 and 700 nautical miles southward; at Santa Cruz (a river a little south of St. Julian), it reaches to the foot of the Cordillera; half way up the river, its thickness is more than 200 feet; it probably everywhere extends to this great chain, whence the well-rounded pebbles of porphyry have been derived: we may consider its average breadth as 200 miles, and its average thickness as about 50 feet. If this great bed of pebbles, without including the mud necessarily derived from their attrition, was piled into a mound, it would form a great mountain chain! When we consider that all these pebbles, countless as the grains of sand in the desert, have been derived from the slow falling of masses of rock on the old coast-lines and banks of rivers; and that these fragments have been dashed into smaller pieces, and that each of them has since been slowly rolled, rounded, and far transported, the mind is stupified in thinking over the long, absolutely necessary, lapse of years. Yet all this gravel has been transported, and probably rounded, subsequently to the deposition of the white beds, and long subsequently to the underlying beds with the tertiary shells. ” (Voyage of the Beagle)

“Stupified”indeed! 🙂

Given the region’s climate, the cross Darwin observed on January 14th could have been the one left by Magellan 300 years earlier.  For more on that story see Treacherous Rocks and Mutineers.

Speaking of climate, much of the next few days was taken up by bad weather.  Darwin wrote:

“A heavy gale of wind from the SW; several breezes from that quarter have reminded us of the neighbourhead of Tierra del Fuego.” (Jan 15)

“Bad weather preventing the completion of the survey has detained us these days.” (Jan 16-18)

The climate of the San Julian region is pretty temperate with temperatures ranging from lows around 0°C (in June/July) to 20°C (December, January and February).  Rainfall varies a little, ranging from only 1 to 2 cm per month. Since Darwin was visiting in the Argentine summer, it is likely that most days were probably pretty pleasant.

Check out the monthly temperature and precipitation averages for Port San Julian from (follow the link for additional climate data).

average temps in San Julian

average precipitation in San Julian

The following week saw the Beagle in transit, about which Darwin didn’t have much to say.  He described the journey in his diary:

“Made sail very early in the morning, & with a fair breeze ran up to Port Desire; next day anchored off the mouth & with the young flood entered the harbor.” (Jan 19)

“I landed directly the ship came to an anchor, & had some collecting. — On an headland projecting into the sea, I found a heap of stones similar to the ones already described. There was a tooth & head of thigh bone, all crumbling into earth. — in a few years no traces would be left: This explains the apparent absence of bones in the grave, made with so much labor, on the top of the hill. The Adventure is ready for sea & with her new square top-sail will doubtless sail well.” (Jan 20)

“The Adventure & Beagle stood out to sea. — At sunset the Adventure steered for West Falkland Island & we came to an anchor under Watchman Cape.” (Jan 22)

“After Latitude observations at noon we made sail for the Straits of Magellan.” (Jan 23)

“With a fair wind, we passed the white cliffs of Cape Virgins & entered those famous Straits. (Jan 26)

We’ll pick up the story in the straits in the next entry… (RJV)

Posted by: Rob Viens | January 21, 2014

Survivor: Darwin – Season 2

survivor Darwin logo

Every now and then Darwin’s adventures sound a bit like a modern-day reality show – granted with all the danger and none of the prize money. One of the best examples so far happened in 1832, when Darwin and part of the crew were stranded on a beach near Bahia Blanca for several days with no food or supplies (see Stranded, Cold and Hungry and Survivor: Darwin). (Good news – they were rescued!)

This time it was lack of water that created difficulties. The adventure started on the 10th with the need to overcome some rough terrain:

“Went up to the head of the Harbor. — the boat being aground on a mud-bank, we were all obliged to lounch for a half mile through mud & water & did not reach the vessel till late at night & very cold we all were. — In the dark we were puzzled by seeing another ship. — it turned out to be a French whaler, which in the morning came over the bar neck or nothing. The French Government gives a great bounty to all Whalers, I suppose to encourage a breed of good seamen; but from what we have seen of them, it  will be a difficult task. — all the officers are brought up in the English trade & it is curious to hear every word of command in their boats given in English.” (Jan 10)

“Reserva peninsula san julian” (from Google Earth by Markovacic)

San Julian Inlet

At least this time they made it back to the ship. On the 11th, the survey team was back at the head of the harbor – once again pushing the limits of their endurance:

“Again I started with the Captain to the head of the harbor. — it suddenly came on to blow hard. — so the Captain ran the boat on shore & we & four of the boats crew all armed proceeded on foot. — It turned out to [be] a very long walk; in the evening two of the party could not walk any further & we were all excessively tired. — It was caused by a most painful degree of thirst; & as we were only 11 hours without water, I am convinced it must be from the extreme dryness of the atmosphere.” (Jan 11)

While the rest of the team was too exhausted to continue, Darwin once again played the hero and set off in search of water.  His description of the adventure is brief:

“Earlier in the day we experienced a great mortification; a fine lake was seen from a hill; I & one of the men volunteered to walk there, & not till quite close did we discover that it was a field solid of snow-white salt. — the whole party left their arms with the two who were knocked up & returned to the boat. Fresh men were then sent off with some water, & we made a signal fire, so that by 11 oclock we were all collected & returned to the Ship.” (Jan 11)

More interesting (and telling about Darwin) is FitzRoy’s view Darwin’s solo journey to the “salinas”.  His version makes it sound a little more dangerous, and Darwin a bit more heroic:

“One day Mr Darwin and I undertook an excursion in search of fresh-water, to the head of the inlet, and towards a place marked in an old Spanish plan, “pozos de agua, dulce;” but after a very fatiguing walk not a drop of water could be found. I lay down on the top of a hill, too tired and thirsty to move farther, seeing two lakes of water, as we thought, about two miles off, but unable to reach them. Mr Darwin, more accustomed than the men, or myself, to long excursions on shore, thought he could get to the lakes, and went to try. We watched him anxiously from the top of the hill, named in the plan “Thirsty Hill”, saw him stoop down at the lake, but immediately leave it and go on to another, that also he quitted without delay, and we knew by his slow returning pace that the apparent lakes were “salinas”. We then had no alternative but to return, if we could, so descending to meet him at one side of the height, we all turned eastward and trudged along heavily enough. The day had been so hot that our little stock of water was soon exhausted, and we were all more or less laden with instruments, ammunition, or weapons. About dusk I could move no further, having foolishly carried a heavy double-barrelled gun all day besides instruments, so, choosing a place which could be found again, I sent a party on and lay down to sleep; one man, the most tired next to me, staying with me. A glass of water would have made me quite fresh, but it was not to be had. After some hours, two of my boat’s crew returned with water, and we very soon revived. Towards morning we all got on board, and no one suffered afterwards from the over-fatigue, except Mr Darwin, who had had no rest during the whole of that thirsty day—now a matter of amusement, but at the time a very serious affair.” (Captain FitzRoy’s Narratives)

Although Darwin made light of the adventure in his diary, the lack of water and strenuous hike had an adverse effect on him. For the next two days he was laid up in bed recovering:

“I was not much tired although I reached the boat in the first division; but the two next days was very feverish in bed.” (Jan 12-13)

It is clear from this adventure and Darwin’s many actions for the good of the crew over the past 2 years, that he had long since earned his position on the ship.  He may have been “extra baggage” at the beginning, and I’m sure the seamen did not think very highly of the “rich guy holed up in his cabin throwing up and eating raisons” for the first month of the trip.  But his actions over the past two years showed that Darwin was as worthy to serve on the HMS Beagle as any seasoned sailor… (RJV)

Posted by: Rob Viens | January 19, 2014

The Last of the Red-Hot Litopterns

On the 9th of January Darwin arrived in Puerto San Julián:

“During these days we surveyed the coast & at night either anchored or stood out to sea. There are many rocks & breakers lying some way from the land & a ship ought not to come near them. The table land of Port Desire, is continued to St Julian, but in many places interrupted by great vallies; & large patches have been entirely removed, so that the outline resembles fortifications. The Beagle anchored off the mouth of the harbor & the Captain went in to sound the bars. He landed me & I found some most interesting geological facts. — At sunset we went on board, & the Captain took the ship into the harbor.” (Jan 5-9)

Among the “interesting geological facts” was the last in a suite of “megafauna” collected by Darwin (and later described by Richard Owen in Zoology of the Voyage of the Beagle).  It is pretty amazing – Darwin actually discovered or at least described representatives of almost all of large mammals that roamed South America in the Pleistocene (toxodons, mammoths, ground sloths, glyptodonts, oh my!).  Had he found any predator fossils (namely large saber-toothed cats) he would have covered pretty much everything. On the other hand, it is interesting that he did not uncover a single dinosaur fossils – for which Argentina is particularly well known. Maybe because he was exploring younger sedimentary rocks along the coast. Or the fossils he uncovered came from relatively soft, unconsolidated sediments and sedimentary rocks.  He may well have walked on rocks with dinos, but if they were too hard to release their treasures he would never have known.

In a letter to John Henslow, Darwin later wrote of his love for these “fossil-bearing rocks” and the age-old conflict (at least among geologists) between the choice between “soft-rock” geology (sedimentary rocks and fossils) and “hard-rock” geology (igneous and metamorphic rocks):

“I am quite charmed with Geology but like the wise animal between two bundles of hay, I do not know which to like the best, the old crystalline group of rocks or the softer & fossiliferous beds.— When puzzling about stratification &c, I feel inclined to cry a fig for your big oysters & your bigger Megatheriums.— But then when digging out some fine bones, I wonder how any man can tire his arms with hammering granite.” (Correspondence to John Henslow, March 1834)

Geological in-jokes aside, this last fossil that Darwin uncovered (and was the first to “discover”) was from the Order Litopterna– a llama-like grazing mammal of the pampas. In particular, it was later identified as Macrauchenia patachonica, which would go on to become one of the best-known representatives of the litopterns.

Reconstruction of a Macrauchenia (on Wikipedia Commons by Kobrina Olga)


Macrauchenia was almost a creature out of mythology – having the body of a large camel, the head of a tapir and the 3-toed feet of a rhino. Darwin describes it as such:

“At Port St. Julian, in some red mud capping the gravel on the 90-feet plain, I found half the skeleton of the Macrauchenia Patachonica, a remarkable quadruped, full as large as a camel. It belongs to the same division of the Pachydermata with the rhinoceros, tapir, and palæotherium; but in the structure of the bones of its long neck it shows a clear relation to the camel, or rather to the guanaco and llama.” (Voyage of the Beagle)

Foot bones of a macrauchenia from Zoology of the Voyage of the Beagle

Macrauchenia foot bones

Macrauchenia grew to be about 10-feet long (~3 m) and weighed around half a ton. Herds of these litopterns would have been found grazing the ancient pampas, using their trunks to help bring food to their mouth (like an elephant).  It is also thought that the trunks were an adaptation to dry, dusty conditions – serving as a sort-of filter to the nostrils which were located on the top of the skull.  And those long legs with rhino like hoofs?  Those where thought to help protect these prehistoric ungulates by allowing them to deliver powerful kicks (like giraffes) and evade predators by running, leaping and jumping.  In fact, studies of the bones structure of the lower leg and feet suggest that they were very agile and had the ability to rapidly change direction while running.  And they had some nasty predators to avoid. Not only where the grasslands inhabited by the aforementioned saber-toothed cats (which came from North America about 3 million years ago), but they were also the long-time home to the 3-10 ft (~1-3 m) tall “terror birds” that evolved in South America and made up the top of the food chain.

Macrauchenia skeleton (from the Royal Ontario Museum)

macrauchenia skeleton

Litopterns appear to be are closely related to the toxodons (see Toxodon Dentistry), and both orders may have evolved from the same primitive ungulate (the condylarth) that led to modern hoofed animals – such as the artiodactyls (cows, deer, hippos, pigs, whales, camels, etc.), perissodactyls (horses, tapirs, rhinos, etc.) and proboscids (elephants). Others think that the litopterns may have branched off from the other ungulates much earlier in the Cenozoic Era.  But either way, even though they look like a cross between a camel and a tapir, litopterns are an entirely different beast.

Ironically, the litopterns that survived the “Great American Interchange” (see Bridging the Continents) ended up in direct competition with a very similar group of animals that evolved in North America – the camels and llamas.  As Darwin could tell you by the abundance of guanacos (a type of camel) – it was the later that where still around in 1834. The macrauchenia and their kin didn’t make it into the Holocene – having gone completely extinct (along with the ground sloths, toxodons and glyptodons) by about 10,000 years ago. As I’ve probably said before, the world is a poorer place for their loss. (RJV)

Posted by: Rob Viens | January 8, 2014

Treacherous Rocks and Mutineers

On January 4th the Beagle departed Port Desire for a sort excursion down the coast to Puerto San Julián. The most exciting part of the trip (which took the better part of a day) was the fact that the Beagle hit a rock on its way out of the bay – the very same rock, insisted FitzRoy, that the Beagle had hit 5 years earlier on its first voyage.  Darwin writes:

“The Adventure not being ready for sea, the Captain determined to run down to Port St Julian about 110 miles to the South & to survey some of the intermediate coast. — We floated with a strong tide out of harbor; it is called backing & filling from a particular manner of sailing the vessel & is a ticklish operation. — Having passed the narrows, made sail: in a few minutes we struck rather heavily on a rock; — the tide was ebbing, but with good fortune she struck only twice more & then went over. — The Beagle, in her last voyage, struck in the night & as is now supposed, on the same rock. — the summit is so small that the next day it could not be found by any efforts. — On both occasions the Beagle has received no essential damage; for the which all in her ought to be grateful. — At night we anchored off the coast.” (Jan 4)

Port St. Julian from an early edition of George Anson’s Voyage Round the World (via – click on the link above for more on George Anson.
Port St Julian

Puerto San Julián is the next major inlet located south of Port Desire – roughly about 180 km (~110 mi) away. The two ports have a lot of similarities, but also a few differences, too.  Like Port Desire, Puerto San Julián has always been a popular stop for explorers traveling up and down the coast, and in fact, the two ports saw some of the same famous visitors.  Both Ferdinand Magellan and Sir Francis Drake stopped in both places, and both chose to overwinter in Puerto San Julián for several months before traveling through the Straits of Magellan to the Pacific.  I assume that the protected nature of the inlet made it an ideal location. But St. Julian brought problems for both captains, too.

In 1520, bad weather, bad luck and a mixture of Portuguese and Spanish crews led to a mutiny by three of the captains on the Magellan expedition. Magellan quickly put an end to the rebellion but not before several men (including 2 of the captains) were killed (including several who were drawn and quartered or impaled on stakes).  It would turnout to be only one of the many tragedies to befall the Magellan expedition, which returned to Spain 2 years later with only 18 crewman (of the original ~250) and 1 ship. Magellan himself never completed the journey.

Ferdanand Magellan (The quote states “Ferdinan Magellanus superatis antarctici freti angustiis clariss.” – Fedinand Magellan, you overcame the famous, narrow, southern straits (via Wikipedia Commons))

Ferdinand Magellan

Almost 60 years later Sir Francis Drake spent the winter in Puerto San Julián, where he found some of the “remains” of Magellan’s mutineers.  Ironically he had his own trouble with discontent and tried one of his own men – Thomas Doughty – for mutiny in the very same spot.  Doughty lost his head.  (Read the poetic version of the story in Robert Ervin Howard’s poem The One Black Stain.)

Puerto San Julián later developed into a much quieter and docile small town of sheep herders. Today it is even smaller than Port Desire (about 6,000 compared to 15,000 people).  I guess sheep are less lucrative than fish… (RJV)

Posted by: Rob Viens | January 4, 2014

Having Dinner with Darwin’s Rhea

One of my favorite “Darwin stories” took place on January 3rd, though Darwin barely notes the incident in his diary.  He mainly talks about taking down a large guanaco:

“During these days I have had some very long & pleasant walks. — The Geology is interesting. I have obtained some new birds & animals.  I also measured barometrically the height of the plain which must so lately have been beneath the sea; it has an altitude of 247 feet. — Yesterday I shot a large Guanaco, which must, when alive, have weighed more than 200 pounds. — Two males were fighting furiously & galloping like race horses with their ears down & necks low; they did not see me & passed within 30 yards; & then I settled the contest by shooting the Persecutor.” (Jan 3, 1833)

More interesting than the guanaco is the “new bird” that he collected, and even more entertaining is how he collected it. The story plays out a little better in Voyage of the Beagle, starting back in northern Argentina when he heard tell of a rare “ostrich:

“When at the Rio Negro in Northern Patagonia, I repeatedly heard the Gauchos talking of a very rare bird which they called Avestruz Petise. They described it as being less than the common ostrich (which is there abundant), but with a very close general resemblance. They said its colour was dark and mottled, and that its legs were shorter, and feathered lower down than those of the common ostrich. It is more easily caught by the bolas than the other species. The few inhabitants who had seen both kinds, affirmed they could distinguish them apart from a long distance. The eggs of the small species appeared, however, more generally known; and it was remarked, with surprise, that they were very little less than those of the Rhea, but of a slightly different form, and with a tinge of pale blue. This species occurs most rarely on the plains bordering the Rio Negro; but about a degree and a half further south they are tolerably abundant.” (Voyage of the Beagle)

This rare bird turns out to be the Lesser Rhea, which along with the Greater Rhea is one of two living species of Rhea (for more on Rheas and other ratites see A Wish for Wing that Work). Finding new species, especially large mammals or birds, was especially exciting for Darwin, who had plans of returning to England will all sorts of new discoveries.  In the world of “new species”, the first person to discover and describe the species gets naming rights, as well as their name (and year of discovery) linked to the species name for all eternity.  New species meant respect of the scientific community, fame in zoological circles and a certain degree of immortality.  Darwin was in it to win it…

Greater Rhea (from Wikipedia Commons) – Darwin had seen a lot of these in his travels.

Greater Rhea

So it makes it all the more amusing that before he realized what he was doing, Darwin found himself eating the bird that he wanted to immortalize him:

 “When at Port Desire, in Patagonia (lat. 48°), Mr. Martens shot an ostrich; and I looked at it, forgetting at the moment, in the most unaccountable manner, the whole subject of the Petises, and thought it was a not full-grown bird of the common sort. It was cooked and eaten before my memory returned.” (Voyage of the Beagle)

Can you imagine that moment of insight when he realized what he was doing?  Something like, “Mmm, this is a really good ostrich.  It is even better than that last one I ate with the gauchos….maybe because it was a just a tender young bird.  You know…because it was smaller… a lot like that Avestruz Petise I have been looking for….wait a minute… Holy $h!^!  This is the rare bird I have been looking for these last 6 months!  Everybody stop eating now!  Gather up all the bones, quick!”

And sure enough that is what he did.  Darwin ran around collecting all the crewed on remains and gathered them up. He presumably even dug through the feathers and claws that had been removed before cooking and saved those, too.  Then he sent the whole thing back to England so the “new” species could be described and cataloged. And the best part… it was this specimen, described by John Gould back in England, that was identified as a new species and put on exhibit in Zoological Museum in London!

Here is how Darwin wrapped up the story:

“Fortunately the head, neck, legs, wings, many of the larger feathers, and a large part of the skin, had been preserved; and from these a very nearly perfect specimen has been put together, and is now exhibited in the museum of the Zoological Society. Mr. Gould, in describing this new species, has done me the honour of calling it after my name.” (Voyage of the Beagle)

I have to wonder if it is still on exhibit – can you imagine seeing the very Rhea that Darwin ate before realizing that he was eating a new and rare specimen!

Darwin’s Rhea aka the Lesser Rhea (by John Gould from Zoology of the Voyage of the Beagle)

Darwins Rhea

As for the fame, well, it was a mixed bag.  It turns out that Darwin’s nemesis, the French naturalist Alcide d’Orbigny, who had traveled through the area a few months before, had already described the species (see Darwin’s Nemesis and the Naming of Species).  So naming rights, and the immortality that goes along with it, went to him (the full species name is Rhea pennata d’Orbigny, 1834). However, John Gould’s common name for the species stuck and even today the Lesser Rhea is more commonly known as Darwin’s Rhea. Not that Darwin’s immortality is not already pretty secure…(RJV)

Posted by: Rob Viens | January 3, 2014

Wishing for Fresh Water in Port Desire

From the 28th to 30th of December, Darwin, along with Edward Chaffers and several crewmen, journeyed upstream into the estuary of the Deseado River, where he correctly surmised that it flowed all the way from the Andes. Chaffers was the ship’s master – you can find a little more about him and his role in the post John Clements Wickham – Tortoise Herder. Meanwhile here is what Darwin had to say about the survey expedition:

“The Yawl, under the command of Mr Chaffers with three days provisions, was sent to survey the head of the creek. — In the morning we searched for some watering places mentioned in an old Chart of the Spaniards.— We found one creek, at the head of which there was a small rill of brackish water. — Here the tide compelled us to stay some hours. — I, in the interval, walked several miles into the interior. The plain, as is universally the case, is formed of sandy chalk, & gravel; from the softness of these materials it is worn & cut up by very many vallies. — There is not a tree, &, excepting the Guanaco, who stands on some hill top a watchful sentinel over his herd, scarcely an animal or a bird. — All is stillness & desolation. One reflects how many centuries it has thus been & how many more it will thus remain.— Yet in this scence without one bright object, there is a high pleasure, which I can neither explain or comprehend. — In the evening, we sailed a few miles further & then pitched the tents for the night.” (Dec 28)

Bivouac at the head of Port Desire inlet – an engraving from FitzRoy’s Narratives (by S. Bull after a sketch by Conrad Martens – from Dec 29?)

Bivouac at the head of Port Desire inlet

“By the middle of the day the Yawl could not get any higher, from the shoalness of the water & the number of mud-banks. — One of the party happening to taste the water found it only brackish. — Mr Chaffers, directly after dinner started in the dingy, & after proceeding two or three miles found himself in a small fresh water river. — Small as it is, it appears to me probable, that it flows from the Cordilleras, the water is muddy as if flooded, & this is the time of year for the snow freshes of the Colorado, Sauce &c. — Mr Chaffers saw in a little valley a lame horse, with his back marked by the saddle; so that the Indians must have left him there or were then in the neighbourhead. The views here were very fine & rude; the red porphyry rock rises from the water in perpendicular cliffs, or forms spires & pinacles in its very course. — Excepting in this respect the country is the same. — At night we were all well pleased at our discovery of the little river; which, however, was no discovery as a Sealer had said some years ago that he had been up it.” (Dec 29)

I love the imagery of the centuries of “stillness & desolation” and the unexplainable “high pleasure” that Darwin feels in visiting the barren landscape.

On the 30th it was back to the ship:

“We got under weigh at four oclock & reached Guanaco Island by midday. —as the weather was cold & wet, I determined to walk to the ship. — It turned out to be a very long one, from the number of inlets & creeks: The geology well repaid me for my trouble, & I found likewise a small pool of quite fresh water.” (Dec 30)

Guanacoe Island, Port Desire (by Conrad Martens)

Guanacoe Island by Conrad Martens

Although a good harbor, Port Desire is still a relatively small town of about 15,000 with an economy centered on the fishing industry.  Interestingly one of the few things that shows up on the Google map (below) is a touring service named after Darwin.  I know I’ve said it before, but what would Darwin have thought of that?

A close up image of Port Desire and the estuary from Google Maps.

Zoom into the map to see details – notice there is not a tree in sight.(RJV)

Posted by: Rob Viens | January 2, 2014

Longing for Ancient Oceans in Port Desire

The holidays have left me with a little catching up to do to, so today I thought I’d share a few words from Darwin’s last few entries in December – mainly about his recent port of call, Port Desire.

As I mentioned in an earlier post, the Beagle arrived in Port Desire in southern Argentina on December 23rd, after a 16 day voyage.  Darwin’s only entry during that time describes his arrival:

“Arrived at Port Desire. — Our passage has been a very long one of seventeen days; the winds generally being light & foul. — with the exception of a fresh gale or two. —

The Adventure delayed us: she is found not to sail well on a wind; & at this place her sails will be altered. — The harbor of Port Desire, is a creek which runs up the country in the form of a river: the entrance is very narrow; but with a fine breeze, the ‘Beagle entered in good style.” (Dec 8-23)

Port Desire (now called by it’s Spanish name Puerto Deseado) is located at the mouth of the Río Deseado on the large peninsula of land that “sticks out” into the Atlantic in southern Argentina. The Río Deseado begin’s its journey in the Andes Mountains over 600 km to the west, and travels across the arid plains of Argentina’s Santa Cruz province. The ocean floods the mouth of the river forming a deep water port and a nutrient rich estuary (now preserved as Reserve Natural Ría Deseado).

The Río Deseado a short ways inland of Port Desire. (from Wikipedia Commons)

Deseado River


From the image above, it is not surprising that Darwin talks a lot about the geology here.  It is raw and exposed as well as any place on Earth. The next day he took he first walk about in the desert to examine the rocks (and in the process brought home Christmas dinner):

“Took a long walk on the North side: after ascending some rocks there is a great level plain, which extends in every direction but is divided by vallies. — I thought I had seen some desart looking country near B. Blanca; but the land in this neighbourhead so far exceeds it in sterility, that this alone deserves the name of a desart. — The plain is composed of gravel with very little vegetation & not a drop of water. In the vallies there is some little, but it is very brackish. — It is remarkable that on the surface of this plain there are shells of the same sort which now exist. — & the muscles even with their usual blue colour. — It is therefore certain, that within no great number of centuries all this country has been beneath the sea. Wretched looking as the country is, it supports very many Guanacoes. — By great good luck I shot one; it weighed without its entrails &c 170 pounds: so that we shall have fresh meat for all hands on Christmas day.” (Dec 24)

As in so many places, Darwin’s observations supported what he had recently read in Charles Lyell’s Principles of Geology – that relative sea level had changed.  In many cases, this was evidence for a relative drop in sea level (which could mean uplifting the land or an actual drop in the ocean surface), as seen in the shells he found high and dry on old marine terraces.  There is a simple joy that comes from the contrast that is created by the fact that these flat desert plains were once the floor of an ancient sea.  I still remember the mental images that first came to me when I found my first shells on the desert mesas of the Southwestern US and in the dry plains of the state of Kansas. I can completely relate to what Darwin was experiencing – flashing images of the past in stark contrast to the present. It’s one of the reasons I love geology.

After the “Christmas Day Olympics”, Darwin was back to exploring the landscape around Port Desire:

“The Beagle is anchored opposite to a fort erected by the old Spaniards. — It was formerly attempted to make a settlement here; but it quite failed from the want of water in the summer, & the Indians in the winter. — The buildings were begun in very good style, & remain a proof of the strong hand of old Spain. — Some of the enclosures & some cherry trees may yet be seen. — The fate of all the Spanish establishments on the coast of Patagonia, with the exception of the R. Negro, has been miserable. — Port Famine, as it is well known, expresses the sufferings of the settlers. — At St Josephs every man, excepting two, was massacred by the Indians on a Sunday when in church. — The two were prisoners some years with the Indians; one of them, now in extreme old age, I conversed with at R. Negro.

I walked this day to some fine cliffs, five miles to the South: here the usual geological story, of the same great oyster bed being upheaved in modern days was very evident. — In the evening weather very cold, — & a Tierra del Fuego gale of wind.” (Dec 26)

Conrad Martens captured some of this remnants of past settlements in Ruins, North side of the Harbour of Port Desire. Decr 23 1833 by Conrad Martens (note the Adventure at anchor in the foreground)

Ruins by Conrad Martens

Port Desire is one of those anchorages that was used by explorers for many years prior to Darwin’s arrival in 1833. As is true of many of the prominent ports in Argentina, Ferdinand Magellan passed through this area in 1520. Later in 1586, the privateer Sir Thomas Cavendish (at the age of 25) stopped at the river mouth and gave the port its name. Cavendish was a wealthy Englishman who decided that he would follow in the footsteps of Sir Francis Drake by raiding Spanish towns in the Pacific and returning to England by circumnavigating the globe. And that is exactly what he did.

Port Desire was an early stop on the voyage, and Cavendish named it after his 18-gun ship the Desire. In 1587 he sailed through the Straits of Magellan and raided several Spanish settlements along the Pacific Coast.  His crowning achievement was the premeditated capture of a Spanish treasure ship, loaded up with silks, damasks, spices, musks, wines and other treasures from the Philippines. The Manila-Acapulco Galleon – called the Santa Ana – was 5 times the size of the Desire and hade 4x as many men, but Cavendish won the day and the treasure.  He then headed west across the Pacific, around Africa and back to England – making him the third expedition (after Magellan and Sir Francis Drake) to circumnavigate the world.  Technically he was the second captain to make the trip (since Magellan never made it home), and the first to intentionally set out to make the trip.  He did it in record time, returning in just 2 yrs and 2 months.

Engraving of Sir Thomas Cavendish (by Henry Holland (1620)). The motto says Animum fortuna sequatur – “The soul follows chance”.

Sir Thomas Cavendish

Interestingly Cavendish’s second expedition on the Desire was not nearly as successful. After traveling to South America in 1591 with the Navigator John Davis, Cavendish died at sea at the young age of 31.  Davis went on to “discover” the Falkland Islands, before limping back to England with a battered Desire and only a few crewmen.

More on Port Desire, and the last couple days of December 1833, tomorrow… (RJV)


PS – For more stories of Englishmen picking off Manila Galleons see George Anson’s Voyage Round the World.

Posted by: Rob Viens | January 1, 2014

Ringing in the New Year in Tehuelche Territory

January 1st 1834 was not a particularly special day for Darwin.  Much like last year he spent the day climbing the local hills in search of good views and interesting geology.  Today, he uncovered a grave:

“Walked to a distant hill; we found at the top an Indian grave. The Indians always bury their dead on the highest hill, or on some headland projecting into the sea. — I imagine it is for this reason they come here; that they do pay occasional visits is evident, from the remains of several small fires & horses bones near them.” (Jan 1, 1834)

This is an interesting observation but also a generalization.  I’m sure that some indigenous people in Argentina buried their dead (or maybe just prominent people) on hilltops, but not all.  The Mapuche, for example, who were one of the people who lived in southwestern Argentina, buried their dead with elaborate carved headstone called “Chemamull” (which translated from the Mapuche language as “people wood”). I doubt Darwin would have missed that in his observations.

Chemamulls in the Chilean Pre-Columbian Art Museum (from Wikipedia Commons)


Another group of people who lived in south Central Argentina where the Tehuelche. It was the Tehuelche people who were called Patagons (big feet) by the Spanish explorers.  As it turns out, the large footprints that the Spanish found actually came from the leather boots worn by the Tehuelche people (though there is some evidence to suggest that they were also relatively tall compared to the explorers).  And thus the name Patagonia came to be, and the region developed a reputation in Europe as a “land of giants”.

Tehuelche camp in 1838 (from “Voyage au pole sud et dans l’Oceanie …..” by the French ships Astrolabe and Zelee under the command of Dumont D’Urville, 1842. Via Wikipedia Commons)

Tehuelche camp

The Tehuelche people were primarily nomadic, and depended heavily on the local guanaco and rhea populations for food, clothing and other resources. When a Tehuelche man was buried, the site was marked by a pile for stones called a “chenque”.  As it turns out, this site had such a mound (see Darwin’s January 2nd description below). More importantly, Darwin also notes the presence of fires and horse bones.  This almost certainly makes this a Tehuelche grace site, since it was traditional to burn a man’s possessions at the site, and sacrifice his horse and leave the bones near the grave. So it was not visitors that left these relics as Darwin thought – they were actually part of the burial. It is pretty cool that (as is often the case) Darwin’s descriptions are detailed enough for someone in the 21st century to deduce the story behind his discoveries – even when he may have had no idea what it was he was looking at!

Sadly Darwin, in the tradition of the day, tried to dig up and study the site the next day. Ever the scientist, he described his findings in some detail, but he also called it like it was – a ransacking:

“A party of officers accompanied me to ransack the Indian grave in hopes of finding some antiquarian remains. — The grave consisted of a heap of large stones placed with some care, it was on the summit of the hill, & at the foot of a ledge of rock about 6 feet high. — In front of this & about 3 yards from it they had placed two immense fragments, each weighing at least two tuns, & resting on each other. — These in all probability were originally in nearly the same position & only just moved by the Indians to answer their purpose. — At the bottom of the grave on the hard rock, there was a layer of earth about a foot deep; this must have been brought from the plain below; the vegetable fibres, from the lodgement of water, were converted into a sort of Peat.—Above this a pavement of flat stones, & then a large heap of rude stones, piled up so as to fill up the interval between the ledge & the two large stones. — To complete the grave, the Indians had contrived to detach from the ledge an immense block (probably there was a crack) & throw it over the pile so as to rest on the two other great fragments. We undermined the grave on both sides under the last block; but there were no bones. I can only account for it, by giving great antiquity to the grave & supposing water & changes in climate had utterly decomposed every fragment. — We found on the neighbouring heights 3 other & much smaller heaps of stones.— they had all been displaced; perhaps by sealers or other Voyagers.— It is said, that where an Indian dies, he is buried; but that subsequently his bones are taken up & carried to such situations as have been mentioned. — I think this custom can easily be accounted for by recollecting, that before the importation of horses, these Indians must have led nearly the same life as the Fuegians, & therefore in the neighbourhead of the sea. — The common prejudice of lying where your ancestors have lain, would make the now roaming Indians bring the less perishable part of their dead to the ancient burial grounds.” (Jan 2)

Here is to fewer “grave robberies” and many more adventures in 1834/2014! Happy New Year! (RJV)

Posted by: Rob Viens | December 25, 2013

Christmas in Port Desire

On the 23rd of December the Beagle arrived in Port Desire.  More on the town itself soon, but for today I just wanted to wish everyone a Happy Christmas and share Darwin’s holiday festivities in 1833.

Men worked hard in the Royal Navy and rarely had time off, but Christmas was an exception. It was a tradition for sailors to have the day off to play games, do as they pleased and frequently to get drunk.  If you recall, the Beagle would have left England on the 26th of December, but to many seamen where drunk from Christmas festivities – much to their dismay when the captain as forced to punish them for their conduct (see Stuck in Plymouth with Books, Drunken Sailors and the Rambling Blues). This year, however, the crew was in a remote port without a tavern in sight, so they resorted to another “traditionally male” form of enjoyment – a sports competition!

Darwin described these “Olympic games” in his diary:

“After dining in the Gun-room, the officers & almost every man in the ship went on shore. — The Captain distributed prizes to the best runners, leapers, wrestlers. — These Olympic games were very amusing; it was quite delightful to see with what school-boy eagerness the seamen enjoyed them: old men with long beards & young men without any were playing like so many children. — certainly a much better way of passing Christmas day than the usual one, of every seaman getting as drunk as he possibly can.” (Dec 25)

Conrad Martens also captured the events in his drawing called Slinging the Monkey, Port Desirem Decr 25 1833:

Conrad Martens painting – Slinging the Monkey

Slinging the Monkey was a game enjoyed by sailors since at least the 16th century. Below are the rules of the game, in case you want to play along with Darwin.  This is a direct quote from Navy Songs – a site dedicated to preserving Royal Navy Songs (and some associated games).


  • Rope tied to the cross trees, with sufficient length to allow it to be tied (Bowline loop), around the chest of the Monkey.
  • The Monkey,( one of your messmates), must be able to touch the ground comfortably beneath the spar, so that by adjusting the rope length he can launch himself out into space, with some vigour and swing around to capture or mark one of the players.
  • The cross tree is to be of sufficient height to enable the Monkey to articulate his movements and swings outwards from this home circle, beneath the spar.
  • Piece of chalk by which the Monkey can mark his opponents.
  • Knotted Hankerchiefs to baste the Monkey, and thus score points.


To Play The Game

  • In concept this game is somewhat familiar to the childhood game of ‘Piggy in the Middle’ but more vigourous and skillful.
  • The monkey is chosen by lot, to take his place in the bowline loop, of the rope.
  • The loop hangs over a circle on the ground, into which his opponents cannot enter or crowd, if they do they become the Monkey.
  • The Monkey, is armed with a chalk to mark his opponents, if he suceeds he is instantly released and the other takes his place as monkey.
  • An active monkey, can be very difficult to approach with safety, whilst his opponents can produce quite a sting with their basting.
  • A monkey is at risk of becoming disoriented and so must make his score quickly, whilst it is understood that with players who don’t mind a little buffeting can make for a very lively game.
  • Obviously a weary monkey, can be pushed or buffeted around and around, before a lucky stab ends his misery. But a skilled antagonist can quickly, use the rope and his safety circle to great advantage.
  • One of the more effective ruses is to throw yourself forward on the rope to pretend you are making in one direction, but use that momentum to swing back in a loop to score on your opponent behind.

Jump to Christmas 2013 and here I sit with a Darwin ornament hanging on my Christmas tree*.

Darwin Christmas orniment

What on Earth would Darwin have said if someone told him in 1833 that his head would be hanging on a Christmas tree in 2013?  I can’t even begin to imagine … (RJV)

*A gift from my lovely wife who knows how much a like everything Darwin…produced by Archie McPhee’s in Seattle (if you want your very own). As their site says, “You can have one of your intellectual heroes hanging on your tree while everyone else thinks it’s Santa Claus.”

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