Voyage of the HMS Beagle

On this day (15 September) in 1835, HMS Beagle arrived at the Galapagos Islands, nearly four years after setting sail from Plymouth, England. This was the Beagles second voyage and was captained by Robert FitzRoy. Realising the need for a geology expert on board the ship, FitzRoy appointed Charles Darwin to accompany him on his voyage. Little did either of them know that discoveries on this voyage would lead to Darwin producing one of the most influential theories in science.

After crossing the Atlantic Ocean and extensive surveys around the South American coast, HMS Beagle finally arrived at the Galapagos Islands, dropping anchor near the modern town of Puerto Baquerizo Moreno on San Cristobal. Darwin was excited by the opportunity of studying newly formed volcanic islands and took every opportunity to go ashore. Although he was mainly a geologist, he had also been an avid collector of fossils, animals and plants during his voyage and took extensive notes on all he observed. He described the natural history of the Galapagos as “very remarkable: it seems to be a little world within itself; the greater number of its inhabitants, both vegetable and animal, being found nowhere else.”

Darwin had 34 days to explore the Galapagos Islands, however, like most visitors to the islands before him, he initially thought it was a bleak and ugly place. Of the flora he said there was very little and that he “did not see one beautiful flower” and he described marine iguanas as “large, most disgusting, clumsy Lizards. They are as black as the porous rocks over which they crawl & seek their prey from the Sea”. It wasn’t until he later caught and dissected one that he realised marine iguanas didn’t catch fish or sea life; they in fact feed solely on algae.

The more Darwin discovered of the Islands, the more he found them to be remarkable. He grew especially fond of the Galapagos giant tortoises and gained much enjoyment from sitting on their back and “then giving a few raps on the hinder part [so] they would rise and walk away”. The tortoises were also a source of food for the crew of the Beagle and they took over 40 from the Islands to eat, including two they kept as “pets” on board the ship until they were also eaten on the way back home.

It wasn’t until Darwin returned from his voyage on the Beagle that he studied and theorised about what he saw during his time in Galapagos. It was his collection of Geospizinae (or Darwin’s finches) from the Galapagos that were most influential to his theory of evolution. Darwin was informed by an ornithologist studying these specimens that what Darwin thought to be finches from several widely different families actually belonged to one remarkable new family. This realisation sparked Darwin to explore the idea that the different beaks of these finches indicated which island the bird was from and these different species had evolved these different beaks in response to the food that was available on that island. 13 years after arriving home on the Beagle, Charles Darwin published his theories on evolution and natural selection in ‘The Origin of Species’.

Darwin discovered many new and exciting things while studying the plants and animals of the Galapagos, what will you discover?

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