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Darwin and Patagonia

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Charles Darwin

Charles Darwin as a young man four years after the return of the Beagle. Drawn by George Richmond in 1839.

Charles Darwin, when on HMS Beagle, commanded by Captain Robert Fitzroy*, visited Patagonia. Although he by-passed the Valdes Peninsula, when he set foot on land for the first time, the sight that greeted him was very similar to the landscape of the Estancia La Esperanza. In Darwin’s own words:

December 23rd [1833]
…The first landing in any new country is very interesting, and especially when , as in this case, the whole aspect bears the stamp of a marked and individual character…… The surface is quite level, and is compose of well-rounded shingle mixed with a whitish earth. Here and there scattered tufts of brown wiry grass are supported and, still more rarely some low thorny bushes. The weather is dry and pleasant, and the fine blue sky is but seldom obscured. When standing in the middle of one of these desert plains and looking towards the interior, the view is generally bounded by the escarpment of another plain, rather higher, but equally level and desolate; and in every direction the horizon is indistinct from the trembling mirage which seems to rise from the heated surface…. The guanaco, or wild llama, is the characteristic quadruped of the plains of Patagonia; it is the South American representative of the camel of the East. It is an elegant animal in a state of nature, with a long slender neck and fine legs. It is very common over the whole of the temperate parts of the continent, as far south as the islands near Cape Horn. It generally lives in small herds of from half a dozen to thirty in each; but on the banks of the St. Cruz we saw one herd which must have contained at least five hundred.

Darwin in South America (click to enlarge)

Map of Darwin's travels. See a larger version. (Use your back button to return here.)

They are generally wild and extremely wary…..The sportsman frequently receives the first notice of their presence, by hearing from a long distance their peculiar shrill neighing note of alarm…. On approaching nearer a few more squeals are given, and of they set at an apparently slow, but really quick canter, along some narrow beaten track to a neighbouring hill….. I have more than once seen a guanaco, on being approached, not only neigh and squeal, but prance and leap about in the most ridiculous manner, apparently in defiance as a challenge.”

(Journal of Researches into the Natural History and Geology of the Countries Visited During the Voyage of H.M.S. ‘Beagle’ Round the World under the Command of Capt. FitzRoy, R.N. - usually abbreviated to ‘The Voyage of the Beagle’).

Guanacos and Patagonian Landscape

Guanacos, taken from A Guide to the Birds and Mammals of Coastal Patagonia, by Graham Harris

Darwin's description of guanacos and their behaviour continues for several pages, before going into a detailed account of the Indians and the geology of Patagonia. Any one interested in the wildlife of Patagonia should certainly read Darwin’s account, as most of it is as pertinent today as when it was written 170 years ago.


More Information on the Coastal Steppe Project

To learn more about the Patagonia project visit the main project page: Help Save Patagonia's Wildlife.

 (* At a World Land Trust event arranged to coincide with the visit of Jose Maria Musmeci (Director of the Fundacion Patagonia Natural), from Patagonia, Lord Fitzroy, a direct descendent of Capt. Fitzroy, was among the guests supporting our work in Patagonia.)

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