, Volume 145, Issue 4, pp 300-320
Date: 25 Jun 2004

Charles Darwin’s bird collection and ornithological knowledge during the voyage of H.M.S. “Beagle”, 1831–1836

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Abstract

This paper analyses Charles Darwin’s bird collection and the ornithological knowledge he derived from it during the voyage of H.M.S. “Beagle”. Darwin collected 468 bird skins, 10 detached parts of the lesser rhea, and the nests and eggs of 16 different taxa as well as 14 whole birds and 4 parts of birds which he preserved in spirit. He labelled these specimens with a number tag only, cross-referring the number to a notebook entry. Partly because of his limited ornithological knowledge and partly because he was confronted at times with entirely unknown birds, Darwin was often unable to apply the correct generic designations and gave his South American specimens English and Spanish names from literature and the local tongues, as well as the scientific generic names of European birds. Back home, it was John Gould, the prominent ornithologist of the Zoological Society of London, who made sense of Darwin’s collection, among his many other scientific achievements correctly identifying the Galápagos finches as a group of closely related birds. Darwin’s bird collection did not receive much attention in the latter part of the 19th century. Most of the specimens had their original labels removed and replaced by ones of the custodian institution. Today, original Darwin specimens stemming from the “Beagle” voyage are to be found in at least eight different institutions, but almost half of the bird specimens Darwin collected on the “Beagle” voyage are not accounted for. The appendix to this paper lists for the first time all the birds which Darwin collected during the voyage. Darwin’s famous book On the origin of species hardly draws upon any ornithological examples from his voyage on the “Beagle”. Nevertheless, Darwin contributed much to ornithology. His collection contained 39 new species and subspecies of birds, mainly described by Gould, and some birds from populations now extinct, and he also made a few very good field observations, published in the sections of The Zoology of the Voyage of H.M.S. Beagle dedicated to birds.

Communicated by F. Bairlein
Dedicated to Prof. Dr. Ernst Mayr