Of reptiles there are many kinds: one snake (a Trigonocephalus, or Cophias [18]), from the size of the poison channel in its fangs, must be very deadly. Cuvier, in opposition to some other naturalists, makes this a sub-genus of the rattlesnake, and intermediate between it and the viper. In confirmation of this opinion, I observed a fact, which appears to me very curious and instructive, as showing how every character, even though it may be in some degree independent of structure, has a tendency to vary by slow degrees. The extremity of the tail of this snake is terminated by a point, which is very slightly enlarged; and as the animal glides along, it constantly vibrates the last inch; and this part striking against the dry grass and brushwood, produces a rattling noise, which can be distinctly heard at the distance of six feet. As often as the animal was irritated or surprised, its tail was shaken; and the vibrations were extremely rapid. Even as long as the body retained its irritability, a tendency to this habitual movement was evident. This Trigonocephalus has, therefore, in some respects the structure of a viper, with the habits of a rattlesnake: the noise, however, being produced by a simpler device. The expression of this snake's face was hideous and fierce; the pupil consisted of a vertical slit in a mottled and coppery iris; the jaws were broad at the base, and the nose terminated in a triangular projection. I do not think I ever saw anything more ugly, excepting, perhaps, some of the vampire bats. I imagine this repulsive aspect originates from the features being placed in positions, with respect to each other, somewhat proportional to those of the human face; and thus we obtain a scale of hideousness.

Amongst the Batrachian reptiles, I found only one little toad (Phryniscus nigricans), which was most singular from its colour. If we imagine, first, that it had been steeped in the blackest ink, and then, when dry, allowed to crawl over a board, freshly painted with the brightest vermilion, so as to colour the soles of its feet and parts of its stomach, a good idea of its appearance will be gained. If it had been an unnamed species, surely it ought to have been called _Diabolicus_, for it is a fit toad to preach in the ear of Eve. Instead of being nocturnal in its habits, as other toads are, and living in damp obscure recesses, it crawls during the heat of the day about the dry sand-hillocks and arid plains, where not a single drop of water can be found. It must necessarily depend on the dew for its moisture; and this probably is absorbed by the skin, for it is known, that these reptiles possess great powers of cutaneous absorption. At Maldonado, I found one in a situation nearly as dry as at Bahia Blanca, and thinking to give it a great treat, carried it to a pool of water; not only was the little animal unable to swim, but I think without help it would soon have been drowned. Of lizards there were many kinds, but only one (Proctotretus multimaculatus) remarkable from its habits. It lives on the bare sand near the sea coast, and from its mottled colour, the brownish scales being speckled with white, yellowish red, and dirty blue, can hardly be distinguished from the surrounding surface. When frightened, it attempts to avoid discovery by feigning death, with outstretched legs, depressed body, and closed eyes: if further molested, it buries itself with great quickness in the loose sand. This lizard, from its flattened body and short legs, cannot run quickly.

I will here add a few remarks on the hybernation of animals in this part of South America. When we first arrived at Bahia Blanca, September 7th, 1832, we thought nature had granted scarcely a living creature to this sandy and dry country. By digging, however, in the ground, several insects, large spiders, and lizards were found in a half-torpid state. On the 15th, a few animals began to appear, and by the 18th (three days from the equinox), everything announced the commencement of spring. The plains were ornamented by the flowers of a pink wood-sorrel, wild peas, cenotherae, and geraniums; and the birds began to lay their eggs. Numerous Lamellicorn and Heteromerous insects, the latter remarkable for their deeply sculptured bodies, were slowly crawling about; while the lizard tribe, the constant inhabitants of a sandy soil, darted about in every direction. During the first eleven days, whilst nature was dormant, the mean temperature taken from observations made every two hours on board the Beagle, was 51 degs.; and in the middle of the day the thermometer seldom ranged above 55 degs. On the eleven succeeding days, in which all living things became so animated, the mean was 58 degs., and the range in the middle of the day 7 between 60 and 70 degs.

The Voyage of the Beagle Page 49

Charles Darwin

Free Books in the public domain from the Classic Literature Library ©

Charles Darwin

All Pages of This Book