Here, then, an increase of seven degrees in mean temperature, but a greater one of extreme heat, was sufficient to awake the functions of life. At Monte Video, from which we had just before sailed, in the twenty-three days included between the 26th of July and the 19th of August, the mean temperature from 276 observations was 58.4 degs.; the mean hottest day being 65.5 degs., and the coldest 46 degs. The lowest point to which the thermometer fell was 41.5 degs., and occasionally in the middle of the day it rose to 69 or 70 degs. Yet with this high temperature, almost every beetle, several genera of spiders, snails, and land-shells, toads and lizards were all lying torpid beneath stones. But we have seen that at Bahia Blanca, which is four degrees southward and therefore with a climate only a very little colder, this same temperature with a rather less extreme heat, was sufficient to awake all orders of animated beings. This shows how nicely the stimulus required to arouse hybernating animals is governed by the usual climate of the district, and not by the absolute heat. It is well known that within the tropics, the hybernation, or more properly aestivation, of animals is determined not by the temperature, but by the times of drought. Near Rio de Janeiro, I was at first surprised to observe, that, a few days after some little depressions had been filled with water, they were peopled by numerous full-grown shells and beetles, which must have been lying dormant. Humboldt has related the strange accident of a hovel having been erected over a spot where a young crocodile lay buried in the hardened mud. He adds, "The Indians often find enormous boas, which they call Uji or water serpents, in the same lethargic state. To reanimate them, they must be irritated or wetted with water."

I will only mention one other animal, a zoophyte (I believe Virgularia Patagonica), a kind of sea-pen. It consists of a thin, straight, fleshy stem, with alternate rows of polypi on each side, and surrounding an elastic stony axis, varying in length from eight inches to two feet. The stem at one extremity is truncate, but at the other is terminated by a vermiform fleshy appendage. The stony axis which gives strength to the stem may be traced at this extremity into a mere vessel filled with granular matter. At low water hundreds of these zoophytes might be seen, projecting like stubble, with the truncate end upwards, a few inches above the surface of the muddy sand. When touched or pulled they suddenly drew themselves in with force, so as nearly or quite to disappear. By this action, the highly elastic axis must be bent at the lower extremity, where it is naturally slightly curved; and I imagine it is by this elasticity alone that the zoophyte is enabled to rise again through the mud. Each polypus, though closely united to its brethren, has a distinct mouth, body, and tentacula. Of these polypi, in a large specimen, there must be many thousands; yet we see that they act by one movement: they have also one central axis connected with a system of obscure circulation, and the ova are produced in an organ distinct from the separate individuals. [19] Well may one be allowed to ask, what is an individual? It is always interesting to discover the foundation of the strange tales of the old voyagers; and I have no doubt but that the habits of this Virgularia explain one such case. Captain Lancaster, in his voyage [20] in 1601, narrates that on the sea-sands of the Island of Sombrero, in the East Indies, he "found a small twig growing up like a young tree, and on offering to pluck it up it shrinks down to the ground, and sinks, unless held very hard. On being plucked up, a great worm is found to be its root, and as the tree groweth in greatness, so doth the worm diminish, and as soon as the worm is entirely turned into a tree it rooteth in the earth, and so becomes great. This transformation is one of the strangest wonders that I saw in all my travels: for if this tree is plucked up, while young, and the leaves and bark stripped off, it becomes a hard stone when dry, much like white coral: thus is this worm twice transformed into different natures. Of these we gathered and brought home many."

During my stay at Bahia Blanca, while waiting for the Beagle, the place was in a constant state of excitement, from rumours of wars and victories, between the troops of Rosas and the wild Indians. One day an account came that a small party forming one of the postas on the line to Buenos Ayres, had been found all murdered. The next day three hundred men arrived from the Colorado, under the command of Commandant Miranda. A large portion of these men were Indians (mansos, or tame), belonging to the tribe of the Cacique Bernantio. They passed the night here; and it was impossible to conceive anything more wild and savage than the scene of their bivouac. Some drank till they were intoxicated; others swallowed the steaming blood of the cattle slaughtered for their suppers, and then, being sick from drunkenness, they cast it up again, and were besmeared with filth and gore.

The Voyage of the Beagle Page 50

Charles Darwin

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Charles Darwin

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