Sunday 12th February 2012 marks what would have been Darwin’s 203rd birthday, so we have decided to take a look back at the life of the father of evolutionary biology, Charles Robert Darwin.
Quite possibly the most famous biologist in history, Darwin was born on February 12th 1809 in Shrewsbury. His father was a doctor and Charles looked to be following in his footsteps when he enrolled at the University of Edinburgh to study medicine in 1825. However neither medicine nor theology, which he later studied at Cambridge, was able to captivate the young Darwin as much as his passion for natural history – which can only be seen as a good thing for the advancement of science!
In 1831, at the age of 22, Darwin joined a scientific expedition on board the HMS Beagle which took him around South America and across the Pacific. During the five year voyage he made copious notes, observations and collections of both natural history and geological artefacts, which ultimately led to the formulation of his theory of evolution by natural selection.
What’s in a Name?
During his travels Darwin discovered many species new to science, a number of which have been named in his honour, including Darwin’s fox, one of the smallest foxes in the world and Darwin’s frog, both of which are native to Chile.
Perhaps the best known example of evolution in action, and what is credited to be the breakthrough finding forDarwin, is the presence of 14 different species of related finches found across the islands of the Galapagos. Each island was found to have a different compliment of finches each exploiting a different food source. The size and shape of each finch’s beak determines the food they are able to consume, which maximises the feeding opportunities on any given island, as different species no longer compete with each other for resources.
One of the most unusual finch species Darwin encountered was the sharp-beaked ground finch, also known as the vampire finch. Something of an avian anomaly, as its alternate name suggests it exhibits some rather sinister feeding habits. They are known to ride on the backs of large seabirds, such as the Nazca booby and peck at their feathers until they draw blood.
Darwin’s discoveries were not constrained to the vertebrate field. Found in the lowlands of Madagascar, Darwin’s orchid bears a spectacular flower with an extremely long nectar spur. After being sent a specimen of Angraecum sesquipedale Darwin predicted that this plant must be pollinated by a giant moth with an extraordinarily long proboscis, which at this time had never been seen by science. It wasn’t until 20 years after Darwin’s death that a hawk moth of appropriate magnitude was first discovered in Madagascar.
The joint announcement with Alfred Russel Wallace of ‘the Theory of Evolution by Natural Selection’ in 1858 and the subsequent publication of ‘On the Origin of Species’, along with his other works have shaped the landscape of science as we know it. Definitely worthy of a birthday celebration, we think!
Laura Sutherland, ARKive Education Officer