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HMS Beagle

On This Day: Darwin’s HMS Beagle Reaches Galapagos Islands

September 15, 2011 05:00 AM
by Jennifer Ferris
On Sept. 15, 1835, Charles Darwin, aboard the HMS Beagle, reached the Galapagos Islands, where he would start to formulate his ideas of natural selection.

Beagle Lands on the Galapagos

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Robert FitzRoy, captain of the HMS Beagle, believed the ship’s second charting expedition to South America could serve multiple purposes, including missionary work and collection of specimens of natural history.

FitzRoy cast about for a naturalist who could accompany him on his journey and was given the name of Charles Darwin, a geologist and theologian. The 26-year-old scholar eagerly joined the crew, despite protestations from his father, who wished him to become a medical doctor.

The scientists and cartographers aboard the HMS Beagle spent three years surveying the coastline and collecting specimens in South America before deciding to return to England. The crew took on provisions in Peru and then sailed west in the Pacific Ocean. Late in the afternoon of Sept. 15, 1835, the crew sighted land.

The next day, boats were launched and the crew landed on Chatham (now San Cristobal) as well as on Hood Island. Darwin got right to work observing and cataloging the islands’ many species of plants and wildlife.

Although the islands were typically a way station for sailors to hunt tortoises for meat before the long journey across the ocean, the Beagle and crew remained in the Galapagos for more than a month.

The Origins of Darwin’s Theory

The 22 islands that make up the archipelago of the Galapagos Islands presented Darwin with a unique chance to study species’ reactions to subtle differences in environment and geology.

The natural history of this archipelago is very remarkable: it seems to be a little world within itself; the greater number of its inhabitants, both vegetable and animal, being found nowhere else,” Darwin wrote in his diary.

As he visited each subsequent island, Darwin observed species similar in some aspects to those he saw on the last, but also differing in very evident ways. He meticulously recorded his observations, and collected specimens of plants and animals when he could.

Later, in his groundbreaking work, “On the Origin of Species,” Darwin took his observations of slightly differing species from the Galapagos and applied his theory to all living things. He called this theory natural selection and used it to explain how and why species change over time.

Reference: Charles Darwin’s Beagle diary

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