Each February 12, we commemorate the birth of Charles Darwin, the renowned British naturalist and scientist. From 1832 to 1835, he traveled through Chile, from Tierra del Fuego to Copiapó, conducting explorations that would contribute to his famous theory on the evolution of species.
From unique species to the first archaeological explorations, we show you some of the highlights of Charles Darwin’s time in Chile.
In late 1832, after sailing for more than a year from England, a young Charles Darwin first caught a glimpse of Tierra del Fuego’s cold grassy steppe. This was the beginning of a scientific expedition through Chile that would last three years and contribute elements critical to the development of his renowned theory of evolution.
Imagen de Chile presents some of the highlights of the British explorer’s visit to our country.
Darwin’s frog (Rhinoderma darwinii) was named in honor of its discoverer, Charles Darwin, who first documented it upon landing on the shores of Lemuy Island in the Chiloé Archipelago in December 1834.
Native to the temperate forests of southern Chile and Argentina, this amphibian is the only one of nearly 8,000 species currently identified in the world whose males “give birth.” After protecting the female’s eggs for 14 days, the process, known as mouthbrooding, occurs when the male carries the developing tadpoles in his vocal sacs for approximately eight weeks. After this time, the tadpoles leave the sac through an opening under the father’s tongue.
The species is currently endangered due to the severe destruction of its habitat, mainly the loss of native forest and its replacement with pine and eucalyptus plantations for paper and wood production. Global temperature variation resulting from climate change has been another important factor, given how susceptible the frogs are to changes in their environment.
Several organizations currently focus on preserving the species, including Ranita de Darwin, a Chile-based NGO that works to conserve this and other amphibians in our country. Furthermore, the “Binational Conservation Strategy for Darwin’s Frog” was launched in 2018.
The Concepción Earthquake
An 8.2-magnitude earthquake hit what is now the Los Ríos Region on January 20, 1835, killing an estimated 500 people or more. Like the February 27, 2010 earthquake, the one 186 years ago hit Concepción the hardest, destroying the city in a matter of seconds.
According to BBC News, Darwin was near Valdivia, about 322 kilometers from the epicenter, at the time of the earthquake. In journal entries, Darwin relayed that he was resting with his travel companions when the earth started shaking. According to him, the phenomenon lasted for more than two minutes. “An earthquake like this at once destroys the oldest associations; the world, the very emblem of all that is solid,” he wrote that day in his journal.
Despite the shock of the event, Charles Darwin took the opportunity to document the destruction of the city and the geological impacts, from the drop in the sea level (anticipating an imminent tsunami), to the simultaneous eruption of three nearby volcanoes shortly before the quake.
Witnessing this phenomenon was among the primary influences that led Darwin to question how living things mutate to adapt to a constantly changing world. The observations also prompted the researcher to agree with theories asserting that Earth is in constant, slow mutation.
The first archaeologist on Chilean soil
In addition to his important contributions in documenting new animal and plant species and his geological observations, Darwin stands out as possibly the first archaeologist to visit our country.
On his trips through the Atacama Desert, the English explorer visited several archaeological sites, including the entire area that is now Los Dedos Paleontological Park – about 370 hectares with a path where visitors can see the fossils of more than 70 prehistoric species.
On these trips, Darwin had the opportunity to observe many mollusk fossils, which led him to conclude that the Andes had risen from the bottom of the sea. This geological observation fit with his idea that the planet is in constant mutation and would later become relevant to the development of his theory of evolution.