Darwin's legendary voyage

Darwin's legendary voyage

Darwin's legendary voyage aboard HMS Beagle played a crucial role in the development of the Theory of Evolution.



Darwin, Galápagos Islands, HMS Beagle, Charles Darwin, evolution, theory of evolution, Darwin's finches, naturalist, biology, natural selection, researcher, explorer, discovery, circumnavigation of the Earth, observation, research, data collection, Pacific Ocean, watercraft, modern history, sailboat, history of science, history, _javasolt

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Charles Darwin

Charles Darwin was born in 1809 as the fifth child of the Darwin family in Shrewsbury, England. His father was a respected doctor.

He attended the local school from the age of 8. His desire to observe nature and his passion for collecting various objects has already been established by that time. He was an admirer of natural history. At the age of 16, his father sent him to Edinburgh to study medicine. However, he quickly lost interest in that subject and started studying natural history. The lectures of the British anatomist and marine biology expert Robert Grant inspired him enormously, and Darwin first learnt about evolution from Grant. He also attended lectures in geology, but did not obtain a degree.

His father then sent him to Christ’s College, Cambridge to study theology. However, he came into contact with natural history here as well. The botany professor John Stevens Henslow had a great influence on Darwin; he was getting more involved with botany and zoology.

Eventually, in 1831, he received a Bachelor's degree in theology, but stayed on to study geology. In the same year, George Peacock, a professor at Cambridge, offered Darwin the opportunity to take part in a scientific expedition around the world.


  • Width: 7.5 m
  • Length: 27.5 m
  • Crew: 120
  • Armament: 10 cannons
  • Draught: 3.8 m
  • Mass: 234 t

HMS Beagle

HMS Beagle is one of the most famous ships in history. This Cherokee-class brig-sloop, built for the British Royal Navy, was launched in 1820.

HMS Beagle took part in a fleet review celebrating the coronation of King George IV. After the occasion it was withdrawn from service. Later its function changed and the ship was adapted as a survey barque to take part in expeditions.

It made three long journeys, among which the second one, (between 1831 and 1836), with the young Charles Darwin aboard was the most significant. The ship was decommissioned in 1845 and transformed into a coastguard watch vessel, named Watch Vessel 7 (W.V. 7), on the River Roach to control smuggling along the Essex coast. The ship was withdrawn in 1851 because of complaints of local oyster farmers. It was sold in 1870 to be broken up for scrap.

The Beagle's route

  • Plymouth
  • Cape Verde - Darwin spotted a horizontal band of mussels on the cliffs of the shore. Upon seeing this 45 m above sea level, he came to the conclusion that continents rose while the ocean floor sank during the history of the Earth.
  • Bahia
  • Rio de Janeiro
  • Montevideo - On the mainland he collected fossils that had previously been unknown to science.
  • Falkland Islands - Here Darwin found fossils that were different from those collected on the continent. After studying the collected fossils, plants and animals, he became convinced that similar living organisms can adapt to different environments.
  • Valparaíso
  • Lima
  • Galapagos Islands - The different beaks of the finches raised Darwin's attention. He thought that these related species could be traced back to a subspecies of the common chaffinch from which several subspecies developed.
  • New Zealand
  • Sydney - Darwin was awed by the local fauna, especially the platypus. He thought that in Australia, Creation worked in a different way from the rest of the world.
  • Hobart
  • King George's Sound
  • Cocos Islands - Darwin thought that coral islands were created as a result of rising coral reefs. Coconut palms started growing on the island because the fruits were brought here by currents from the mainland.
  • Cape Town
  • Azores

HMS Beagle set sail on 27 December 1831 under the command of Captain Robert FitzRoy. The duty of the highly enthusiastic Darwin was to study the natural history of South America and other places where the ship dropped anchor. Of course, Darwin was not staying on the ship all the time. He went on long expeditions on the mainland of South America.

He secured his place among science's greats here with his collection of fossils and rock samples. Of course, he made botanical and zoological observations too. During his journey, Darwin visited Cape Verde, the eastern and western coasts of South America, the Galapágos Islands, Australia and New Zealand. At the end of the voyage, the ship also stopped in Mauritius and Cape Town.

The ship returned to Falmouth, England on 2 October 1836. Darwin also kept a diary of the voyage which was later published as the third volume of the narrative of the voyage. The book entitled 'The Voyage of the Beagle' became a popular best-seller.

Migration of the finches

  • Ecuador
  • San Cristóbal
  • Santa Cruz
  • Santa Fe
  • Santiago
  • Isabela
  • Floreana
  • Marchena
  • Pinta
  • Española
  • Genovesa
  • Fernandina

The Galápagos Islands are a relatively young archipelago of volcanic origin. Even its oldest island is only 10 million years old at most. Since it was never connected to South America, animals had to cover long distances to get to the islands.

The ancestors of the birds, known today as Darwin's finches, arrived in the Galápagos Islands about 2–3 million years ago from the continent. The finches colonised the whole archipelago. Due to natural selection, birds that could not adapt to the environment on the given island died, while those individuals that were able to adapt, survived. Since numerous species of the finch family live in various places, Darwin's finches are considered the proof of adaptive radiation.

Darwin's finches on the Galápagos Islands

  • San Cristóbal
  • Santa Cruz
  • Santa Fe
  • Santiago
  • Isabela
  • Floreana
  • Española
  • Genovesa
  • Fernandina
  • small ground finch (Geospiza fuliginosa) - The smallest ground finch species. Its diet includes seeds and insects; its beak is small and sharp.
  • medium ground finch (Geospiza fortis) - Its diet consists of seeds and buds. An interesting connection was discovered between the size of the birds' beak and the available food. After the 1977 drought, these birds started feeding on larger and harder seeds, and the size of their beak also increased by 10% within a few generations. The increase in their beak size is attributed to the increase in the size of the seeds they consume.
  • large ground finch (Geospiza magnirostris) - It is able to crack the shell of mussels with its large and strong beak.
  • common cactus finch (Geospiza scandens) - Its diet is closely related to the cacti found on the islands. Based on the given season, it consumes nectar and pollen when flowers are in blossom, and fruits and seeds when they ripen. During the rainy season, it consumes berries and caterpillars instead of cacti. Similarly to the medium ground finch, an increase in the size of its beak has been observed over the last decades.
  • large cactus finch (Geospiza conirostris) - One of the largest of Darwin's finches. Its diet includes mainly cacti found on the island. In the dry season, when competition for food is intense, it utilises its various skills to obtain food. With its strong beak, it can crack the hard seeds of cacti and strip cactus bark to find insects underneath.
  • vegetarian finch (Platyspiza crassirostris) - This mostly herbivorous bird consumes buds, flowers and fruits. Since it consumes mostly soft food, its beak is different from that of other Darwin's finches who feed on hard seeds. It is suitable for performing fine movements with the tip rather than cracking seeds with the base of its beak.
  • small tree finch (Camarhynchus parvulus) - Its short, curved beak makes it easier to differentiate it from other Darwin's finches. This bird is found usually in the crown of trees; its diet includes seeds, fruits and insects.
  • woodpecker finch (Camarhynchus pallidus) - This bird became well-known for using tools. It holds twigs or cactus spines in its beak to remove larvae hiding under tree bark.
  • green warbler-finch (Certhidea olivacea) - Having the thinnest beak of Darwin's finches, it can catch tiny insects.

One of the most memorable stops during the voyage of HMS Beagle was the Galápagos Islands, an archipelago in the Pacific Ocean. The ship reached its shores in September 1835. The archipelago is located on the Equator about 1,000 km west of Ecuador.

Darwin collected several species of finches to build up the collection of the expedition. Even though Darwin did not write about the finches in detail, nor did he mention them in his theory of evolution, the birds were named after him in the 20th century.

After Darwin returned to England, the ornithologist John Gould discovered that all Darwin's finches belonged in the same family and that they could only be found in the Galápagos Islands. The main difference among the birds is their size and the shape of their beaks, which adapted to different types of food. Not all species of finch are found on every island. The map in the animation shows their distribution on the islands.


HMS Beagle was a 10-gun sailing ship in the British Royal Navy. She was launched in 1820 on the River Thames. In the same year, she took part in the coronation ceremonies of King George IV during which she was the first ship to sail under the new London Bridge.

Later, she took part in three naval expeditions. The most famous was her second survey voyage. Most scientists claim there were few other journeys in the history of science as important as the voyage of HMS Beagle around the world.
The expedition, which started in December 1831 and ended in October 1836, was important due to one of the ship’s passengers and his achievements.

This famous passenger was Charles Darwin, a gentleman naturalist.
During the expedition, the ship stopped in several places including the islands of Cape Verde off of West Africa, as well as South America, Australia and South Asia. But the most important stop for Darwin was undoubtedly the Galapagos Islands. After summarising his experiences and observations, he published his ground-breaking scientific work in 'On the Origin of Species' in 1859.

The legendary ship was later used as a coastguard watch ship, then she was bought by scrap metal dealers. Her name, and the memory of her voyage is also preserved by a strait at Tierra del Fuego, the southernmost tip of South America.

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