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Article Title:
Charles Darwin and the Giant Tortoise

Article Description:
Charles Darwin is most famously known for his theory of 
evolution. He is less known for his 5 year voyage (1831-1836) 
around the world as an anthropologist.

Additional Article Information:
918 Words; formatted to 65 Characters per Line
Distribution Date and Time: Tue Apr 11 13:45:00 EDT 2006

Written By:     Michael Kerrigan
Copyright:      2006
Contact Email:  mailto:[EMAIL PROTECTED]

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Charles Darwin and the Giant Tortoise
Copyright © 2006 Michael Kerrigan
Browse Books For Free

Charles Darwin is most famously known for his theory of 
evolution. He is less known for his 5 year voyage (1831-1836) 
around the world as an anthropologist. 

Below, is an excerpt from his diary of this journey, describing 
the unusual behaviour of the giant tortoise on the Galapagos 
islands. It also describes Darwin's early 19th century methods 
of study, which were perhaps "a little" different than today's. 

October 8th 1835 


We arrived at James Island. Mr Bynoe, myself, and our servants 
were left here for a week, with provisions and a tent, whilst the 
Beagle went for water. 

We found here a party of Spaniards, who had been sent from 
Charles Island to dry fish, and to salt tortoise-meat. 

About six miles inland, and at the height of nearly 2,000 feet, a 
hovel had been built in which two men lived, who were employed in 
catching tortoises, whilst the others were fishing on the coast. 
I paid this party two visits, and slept there one night.... 

While staying in this upper region, we lived entirely upon 
tortoise-meat: the breast-plate roasted with the flesh on it, 
is very good; and the young tortoises make excellent soup; but 
otherwise the meat to my taste is indifferent.

Mr. Lawson, an Englishman, and vice-governor of the colony, told 
us that he had seen several so large, that it required six or 
eight men to lift them from the ground; and that some had 
afforded as much as two hundred pounds of meat.


I have already shown, from the numbers which have been caught in 
a single day, how very numerous they must be. Some grow to an 
immense size: The old males are the largest, the females rarely 
growing to so great a size: the male can readily be distinguished 
from the female by the greater length of its tail. 

The tortoises which live on those islands where there is no 
water, or in the lower and arid parts of the others, feed chiefly 
on the succulent cactus. 

The tortoise is very fond of water, drinking large quantities, 
and wallowing in the mud. The larger islands alone possess 
springs, and these are always situated towards the central parts, 
and at a considerable height.

The tortoises, therefore, which frequent the lower districts, 
when thirsty, are obliged to travel from a long distance. Hence 
broad and well-beaten paths branch off in every direction from 
the wells down to the sea-coast; and the Spaniards by following 
them up, first discovered the watering-places. 

When the tortoise arrives at the spring, quite regardless of any 
spectator, he buries his head in the water above his eyes, and 
greedily swallows great mouthfuls, at the rate of about ten in 
a minute. 

The inhabitants say each animal stays three or four days in 
the neighbourhood of the water, and then returns to the lower 
country; but they differed respecting the frequency of these 

The animal probably regulates them according to the nature of 
the food on which it has lived. It is, however, certain, that 
tortoises can subsist even on these islands where there is no 
other water than what falls during a few rainy days in the year.


The tortoises, when purposely moving towards any point, travel 
by night and day, and arrive at their journey's end much sooner 
than would be expected. The inhabitants, from observing marked 
individuals, consider that they travel a distance of about eight 
miles in two or three days. 

One large tortoise, which I watched, walked at the rate of sixty 
yards in ten minutes, that is 360 yards in the hour, or four 
miles a day-allowing a little time for it to eat on the road. 
...They were at this time (October) laying their eggs. 


The female, where the soil is sandy, deposits them together, and 
covers them up with sand; but where the ground is rocky she drops 
them indiscriminately in any hole: Mr Bynoe found seven placed in 
a fissure. 

The egg is white and spherical; one which I measured was seven 
inches and three eighths in circumference, and therefore larger 
than a hen's egg. 

The young tortoises, as soon as they are hatched, fall a prey 
in great numbers to the carrion-feeding buzzard. 

The old ones seem generally to die from accidents, as from 
falling down precipices: at least, several of the inhabitants 
told me, that they never found one dead without some evident 


The inhabitants believe that these animals are absolutely deaf; 
certainly they do not overhear a person walking close behind 

I was always amused when overtaking one of these great monsters, 
as it was quietly pacing along, to see how suddenly, the instant 
I passed, it would draw in its head and legs, and uttering a deep 
hiss fall to the ground with a heavy sound, as if struck dead. 

I frequently got on their backs, and then giving a few raps on 
the hinder part of their shells, they would rise up and walk 
away-but I found it very difficult to keep my balance.

There can be little doubt that this tortoise is an aboriginal 
inhabitant of the Galapagos; for it is found on all, or nearly 
all, the islands, even on some of the smaller ones where there is 
no water; had it been an imported species, this would hardly have 
been the case in a group which has been so little frequented.

Michael Kerrigan is the author or co-author of over 200 
books on history, politics and literature. This article 
is part of an extract from his book: Charles Darwin's 
Voyage of the Beagle. The full extract can be read at:



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