Published: February 11, 2016

5 Behind-the-Scenes Specimens with Links to Darwin

Kate Golembiewski, PR and Science Communications Manager, Public Relations


Check out some of the coolest things we have in our collections with a link to the Granddaddy of Biology himself.

1. Darwin's finches

These Galapagos finches that we collected in the 1940s all have one common ancestor, but you’d never know it looking at their beaks. Darwin realized that these beaks were a sign of a bigger picture of adaptation, writing, “Seeing [the beaks’] gradation and diversity of structure in one small, intimately related group of birds, one might really fancy that from an original paucity of birds in this archipelago, one species had been taken and modified for different ends.” The finches are a perfect example of what’s called adaptive radiation, where one parent species rapidly diversifies and evolves into different forms to take advantage of the different habitats and lifestyles available to it. Their different beaks allow birds with similar evolutionary histories to eat completely different foods, coexisting without competing. 

2. A beetle collected by Darwin himself

Until recently, a tiny beetle - barely larger than a pinprick - sat among The Field Museum’s 12 million or so insects, waiting for a staff member to come across it. Its label bears the word “Chiloe” - the island where it was discovered - and then, “C. Darwin” - the collector himself. This is Polylobus darwini, a specimen that Darwin collected on the famed Voyage of the Beagle. It's one of the many specimens that Darwin observed, adding to the findings that would inform his theory of evolution. The beetle is also a syntype, meaning that it’s one of a set of types that established it as its own species named after Darwin himself. Now it has been digitized by museum staff and assigned a unique number and barcode, making its identifying information and journey to The Field Museum accessible all over the world. And it was quite the journey: the labels tell us the beetle found its way to The British Museum after Darwin's death, where it was donated to a prolific entomologist, Max Bernhauer, whose collection now resides at The Field.

3. "One of the strangest animals ever discovered"

When Darwin was on his way to the Galapagos, he stopped in Argentina, where he discovered a cache of “monsters of extinct races” (that’s 1830s for “big animal fossils”). The fossil mammals he found included Macrauchenia, which looked kind of like long-nosed camels, and rhino-like Toxodons, which he described as “one of the strangest animals ever discovered.” These “strange” animals helped Darwin on his way to eventual discoveries about how animals evolve—South America was once isolated (like Australia today), so it’s home to lots of fossils found nowhere else. We’ve got specimens of Macrauchenia and Toxodon and their relatives in our collections that are similar to the ones that Darwin himself collected nearly two hundred years ago.

4. First-edition books and letters

If you stumble across a copy of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species in a bookstore or library, there’s a surefire way to tell whether or not it’s a first edition: the real deal has a misspelling. Flip to the 20th page, look at the eleventh line, and you’ll see the word “species” incorrectly typed as “speceies.” The mistake was caught quickly, and the second edition was printed two months later, rendering copies with the misspelling somewhat rare. Until the 1980s, The Field Museum didn’t have a first edition of its own. Today, you can find two in our Mary W. Runnells Rare Book Room. The Origin of Species isn’t the only Darwin original found there: some of his correspondence has also made its way into our collection. Darwin’s letters to entomologist Benjamin D. Walsh span a range of topics from scientific findings to personal stories. You can check out more about them.

5. Giant tortoises (were annoyed by Darwin)

The first time Darwin met giant Galapagos tortoises, he noted, “One was eating a piece of cactus, and as I approached, it stared at me and slowly stalked away; the other gave a deep hiss, and drew in its head.” These tortoises clearly were not impressed that they’d just met the father of modern biology. They were a pretty big deal to him, though—each island had its own unique tortoises, and their similarities and differences were a key part of his argument for evolution. We collected these tortoises on Charles Island in 1929.