The Voyage of the Beagle – Day 147 of 164

162. These plants are described in the Annals of Nat. Hist. vol. i 1838, p. 337.

I will now give a sketch of the natural history of these islands, which, from its very paucity, possesses a peculiar interest. The cocoa-nut tree, at first glance, seems to compose the whole wood; there are however, five or six other trees. One of these grows to a very large size, but, from the extreme softness of its wood, is useless; another sort affords excellent timber for ship-building. Besides the trees the number of plants is exceedingly limited and consists of insignificant weeds. In my collection, which includes, I believe, nearly the perfect Flora, there are twenty species without reckoning a moss, lichen, and fungus. To this number two trees must be added; one of which was not in flower, and the other I only heard of. The latter is a solitary tree of its kind, and grows near the beach, where, without doubt, the one seed was thrown up by the waves. A Guilandina also grows on only one of the islets. I do not include in the above list the sugar-cane, banana, some other vegetables, fruit-trees, and imported grasses. As the islands consist entirely of coral, and at one time must have existed as mere water-washed reefs, all their terrestrial productions must have been transported here by the waves of the sea. In accordance with this, the Florula has quite the character of a refuge for the destitute: Professor Henslow informs me that of the twenty species nineteen belong to different genera, and these again to no less than sixteen families!162

163. Holman’s Travels, vol. iv, p. 378.

In Holman’s163 Travels an account is given, on the authority of Mr. A. S. Keating, who resided twelve months on these islands, of the various seeds and other bodies which have been known to have been washed on shore. “Seeds and plants from Sumatra and Java have been driven up by the surf on the windward side of the islands. Among them have been found the Kimiri, native of Sumatra and the peninsula of Malacca; the cocoa-nut of Balci, known by its shape and size; the Dadass, which is planted by the Malays with the pepper-vine, the latter entwining round its trunk, and supporting itself by the prickles on its stem; the soap-tree; the castor-oil plant; trunks of the sago palm; and various kinds of seeds unknown to the Malays settled on the islands. These are all supposed to have been driven by the N.W. monsoon to the coast of New Holland, and thence to these islands by the S.E. trade-wind. Large masses of Java teak and Yellow wood have also been found, besides immense trees of red and white cedar, and the blue gum-wood of New Holland, in a perfectly sound condition. All the hardy seeds, such as creepers, retain their germinating power, but the softer kinds, among which is the mangostin, are destroyed in the passage. Fishing-canoes, apparently from Java, have at times been washed on shore.” It is interesting thus to discover how numerous the seeds are, which, coming from several countries, are drifted over the wide ocean. Professor Henslow tells me he believes that nearly all the plants which I brought from these islands are common littoral species in the East Indian archipelago. From the direction, however, of the winds and currents, it seems scarcely possible that they could have come here in a direct line. If, as suggested with much probability by Mr. Keating, they were first carried towards the coast of New Holland, and thence drifted back together with the productions of that country, the seeds, before germinating, must have travelled between 1800 and 2400 miles.

164. Kotzebue’s First Voyage, vol. iii, p. 155.

Chamisso,164 when describing the Radack Archipelago, situated in the western part of the Pacific, states that “the sea brings to these islands the seeds and fruits of many trees, most of which have yet not grown here. The greater part of these seeds appear to have not yet lost the capability of growing.” It is also said that palms and bamboos from somewhere in the torrid zone, and trunks of northern firs, are washed on shore; these firs must have come from an immense distance. These facts are highly interesting. It cannot be doubted that, if there were land-birds to pick up the seeds when first cast on shore, and a soil better adapted for their growth than the loose blocks of coral, the most isolated of the lagoon islands would in time possess a far more abundant Flora than they now have.

The list of land animals is even poorer than that of the plants. Some of the islets are inhabited by rats, which were brought in a ship from the Mauritius, wrecked here. These rats are considered by Mr. Waterhouse as identical with the English kind, but they are smaller, and more brightly coloured. There are no true land-birds, for a snipe and a rail (Rallus Phillippensis), though living entirely in the dry herbage, belong to the order of Waders. Birds of this order are said to occur on several of the small low islands in the Pacific. At Ascension, where there is no land-bird, a rail (Porphyrio simplex) was shot near the summit of the mountain, and it was evidently a solitary straggler. At Tristan d’Acunha, where, according to Carmichael, there are only two land-birds, there is a coot. From these facts I believe that the waders, after the innumerable web-footed species, are generally the first colonists of small isolated islands. I may add that whenever I noticed birds, not of oceanic species, very far out at sea, they always belonged to this order; and hence they would naturally become the earliest colonists of any remote point of land.

165. The thirteen species belong to the following orders:—In the Coleoptera, a minute Elater; Orthoptera, a Gryllus and a Blatta; Hemiptera, one species; Homoptera, two; Neuroptera, a Chrysopa; Hymenoptera, two ants; Lepidoptera nocturna, a Diopæa, and a Pterophorus (?); Diptera, two species.
166. Kotzebue’s First Voyage, vol. iii, p. 222.

Of reptiles I saw only one small lizard. Of insects I took pains to collect every kind. Exclusive of spiders, which were numerous, there were thirteen species.165 Of these one only was a beetle. A small ant swarmed by thousands under the loose dry blocks of coral, and was the only true insect which was abundant. Although the productions of the land are thus scanty, if we look to the waters of the surrounding sea the number of organic beings is indeed infinite. Chamisso has described166 the natural history of a lagoon-island in the Radack Archipelago; and it is remarkable how closely its inhabitants, in number and kind, resemble those of Keeling Island. There is one lizard and two waders, namely, a snipe and curlew. Of plants there are nineteen species, including a fern; and some of these are the same with those growing here, though on a spot so immensely remote, and in a different ocean.

167. The large claws or pincers of some of these crabs are most beautifully adapted, when drawn back, to form an operculum to the shell, nearly as perfect as the proper one originally belonging to the molluscous animal. I was assured, and as far as my observations went I found it so, that certain species of the hermit-crab always use certain species of shells.

The long strips of land, forming the linear islets, have been raised only to that height to which the surf can throw fragments of coral, and the wind heap up calcareous sand. The solid flat of coral rock on the outside, by its breadth, breaks the first violence of the waves, which otherwise, in a day, would sweep away these islets and all their productions. The ocean and the land seem here struggling for mastery: although terra firma has obtained a footing, the denizens of the water think their claim at least equally good. In every part one meets hermit crabs of more than one species,167 carrying on their backs the shells which they have stolen from the neighbouring beach. Overhead numerous gannets, frigate-birds, and terns, rest on the trees; and the wood, from the many nests and from the smell of the atmosphere, might be called a sea-rookery. The gannets, sitting on their rude nests, gaze at one with a stupid yet angry air. The noddies, as their name expresses, are silly little creatures. But there is one charming bird: it is a small, snow-white tern, which smoothly hovers at the distance of a few feet above one’s head, its large black eye scanning, with quiet curiosity, your expression. Little imagination is required to fancy that so light and delicate a body must be tenanted by some wandering fairy spirit.

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