The Voyage of the Beagle – Day 150 of 164

169. See Proceedings of the Zoological Society, 1832, p. 17.

I have before alluded to a crab which lives on the cocoa-nuts; it is very common on all parts of the dry land, and grows to a monstrous size: it is closely allied or identical with the Birgos latro. The front pair of legs terminate in very strong and heavy pincers, and the last pair are fitted with others weaker and much narrower. It would at first be thought quite impossible for a crab to open a strong cocoa-nut covered with the husk; but Mr. Liesk assures me that he has repeatedly seen this effected. The crab begins by tearing the husk, fibre by fibre, and always from that end under which the three eye-holes are situated; when this is completed, the crab commences hammering with its heavy claws on one of the eye-holes till an opening is made. Then turning round its body, by the aid of its posterior and narrow pair of pincers it extracts the white albuminous substance. I think this is as curious a case of instinct as ever I heard of, and likewise of adaptation in structure between two objects apparently so remote from each other in the scheme of nature as a crab and a cocoa-nut tree. The Birgos is diurnal in its habits; but every night it is said to pay a visit to the sea, no doubt for the purpose of moistening its branchiæ. The young are likewise hatched, and live for some time, on the coast. These crabs inhabit deep burrows, which they hollow out beneath the roots of trees; and where they accumulate surprising quantities of the picked fibres of the cocoa-nut husk, on which they rest as on a bed. The Malays sometimes take advantage of this, and collect the fibrous mass to use as junk. These crabs are very good to eat; moreover, under the tail of the larger ones there is a mass of fat, which, when melted, sometimes yields as much as a quart-bottleful of limpid oil. It has been stated by some authors that the Birgos crawls up the cocoa-nut trees for the purpose of stealing the nuts: I very much doubt the possibility of this; but with the Pandanus169 the task would be very much easier. I was told by Mr. Liesk that on these islands the Birgos lives only on the nuts which have fallen to the ground.

170. Tyerman and Bennett, Voyage, etc., vol. ii, p. 33.

Captain Moresby informs me that this crab inhabits the Chagos and Seychelle groups, but not the neighbouring Maldiva archipelago. It formerly abounded at Mauritius, but only a few small ones are now found there. In the Pacific this species, or one with closely allied habits, is said170 to inhabit a single coral island north of the Society group. To show the wonderful strength of the front pair of pincers, I may mention that Captain Moresby confined one in a strong tin box, which had held biscuits, the lid being secured with wire; but the crab turned down the edges and escaped. In turning down the edges it actually punched many small holes quite through the tin!

I was a good deal surprised by finding two species of coral of the genus Millepora (M. complanata and alcicornis), possessed of the power of stinging. The stony branches or plates, when taken fresh from the water, have a harsh feel and are not slimy, although possessing a strong and disagreeable smell. The stinging property seems to vary in different specimens: when a piece was pressed or rubbed on the tender skin of the face or arm, a pricking sensation was usually caused, which came on after the interval of a second, and lasted only for a few minutes. One day, however, by merely touching my face with one of the branches, pain was instantaneously caused; it increased as usual after a few seconds, and remaining sharp for some minutes, was perceptible for half an hour afterwards. The sensation was as bad as that from a nettle, but more like that caused by the Physalia or Portuguese man-of-war. Little red spots were produced on the tender skin of the arm, which appeared as if they would have formed watery pustules, but did not. M. Quoy mentions this case of the Millepora; and I have heard of stinging corals in the West Indies. Many marine animals seem to have this power of stinging: besides the Portuguese man-of-war, many jelly-fish, and the Aplysia or sea-slug of the Cape de Verd Islands, it is stated in the Voyage of the Astrolabe that an Actinia or sea-anemone, as well as a flexible coralline allied to Sertularia, both possess this means of offence or defence. In the East Indian sea a stinging sea-weed is said to be found.

Two species of fish, of the genus Scarus, which are common here, exclusively feed on coral: both are coloured of a splendid bluish-green, one living invariably in the lagoon, and the other amongst the outer breakers. Mr. Liesk assured us that he had repeatedly seen whole shoals grazing with their strong bony jaws on the tops of the coral branches: I opened the intestines of several and found them distended with yellowish calcareous sandy mud. The slimy disgusting Holuthuriæ (allied to our star-fish), which the Chinese gourmands are so fond of, also feed largely, as I am informed by Dr. Allan, on corals; and the bony apparatus within their bodies seems well adapted for this end. These holuthuriæ, the fish, the numerous burrowing shells, and nereidous worms, which perforate every block of dead coral, must be very efficient agents in producing the fine white mud which lies at the bottom and on the shores of the lagoon. A portion, however, of this mud, which when wet resembled pounded chalk, was found by Professor Ehrenberg to be partly composed of siliceous-shielded infusoria.

171. I exclude, of course, some soil which has been imported here in vessels from Malacca and Java, and likewise some small fragments of pumice, drifted here by the waves. The one block of greenstone, moreover, on the northern island must be excepted.

April 12th.—In the morning we stood out of the lagoon on our passage to the Isle of France. I am glad we have visited these islands: such formations surely rank high amongst the wonderful objects of this world. Captain Fitz Roy found no bottom with a line 7200 feet in length, at the distance of only 2200 yards from the shore; hence this island forms a lofty submarine mountain, with sides steeper even than those of the most abrupt volcanic cone. The saucer-shaped summit is nearly ten miles across; and every single atom,171 from the least particle to the largest fragment of rock, in this great pile, which however is small compared with very many other lagoon islands, bears the stamp of having been subjected to organic arrangement. We feel surprise when travellers tell us of the vast dimensions of the Pyramids and other great ruins, but how utterly insignificant are the greatest of these, when compared to these mountains of stone accumulated by the agency of various minute and tender animals! This is a wonder which does not at first strike the eye of the body, but, after reflection, the eye of reason.

Whitsunday Island
172. These were first read before the Geological Society in May 1837 and have since been developed in a separate volume on the Structure and Distribution of Coral Reefs.

I will now give a very brief account of the three great classes of coral-reefs; namely, Atolls, Barrier, and Fringing Reefs, and will explain my views172 on their formation. Almost every voyager who has crossed the Pacific has expressed his unbounded astonishment at the lagoon islands, or as I shall for the future call them by their Indian name of atolls, and has attempted some explanation. Even as long ago as the year 1605, Pyrard de Laval well exclaimed, “C’est une merveille de voir chacun de ces atollons, environné d’un grand banc de pierre tout autour, n’y ayant point d’artifice humain.” The accompanying sketch of Whitsunday Island in the Pacific, copied from Captain Beechey’s admirable “Voyage”, gives but a faint idea of the singular aspect of an atoll: it is one of the smallest size, and has its narrow islets united together in a ring. The immensity of the ocean, the fury of the breakers, contrasted with the lowness of the land and the smoothness of the bright green water within the lagoon, can hardly be imagined without having been seen.

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