Beagle expedition discovers Miocene bird fossils

This video says about itself:

The route of the voyage that the Clipper Amsterdam will sail. The VPRO [TV] is preparing a 35-part series called Beagle: On the future of species. The project will reconstruct Darwin‘s 5-year long voyage on the HMS Beagle in the course of one year, and make an attempt to assess where the world stands today in light of Darwin’s evolution theory.

By Christopher Lloyd, on the ship Amsterdam, 10 September 2009:

Last night we sheltered close by two small barren volcanic islands – the Selvagens. Just one guard lives there, in a tiny hut, to look after the lighthouse. A team of scientists is also resident, usually for a month at a time, to monitor and manage the wildlife.

Islands like these have suffered miserably at the hands of myriad sailors over the last few centuries. Being strategically positioned for both European and Muslim explorers (either heading west across the Atlantic or south down the coast of Africa) has led to the introduction of a number of invasive species, either as a source of fresh meat to restock a passing ship’s larder (rabbits) or inadvertently from within the ships stores (mice).The combined effect of these creatures has been all but to destroy these islands’ ecosystem. They especially enjoy feasting off the chicks and eggs of the islands’ native birds. At least they did – until a few years ago, when the Portuguese government declared these places a national park.

Hanneke Meijer is a biologist with Naturalis, the Natural History Museum of Holland. She set out from Madeira four days ago, accompanied by another scientist, a paleontologist called Burt, and, of course, a VPRO film crew. Their mission was to try to find the fossilized eggs of an extinct species of island bird. …

The seas were mighty rough when they set off –a stiff Force 8. Nine people traveling for 19 hours on a 30ft sailing boat (equipped to sleep four) sounded like a pretty harsh start to me. Hanneka arrived exhausted. She never got to sleep. Instead, she spent the whole journey throwing up, triggering within me the deepest sympathy. It must have been ghastly.

But the trip was a great success. Incredibly, the team found a 15 million year-old fossilised bird egg of some (as yet to be identified) species. It is now safely stowed aboard the Stad Amsterdam, carefully packaged up one of Burt’s old T-shirts inside a plastic box. It represents the first real nature treasure recovered so far on the voyage (apart from Wim’s plankton, of course…).

Meanwhile, the fortunes of the island other species continue to gyrate wildly, thanks to the ongoing intervention of Homo meddlesomosis. Two years ago these habitats were finally declared mice and rabbit free after a hefty war was waged using rat poison in a bid to protect the islands’ populations of native birds. Imagine, I thought, having the task of trying to rid an island of rodents…

But other problems have emerged as a consequence. Hanneka tells me that the islands are now infested with so many native lizards – now gaily enjoying a rodent free future – that it is almost impossible to put a bag on the ground before at least 10 little beasts leap inside to explore its contents. Leave it unattended for five minutes and the number jumps well into the hundreds.

And, guess what? Now the mice are gone, these lizards have themselves developed a taste for eating the chicks of the indigenous birds…. Agh!

Charles Darwin himself did not land on the Selvagem islands. He just mentioned in one sentence passing them. Though, like Hanneke Meijer, he was seasick. From Darwin’s Beagle diary:


Januy 4th

accordingly we steered for Teneriffe. — I was so sick that I could not get up even to see Madeira, when within 12 miles. — in the evening a little better but much exhausted. —


Passed this morning within a few miles of the Piton rock: the most Southern of the Salvages: it is a wild abrupt rock & uninhabited. —

Update: it is probably a petrel egg, 5-7 million year old: here.

12 thoughts on “Beagle expedition discovers Miocene bird fossils

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