Shifting Baselines

In honor of Darwin Day, I’d like to give a little shout out to some of Charles Darwin’s contributions to marine science.

Theory of Coral Reef Formation: Onboard the Beagle, Darwin composed the theory of coral reef formation. He described three types of reefs: fringe, barrier, and atoll. His illustrations of reef formation and global reef locations are beautifully detailed. Most impressive is that Darwin came up with the theory without ever having seen a coral reef (though he would eventually see one during the Beagle’s voyage through the Pacific). And remember, back then there were no aerial photographs of atolls, etc. But Darwin’s theory of coral reef formation wasn’t found to be correct until 1951, when U.S. government geologists surveying Eniwetok, a Marshall Islands atoll, prior to a hydrogen bomb test there, finally drilled deep enough to resolve the mystery. Scientists immediately erected a small sign next to the borehole which read “Darwin was right”. Read more about the debate here.

One marine-related hypotheses Darwin had onboard the Beagle: Darwin posited bioluminescence in the sea was the same type of bacteria as that on rotten meat (he was wrong).

Darwin’s Fishes: Daniel Pauly’s book Darwin’s Fishes is an encylopedia of everything Charles Darwin ever wrote about fish, which represented about 0.7% of Darwin’s lifetime ouput. Using fish, Darwin gave the first rigorous account of the importance of colors in biology and also accounts of sexual selection. Pauly also believes that Darwin to be able to deomonstrate the roles isolated islands play in generating biodiversity (and endemism) using fishes.

Barnacles: Back from the Beagle but still sitting on his theory of natural selection, Darwin began a study of barnacles that lasted eight years (photo of Darwin’s barnacle slides). He was first to identify and coin the term “dwarf males” (paired with a female barnacle lacking all male organs) and “complemental males” (housed within a hermaphrodite barnacle). His taxonomy of barnacles is still in use today. Lots of barnacles are named after Darwin and so are some fish, including this one:

i-1a088259582f5c336e228d080e7a9a83-Darwinfish.jpg
Semicossyphus darwini (Galapagos sheephead); drawing by Godfrey Merlen

Comments

  1. #1 kevin z
    February 11, 2008

    Nice post Jennifer! Having studied Darwin as an undergrad I didn’t recall hearing about the bioluminesence theory.

  2. #2 Michael D. Barton, FCD
    February 12, 2008

    What about Darwin’s seed experiments having to do with transoceanic dispersal?

    http://scienceblogs.com/afarensis/2007/04/23/seeds_and_such_darwin_experime/

  3. #3 karl bates
    March 20, 2008

    Everyone who loves science should read “Voyage of the Beagle.” It’s an amazing document, and a great read. Some call it the original travel book. He spends a month on the Pampas with the Gauchos, climbs the Andes, dives into the Amazon jungle, etc.

    In his musings, you can see not only the correct theory of coral island formation, but also that young Darwin was within inches of figuring out plate tectonics. His greatest intellectual gift was the ability to think in geologic time. And although we know evolution can happen a lot faster than that now, it was this ability to think in terms of hundreds of generations that allowed him to see the light of Evolution.

  4. #4 cet
    June 21, 2009

    Nice post Jennifer! Having studied Darwin as an undergrad I didn’t recall hearing about the bioluminesence theory

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