The Voyage of the Beagle – Day 9 of 164

Every one has heard of the beauty of the scenery near Botofogo. The house in which I lived was seated close beneath the well-known mountain of the Corcovado. It has been remarked, with much truth, that abruptly conical hills are characteristic of the formation which Humboldt designates as gneiss-granite. Nothing can be more striking than the effect of these huge rounded masses of naked rock rising out of the most luxuriant vegetation.

I was often interested by watching the clouds, which, rolling in from seaward, formed a bank just beneath the highest point of the Corcovado. This mountain, like most others, when thus partly veiled, appeared to rise to a far prouder elevation than its real height of 2300 feet. Mr. Daniell has observed, in his meteorological essays, that a cloud sometimes appears fixed on a mountain summit, while the wind continues to blow over it. The same phenomenon here presented a slightly different appearance. In this case the cloud was clearly seen to curl over, and rapidly pass by the summit, and yet was neither diminished nor increased in size. The sun was setting, and a gentle southerly breeze, striking against the southern side of the rock, mingled its current with the colder air above; and the vapour was thus condensed: but as the light wreaths of cloud passed over the ridge, and came within the influence of the warmer atmosphere of the northern sloping bank, they were immediately redissolved.

The climate, during the months of May and June, or the beginning of winter, was delightful. The mean temperature, from observations taken at nine o’clock, both morning and evening, was only 72°. It often rained heavily, but the drying southerly winds soon again rendered the walks pleasant. One morning, in the course of six hours, 1.6 inches of rain fell. As this storm passed over the forests which surround the Corcovado, the sound produced by the drops pattering on the countless multitude of leaves was very remarkable, it could be heard at the distance of a quarter of a mile, and was like the rushing of a great body of water. After the hotter days, it was delicious to sit quietly in the garden and watch the evening pass into night. Nature, in these climes, chooses her vocalists from more humble performers than in Europe. A small frog, of the genus Hyla, sits on a blade of grass about an inch above the surface of the water, and sends forth a pleasing chirp: when several are together they sing in harmony on different notes. I had some difficulty in catching a specimen of this frog. The genus Hyla has its toes terminated by small suckers; and I found this animal could crawl up a pane of glass, when placed absolutely perpendicular. Various cicadae and crickets, at the same time, keep up a ceaseless shrill cry, but which, softened by the distance, is not unpleasant. Every evening after dark this great concert commenced; and often have I sat listening to it, until my attention has been drawn away by some curious passing insect.

14. I am greatly indebted to Mr. Waterhouse for his kindness in naming for me this and many other insects, and giving me much valuable assistance.

At these times the fireflies are seen flitting about from hedge to hedge. On a dark night the light can be seen at about two hundred paces distant. It is remarkable that in all the different kinds of glowworms, shining elaters, and various marine animals (such as the crustacea, medusae, nereidae, a coralline of the genus Clytia, and Pyrosoma), which I have observed, the light has been of a well-marked green colour. All the fireflies, which I caught here, belonged to the Lampyridae (in which family the English glowworm is included), and the greater number of specimens were of Lampyris occidentalis.14 I found that this insect emitted the most brilliant flashes when irritated: in the intervals, the abdominal rings were obscured. The flash was almost coinstantaneous in the two rings, but it was just perceptible first in the anterior one. The shining matter was fluid and very adhesive: little spots, where the skin had been torn, continued bright with a slight scintillation, whilst the uninjured parts were obscured. When the insect was decapitated the rings remained uninterruptedly bright, but not so brilliant as before: local irritation with a needle always increased the vividness of the light. The rings in one instance retained their luminous property nearly twenty-four hours after the death of the insect. From these facts it would appear probable, that the animal has only the power of concealing or extinguishing the light for short intervals, and that at other times the display is involuntary. On the muddy and wet gravel-walks I found the larvæ of this lampyris in great numbers: they resembled in general form the female of the English glowworm. These larvæ possessed but feeble luminous powers; very differently from their parents, on the slightest touch they feigned death, and ceased to shine; nor did irritation excite any fresh display. I kept several of them alive for some time: their tails are very singular organs, for they act, by a well-fitted contrivance, as suckers or organs of attachment, and likewise as reservoirs for saliva, or some such fluid. I repeatedly fed them on raw meat; and I invariably observed, that every now and then the extremity of the tail was applied to the mouth, and a drop of fluid exuded on the meat, which was then in the act of being consumed. The tail, notwithstanding so much practice, does not seem to be able to find its way to the mouth; at least the neck was always touched first, and apparently as a guide.

15. Kirby’s Entomology, vol. ii, p. 317.

When we were at Bahia, an elater or beetle (Pyrophorus luminosus, Illig.) seemed the most common luminous insect. The light in this case was also rendered more brilliant by irritation. I amused myself one day by observing the springing powers of this insect, which have not, as it appears to me, been properly described.15 The elater, when placed on its back and preparing to spring, moved its head and thorax backwards, so that the pectoral spine was drawn out, and rested on the edge of its sheath. The same backward movement being continued, the spine, by the full action of the muscles, was bent like a spring; and the insect at this moment rested on the extremity of its head and wing-cases. The effort being suddenly relaxed, the head and thorax flew up, and in consequence, the base of the wing-cases struck the supporting surface with such force, that the insect by the reaction was jerked upwards to the height of one or two inches. The projecting points of the thorax, and the sheath of the spine, served to steady the whole body during the spring. In the descriptions which I have read, sufficient stress does not appear to have been laid on the elasticity of the spine: so sudden a spring could not be the result of simple muscular contraction, without the aid of some mechanical contrivance.

On several occasions I enjoyed some short but most pleasant excursions in the neighbouring country. One day I went to the Botanic Garden, where many plants, well known for their great utility, might be seen growing. The leaves of the camphor, pepper, cinnamon, and clove trees were delightfully aromatic; and the bread-fruit, the jaca, and the mango, vied with each other in the magnificence of their foliage. The landscape in the neighbourhood of Bahia almost takes its character from the two latter trees. Before seeing them, I had no idea that any trees could cast so black a shade on the ground. Both of them bear to the evergreen vegetation of these climates the same kind of relation which laurels and hollies in England do to the lighter green of the deciduous trees. It may be observed that the houses within the tropics are surrounded by the most beautiful forms of vegetation, because many of them are at the same time most useful to man. Who can doubt that these qualities are united in the banana, the cocoa-nut, the many kinds of palm, the orange, and the bread-fruit tree?

Rio Janeiro

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