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Australia's flora and fauna and Charles Darwin

Observations of Australia's unique fauna and flora, combined with considerations of the continent's geographical isolation, contributed toward Charles Darwin (1809–1882) developing his theory of evolution by natural selection.


J.W. Lewin (1770–1819), [Platypus], 1810, watercolour & gouache. Image courtesy of the State Library of New South Wales: a928146.

Charles Darwin's theory was that species change over time, or evolve, in response to their environment. This theory transformed the way people understood the living world, and provided a logical, unifying explanation for the diversity of life. Darwin's theory of evolution changed the face of science and natural history forever.

While Darwin never saw a kangaroo in Australia, despite riding a horse from Sydney to Bathurst, he did see many other species. Darwin made some very astute observations about Australian animals, especially the platypus. At the time, the platypus was regarded as a curious creature, and it baffled the scientific world. Darwin was the first British scientist to see a platypus in its natural environment, at a creek near Bathurst, in 1836.

For over forty years after his visit, Darwin used and relied upon collections of specimens from Australia that related directly to his 'theoretical concerns at any given time and his recognition of the peculiar status of the continent'.

Voyage on the Beagle

Sketch of HMS Beagle

H.M.S. Beagle from a sketch by Darwin's shipmate John Clements Wickham. Image courtesy of Darwin Online.

Charles Darwin was a young English naturalist when he was recommended for the post on the H.M.S. Beagle in 1831 as part of a five-year round-the-world journey. The voyage surveyed along the coast of South America, islands in the Pacific, Australia, the Cocos (Keeling) Islands, Madagascar and South Africa. At the time of the voyage, Darwin was primarily a geologist, though he was also passionately interested in natural history. His observations during the voyage formed the basis from which he developed his theory of evolution by natural selection.


Travels in Australia

In a letter to his sister Caroline, 27 Dec 1835, Darwin wrote that he was 'looking forward with more pleasure to seeing Sydney, than to any other part of the voyage'. The Beagle sailed into Sydney harbour on 12 January 1836. During his visit, Darwin met with several of the leading figures of the Australian colonies, including members of the King and Macarthur families in Sydney, and Alfred Stephen and George Frankland in Hobart. At the time of his departure from the west coast of the continent in mid-March, Darwin was anxious to be home. However, on reflection nearly twenty years later, Darwin had come to fully appreciate Australia as a 'remarkable and creditable' place that he saw as his 'adopted country'.

Sydney and Bathurst, 12–30 January 1836

Two days after arriving in Sydney, Darwin set out on a ride over the Blue Mountains to Bathurst, 'partly for Geology, but chiefly to get an idea of the state of the colony, & see the country'.

Frank Hurley photograph of Jameson Valley

Frank Hurley (1885–1962), Jameson valley cloud shadows & big cliff face, between 1910 and 1962, photograph. Image courtesy of the National Library of Australia: an23381883.

Blue Mountains geology

On 17–18 January 1836, riding to Bathurst, Darwin saw the extraordinary views at the places now known as Wentworth Falls and Govett's Leap. Darwin's first impression was that the valleys had been eroded by the passage of water, but then found it doubtful due to the enormous quantity of material that had been removed to form such large valleys. The later recognition that erosion was in fact responsible may have contributed to an appreciation of the vast timescale over which the world, and life, had been shaped.

Observation of species and the platypus

Darwin took a detour during his journey to Bathurst to visit a farm at Wallerawang. On 19 January 1836, Darwin was pleased to see 'several of the famous platypus', which bore a strong resemblance to the water rat in appearance and in behaviour, despite being a quite different species.

Observing this and other similar convergences in actions and appearance between Australian species and those elsewhere, Darwin was moved to comment:

An unbeliever in every thing beyond his own reason might exclaim, 'Two distinct Creators must have been at work; their object, however, has been the same, and certainly the end in each case is complete.'

but went on to speculate

Would any two workmen ever have hit upon so beautiful, so simple, and yet so artificial a contrivance? It cannot be thought so: one Hand has surely worked throughout the universe.

Hobart and King George Sound, 5–17 February and 6–14 March 1836

King George Sound and entrance to Princess Royal Harbour, 1854

Duncan Cooper (1813 or 4–1904), King George Sound and entrance to Princess Royal Harbour, 1854, watercolour. Image courtesy of the National Library of Australia: an2686092.

During his stay, Darwin visited Hobart where he climbed Mount Wellington and was greatly impressed by the giant eucalypts and tree-ferns, seeing one which he estimated at 'twenty feet high to the base of the fronds, and was in girth exactly six feet'.

Darwin was quite unimpressed by his visit to King George Sound—'I do not remember, since leaving England, having passed a more dull, uninteresting time'. By this time, Darwin had been at sea for four years and, while he was still making astute observations, he just wanted to go home. Darwin left Australia on 14 March 1836, commenting that Australia was 'too great and ambitious for affection, yet not great enough for respect. I leave your shores without sorrow or regret'.

Building a theory—influence of and information from Australia

Australian view with figures

Conrad Martens (1801-1878), Australian view with figures, 1845, watercolour. Image courtesy of the National Library of Australia: an2390667.

Darwin's direct experience of Australia ended with his departure on the Beagle, but his zoological collections from Australia were part of an extraordinary accumulation and utilisation of resources from around the globe that provided a basis for study, from which to construct a theory.

In 1837, Darwin began a series of small notebooks, known as the Transmutation Notebooks, based on a proposition of evolution. In 1837 he drew a crude but unmistakable evolutionary tree. Above this tree he wrote 'I think'. Darwin ceased keeping the notebooks in 1844, the year in which he composed his first full-length essay outlining his theory of transmutation.

Darwin continued to acquire information about Australia through correspondence and continued to acquire specimens from local naturalists. The geographical isolation of Australian fauna and flora gave Darwin some very valuable evidence on evolution, as well as evidence that geographical isolation and extinction of prior forms were not absolutely essential for speciation to occur.

Thomas Mitchell, Surveyor-General New South Wales

Large cavern at Wellington Valley

Day & Haghe, Large cavern at Wellington Valley, 1839. Image courtesy of the National Library of Australia: an9941600.

Thomas Mitchell, in particular, made a significant contribution to Darwin's collection of data. Mitchell provided numerous observations that were utilised in Darwin's Transmutation Notebooks, although very few found their way into Darwin's published work.

Darwin learned from Mitchell that the dingo was not found in Tasmania, which suggested it had arrived in mainland Australia after the separation of the island. Thirty years later, Darwin included many anecdotal references to the dingo in his massive two-volume survey of plant and animal breeding.

Mitchell examined the Wellington Caves, a significant fossil site, in the early 1830s. During a visit to England in 1837, he published an account of his explorations. He also met Darwin.

Mitchell's careful observations of the deposits and his interpretation of the processes forming them are in the best tradition of 19th-century geology and palaeontology. At the time these findings were at the cutting edge of natural science, fomenting vigorous debate in the learned societies of London, Paris and even Sydney.
Beneath the Surface , Elery Hamilton-Smith and Brian Finlayson (eds).

Darwin believed that Mitchell's finds in the caves supported the idea that evolutionary change implied one generation led to the next, as opposed to sudden, total extinctions followed by new creations.

Syms Covington, Charles Darwin's shooter and assistant

Syms Covington was assigned to Darwin as a cabin boy on the voyage of the Beagle, paid for by Darwin's father, and later became his shooter and assistant. Syms Covington kept a journal recording his duties to find water and dinner for the crew of the Beagle. Covington also took over responsibility for sketching after Conrad Martens (the Beagle 's official artist) was signed off at Valparaiso in 1834. After Covington migrated to Australia in 1838, Darwin maintained a life-long correspondence until Covington's death in Australia, in 1861.

Darwin noted that Covington had 'shot and prepared nearly all the specimens I brought home'. It was also Covington's job to tag and pack the specimens for the long sea journey.

We know from correspondence between Darwin and Henslow that Covington boxed things in lots according to the size and nature of the material. He sent any large specimens, rocks fossil vertebrates and such, in wooden casks. Pillboxes containing insects, or tomes full of pressed plants were sent back in sealed tin containers. Wet specimens had to be sent in fragile glass jars and were thus all the more a worry.
Victoria Young, Expanding Worlds - An Introduction to the Journal, Chapter 1, The Journal of Syms Covington , Australian Science Archives Project, 1998

During their stay in Sydney in 1836, Covington went insect hunting with Darwin. Between them they collected ninety-two different species, thirty-one previously unknown to science. Paid off on 17 October 1836 after returning to London, Covington spent the next two and a half years helping Darwin arrange and document the material collected on the voyage, before migrating to New South Wales. After working for the Australian Agricultural Company, Covington took up a position as postmaster at Pambula near Twofold Bay, NSW in 1854. There he continued to collect for Darwin, sometimes with the assistance of one of his sons.

Darwin asked Covington to collect local barnacles for him. A box was sent on 12 March 1850; one (BM) proved to be 'a new species of a genus of which only one specimen is known to exist in the world', Darwin told him. Darwin was able to show how, according to their developmental history and anatomy, the barnacles were related to the Crustacea.

I have finished my book on the barnacles (in which you so kindly helped me with the valuable Australian specimens). I found out much new and curious about them, and the Royal Soc. gave me their great gold medal (quite a nugget, for it weighs 40sovereigns), chiefly for my discoveries in regard to these shells, which are not perfect shells, but more allied to crabs.
Darwin, C. R. to Covington, Syms, 9 Mar 1856

Covington corresponded with Darwin for the rest of his life and Darwin seems to have been very fond of this 'upright, prudent' servant who had copied several of his voluminous manuscripts. Darwin's letters addressed to Syms Covington, were published in the Sydney Mail in 1884.

Australian flora and the botanist Joseph Dalton Hooker

White flowering grass tree

Louisa A. Meredith (1812-1895), White flowering grass tree, 1891. Image courtesy of the State Library of Tasmania: AUTAS001126076777

Australia's flora as well as fauna were important to Darwin in developing his theory of evolution by natural selection. The adaptation and the distribution of Australia's native flora were of great interest to Darwin.

A source of information, encouragement and critical discussion was the botanist Joseph Dalton Hooker. Hooker spent two periods in Australia, in 1840–41 and 1842, while serving with James Clark Ross's 1841 Antarctic voyage, which was the first to penetrate the Antarctic pack ice south of New Zealand. Hooker worked at Kew Gardens, where his father was Director, and retained close links to a network of local naturalists in the Australian colonies. Darwin had extensive correspondence with Hooker from 1843 until 1882 (over 400 items) and from the mid-1850s onwards was able to make use of this network of naturalists in the Australian colonies.

In his publication, Flora Tasmaniae (1855-60), reprinted in 1963, Hooker supports the theory of evolution as brought about by variation and natural selection. This essay, the first published statement in support of Darwin's theory, is based on Hooker's independent studies of plants, and particularly on their geographical distribution. Local Tasmanian naturalists Ronald Gunn and William Archer were acknowledged in the dedication of the third volume.

Appreciation of Australia

On publication of the first volume of Flora Tasmaniae, Darwin wrote to Hooker to congratulate him and commented:

What capital news from Tasmania: it really is a very remarkable & creditable fact to the Colony: I am always building veritable castles-in the air about emigrating, & Tasmania has been my head quarters of late, so that I feel very proud of my adopted country; it is really a very singular & delightful fact, contrasted with the slight appreciation of science in the Old Country.
Darwin, C. R. to Hooker, J. D., 1 Mar [1854] .

Theory of evolution by natural selection

Monkeyana, illustration from Punch

Monkeyana 1861. Illustration from Punch referring to Darwin's theory of evolution. Image courtesy of the National Museum of Australia.

The prevailing view in Darwin's time was that each species had been independently created—that each was separate and unchanging. However, a growing body of evidence from observations of living species and the fossil record led some naturalists to theorise that species could change over time, or evolve. Although evolutionary theories had previously been put forward, none had gained wide acceptance.

The theory of evolution by natural selection was first publicly aired in a joint presentation to the Linnaean Society in July 1859 by Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace, whose thinking ran on similar lines to Darwin's, and who had been working in the Malay Archipelago, creating his own collection. Darwin had received a letter from Wallace who was developing a theory similar to his own. The joint presentation was at the instigation of Thomas Huxley and Joseph Hooker.

The first edition of Darwin's On the Origin of Species by means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life was published in 1859.

Impact on Australia

John Gould and Australian ornithology

On 4 January 1837, Charles Darwin presented 'A magnificent collection of Mammalia and Birds' to the Museum of the Zoological Society in London. The gift consisted of 450 birds and 80 mammals.
John Gould , Online exhibition, Australian Museum.
Fiery Parrakeet

John Gould, Fiery Parrakeet (Platycercus ignitus), from Birds of Australia 1840–48, vol 5 pl 30. Image courtesy of Australian Museum.

John Gould (1804–1881) was asked to classify the bird specimens, of which about 200 were Australian. Gould's identification of these bird species was significant for Darwin when he was formulating his theory of evolution. Darwin's realisation that the separate species on the different islands of the Galapagos were closely related to species on the South American mainland, combined with fossil evidence, led him to recognise that populations of similar species that are isolated from each other may continue to evolve separately.

John Gould's observations of Australian plumage differences between species of birds in the same genus were highly significant for Darwin. Gould's claim appears as one of the earliest instances in the Transmutation Notebooks and this further supported Darwin's belief that species that have split from a common stock might exist at the same time, even in the same geographic area.

John Gould arrived in Sydney in February 1839 as the guest of the Curator of the Australian Museum, George Bennett (1804–1892). Gould stayed with Bennett whenever he visited Sydney and used the Museum's collection to familiarise himself with the native fauna before going into the field to locate his own specimens. Of the estimated 745 species of birds that live in Australia, John Gould is credited with describing almost half (44%). It is estimated that Gould described between 300 and 328 new species of Australian birds, and 45 new Australian mammals.

Between 1840 and 1848, seven volumes of Gould's Birds of Australia were produced. In all, 15 folio titles were published by John Gould, consisting of 49 volumes and almost 3 000 plates. It is estimated that over half a million plates were hand-coloured for Gould's clients.

For many who grew up in Australia over the last century, the Gould name evokes a childhood nostalgia. Their first introduction to birds and wildlife was often through the organisation known as the Gould League , founded in 1909 to encourage the love and protection of Australian native birds. More than one million Australians have joined the Gould League since 1909. Today the Gould League is an independent environmental education organisation and is still highly active in Australian schools with over 60,000 students participating.

Australian interest in the science of the natural world

In the early days of the Australian colonies, there was little general interest in science. From the 1850s, however, public interest in the subject began to grow. The Australian publication of Origin of Species, four months after its appearance in England, was a cause for controversy and a focus for thought and discussion. There was great debate about people's beliefs about the creation of the Earth and humankind, and the relationship of man to nature. Evolution was discussed everywhere in public:

'...whether it be in newspapers, sermon, lecture, or ordinary conversation, our thoughts and words are tinged and flavoured with it'. Science could no longer be dismissed as a subject for savants.
Science and the People - the Deepening Relationship , Honours Thesis submitted by Jenny Newell, Australian National University, June 1992.

Darwin place names—Port Darwin and Charles Darwin Walk

The approach that Darwin took to Wentworth Falls in 1836 is now known as Charles Darwin Walk.

Port Darwin, 1870

Unknown, Port Darwin, 1870. Image courtesy of Territory Stories: PH0002/0161.

Port Darwin, in the Northern Territory, was named in honour of Charles Darwin by John Stokes, a former shipmate, on a subsequent voyage of the Beagle in September 1839. Though it wasn't until 1869 that the city of Darwin had its modern day beginnings. Darwin is now also home to the Charles Darwin University.

2009 Anniversaries

Commemorations and celebrations marked Darwin's 200th birthday in February 2009 and the 150th anniversary of the first publication of On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection in November 2009, with events in Darwin and around Australia.

Useful links

Darwin and Australia

Syms Covington


Last updated: 18th March 2016