Visiting the Natural History Museum with Matthew James: Collecting Evolution

Matthew James is an author, professor at Sonoma University in California and undoubtedly, a Galapagos enthusiast. Two members of staff, Jenny and Rob, recently attended a seminar by him at the Natural History Museum in Kensington, London on Matthew James’s latest book Collecting Evolution: The voyage that vindicated Darwin.

His book delves deep into the last collecting voyage to Galapagos, exactly 30 years after Charles Darwin’s famed voyage of the Beagle. It is interesting to note that the majority of knowledge the present day possesses of the Archipelago stems from the 1905-06 expedition. The journey lasted for 17 months and in that time the team of eight men collected a staggering 78,000 specimens. Museums are always keen to have the most, the best and the largest collections of specimens. In terms of museums, quantity does have a quality. However, this effort is often overshadowed by the much more popular Charles Darwin, who only spent a surprisingly short time of five weeks on the Islands. Matthew states that the 1905-06 expedition extended and reinforced Darwin’s influence within the science world, and of course highlighted his legacy.

Rob, Matthew James and Jenny © Jennifer Vidler

Before the expedition

At the beginning of 1906, the San Francisco California Academy of Sciences was refurbished and stocked full of specimens donated from across the world. The museum was opened and the priceless artefacts were on display to the public. One month later, in April 1906, an earthquake struck, damaging the building. A subsequent fire burned for three days reducing the building to burnt rubble and dust.

The voyage was due to return with its load of specimens in March 1906, however, the expedition was late leaving due to a storm damaging the ship. If the expedition had left on time, all of the specimens would have existed for a month before they were lost. This expedition to Galapagos was one of the main collection building expeditions of the twentieth century; the team successfully collected 78,000 specimens. These specimens are still available to see today at the modern day California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco.

During the expedition

The voyage left San Francisco Bay and travelled to all the main islands in the Archipelago, and even visited some of the smaller islets. As the voyage was aboard a sail-powered schooner, the tides, strong currents and wind all dictated the speed and direction of travel almost every day the crew spent at sea. The days spent exploring the Islands were fraught with rough and sharp terrain, dense and thick foliage and incredible heat. Most land-based days involved 15 hours of hard labour collecting the giant tortoises from the base of volcanoes and transporting them to a skiff and eventually to the ship, hours of back breaking work for the men. Collecting often took many hours, sometimes days, and skinning the reptiles took between five and eight hours each. The heat, exhaustion and fighting off the incessant rats and mosquitoes tested the men, but no major fall outs occurred!

Thankfully, all of this work was not in vain. The 18 month voyage was a success, with the schooner returning to San Francisco Bay laden with thousands and thousands of specimens for the California Academy of Sciences. These specimens have been frequently used from the time they were collected up until the present day, proving to be essential in many scientific studies. The mockingbirds collected backed up Darwin’s theory of evolution written in his world famous book On The Origin of Species.

The Natural History Museum Archives

After Matthew’s seminar, we were lucky enough to be invited along with him to visit two priceless specimens in the archives of the Natural History Museum, a giant tortoise collected from Isabela island and a marine iguana collected by Commander W E Cookson over 100 years ago.

Find out more about this exciting voyage by buying Matthew James’ book. If you would like to help us preserve the wildlife of Galapagos, you can donate to our Endangered Galapagos Appeal by clicking here.

By Jennifer Vidler, Communications and Membership Assistant