Two dead birds, one big idea.
Mockingbirds collected by Charles Darwin on the Galapagos Islands may not be the most visually exciting part of an exhibition that opened Friday at the Natural History Museum, but they stimulated the thinking that led to the theory of evolution.
The specimens have never before been on public display.
Darwin found that the mockingbirds he saw in the Galapagos Islands in September and October of 1835 were different from the ones he had seen all over South America.
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“It struck him immediately that this was a very different bird: It's bigger, it has this dark chest, the bill is quite long,” said Jo Cooper, the museum's curator of birds.
Darwin noted greater variations in the birds from different islands in the Galapagos than he had seen on the continent, “and that really made him start thinking,” Cooper said.
It set Darwin on a course that challenged the prevailing idea that each species was distinct and unchanged – or stable – since the moment it was created.
“When I see these Islands in sight of each other and possessed of but a scanty stock of animals, tenanted by these birds but slightly different in structure and filling the same place in Nature, I must suspect they are only varieties,” he wrote, adding: “If there is the slightest foundation for these remarks, the zoology of archipelagoes will be well worth examining; for such facts would undermine the stability of species.”