The Fascinating Mangrove Salt Marsh Snakes of Sanibel

Among the many amazing animals I saw on a recent visit to the Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge on Sanibel Island (Fort Myers, Florida) was a beautifully red mangrove salt marsh snake. When I came across it, this one had grabbed a bewildered fish in its mouth and was working on turning it around to swallow.

Mangrove Marsh Snake

After a few minutes the snake did just that, gulping it down live. The gathering crowd was both fascinated and a little grossed out, though there seemed to be an even split between those rooting for the fish and the snake.

What is even more fascinating about the mangrove salt marsh snake – its scientific name is Nerodia clarkii compressicauda – is that while it lives in the roots of red mangroves in an estuarine environment, it doesn’t have any particular adaptations to living in sea water. Most aquatic snakes live in freshwater. There are fully marine sea snakes, but they live entirely in the ocean and are adapted to the salt water; in particular they have large organs designed specifically to excrete salt, which allows sea snakes to drink seawater.

Mangrove salt marsh snakes have no such organ so cannot drink seawater. Instead they get most of their fresh water intake from their food (like the poor fish above) and by drinking freshwater from temporary puddles that form in the sand or pockets of roots after rainstorms. Calling them aquatic is a bit of a misnomer: perhaps semi-aquatic is more accurate. But they also can be considered semi-arboreal in the sense that they spend much of their time on the proproots of red mangroves (Rhizophora mangle, which a particular favorite of mine because I had studied many years ago in Bermuda). Indeed, the one I saw was slithering around the shallows and over the prop roots with the fish in its mouth looking for a good place to eat. These snakes aren’t great swimmers so they hang out in shallow pools as the tide retreats and snap up trapped fish.

Another fascinating aspect of mangrove marsh snakes is their coloring. The one I saw was brilliant red but they can also appear as rather grayish with darker splotches and bands. Even odder, any given litter of mangrove marsh snakes could contain a mix of both colors; live-bearers, a litter could have up to 22 individuals. The gray phase allows them to hide in the leaf litter of mangrove trees while the red phase provides great camouflage for snakes resting on mangrove branches and prop roots.

The red phase I saw now rested after gorging down its meal, so I moved on to check out the rest of the mangrove trail. Along the way I saw another unique denison of the mangroves – a mangrove tree crab, most likely Aratus pisonii – clinging to a tree about 15 feet above the ground.

Mangrove Tree Crab

I saw a lot more both in the mangrove trail and the rest of the Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge, but this snake having lunch was one of the most fascinating, and quite a thrill to capture on video.

David J. Kent is an avid science traveler and the author of Lincoln: The Man Who Saved America, now available. His previous books include Tesla: The Wizard of Electricity and Edison: The Inventor of the Modern World (both Fall River Press). He has also written two e-books: Nikola Tesla: Renewable Energy Ahead of Its Time and Abraham Lincoln and Nikola Tesla: Connected by Fate.

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Hitting all the careers!

It seems I’ve done a little of everything, and now I’m hitting all the careers at once (except the building bug zappers one).

In my marine biology days I had heard about Mote Marine Lab but had never been there. I also got to see my 49th aquarium. Here is an Australian jellyfish that I didn’t see in Australia.

A tarpon like the ones I saw in Bermuda.

One of many gorgeous reef fish.

At Mote Marine Lab Aquarium.

I also got to see the Addison-Ford Estates and several of Edison’s movie projectors in honor of my book on Thomas Edison.

His botanical Lab where he looked for a domestic source of rubber in his 80s.

Very cool place.

Meanwhile, my Tesla book is back in Barnes and Noble stores with its 8th printing.

And my Lincoln book is coming out soon with a 2nd printing.

Lincoln always watches over me.

More shortly.

David J. Kent is an avid science traveler and the author of Lincoln: The Man Who Saved America, now available. His previous books include Tesla: The Wizard of Electricity and Edison: The Inventor of the Modern World (both Fall River Press). He has also written two e-books: Nikola Tesla: Renewable Energy Ahead of Its Time and Abraham Lincoln and Nikola Tesla: Connected by Fate.

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The Year in Science Traveling – 2017

Sometimes Science Traveling takes me to distant lands and cultures, and sometimes it takes me closer to my own culture. This year was a little of both. I only took two major trips out of the country, but whoa, were they major. No more significant travel in the last twelve days of 2017, so here’s a recap.

First, the big trips.

Seoul, South Korea

In May I flew to South Korea. Mostly there weren’t any missiles flying while I was on the ground (there were just before and after), so I was able to move around without much difficulty. After landing in Seoul I immediately hopped a train to Busan on the southeast coast. After a few days there I headed back to Seoul and even took a day trip up into the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ). An interesting experience to say the least. Even Seoul offered some excitement as I was there on election day; they were voting to replace the president who had been impeached (and who days before had been arrested for corruption). And yes, I took notes.

Nine Dragon Wall, Beijing, China

From South Korea I flew to Beijing. I’ve been there a couple of times before so had already seen the usual tourist traps. This time the temperature hit 100 degrees F to offset the first time I was there when it was -5 F. I checked out some local areas and visited the Bell and Drum Towers. Vladimir Putin and about 30 other world leaders were in town for a One Belt, One Road Summit, so the air was bright and clear (they close down the factories and ban cars). On the flip side, the Forbidden City was closed for a private tour of all the first ladies and every version of military uniform possible was parading the streets.

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The next big trip was in October to Australia and New Zealand. First to Sydney (the famous bridge, the even more famous Opera House, and the at least locally famous Bondi Beach), then up to Cairns (Great Barrier Reef), then to Queenstown, New Zealand (fjord cruising), then back to Australia for Melbourne (12 Apostles), and finally up to Uluru (Ayer’s Rock). Day trips included hiking the Blue Mountains, checking out three different aquariums, and chasing the Lord of the Rings through the mountains of New Zealand. A trip of a lifetime.

Mt. Rushmore

The rest of the year was spent on less adventurous trips. I attended the annual CPRC meeting in Annapolis (where I also went kayaking on a separate trip), the Lincoln Forum in Gettysburg, and then two trips up to Massachusetts (July and November). I also got to hang out with Abraham Lincoln (George Buss) and Teddy Roosevelt (Joe Wiegand). In fact, both men twice. In February they were joined by actors playing George Washington and Thomas Jefferson for a “Mt. Rushmore” night at the National Archives. Joe reprised his role for the Lincoln Group of DC in October with a tribute to Abraham Lincoln; George played Lincoln at the Gettysburg cemetery commemoration in November.

Overall there were fewer trips this year, but to farther places. I only managed to get to three new countries, which brings the total to something like 45 depending on how you count. If things work out the way I’m anticipating, next year could add up to eight, or even more, new countries visited. Now how do I get to Antarctica? Stay tuned.

David J. Kent is an avid science traveler and the author of Lincoln: The Man Who Saved America, now available. His previous books include Tesla: The Wizard of Electricity and Edison: The Inventor of the Modern World (both Fall River Press). He has also written two e-books: Nikola Tesla: Renewable Energy Ahead of Its Time and Abraham Lincoln and Nikola Tesla: Connected by Fate.

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If It’s Tuesday…The Saga Continues

BrusselsI’ve been writing periodic posts cataloguing my previous three-year secondment to Brussels. Check out the series here. It’s been a while since I’ve posted but the saga of jumping through hoops to work in Europe continues.

At this point, I had been running around town fulfilling the fantasies of bureaucrats.  Over a few days I had:

1) Gotten a medical exam from the only doctor in Washington DC approved by the Belgian government for “official” exams (there are only 7 in the entire US). The odd thing was the doctor seemed like he was old enough to be in medical school around the turn of the century – the LAST century (1900).  I literally was reviewing CPR procedures in my head while he was examining me in case he were to suddenly keel over. It was a close call but both of us escaped from the room upright.

2) Gotten a chest X-ray at a separate medical office to prove I didn’t have anything I was going to spread to the Belgians. A blood sample went to a third lab for analysis. Apparently they don’t want my deadly germs spreading to “the old countries.” Perhaps they remember Columbus.

3) Returned two days later to the doctor to pick up my signed and stamped medical certificate, which I then had to run up to the Belgian Embassy (one of the benefits of working in DC is that just about everything needed is right here). Given that the Embassy was only 3/4 mile from the nearest Metro stop (and the fact that all the taxis were on strike that day), I decided to walk there and back. Naturally it started to rain just as I left and continued until just after I returned….and I hadn’t brought along an umbrella because there wasn’t any rain in the forecast.  Oh well. I was a bit damp but the trek was successful.

4) Running out again to the now defunct Ritz Camera to get two ID photos taken for my passport visa. I’m not particularly photogenic and the photographers seem to capture that deficiency well.

5) Sending all of this along with my CV, copies of my college diplomas, copies of every single page (even the blank ones) of my passport, and a few other pieces of paper to the Brussels office so I can get a work permit. [Of course, I still couldn’t get that until the FBI ran a background check on the fingerprints I had taken a couple of weeks before.]

Once the work permit was issued I had to take that up to the Belgian Embassy again to get my visa. Once I (finally) got to Brussels I had more paperwork to do in order to get a residency card. That excruciating process that had to be repeated every year for my three years there. Anyone who thinks America’s bureaucracy is burdensome needs to live in Europe to appreciate just how easy we have it in the states.

I began to see why some immigrants to my own country choose to take their chances bypassing the official procedures….you could grow old waiting for all the paperwork to be filed. And I’m only going over for a few years. And I was working for the same firm, just changing offices.

But it was worth it.

More to come.

David J. Kent is an avid science traveler and the author of Lincoln: The Man Who Saved America, now available. His previous books include Tesla: The Wizard of Electricity and Edison: The Inventor of the Modern World (both Fall River Press). He has also written two e-books: Nikola Tesla: Renewable Energy Ahead of Its Time and Abraham Lincoln and Nikola Tesla: Connected by Fate.

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[Daily Post]

The 12 Apostles of Victoria, Australia

The gloriousness of the 12 Apostles is not to be missed, despite the fact that there are not really 12, and obviously they aren’t apostles. Still, this is one of those must-see spots in Australia.

The 12 Apostles are a group of limestone stacks off the southern coast of Victoria, Australia. Reached by the Great Ocean Road (a marvel in its own right), the Apostles are slowly eroding away from wind and water. Despite the name, there really were only 9 stacks, but only about 8 remain. I say “about 8” because several of the rest are tenuously perched, and huge storms could lead to collapse on an unpredictable time frame. The last big collapse was in July of 2005 when a 160-foot tall stack suddenly fell and broke up.

 

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Given the slow rate of erosion, you don’t have to worry about racing there before they are all gone. In fact,  the processes that are eroding the existing Apostles are eating away at the more massive limestone cliffs. So come back in a 100 (or 1000) years and you see more Apostles emerging.

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Not far from the 12 Apostles is Loch Ard Gorge with its own amazing limestone architecture, a hint of which can be seen in the slide show above. The “Loch Ard” was the name of a clipper ship that ran aground in 1878. Of the 54 crew aboard, only two survived. Nineteen year old Tom Pearce, a ship’s apprentice, struggled ashore, then rescued 19-year-old Eva Carmichael. Alas, their potential fairy tale story ends there, as both returned to Europe separately. Not to be stymied by reality, when the nearby archway collapsed in June 2009, the two separated limestone pillars were officially named Tom and Eva to commemorate the shipwreck. After all, the story helps the tourist trade, right.

All kidding aside, the trip along the Great Ocean Road was indeed great. The coastline is amazing, as was the temperate rain forest we also saw along the way (more on that later).

More posts on Australia and New Zealand coming soon. The trip took us from Sydney to the Great Barrier Reef to Lord of the Rings New Zealand to Uluru. So much more to show.

David J. Kent is a science traveler. He is also the author of Lincoln: The Man Who Saved America, now available. His previous books include Tesla: The Wizard of Electricity and Edison: The Inventor of the Modern World (both Fall River Press). He has also written two e-books: Nikola Tesla: Renewable Energy Ahead of Its Time and Abraham Lincoln and Nikola Tesla: Connected by Fate.

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The Fascinating Koalas of Australia

Koala’s are marsupials. I knew that much. But on my recent trip to Australia I learned a lot more about koalas. And they are even more fascinating than I knew.

Koala in Australia

Like all marsupials, which includes other Australian natives such as kangaroos, wallabies, and wombats, plus opposums (the one species in North America), koalas give birth to embryonic stage young that must crawl into a pouch for further development. While considered primitive to mammalian full gestation development, it turns out the whole “live in a pouch” concept reduces the dangers of extended pregnancies.

Part of that danger is food. Koalas feed almost exclusively on the leaves of eucalyptus trees. That is something else I learned – there are anywhere from 200 to 700 species of eucalyptus trees depending on if you are a lumper or a splitter taxonomist. Of those, koalas prefer about 30 species for eating, relying on those with the highest protein content and low proportions of fiber and lignin. Eucalyptus leaves generally have high water content so koalas rarely need to drink. [But see this video that shows how climate change is drying out the leaves and forcing more koalas to seek supplementary water intake.]

A diet of eucalyptus presents some nutritional challenges for koalas. The essential oil from eucalyptus leaves has a natural disinfectant quality, which is why it is often used in insect repellents and antimicrobial products. They can be toxic in large quantities. Koalas have developed a tolerance but still try to avoid the most obnoxious species, which luckily they are able to determine by smell. Most eucalyptus are evergreens, so they make a poor source of energy. This means that koalas retain the food in their digestive systems for up to 100 hours and have about half the metabolic rate of a typical mammal. To conserve energy they move little and slowly. They also sleep around 20 hours a day, spending the remaining four waking hours eating.

Koala in Australia

Two other physical adaptations of koala were fascinating. Since they spend most of their day in trees feeding and sleeping, their forepaws have two opposable digits, essentially, two thumbs. These and sharp claws allow it to securely climb and hang on to the bark of trees. They also have a cartilaginous pad at the end of the spine that fits nicely into the fork of a tree, where you’ll often see koalas comfortably perched.

I saw koalas both in a wildlife park type setting near Sydney (where I had breakfast with one) and in the wilds along the coast south of Melbourne. All koalas are a single species, though because the Victoria (aka, near Melbourne) koalas tend to be much bigger than Queensland (near Cairns) koalas, some scientists consider them to be subspecies. In either case they are one of Australia’s most iconic animals. And truly fascinating.

More to come on koalas and kangaroos and wombats and kookaburras as I sort through over 3500 photos.

David J. Kent is and avid traveler. His most recent book, Lincoln: The Man Who Saved America, now available. His previous books include Tesla: The Wizard of Electricity and Edison: The Inventor of the Modern World (both Fall River Press). He has also written two e-books: Nikola Tesla: Renewable Energy Ahead of Its Time and Abraham Lincoln and Nikola Tesla: Connected by Fate.

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[Daily Post]

Science Traveling Australia and New Zealand

I’ve always wanted to go to Australia and New Zealand, and soon I will achieve that goal. My upcoming trip will take a few weeks and cover a lot of terrain.

Keep in mind that Australia is roughly the size of the United States, so the distance from Sydney (#1 on the map above) to Cairns (#2) is equivalent to the distance from Florida to Montreal. Uluru, aka Ayer’s Rock, (#5) is about where Denver would be. Sydney to Queenstown, New Zealand (#3) would be about the distance from Washington DC to Caracas, Venezuela. Bottom line – each flight is a long way.

First stop is Sydney, so the famous bridge, the even more famous Opera House, and (of course) an aquarium. Plus cruising around the harbor, Bondi, and a tour of the Blue Mountains. From there it’s off to Cairns for the Great Barrier Reef, the Tjapukai Aboriginal Culture Park and more. I’m looking forward to seeing kangaroos, koalas, and kiwis.

The kiwi part will definitely happen after a multistep loop from Cairns through Auckland to Queenstown, New Zealand. We’ll see the wonders of Milford Sound and do a safari through Wakatipu while checking out the areas where the Lord of the Rings movie series was filmed.

But wait, there’s more. From Queenstown it’s back to Melbourne, Australia to check out another aquarium and drive south and west on the coast to see the 12 Apostles (of which there are only seven). Then back to Melbourne for a flight up to Uluru in the center of the country. I’ll need to drive the rental car on the left side of the road. Luckily I’ve done that in Scotland and Ireland so, well, fingers crossed.

From Uluru it’s back to Sydney to catch a long flight back home.

I’ll be updating on the trip whenever possible and will definitely have a ton of photos when I return. This will be my second big trip this year; the first was South Korea and Beijing in the spring. At that time the rumbling of missiles kept tensions high, and just this past week there was a series of earthquakes in New Zealand. Apparently there is a tectonic plate margin running right through the middle of the country.

Well, that’s what science traveling is all about, right.

David J. Kent is an avid science traveler and the author of Lincoln: The Man Who Saved America, now available. His previous books include Tesla: The Wizard of Electricity and Edison: The Inventor of the Modern World (both Fall River Press). He has also written two e-books: Nikola Tesla: Renewable Energy Ahead of Its Time and Abraham Lincoln and Nikola Tesla: Connected by Fate.

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[Daily Post]

Irma’s Wreckage: Remembering Barbuda and St. Maarten

Hurricane Irma caused irretrievable damage to the very islands in the Caribbean we had spent many wonderful days on last year. We had met some amazing people on the trip and the devastation is hard to imagine.

Our first and last stops on an 8 day sailing cruise were St. Maarten, the Dutch side of the island. Watching the news and seeing how badly the French side was damaged was heartbreaking. I nearly lost it when I saw the photos of the St. Maarten airport. My preview of the trip included this article about how low the planes fly over the beach to land.

Now that famous beach looks like this.

St. Maarten airport after Irma 2017

The area to the right is the ocean, the left is the approach to the runway. We had drinks at the bar where the shoreline meets those red-roofed buildings. The bar itself is no longer there. All that sand on the left side of the road, sprayed up on the end of the runway; that sand used to be a beach on the right side of the road. Now only rocks remain. Over in the central town, much of the area where we stayed in a small hotel along a restaurant-lined boardwalk and beach has been destroyed, or at least ravaged.

Another island we visited was Barbuda. It has an amazing frigate bird rookery, which I wrote about here. Before the storm the frigates outnumbered the human population of Barbuda. Today, Barbuda is uninhabited by people. Every single one of the 1800 people have been evacuated, mostly to Antigua.

Barbuda after Irma 2017

Virtually every building was damaged; most were destroyed. At this point I haven’t been able to find out how the frigate bird sanctuary fared.

Other islands we visited were also severely damaged by Irma. Hurricane Jose, following along right behind Irma, seemed at first headed for St. Maarten and Barbuda, but luckily veered north and spared them a second direct hit. It will be years before the islands are restored. For Barbuda, it might be never.

As heartbreaking as this is, I have fond memories of these islands. Once they recover I would like to visit again. I hope I have that chance.

David J. Kent is an avid science traveler and the author of Lincoln: The Man Who Saved America, now available. His previous books include Tesla: The Wizard of Electricity and Edison: The Inventor of the Modern World (both Fall River Press). He has also written two e-books: Nikola Tesla: Renewable Energy Ahead of Its Time and Abraham Lincoln and Nikola Tesla: Connected by Fate.

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Reflections of a Science Traveler

Kotor, MontenegroToday marks the fourth anniversary of resigning my consulting job to pursue a career science traveling. Recently I caught up with a former colleague who still works at the old firm. We hadn’t spoken in a long time so she asked me whether I had any regrets about my decision. Without a moment’s hesitation, I replied: “No regrets whatsoever.” I left with my eyes facing forward and have never once looked back on that former life.

My new life has given me plenty to behold, including more time to travel and write.

I generally add a few new countries to my list each year. This year had fewer trips but farther destinations. I was in Seoul, South Korea during the election of a new president (to replace the one impeached and indicted), all while North Korea was haphazardly tossing around missiles. Then on to Beijing, China, which was hosting over 30 world leaders (including Vladimir Putin) for the One Belt One Road Summit. Soon I’ll be in roaming around Australia and New Zealand. The 12-hour drive to and from New England squeezed in between these two exotic locations seems tame in comparison. Another New England trip and Gettysburg are likely in the fall.

Writing has included the release of my newest book, Lincoln: The Man Who Saved America. This is my third book with Fall River Press, all now in Barnes and Noble stores. I also have two e-books available on Amazon.com (see links at end). My first book, Tesla: The Wizard of Electricity, is going into its 8th printing this fall and has been translated into several foreign languages. Edison: The Inventor of the Modern World is still in stores and may also get a new printing soon.

Meanwhile, I’m working on two new books – one on a specific area of Abraham Lincoln’s interests, and the other a travel memoir (like Paul Theroux or Bill Bryson). By January I might have a third book in progress.

My former colleague also asked a second question: do I get to read a lot? In fact, that has been one of the unanticipated benefits. I’ve increased the number of books read from maybe 50 to over 100 books per year, and broadened my reading interests considerably. Traveling helps. While I don’t read much while I’m on the ground (where my time is spent exploring), the long flights and airport time are ideal for finishing off the latest novel or taking notes on various science, Lincoln, or biography books.

I also have time to do research. I spend some time at the Library of Congress and National Archives, plus make ample use of their online collections and other electronic resources. With nearly 1200 Lincoln books in my own home library, there is no shortage of background material. The travel itself is also research. I regularly incorporate in my books the knowledge gained while traveling, and future books will involve more travel-related topics.

This past several years I’ve been actively involved with the Lincoln Group of DC. As the Vice President of Programs I schedule speakers for our monthly dinner meetings and join the Board in planning – and participating in – a wide variety of other events. Next year I’ll, well, it’s still to be determined what I’ll be doing next year, but likely I’ll still be deeply involved in Abraham Lincoln.

So what will happen in 2018? My tentative plans include considerably more travel to places I’ve never been, including (I hope) to my 6th continent and beyond my 50th country. My writing goal is to finish the Lincoln science book so that it will be in stores no later than early 2019. I’m also piecing together a travel memoir tentatively titled Patagonia Summer that will combine travel, history, and science. The third possible book will likely be a compendium with my Lincoln colleagues. There is still some uncertainty in these plans as experience has taught me that “the best laid plans” often change dramatically.

One thing is for sure. No regrets whatsoever.

See my previous “Reflections” for 2014, 2015, 2016. I’ll likely do a final “reflections” next year on my fifth anniversary, after which I’ll skip to five or ten year reports. Who knows? Maybe I’ll be too famous to write by then. 🙂

[Photo is at Kotor, Montenegro]

David J. Kent is an avid science traveler and the author of Lincoln: The Man Who Saved America, now available. His previous books include Tesla: The Wizard of Electricity and Edison: The Inventor of the Modern World (both Fall River Press). He has also written two e-books: Nikola Tesla: Renewable Energy Ahead of Its Time and Abraham Lincoln and Nikola Tesla: Connected by Fate.

Check out my Goodreads author page. While you’re at it, “Like” my Facebook author page for more updates!

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Buenos Aires, Charles Darwin, and the Giant Ground Sloths

Darwin's giant ground slothI’m currently working on a travel memoir of a recent trip to Patagonia. Our first stop was Buenos Aires, where we toured the opera house, visited the cemetery (trust me, it’s the thing to do), and dreamed about Darwin and the giant ground sloths.

Giant ground sloths, you say?

As a scientist and historian I couldn’t help but think of Darwin as we wandered around the capital city of Argentina. I had hoped to get further south to the Mar del Plata Aquarium but weather and circumstances conspired to disappoint me. I took consolation in the knowledge that Charles Darwin, of Origin of Species fame, spent many months in the coastal areas south of Buenos Aires during his five-year voyage on the HMS Beagle. After general wanderings around Rio de la Plata, the estuary of which separates Buenos Aires and Argentina to the south and Montevideo and Uruguay to the north, Darwin headed to Bahia Blanca and Punta Alta. It was in Punta Alta that Darwin really became enamored of his adventurous investigations, which up until now had been mostly at sea during the long Atlantic crossing, and a few forays into the interior of Brazil near Rio de Janeiro and across into Montevideo.

Darwin's giant ground slothIt was also in Punta Alta that Darwin made one of his biggest scientific discoveries. Ranging about the landscape on horseback, sleeping in the open with guachos or staying in haciendas with local ranchers, Darwin stumbled upon the fossilized bones of, well, something. One specimen was “the head of some large animal, embedded in soft rock.” He thought it might be similar to a rhinoceros. It took a second visit several months later – FitzRoy and his crews were busy mapping up and down the coastline – to realize he had discovered a large number of large mammal fossils not previously known from previous scientific expeditions to Europe, Asia, or Africa. In all he found nine different types of “great quadrupeds.”

Dutifully shipping the fossils with the thousands of other samples collected to various collaborating scientists in Europe, these large mammal fossils ended up via a circuitous route in the hands of French scientist Georges Cuvier. Cuvier determined that these were the bones of what became known as giant ground sloths, some as big as elephants, which roamed widely in the ancient North and South American plains. Cuvier named the huge beast Megatherium, which is, appropriately enough, derived from the Latin for “huge beast.”

Darwin's giant ground slothHere is where the plot thickens. While Cuvier was working up his paper describing and naming Megatherium, workers in what is now West Virginia dug up some old bones and sent them to Virginia’s biggest paleontological expert, who just happened to be Vice President of the United States, Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson named these new bones Megalonyx jeffersonii, meaning “giant claw” (the jeffersonii species name is an affectation that many discoverers take when naming their new species). These too turned out to be giant ground sloths. Meanwhile, Darwin was digging up even more sloth species. Many of these ended up in the Museo Municipal de Ciencias Naturales “Carlos Darwin,” set up in Punta Alta by modern day Argentinian geologist Teresa Manera.

Why is the museum called Carlos Darwin instead of Charles Darwin, you might ask? The museum was established in the late 1990s, not long after the Falklands War. The Falkland Islands, known in Argentina as the Malvinas Islands, were a disputed territory off the coast of Argentina. The British had claimed them many years before and engaged in a war to protect their claim when Argentina tried to get them back. Not surprisingly, the museum wasn’t too keen on recognizing the English at the time so they used the Spanish form of Charles – Carlos – instead. Teresa Manera and her husband, by the way, also discovered giant ground sloth footprints on a beach near there and has been trying for decades to get it made a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Darwin wasn’t finished in South America, of course; the Beagle gave him plenty of time to explore Patagonia, both in Argentina and Chile. My own travels in Patagonia included climbing up to the base of Cerro FitzRoy, the mountain in the lower Andes named after the Beagle‘s captain, with whom Charles Darwin spent five years living in a cabin not much bigger than a closet.

Meanwhile, our time in Buenos Aires was quickly coming to an end and we were headed out to Bariloche to start our big adventure. Darwin would make more appearances along the route.

For previous articles about Buenos Aires and Patagonia, this post is a good place to start.

David J. Kent is an avid science traveler and the author of Lincoln: The Man Who Saved America, now available. His previous books include Tesla: The Wizard of Electricity and Edison: The Inventor of the Modern World (both Fall River Press). He has also written two e-books: Nikola Tesla: Renewable Energy Ahead of Its Time and Abraham Lincoln and Nikola Tesla: Connected by Fate.

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