Blogs from my Beagle voyage
In search of Darwin
My travels on the Beagle
Chasing Armadillos - the Valdés Península
Two hours‘ by air to the south of Buenos Aires lies the Valdés Peninsula. A paradise for lovers of extreme animals. In order to prepare material in advance for a number Beagle episodes Joost (camera), Gijs (editorial / research / direction), IJsbrand (director) and I (sound) together with the artist twins Knowledge and Knowledge we all spend 3 dayscrossing the pampas. Our base is Puerto Pyrámides, a village not far from Puerto Madryn, which in turn is a port where, in 2 months time, the Beagle will make her shorelines fast.
With Knowledge and Knowledge (K and K) we go looking for “Armadillos”. If I remember correctly, the armadillo is the only original animal of the South American continent that is neither extinct as a result of evolution nor exterminated by man.
K and K truly know an unbelievable amount of stuff. If they say something they do with a huge amount of enthusiasm. Their facial expressions, gestures and cheerfulness are contagious and they arouse our curiosity..
What I realized is that anything is possible through evolution: everything that lives in the sea can evolve to live on land and vice versa.
To illustrate how unusual South America really is K and K first set to work with pen, paper and scissors. In no time, there is a crazy world map and a variety of still crazier animals. Alfons Knowledge shows that Laurasia (a lump of land in the northern hemisphere) and Gwondana (a lump of land in the Southern Hemisphere) over time (millions of millions of years) and after some movement in the Earth, created an island; what is now known as South America. (Cutting swiftly through the billions of years of earth’s history with a blunt axe).
Still later came the isthmus that joins North and South America was formed. Then his brother Adri takes over and places various animals on different continents. All at once it’s clear to me why the elephant is found only in Africa and not in America, why the horse is indigenous to both Europe and North America.
Armadillos are found primarily in South America. All kinds of animals that lived on the island that was South America had become very complacent over the millenia because they had no natural enemies. Until the earth’s plates shifted and created a land bridge between North and South America!
The animals that had evolved to perfection (ie speed and hunting) in the northern continent walked cheerfully South into their newly created territory (through Central America)!
Utterly defenseless, each original species of the South American continent was either expelled or eaten. Apart from the armadillo. Later still, the Indians, in their turn ate or eradicated all surviving species. Apart from the armadillo.
We jump in the car and drive across the Argentinian pampas. The Netherlands is flat, but this part of Argentina knows all about being flat too! We drive on 4-lane dirt roads through a landscape which makes our own Veluwe look like a mountain range.
In no time at all K and K are yelling with delight. In the back of the Berlingo they crawl over each other to get the best view of a ball of light brown fur that’s leaping away from us. Never in all my life would I have noticed, but we get out of the car immediately.
It’s very difficult to combine enthusiasm, curiosity and caution! The jumping ball appears to be a Mara-Mara: the physical description looks most like a cross between a guinea pig, a deer and a hare. Long antelope-like high legs, jumps away like a hare, has such wagging tail and is also a plant eater.
Evolution gone mad. But no sign of an armadillo.
The Southern Right Whale - 2nd day on Valdés Península
The 2nd day on the Valdés Península: we leave before dawn to visit a group of whale researchers. Quite remote, but located in a beautiful bay, a basic building where four researchers spend 3 to 4 months watching the Southern right whales whilst counting and observing them. A few whales are swimming around, mothers with babies.
These little ones already weigh a couple of tons….`
This year, for the first time ever, dead whales are being washed ashore almost daily. Most are still very young. What is striking is that their blubber layer is very thin, much thinner than normal. This indicates a shortage of food. The root cause needs to be fully investigated, but there are two hypotheses regarding food shortages, i.e. too few krill. Krill are very small protein rich, crustaceans, which are at the bottom of the food chain for many animals.
Whales catch krill the in the Antarctic. Krill live under the ice.
1) If there is less ice due to climate change, there is less krill and so less food for the whales.
2) Salmon farms fish for krill in much too large quantities.
We catch the basic food of the whale (and others species) to feed breeding salmon (which already have many more ecological disasters to their name, see episode Chiloe) (At this very moment there’s a fishing vessel flying the Dutch flag that’s catching countless tons of Antarctic krill.))
We approach a dead whale that’s been washed up, surrounded by lots of giant petrels, a type of Albatrosses that functions like a vulture (vultures eat only dead animals, albatrosses will attack you alive: tip K and K: always keep your eyes covered if you’re lost overboard and there are albatrosses in your neighborhood!) The giant petrels have eaten so much of blubber that they have difficulty flying away when we approach. They run tens of meters, flapping their wings frantically, and only manage to get airborne after quite some distance. It’s an amusing and yet moving sight.
The dead whale makes us sad, certain in the knowledge that a great many more dead whales will was ashore this year. It’s just huge!
And something else is happening this year that’s strange: the gulls have discovered living blubber. As soon as a whale comes to the surface to breathe, seagulls dive on her back to pick at the blubber. The whales are clearly badly affected. Some have nasty wounds on their backs. Another hypothesis: the gulls learned this long ago and then forgot and then finally reinvented it.
The population of gulls is abnormally large because they find food in large quantities everywhere (at sea: the waste and catch of fishing boats, on land: garbage dumps, etc.) and they’re not at all picky. They eat anything. And they have multiplied enormously as a result. Gulls copy each others’ behavior very quickly. This means we now have many more gulls than normal, which has created an explosive growth in the number eating the whales alive.
Later in the day we head out to sea to see the whales up close. Mother with baby, a few whales. They blow, breach, breath and some raise their tails and leave as a “footprint” on the surface of the water. Fascinating! In the distance, some whales leap acrobaticly, their head and body rise a high out of the water, before dropping on their backs. Sadly, we watch the gulls get their afternoon snack.
Chasing Armadillos, continued - the 3rd day on the Valdés Península
3rd day: We drive back over the pampas, looking for the armadillo, but we’re also heading in the direction of a secluded spot where elephant seals and sea lions can be found.
There’s a sudden “WAAAAAAAOUOUOUOUW” from the rear of the car. K and K spot guanacos, llamas. Then there’s a sort of “JIPPPIEIEIEIEIE” – they’ve spotted a Rhena! And after that, something with light brown fur that jumps, but slightly larger than the mara mara.
But I’m not doing these animals justice..
We arrive at the elephant seals and sea lions. These beasts have chosen the most beautiful stretch of coast on this peninsula! K and K are unstoppable in their stories.
ith ooooh’s and aaaah’s the guide allows us to get within 10 meters of them. Awesome! What a sound! They puff, grunt, loose off great farts, growl and squeak non-stop. 2 male elephants roar and puff themselves up as large as possible.
We stand with bated breath and watch.
Time seems to stand still here. The one who can shout the loudest gets to stay, the other gradually retreats, returning to the sea.
According to K and K the elephant seal is the largest seal in the world and is descended from a bear that returned to the sea. The same goes for the sea lion but the sea lion has handy fins with which he can run and climb.
The elephant seal crawls like a caterpillar over the beach. Just 3 twists and turns wears him out and he sags in to the sand with a deafening puff. I could stare for hours and record the sounds around us but we have work to do: to find the armadillo!
The super-enthusiastic duo, Alfons and Adri, weren’t quiet for a second in all the time I spent with them, but when they finally discover the armadillo among some low bushes, there’s an almost deafening silence.
The ooooohs! and aaaaaahs! make way for a mumbled “aahhhhh” and with tears in their eyes I hear them whisper on the transmitter “isn’t it beautiful!”
The Armadillo Revisited - back to Buenos Aires
Mission Peninsula Valdes is accomplished. Now back to Buenos Aires. We are allowed to film K and K in the Natural History Museum ie the Museo de la Plata. Full of skeletons and stuffed animals. From small to large. All soooooo old.
K and K run to the older, extinct cousin of the modern armadillo. What a whopper!
A dusty old museum gentleman gives permission to film in the basement where more skeletons of exceptional, extinct animals are preserved. A mecca for Knowledge and Knowledge.
Like two boys in a toy shop they disappear behind large cupboards with the old gentleman and we hear cries of WAAAAOUW, JIPPPPIEEIE, JOEHOEOEOE, JEEEEEZ, OOOOOH, AAAAAH!
We have to laugh as does the museum gentleman. These two are just as exceptional as the animals they so admire, their enthusiasm is unrivaled and best of all is that they know so incredibly much.
Also a bit of a happy-hour for the dusty museum gentleman who gets gets misty eyed.
Darwin's Sledgehammers - natural and sexual selection
I’m in a park in Montevideo just sitting back. All around me the pigeons coo and parrots fly back and forth with twigs. So what about natural and sexual selection? What does it mean anyway? It’s grist for Dirk’s mill. He gets going and I listen to one amazing fact after another.
For the biologically illiterate amongst us, a quick explanation of the concepts: natural selection means surviving until you can produce children and then surviving long enough so that you can produce many children. Sexual selection means finding the best possible partner in order to produce your children. Sometimes these two concepts conflict with each other. As an example, Dirk mentions the peacock.
With his magnificent tail, he wants to impress the females. That works pretty well (sexual selection). But that huge heavy forest of feathers means he can’t fly away from, let’s say, a tiger (natural selection). Dirk suggests that in this case sexual selection has the final word: “The female will think:” Wow, if that guy with a big tail is still able to show off in front of me and apparently survived all those tigers, then he must surely be a powerful guy. Fine qualities to pass on to my children. ‘”
In fact I prefer an example that applies to us, humans. What makes our species so different from other species is our brains. At one point in history we had to deal with the explosive growth of our brains. That had considerable consequences biologically. One of the consequences was that problems occurred when the female had to deliver her baby. Those little heads were too big.
Natural selection offered a solution: babies were born prematurely. Thus suddenly babies were born relatively helpless compared to other species. Nature was not to be beaten and so the concept of paternity was introduced. Man and woman had to stay together longer to increase the survival chances of their offspring.
Natural selection had yet another joker to play: love, a chemical reaction in the brains. On average love between husband and wife lasts 3 or 4 years. Voilà! Just enough to protect the helpless baby through the most vulnerable years and ensure its survival!
This was just a warming up because Dirk continues like a talking waterfall with his story about sexual selection. So it’s the brains that make humans so unique. Which is why women started evaluating what men can achieve with their brains. Muscle strength and striking colors are actually ingnored initially. (Sorry guys fitness is wasted effort!)
If you ask a woman what she finds attractive in a man and she replies something like “he has a good sense of humor”, then she really means that it’s an indicator of the degree of flexibility with which that man is capable of using his brain. Men pay attention: you are (unconsciously) assessed on your mental, cultural, administrative and stage skills. All of this imust be related to the meaning and essence of our existence: reproduction.
Whether we like it or not.
We think that we think everything. Not quite so. This is software that’s been programmed in our heads for millions of years and it is these subconscious factors that determine our choices.
My thoughts wander. In front of me I see two pigeons. The bigger one is the male. He shows off. He turns in circles for the female and displays his feathers. The sunlight glistens. I see unusual, brilliant shades of green and purple. What a beautiful bird! The female isn’t impressed and hardly gives the male a second glance.
Dirk pulls me back from my daydream. He tells with fiery enthusiasm about Darwin. Charles Darwin saw in nature that it’s not men who choose a mate but women. The males make themselves as interesting as possible. It is the females who choose and decide.
He was a genius in the consistent application of his own views on society. So he developed his concept of sexual selection. Today there are still many people who believe that Darwin’s theories do not apply to us. Let alone in the time in which he lived.
For our convenience we summarize the whole thing. Darwin’s insights delivered sledgehammer blows which still reverberate to this very day.
1. Man descended from the ape.
2. Women choose their males.
“Darwin’s sledgehammers.” I think they’re brilliant!