South America nature

Articles in ‘South America nature’

Thousands of tortoises stolen from the Galapagos Islands

August 6th, 2011

That’s what the headline might’ve read if the 19th century world had been more concerned with conservation.  The Galapagos Islands were treated as a supply station by ships, particularly whaling vessels, which had most reason to pass through the eastern Pacific. The sailors would go onshore and help themselves to vast numbers of the giant tortoises – the same species that fascinated Darwin, helping him shape his theory of evolution, and gave the islands their name ( Spanish galápago – tortoise).  The ability of the tortoises  to survive for a long time without food or water meant they were a convenient source of fresh meat on the interminable sea voyages of the era.

The tortoises were easy to catch but heavy to carry so the smaller sized females were disproportionately taken – another factor contributing to their decline. In 1813, the Essex of the US navy reportedly carried off as many as 4 tons of tortoises.

The Galapagos Tortoises in their relation to the whaling industry by Charles Townsend includes an account of a seaman who landed on the islands in 1865:

Many huge turtles had carved on their backs the name of some whaling ship and a date of years before. I have often heard tell that a vessel went over from Panama with two donkeys and procured terrapin so large that two of them weighed 2,200 lbs. We had brought long iron poles with us and we lashed the terrapins’ legs together, slung them on the poles and so carried them back to the ship – one man on each end of the pole. We valued them very much for fresh meat. I don’t think anything ever tasted much better than fried terrapin liver. One thing we used to feed the turtles on board ship was bananas.

However, the greatest impact on the tortoise population was made when humans began to settle in the “the lonely archipelago”, with their accompanying domestic animals. Numbers dropped from over 250,000 in the 16th century to a low of around 3,000 in the 1970s.  Conservation efforts involving breeding programs and culling of introduced species have brought about a small recovery to around 20,000.

The Hercules Beetle – fact and fiction

February 15th, 2011

Like a stag with antlers, the male Hercules Beetle (Dynastes hercules – found in rainforests of South and Central America) is equipped with spectacular horns that it uses to assert its right to mate.  In a duel, the stronger beetle will grasp his rival with the long, down-curving, pincer-like horns and dash him to the ground.  The victor is known to seize the female beetle (without horns) and carry her to a quieter spot away from the combat zone.

Thanks to these gleaming appendages the Hercules is one of the largest beetles in the world (specimens of up to 17 cm long have been recorded). It also has phenomenal strength. According to calculations they can carry 850 times their body weight, the equivalent of 65 tons for a human.  Those who try to keep them in captivity often have problems as the Hercules Beetle, if it feels like going out, can simply bend the bars of a cage or push open a lid weighed down with a rock.

Such power has created legends.  Charles Leonard Hogue reported in Latin American insects and entomology that in Guadeloupe people believed the Hercules Beetle to be a kind of insect chain-saw, clasping a branch in its horns and then whirring round till it was cut.  The origin of the belief is probably that tree sap is part of their diet.  Though they can fly, they are more likely to be found trundling along the rain forest floor, looking for rotting fruit to assuage their sweet tooth.

Hercules Beetles in Japan

They are popular as pets in Japan, no doubt after featuring in modern Japanese culture:

A Hercules Beetle named Spike appears in Mushiking: Battle of the Beetles,  an arcade game and collectible card game developed by Sega

A Hercules Beetle also features in the card game associated with Japanese manga Yu-Gi-Oh! created by Kazuki Takahashi

Among the spin-off toys is a model kit

Falkland Islands wolf mystery solved

November 2nd, 2009 The origin of the strange Falkland Islands wolf (Dusicyon australis), which was hunted to extinction in the late 19th century, may finally have been solved – 175 years after Charles Darwin wondered about the nature of this curious fox-like creature. A DNA study has revealed that the animal did not, as thought, arrive to the islands as the pets of Pre-Colombian natives, but rather travelled there long before humans had populated the Americas. More here More from Wikipedia on the Falkland Islands wolf

Age of the Amazon

July 29th, 2009

Scientists at the University of Liverpool have discovered that the Amazon river is around 11 million years old and took its present form some 2.4 million years ago. Eureka

Vampire bats feasting on humans

July 20th, 2009 The destruction of the Amazon rainforest through logging, mining and road construction is causing vampire bats in Peru to feast more regularly on the blood of humans. Wildlife is disappearing and so the bats are turning to our blood, and as a result, outbreaks of rabies are on the rise, killing people in places where the disease was rare. Ecoworldly Originally reported on National Geographic with video here.

Cotopaxi by Frederic Edwin Church

July 19th, 2009

Frederic Edwin Church, 'Cotopaxi' (1862)

Cotopaxi in Ecuador is one of the highest active volcanoes in the world. It was painted magificently in 1861-2 by Frederic Edwin Church. Church was inspired by the natural history writings of Alexander von Humboldt, and his 1845 treatise Kosmos.  In the second volume of Kosmos, Humboldt included a chapter on the influence of landscape painting on the study of the natural world—ranking that art among the highest expressions of the love of nature —and challenging artists to portray the “physiognomy” of the landscape. Church retraced Humboldt’s travels in South America.

From the excellent Vulcanisn blog Church visited South America twice, in 1853 and 1857, and was inspired by the mountains and volcanoes of the northern Andes to paint some of his greatest landscapes. Cotopaxi, which Humboldt had discussed at some length and which was one of the most aesthetically striking volcanoes of the region, as well as being one of the most active and formidable, was a natural subject for his art. Church’s earlier paintings of Cotopaxi depicted the volcano’s snowy cone rising placidly above a lush tropical landscape, steam rising gently from its summit, a living but benign presence. The painting shown here, executed in 1861-2, has a very different atmosphere. In this other-wordly scene we are presented with a staggering display of nature’s power, as the volcano violently erupts against a blood-red sunset, exploding upwards and spreading its dark smoke like a banner across the sky.


Church takes the volcano as a display of nature’s power and intensifies every aspect of it to suggest a cataclysmic conflict between the forces of darkness and those of light. All around are evidences of vast, incomprehensible energies: the roaring volcano, the blazing sun, the huge waterfall plunging into a rocky canyon, whose steep sides represent vast stretches of geological time. Yet the green foliage of the trees, the sparkling waters, the light of the sun penetrating the ashy gloom of the volcano’s clouds, indicate that even these awe-inspiring forces are ultimately under the control of a beneficent providence. Cotopaxi embodies the great natural energies driving the forces not only of destruction but of creation and renewal. From the excellent Vulcanisn blog