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Darwin Correspondence Project

From Richard Thomas Lowe   19 September 1854

Lea Rectory | Gainsboro’

Septr. 19th/54

My dear Sir

I think I shd. have no difficulty in pronouncing on a fair set of extinct fossil Helices whether they belonged to the Madn. group.1 The Madn. & Pto. Sn. Land Shells—recent and fossil—have a peculiar facies or habit, wch., however hard to express (as I need hardly say to you) in words, a practised eye can scarcely fail in seizing—just as you say “this man looks like a Scotchman Frenchman or German”. I might say more: that in the Madn. Helices there are certain definite characters, analogous to the high cheekbones of the firstnamed worthies, vindicating such discrimination. They are generally shells of small or moderate size & flattened shape, thickish in proportion, & above all peculiarly granulated, ribbed or plicate, undulated or reticulated in sculpture— the peristome is generally circinate or continuous &, the aperture consequently regularly round or oval. Of course there are exceptions—species of ambiguous or annectent chars.— wch. seen alone wd. puzzle: and therefore I used the word set at starting. But I speak confidently, setting aside anomalies, on a fair average.

I think I cd. at once distinguish a set of 30 or 40 fossil Helices of the Madn. type from a like set of Canarian, Portuguese, French or Italian:—Sicilian wd. be more difficult. So I suspect wd. be N. West African (say Mogadorian). But of the latter I have not sufficient data to speak positively.

Are you aware how very few of our Madn. fossil forms (species and vars.) can safely be pronounced to be absolutely extinct? viz. in Mada. 10 out of about 35; but of species proper only 6 or 7 out of 35. In Porto Sto. 7 or 8 forms or 5 or 6 species are extinct out of about 60 forms or 55–56 species.

See Appx. to my Primitiæ2 (Van Voorst 1851) pp. XIV, XV. In p. XIV observe that I now consider H. fausta b and c to constitute a good species = H. arcinella Lowe.3

I have not very lately restudied the Pto. Sn. Shells so closely as the Madn. proper: but the above numbers cannot be far from accurate.

Thanks for yr. proposed disposal of the Cirripedia at Wollaston’s4 for me where they will be quite safe. Thanks too for saving me a complete set I shall greatly prize them as from you.5

Allowing some irregularity or licence, I think the rule is that neuter words in a form neuter compounds. I have not time to look into the matter: but cqalla, vaqacla, uqacla, rparla, arla at once occur in point. Their compounds are I believe all neuter.

Yrs. sincly | R. T. Lowe

The Pto. Sn. Rabbits6 like the Madn. are merely the common Europ. Stock run wild, I believe. But I never examined accurately. There is certainly no outward appreciable difference except size. They are generally small.

CD annotations

crossed brown crayon
Top of first page: ‘This shows that mere facies or aspect is hereditary in a district.’ ink


Lowe had been British chaplain on Madeira from 1832 to 1852. During his stay he had become an expert on the natural history of Madeira and the neighbouring island of Porto Santo. His letter deals with inquiries arising from a paper on the Madeiran Mollusca (Lowe 1854) read at a meeting of the Zoological Society of London on 25 July 1854. In his paper, Lowe described both recent and fossil land shells.
Lowe 1851, a reprinting of two papers originally published in the Transactions of the Cambridge Philosophical Society. Lowe 1854 was intended to replace those parts of Lowe 1851 that dealt with the Mollusca (Lowe 1854, p. 161 n.).
The reallocation of Helix fausta to H. arcinella is described in Lowe 1854, p. 181.
Thomas Vernon Wollaston, entomologist and conchologist. He and Lowe were close friends through their mutual interest in Madeiran natural history.
CD sent Lowe copies of Living Cirripedia (1851) and Fossil Cirripedia (1851) (see MS attached to CD’s copy of Living Cirripedia (1854) in Cambridge University Library). In the preface to Living Cirripedia (1851): vii, CD wrote: ‘To the Rev. R. T. Lowe I am indebted for his particularly interesting collection of Cirripedes from the Island of Madeira—a collection offering a singular proof what treasures skill and industry can discover in the most confined locality.’
CD was collecting data on variations in domestic animals introduced into different environments. In his Questions & experiments notebook, p. 18 (Notebooks), he wrote: ‘Porto Santo Rabbit Descript. of colour *& length of ears [interl] & skeleton, & skin— Van Voorst often writes to Lowe’. John Van Voorst was a publisher of natural history works. The Porto Santo rabbit is discussed in Variation 1: 112–15.


The land shells, both fossil and recent, of Madeira and Porto Santo have features peculiar to them, so RTL would have no difficulty in identifying them.

Letter details

Letter no.
Richard Thomas Lowe
Charles Robert Darwin
Sent from
Lea Rectory, Gainsborough
Source of text
DAR 205.9: 392
Physical description
4pp †

Please cite as

Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 1593,” accessed on 18 June 2019,

Also published in The Correspondence of Charles Darwin, vol. 5