skip to content

Darwin Correspondence Project

From W. C. Tait   19 February 1869


Febry 19th 1869.

Charles Darwin Esqr. | Down | Bromley | Kent

Dear Sir

I received your kind letter of the 2nd. and delayed writing until I could give you the result of my endeavours to obtain for you the “Drosophyllum Lusitanicum”1 I applied to my friend Mr. Alexander Grant who I am told is a good botanist and he told me he knows the plant very well and has found it at a place about 8 miles from here called “San Pedro da Cova”.2 He gave me a description of the plant and I went to look for it at the place indicated but although I looked in the fields all round the village & asked many people about, I was not able to find it.

I have again conversed with Mr. Grant about it and intend to have another search for it and as Mr Grant has given me the address of a villager who has brought specimens of the plant to him I hope to be more successful on my second expedition. Another locality for it is the Penedo da Meditaçao near Coimbra and if I cannot find it at S Pedra da Cova I shall go to Coimbra for it by rail.3

Mr. Grant’s ill health did not permit him to accompany me otherwise he said he would have great pleasure in assisting your researches in any way— He informs me that a rare Polygola a milkwort is found at S. Pedro. And the fern “Cheilanthes fragrans” at a place called Vallongo a short distance from S Pedro— That part of the country is interesting from the fact that a change takes place in the geological formation from that of granite about Oporto to Slate at Vallongo and on the Vallongo hills there runs a large vein of Quartz—supposed to have been worked in ancient times for gold. Antimony is also found there— I have picked up there traces of copper, antimony, and iron and near the Village of Vallongo there is a slate quarry which is worked by an english company— The hills are perfectly honey combed by ancient excavations and the works must have been conducted on an immense scale— Mr. Edward Allen of the Public Library4 and Who is interested in archeological remains tells me that the workings are pre-historical and he intends to make a survey of them.

I intend to look in the botanical authority Brotero with respect to the “Drosophyllum Lusitanicum” which however he calls “Spergula Droseroides”5 and you depend upon getting the plant (many specimens) from me sooner or later would you kindly inform me to whom I am to address the box when shipping it by steamer to London.

With regard to tail less dogs I have obtained a pointer bitch which is said to have been born without a tail and have crossed her with a pointer dog which is known to have been born without a tail and no doubt the result will appear in due course.6 There are certain peculiarities in the tails of these dogs   they are generally about four inches in length (about the length usually left when cut) and the skin of the tail encloses it perfectly and loosely like a bag whereas in a terrier whose tail was cut when young the end is hard and the skin appears to have dried on the bone. The hills about here and in the Douro district are covered with prickly furze and any dog with an entire tail which enters it on the scent of the red legged Partridge is liable to come home with a bleeding and lacerated tail and in the same way but in a lesser degree when hunting for quail in the indian corn fields. I am told that in the Alto Douro district the tail is cut on this account but from my own observations down here the practise seems to arise from or more correctly perhaps followed from peculiar ideas of beauty!

I have another pointer which has two dew claws on each of her hind feet and there is a popular superstition that dogs born with this peculiarity are safe from the effects of the bite of a mad dog these superstitions another cause perhaps of the perpetuation of varieties of domestic animals.

I am told by one sportsman that he possessed a dog and bitch born without tails and that nearly all the pups were also born without tails— Another one tells me that he also has a dog and bitch of the same kind and he does not remember that any of the many pups were born with a tail—and two people have told me that they never knew a pointer dog born without a tail which did not prove a good dog for game but at the same time there did not appear to have been any systematic breeding from such a strain the process of “curtailing” being so general and simple—

If I remember rightly I have seen in some book I think “Whites Natural History of Selbourne” that at the period of migration there is a perceptible increase in the size of the pectoral wing muscle of a certain bird7   Now it strikes me that if such be the case may there not be an abnormal condition of the brain too, urging it to take flight after previously congregating perhaps the organ of inhabitiveness or its opposite   Then again imitation may have a great effect on the young birds— But this is such an obscure subject that it would be very difficult to come to any secure conclusion—

Thanks to the spirit of your works I have been made alive to the necessity of strict and cautious enquiry but speculation is also a great aid if used in moderation—

Has it not struck you that the orange colour is very variable?

In my next letter I hope to be able to tell you that the “Drosophyllum Lusitanicum” is ready to be sent and to mention several circumstances which lead me to suppose that certain variations are eliminated in nature if to the disadvantage of the species— If you will point out any particular subject of observation I would most willingly devote special attention to it and remain | Dear Sir, | Yours faithfully | William C. Tait.


Tait lived in Oporto (now Porto), about 16 km west of São Pedro da Cova. Alexander Grant has not been further identified.
Coimbra is about 100 km south-east of Oporto.
Edward Allen has not been further identified.
For Félix de Avellar Brotero’s description of Drosophyllum lusitanicum under the name Spergula droseroides, see Brotero 1804, 2: 215–16. See also letter from W. C. Tait, 10 May 1869 and enclosure.
For Tait’s earlier remarks on tailless dogs, see the letter from W. C. Tait, 26 January 1869.
Tait refers to Gilbert White’s Natural history and antiquities of Selborne (White 1789). The passage referred to has not been found.


Has been trying to get Drosophyllum lusitanicum for CD.

Intends to breed from two pointers born tailless.

Letter details

Letter no.
William Chester Tait
Charles Robert Darwin
Sent from
Source of text
DAR 178: 44
Physical description

Please cite as

Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 6623,” accessed on 21 July 2019,

Also published in The Correspondence of Charles Darwin, vol. 17