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Darwin Correspondence Project

To P. H. Gosse   27 April [1857]1

Moor Park | Farnham | Surrey

April 27th

My dear Sir

I have thought that perhaps in course of summer you would have an opportunity & would be so very kind as to try a little experiment for me.—2 I think I can tell best what I want, by telling what I have done. The wide distribution of same species of F. Water Molluscs has long been a great perplexity to me: I have just lately hatched a lot & it occurred to me that when first born they might perhaps have not acquired phytophagous habits, & might perhaps like nibbling at a Ducks-foot.— Whether this is so I do not know, & indeed do not believe it is so, but I found when there were many very young Molluscs in a small vessel with aquatic plants, amongst which I placed a dried Ducks foot, that the little barely visible shells often crawled over it, & that they adhered so firmly that they cd. not be shaken off, & that the foot being kept out of water in a damp atmosphere, the little Molluscs survived well 10, 12 & 15 hours & a few even 24 hours.—3 And thus, I believe, it must be that Fr. W. shells get from pond to pond & even to islands out at sea. A Heron fishing for instance, & then startled might well on a rainy day carry a young mollusc for a long distance.—

Now you will remember that E. Forbes argues chiefly from the difficulty of imagining how littoral sea-molluscs could cross tracts of open ocean, that islands, such as Madeira must have been joined by continuous land to Europe:4 which seems to me, for many reasons, very rash reasoning.— Now what I want to beg of you, is, that you would try an analogous experiment with some sea-molluscs, especially any strictly littoral species,—hatching them in numbers in a smallish vessel & seeing whether, either in larval or young shell state they can adhere to a birds foot & survive say 10 hours in damp atmosphere out of water. It may seem a trifling experiment, but seeing what enormous conclusions poor Forbes drew from his belief that he knew all means of distribution of sea-animals, it seems to me worth trying.—5

My health has lately been very indifferent, & I have come here for a fortnight’s water-cure.—6

I owe to using your name a most kind & most valuable correspondent, in Mr Hill of Spanish-Town.—7

I hope you will forgive my troubling you on the above point & believe me, | My dear Sir | Your’s very sincerely | Ch. Darwin

P.S. | Can you tell me, you who have so watched all sea-creatures, whether male Crustaceans ever fight for the females: is the female sex in the sea, like on the land, “teterrima belli causa”?8

I beg you not to answer this letter, without you can & will be so kind as to tell about Crustacean Battles, if such there be.—


The year is given by CD’s visit to Moor Park (see n. 6, below) and by the reference to the correspondence between CD and Richard Hill (see n. 7, below).
Gosse and his family usually spent the winter in London and the summer at the seaside, where he pursued his researches on marine organisms.
This experiment is recorded in CD’s Experimental book, pp. 21–2 (DAR 157a). CD included this case in the discussion of the geographical distribution of freshwater organisms in Origin, p. 385.
Edward Forbes discussed at length the geographical distribution of Mollusca, and particularly those inhabiting shallow tidal zones (E. Forbes 1846, pp. 352–90), and concluded that ‘there must have been either a connexion or such a proximity of land as would account for the transmission of a non-migratory terrestrial, and a littoral marine fauna.’ (p. 383).
According to Edmund Gosse, his father sent CD ‘ample notes’ on this subject (E. Gosse 1890, p. 269).
CD was at Moor Park, Surrey, from 22 April to 6 May 1857 (‘Journal’; Appendix II).
A reference to Horace, Satires, 1. 3. 107, in which women were deemed ‘the most foul cause of war’. CD had asked T. V. Wollaston the same question (see letter from T. V. Wollaston, [12 April 1857]).


Forbes, Edward. 1846. On the connexion between the distribution of the existing fauna and flora of the British Isles, and the geological changes which have affected their area, especially during the epoch of the Northern Drift. Memoirs of the Geological Survey of Great Britain, and of the Museum of Economic Geology in London 1: 336–432.

Gosse, Edmund. 1890. The life of Philip Henry Gosse F.R.S. London.

Origin: On the origin of species by means of natural selection, or the preservation of favoured races in the struggle for life. By Charles Darwin. London: John Murray. 1859.


Asks PHG to conduct an experiment to see if young littoral molluscs will cling to a duck’s foot – CD seeks to explain distribution of molluscs without adopting E. Forbes’s [continental extension] theory.

Letter details

Letter no.
Charles Robert Darwin
Philip Henry Gosse
Sent from
Moor Park
Source of text
Leeds University Library Special Collections (Brotherton Collection: Gosse Correspondence)
Physical description
ALS 6pp

Please cite as

Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 2082,” accessed on 20 May 2024,

Also published in The Correspondence of Charles Darwin, vol. 6