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Darwin Correspondence Project

From Richard Owen   [7 August 1837]1

“The result of the dissection of the head of the Rhynchops, comparatively with that of the head of the duck, is not what you anticipated.2 The facial, or sensitive branches of the fifth pair of nerves, are very small; the third division in particular, is filamentary, and I have not been able to trace it beyond the soft integument at the angles of the mouth. After removing with care, the thin horny covering of the beak, I cannot perceive any trace of those nervous expansions which are so remarkable in the lamelli-rostral aquatic birds; and which in them supply the tooth-like process, and soft marginal covering of the mandibles. Nevertheless, when we remember how sensitive a hair is, through the nerve situated at its base, though without any in its substance, it would not be safe to deny altogether, a sensitive faculty in the beak of the Rhynchops.”


The date as given by CD in Birds, p. 144.
CD had suspected that Rhynchops frequently fished by night, which led him to ask Owen to dissect its bill for evidence that it might be ‘a delicate organ of touch’ (Birds, p. 144); see also Ornithological notes, p. 221 n.


Ornithological notes: Darwin’s ornithological notes. Edited by Nora Barlow. Bulletin of the British Museum (Natural History). Historical Series 2 (1959–63): 203–78.


Dissected beak of Rhynchops shows no extensive innervation. But beak may nevertheless be a sensitive organ of touch as CD suggests.

Letter details

Letter no.
Richard Owen
Charles Robert Darwin
Sent from
Source of text
Birds 144

Please cite as

Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 371,” accessed on 12 December 2019,

Also published in The Correspondence of Charles Darwin, vol. 2