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Darwin Correspondence Project

From J. D. Hooker   4 August 1866


Aug 4/66

Dear Darwin

You mention (Journals) no land birds, except introduced, upon St Helena—1 Beatson (Introd. XVII) mentions one in “considerable numbers” resembles Sand Lark—is called “Wire bird” has long greenish legs like wires, runs fast, eyes large, bill moderately long, is rather shy, does not possess much powers of flight.—2 What was it? I have written to ask Sclater also about Birds of Madeira & Azores.3

It is a very curious thing, that Azores does not contain the (non European) American genus Clethra, that is found in Madeira & Canaries; & that the Azores contain no trace of American element, (beyond what is common to Madeira), except a species of Sanicula, a genus with hooked bristles to the small seeds— The European Sanicula roams from Norway to Madeira, Canaries, Cape Verds, Cameroons, Cape Good Hope: & from Britain to Japan, & also is I think in N. America; but does not occur in Azores, where it is replaced by one that is of a decidedly American type.4

This tells heavily against the doctrine that joins Atlantis to America, & is much against your transoceanic migration—for considering how near Azores are to America & in the influence of the Gulf stream & prevalent winds it certainly appears marvellous. Not only are the Azores in a current that sweeps the coast of U. States, but it is in the S.W. winds, & in the eye of the S.W. hurricanes!.

I suppose you will answer that the European forms are prepotent—but this is riding prepotency to death

R. T. Lowe has written me a capital letter on the Madeiran, Canaries & Cape Verd Floras.5

I misled you if I gave you to understand that Wollaston’s catalogue said anything about rare plants6

I am worked & worried to death with this Lecture: & curse myself as a soft headed & hearted imbecile—to have accepted it.7

Ever Yrs | J D Hooker

CD annotations

1.2 Beatson … “Wire bird” 1.3] scored pencil


The reference is to Beatson 1816, pp. xvii–xviii, in which the wire bird is described as a land bird; Alexander Beatson noted its occurrence all year round in St Helena and concluded that it was indigenous. The wire bird, or St Helena plover, is now named Charadrius sanctaehelenae (Birds of the world 3: 428).
Philip Lutley Sclater was a leading authority on birds throughout the world (DSB). In his lecture at the British Association for the Advancement of Science meeting at Nottingham in August 1866, Hooker argued that the species of birds in the Azores were derived from Europe, citing Sclater on their close similarity to European species (J. D. Hooker 1866a, p. 75).
The Azores are nearer to America than are the Canary Islands or Madeira; Hooker therefore thought they would be more likely to support an American flora if migration had occurred according to CD’s theory of occasional transport. However, CD shared Oswald Heer’s belief that Clethra, and other non-European genera of plants in the Atlantic islands, were remnants of a European flora that had become extinct in continental Europe (see letter to J. D. Hooker, 30 July [1866] and n. 10). In his lecture, Hooker referred to the probability that hooked bristles on the ‘seeds’ (fruits) of Sanicula had enabled birds to spread the genus eastward from America (J. D. Hooker 1866a, p. 27).
Richard Thomas Lowe was completing his flora of Madeira (Lowe 1868), and had spent two recent winters in the Cape Verde Islands (see letter from J. D. Hooker, 13 May 1866). On Lowe’s botanical studies in this area, see Nash 1990, pp. 181–3.
After the president of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, William Robert Grove, invited him to lecture ‘on the Darwinian theory’ at its meeting in August 1866, Hooker had commented to CD on the difficulty of the task (see letter from J. D. Hooker, 16 January 1866 and nn. 9 and 10).


Birds of the world: Handbook of the birds of the world. By Josep del Hoyo et al. 17 vols. Barcelona: Lynx editions. 1991–2013.

DSB: Dictionary of scientific biography. Edited by Charles Coulston Gillispie and Frederic L. Holmes. 18 vols. including index and supplements. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons. 1970–90.

Journal of researches: Journal of researches into the geology and natural history of the various countries visited by HMS Beagle, under the command of Captain FitzRoy, RN, from 1832 to 1836. By Charles Darwin. London: Henry Colburn. 1839.

Lowe, Richard Thomas. 1868. A manual flora of Madeira and the adjacent islands of Porto Santo and the Desertas. Vol. 1, Dichlamydeæ. London: John van Voorst.

Nash, Roy. 1990. Scandal in Madeira: the story of Richard Thomas Lowe. Lewes: Book Guild.


Alexander Beatson mentions a bird in considerable numbers on St Helena which appears to contradict CD’s statement in Journal of researches that only introduced land birds exist there.

The Azores flora and fauna tell heavily against Atlantis joining them with America and against transoceanic migration from America.

Letter details

Letter no.
Joseph Dalton Hooker
Charles Robert Darwin
Sent from
Source of text
DAR 102: 87–8
Physical description
4pp †

Please cite as

Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 5178,” accessed on 13 June 2021,

Also published in The Correspondence of Charles Darwin, vol. 14