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The Ugliest Animal Charles Darwin Ever Saw

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I generally think of Charles Darwin as a nice man—a barnacle collectin’, Shakespeare-quoting abolitionist who loved dogs. And, since he plays a prominent role in evolutionary theory, I just assumed he loved all animals. Equally.

It turns out, he did not.

In all of the Charles Darwin writing I’ve read (very limited), I have NEVER seen him throw shade at a creature the way he tosses it at the Marine Iguana. This is what two marine iguanas, possibly talking about how much they hate Charles Darwin, look like:

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Does the marine iguana really deserve to be called an “Imp of Darkness,” as the Father of Evolution liked to call them? Maybe, but Darwin doesn’t stop there. Here’s how he described the creatures in his 1839’s Voyage of the Beagle:

“[The marine iguana] is a hideous-looking creature, of a dirty black colour, stupid and sluggish in its movements.”

Admittedly, the “wig” the marine iguana wears—made from sneezing excess sea salt onto its head—doesn’t give it the dignified look of, say, a London barrister. And you can see from the creature’s awkward gait why it’s never picked first in gym class.

When Darwin does praise the creatures, he seems to undercut it immediately. In a compliment about the lizard’s agile and effortless swimming (they tuck their arms in and glide along by wiggling their bodies), he reminds you that the repulsive creatures look “serpentine” while they do it. When he talks up their claws as “admirably adapted for crawling over the rugged” lava, he then goes on to call them do-nothings: “these hideous reptiles may oftentimes be seen on the black rocks, a few feet above the surf, basking in the sun with outstretched legs.” Not sure he needed the word “hideous” again in there.

But Darwin doesn’t just throw shade at iguanas; he also takes pleasure in throwing the iguanas themselves. Here’s an excerpt from Darwin after he realized the 20-lb herbivores didn’t bite:

“One day I carried one to a deep pool left by the retiring tide, and threw it in several times as far as I was able. It invariably returned in a direct line to the spot where I stood…. As soon as it thought the danger was past, it crawled out on the dry rocks and shuffled away as quickly as it could. I several times caught this same lizard… and though possessed of such perfect powers of diving and swimming, nothing would induce it to enter the water, and so often as I threw it in, it returned...”

But Charlie Darwin wasn’t content with insulting the animals on the page and hurling the animals into the sea. Before he left the island, he also insulted their relatives, the land iguanas: “These lizards, like their brothers the sea-kind, are ugly animals; and from their low facial angle have a singularly stupid appearance.”

And Darwin also harassed this creature in the name of science. “I watched one for a long time, till half its body was buried; I then walked up and pulled it by the tail; at this it was greatly astonished, and soon shuffled up to see what was the matter; and then stared me in the face, as much as to say, “What made you pull my tail?”

Indeed, the recordings above made me wonder why Charles Darwin, lover of animals, was such an iguana bully. Well, the truth is, he didn’t always hate the creatures. A few pages later, he does offer a few kind words:

“The meat of these animals when cooked is white, and by those whose stomachs rise above all prejudices, it is relished as very good food.”

Good food, indeed! Of course, however ugly and dumb he thought marine and land iguanas were, investigating and understanding the creatures did help him in establishing his theories of evolution.

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Big Questions
What's the Difference Between Gophers and Groundhogs?
Gopher or groundhog? (If you chose gopher, you're correct.)
Gopher or groundhog? (If you chose gopher, you're correct.)
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Gophers and groundhogs. Groundhogs and gophers. They're both deceptively cuddly woodland rodents that scurry through underground tunnels and chow down on plants. But whether you're a nature nerd, a Golden Gophers football fan, or planning a pre-spring trip to Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, you might want to know the difference between groundhogs and gophers.

Despite their similar appearances and burrowing habits, groundhogs and gophers don't have a whole lot in common—they don't even belong to the same family. For example, gophers belong to the family Geomyidae, a group that includes pocket gophers (sometimes referred to as "true" gophers), kangaroo rats, and pocket mice.

Groundhogs, meanwhile, are members of the Sciuridae (meaning shadow-tail) family and belong to the genus Marmota. Marmots are diurnal ground squirrels, Daniel Blumstein, a UCLA biologist and marmot expert, tells Mental Floss. "There are 15 species of marmot, and groundhogs are one of them," he explains.

Science aside, there are plenty of other visible differences between the two animals. Gophers, for example, have hairless tails, protruding yellow or brownish teeth, and fur-lined cheek pockets for storing food—all traits that make them different from groundhogs. The feet of gophers are often pink, while groundhogs have brown or black feet. And while the tiny gopher tends to weigh around two or so pounds, groundhogs can grow to around 13 pounds.

While both types of rodent eat mostly vegetation, gophers prefer roots and tubers (much to the dismay of gardeners trying to plant new specimens), while groundhogs like vegetation and fruits. This means that the former animals rarely emerge from their burrows, while the latter are more commonly seen out and about.

Groundhogs "have burrows underground they use for safety, and they hibernate in their burrows," Blumstein says. "They're active during the day above ground, eating a variety of plants and running back to their burrows to safety. If it's too hot, they'll go back into their burrow. If the weather gets crappy, they'll go back into their burrow during the day as well."

But that doesn't necessarily mean that gophers are the more reclusive of the two, as groundhogs famously hibernate during the winter. Gophers, on the other hand, remain active—and wreck lawns—year-round.

"What's really interesting is if you go to a place where there's gophers, in the spring, what you'll see are what is called eskers," or winding mounds of soil, Blumstein says [PDF]. "Basically, they dig all winter long through the earth, but then they tunnel through snow, and they leave dirt in these snow tunnels."

If all this rodent talk has you now thinking about woodchucks and other woodland creatures, know that groundhogs have plenty of nicknames, including "whistle-pig" and "woodchuck," while the only nicknames for gophers appear to be bitter monikers coined by Wisconsin Badgers fans.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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Google
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Animals
Watch Christmas Island’s Annual Crab Migration on Google Street View
Google
Google

Every year, the 45 million or so red crabs on the remote Australian territory of Christmas Island migrate en masse from their forest burrows down to the ocean to mate, and so the female crabs can release their eggs into the sea to hatch. The migration starts during the fall, and the number of crabs on the beach often peaks in December. This year, you don’t have to be on Christmas Island to witness the spectacular crustacean event, as New Atlas reports. You can see it on Google Street View.

Watching the sheer density of crabs scuttling across roads, boardwalks, and beaches is a rare visual treat. According to the Google blog, this year’s crabtacular finale is forecasted for December 16, and Parks Australia crab expert Alasdair Grigg will be there with the Street View Trekker to capture it. That is likely to be the day when crab populations on the beaches will be at their peak, giving you the best view of the action.

Crabs scuttle across the forest floor while a man with a Google Street View Trekker walks behind them.
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Google Street View is already a repository for a number of armchair travel experiences. You can digitally explore remote locations in Antarctica, recreations of ancient cities, and even the International Space Station. You can essentially see the whole world without ever logging off your computer.

Sadly, because Street View isn’t live, you won’t be able to see the migration as it happens. The image collection won’t be available until sometime in early 2018. But it’ll be worth the wait, we promise. For a sneak preview, watch Parks Australia’s video of the 2012 event here.

[h/t New Atlas]

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