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Discovering Darwin’s Patagonia

By Robert Costello

In January, 2010, through the generosity of Cornell friend and benefactress, Susan E. Lynch, CALS faculty members Kevin Nixon and Tom Whitlow led an expedition of 18 Cornell undergraduates  from BIOPL 2300 – Global Plant Biodiversity and Vegetation – on a journey across Patagonia at the southern tip of the South American continent, a region Charles Darwin explored nearly two centuries before during his storied expedition aboard the HMS Beagle. The name Patagonia was derived from the word patagón first used by Ferdinand Magellan in reference to a mythic race of giants once said to inhabit this area.  While the students of BIOPL 2300 did not encounter any giants, they were able to study the incredible biodiversity of flora in a region that had a profound, if not popularly understood, influence on shaping Darwin’s seminal theories on natural selection and evolution.

“Patagonia seems to have a certain appeal that transcends botany and seems mythical,” says Nixon.  “People always think of the Galapagos as influencing Darwin, but a lot of his thought was shaped by what he saw passing through Patagonia.”

*Darwin Quotes taken from: Rookmaaker, Kees ed. [Darwin's Beagle diary (1831-1836)]. [English Heritage 88202366] (Darwin Online,