Darwin’s Legacy in Argentina

After conducting interviews in Montevideo, I took a short ferry ride to Buenos Aires.  Just like Uruguay, Darwin uncovered large megafauna fossils in Argentina.  When he wasn’t meeting with caudillo Juan Manuel de Rosas and dealing with chaotic local politics, Darwin fraternized with members of the influential English mercantile class in Buenos Aires.

Historic Anglican church of the English community in Buenos Aires
Anglican Cathedral in Buenos Aires. Completed in 1831, the church served local British subjects.

To get a further handle on Darwin’s discoveries and legacy, I headed to the Bernardino Rivadavia Argentine Museum of Natural Sciences.

Outside the museum
Museum facade

Speaking with a senior researcher, I was piqued by models of Darwin’s megafauna in an office.

Sitting on the shelf from left to right: a strange animal called toxodon, with a hippotamus-like head, and giant ground sloth (mylodon darwinii, “Darwin’s Ground Sloth” or Milodón). Mylodon, uncovered in Argentina by Darwin in 1832, went extinct about 10,000 years ago and could grow to ten feet in length.
A closeup of Toxodon

Though the museum was closed, I was given a private tour.  In light of Darwin’s discoveries, I was intrigued by an exhibit dealing with the Ice Age.

“Giants of the Pleistocene in Argentina”
A skull belonging to Cuvieronis Tajirensis, an extinct New World genus of gomphothere related to modern elephants

Taking in a fossil of giant sloth Megatherium, I was impressed by the sheer scale.

Megatherium, another species of giant ground sloth. Though the animals weighed up to four tons, the extinct creatures were related to present-day sloths.  Megatherium, which grew to the size of an elephant, was one of the largest animals roaming South America 10,000 years ago.  During his travels in 1832, Darwin uncovered a Megatherium skull in Argentina.  The relationship between ancient giant sloths and modern-day living species helped Darwin develop his so-called “law of succession of types.”  It was patterns such as these which helped steer Darwin’s theory of evolution.  Today, modern-day sloths, the relatives of Darwin’s ancient sloths, face climate and environmental pressures.
Megatherium skull.

Though climate certainly played a role in the demise of megafauna, a model depicts human encroachment and hunting.

Hunting the glyptodont giant armadillo

The descendants of Darwin’s megafauna, such as modern armadillos, also face environmental and climate pressures.  It’s unclear, however, what the future may hold since Argentina’s recently elected president, Javier Milei, does not believe in climate change.  Coincidentally, during my stay in Buenos Aires I came across Milei’s inaguration ceremony amidst throngs of people.

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