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Alfred Russel Wallace : Alfred Wallace : A. R. Wallace :
Russel Wallace : Alfred Russell Wallace (sic)

Mr. H. O. Forbes's Discoveries in the
Chatham Islands (S469: 1893)

Editor Charles H. Smith's Note: A letter to the Editor printed in the 11 May 1893 number of Nature. Original pagination indicated within double brackets. To link directly to this page, connect with: http://people.wku.edu/charles.smith/wallace/S469.htm

    [[p. 27]] In a paper read before the Royal Geographical Society on March 12th, and again in an article on "The Chatham Islands and their Story" in the Fortnightly Review of this month, Mr. H. O. Forbes has described his very interesting discoveries in these islands, and has founded thereon certain conclusions as to the past history of the New Zealand group. The most startling new fact is the proof of the recent existence on the Chatham Islands of two birds whose nearest allies inhabited the distant group of the Mascarene Islands within the historical period. These are a flightless rail very closely allied to the Aphanapteryx of Mauritius, and a coot which is hardly different, except in its somewhat larger size, from the extinct Fulica newtoni of the same island.

    It is on the flightless rail that Mr. Forbes mainly dwells in his deductions of past changes which it is supposed to imply, and it is on these deductions only that I wish to make a few remarks. He quotes Prof. A. Newton and his brother as stating that the solitaire of Roderiquez and the Dodo of Mauritius, being evidently of one stock, and there being analogous facts in the adjacent islands, they are compelled to believe that "there was once a time when Roderiquez, Mauritius, Bourbon, Madagascar, and the Seychelles were connected by dry land"; and he then argues that there must also have been a continuous land surface between this land and the ancient land comprising New Zealand and the surrounding islands. This connecting land he supposes to have been the Antarctic continent during a mild period and with great extensions over the southern ocean. When the Antarctic ice age came on the inhabitants of this continent had to migrate northwards, and some, "such as the genus Aphanapteryx, would seem to have split into parties, which, travelling by divergent roads, finally arrived in regions so far apart as Mauritius and the Chatham Islands, unaffected by the varying climates and surroundings they experienced, being of an ancient dominating type."

    It is this tremendous hypothesis which appears to me to be not only quite unnecessary to explain the facts, but also to be inadequate to explain them. If one thing more than another is clear, it is that these comparatively small flightless birds were developed, as such, in or near to the islands where they are now found, since they could not possibly have arisen on any extensive land inhabited by carnivorous mammals and reptiles, and, if introduced into such a country, could not long survive. So far as I am aware, no doubt has ever been expressed on this point, the evidence for it being so clear and its explanation on the theory of evolution so complete; and I hardly think that Prof. Newton would now maintain that the affinities of the flightless birds of Mauritius, Bourbon, and Roderiquez implied the former union of these truly oceanic islands. Allied forms of ancestral flying birds may have reached the islands without such union; [[p. 28]] and, owing to the total absence of terrestrial enemies and the abundance of food, may have developed into the allied flightless birds whose remains are found there.

    But Mr. Forbes speaks of the genus Aphanapteryx itself, presumably therefore flightless, inhabiting the Antarctic continent, and migrating northwards by two routes of about 2000 miles each, in which case, this enormous extent of land must have been as free from all carnivorous land mammals and reptiles as New Zealand and Mauritius are now. If however, the birds in question lost their powers of flight in or near the islands where their remains are found, all difficulties of this kind disappear. The Aphanapteryx belongs to a family, the Rallidæ of rails, of world-wide distribution, while many of the component genera are also almost cosmopolitan, and are represented by closely allied species in distant regions. What difficulty, therefore, is there in the same or closely allied species of this widespread group finding their way at some remote epoch to Mauritius and the Chatham Islands, and, from similar causes in both islands, losing their power of flight while retaining their general similarity of structure? To put the matter briefly: if the common ancestors of the Aphanapteryx of Mauritius and the Chatham Islands were flightless, they could not have reached those islands from the Antarctic continent owing to the length of route and the presence of enemies; while if they possessed the power of flight no important change in land-distribution is required.

    I have discussed this one point only, because it illustrates the very common practice of explaining each fresh anomaly of distribution by enormous changes of physical geography, when a much more satisfactory explanation can be given involving no such vast and unsupported revolutions in the earth's surface. I am aware that Mr. Forbes adduces many other facts and considerations in support of his view as to the former extension and habitability of the Antarctic continent, some of which appear to me to be valid and others the reverse. On most of these I have already expressed an opinion in my "Island Life"; and I only write now in order to point out that the very remarkable and interesting facts, whose discovery we owe to Mr. Forbes's energy and perseverance, do not add anything to the evidence already adduced for that view, but may be best explained in a far simpler manner, and without requiring any important changes in the geography of the southern hemisphere.

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