Darwin’s Abominable Mystery

Dr. Sean Graham is responsible for today’s entry (in more ways than one!). Thank you! Sean writes:

Today we have a very special photo of the day — the front cover of this month’s issue of the journal American Journal of Botany, which celebrates the upcoming 200th anniversary of the birth of Charles Darwin. This special issue was co-edited by myself (Associate Professor in UBC’s Faculty of Land & Food Systems and the Department of Botany, and Research Director at the UBC Botanical Garden), Dr. Ruth Stockey (University of Alberta) and Sir Peter Crane (University of Chicago).

In addition to the picture of Darwin himself (about which he said: “I look a very venerable, acute, melancholy old dog; whether I really look so I do not know”), the cover includes some pictures of some living and fossil plants taken from individual articles in the issue.

Charles Darwin is rightly famous for his contributions to the development of evolutionary biology (this year also sees the 150th anniversary of the official publication of his Origin of Species, a book that profoundly changed our understanding of the world that we live in). However, it is not so well known that Darwin was an avid botanist. He wrote seven influential books based on his observations of plants, including On the different forms of flowers on plants of the same species and Fertilization of orchids by insects.

Darwin was curious about the fossil record of flowering plants (angiosperms). He famously referred to their rapid origin and diversification in the fossil record as an “abominable mystery”. This issue of American Journal of Botany explores different facets of the various mysteries surrounding the rise to dominance of the flowering plants in a geologically brief period of time, and includes cutting-edge scientific studies of flowering plants and their living and extinct relatives.

In addition to allowing us to use the images, the American Journal of Botany has kindly provided free access to all of the articles in this issue, right up until the anniversary of Darwin’s birth (Feb 12th, 2009). The articles, on topics ranging from the history of science to ecology, can be downloaded as individual pdf files and are readable in most web browsers.

Check out individual articles in the issue for details on the different images used in the cover plate. Enjoy the treasure hunt!

Credits: Oil painting of Darwin by Walter William Ouless, etching by Paul Aldophe Rajon, 1875, from the collection of Dr William (Ned) Friedman, University of Colorado. Other photographs: Individual authors in the special issue. The digital image of portion of Darwin’s letter to the English botanist Joseph Hooker is courtesy of the Cambridge University Library (provenance: Cambridge University Library DAR 95: 485-488). A portion reads: “I have just read Ball’s essay. It is pretty bold. The rapid development, as far as we can judge, of all the higher plants within recent geological times is an abominable mystery”.

Additional resources: UK’s Natural History Museum has a site dedicated to Darwin200. The journal Nature also has an issue with some articles on the subject of Darwin’s 200th.

Darwin's Abominable Mystery
Darwin's Abominable Mystery

17 responses to “Darwin’s Abominable Mystery”

  1. TC

    Thanks so much for this “very special photo of the day.”

  2. Millet

    Darwin would have been a great doctor, as his penmanship clearly shows.

  3. C.Wick

    Very neat that today I also read in the news the realization of a new species of large lizard on one of his Galapagus Islands…known? As the ‘Pink Lizard’….and is possibly older then any of the other iguanas studied by Darwin durring his days there.

  4. Mary

    Oh! Reading this, I was just wondering how a lay person could obtain a copy of the Journal – and – behold! – free access! A much appreciated gift.

  5. annie morgan

    What a delightful surprise! Most interesting.

  6. cheryl

    Every day brings many wonderous moments, all of many sizes. I love opening my botany photo of the day, wondering in anticipation if I’ll be knowledgable enough to identify the chosen one.
    I thank my sister for letting me know of the site,
    and another thanks for the special opportunity to free access to American Journal of Botany, what great fun!

  7. bev M.D.

    I’ve only had time to skim one of the articles so far, but this free issue is indeed a gift; many thanks! If only the medical journals would also be so enlightened as to provide such access….

  8. Sara Behnami

    It was a surprise! Thank you for your excellent and unique selection.

  9. merry obrien

    Many thanks to you for your beauteous work. And to Sue, dear friend who got me started. And to my purchase of a mac so i can access the links in a second.!!! I love to read the comments. Thanks all of you.

  10. CherriesWalks

    Awesome!! And I just learned about the evolution of how we see colors and how birds can still see ultraviolet like the dinos could! The way they see flowers is amazing!! Maybe one day we will recover the long lost ultraviolet cone!

  11. Chungii V

    THANK YOU very much!! Interesting to say the least.

  12. Sue Gray

    Thanks so much for Botany Photo of the Day, and especially this one. Darwin is so misunderstood by those who choose to undermine/negate his theory of evolution.
    I urge any viewers of this to read a biography of his life. It’s fascinating.
    Thank you, thank you for sharing this and the links to the articles.

  13. edward hessler

    What a gift as is BPOD. Ah, colleagues, even when we don’t know one another, are one of the wonderful things about science.
    I am a great fan of BPOD and it is one of the first things I open in the morning.
    Thanks again.

  14. micaela carr

    If you are interested in evolution, may I suggest a book which is well-written, and of interest to both lay-people and scientists – Evolution for Everyone: How Darwin’s Theory Can Change the Way We Think About Our Lives by David Sloan Wilson. It is a fascinating read.

  15. Hallie Anderson

    Thank you once again for this wonderful daily gift. I love the BPOD today and an always learning from these fascinating offerings, the first read of my email day! It is challenging not to spend too much time wandering the links!

  16. elizabeth a airhart

    congratulations fine writeing
    i have been reading about ernst heckel
    now i have your fine article to read
    after so many years we still debate
    over a an idea that is maybe yes maybe no
    some times it is best to look at the
    full moon night sky and just enjoy

  17. Elizabeth Revell

    What a delightful coincidence that on this date in 2006 your featured plant was Darwin’s Cotton, Gossypium darwinii.

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