In Darwin's wake

Look! Citizen science expedition follows the path of Darwin’s HMS Beagle

Opening doors for amateur explorers has many benefits, one biologist argues.

Victor Rault / Captain Darwin

Charles Darwin’s five-year voyage around the world aboard the HMS Beagle is one of the most famous scientific expeditions of all time.

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The Beagle’s journey was primarily about mapping coastlines. Darwin was a passenger doing research with tools he had on hand.

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Despite the scrappy nature of his project, observations Darwin made on the trip formed the basis of the theory of natural selection.

In 2021, a research vessel named Captain Darwin set out to retrace the route of the Beagle. Led by documentary filmmaker Victor Rault, the expedition brings along researchers to conduct experiments along Darwin’s path.

Victor Rault / Captain Darwin

Victor Rault / Captain Darwin

Eduardo Sampaio, a biologist from the Max Planck Institute of Animal Behavior, joined the expedition to study cephalopods.

Lacking any equipment that would allow undersea study, Darwin’s own observations were mostly confined to land as the Beagle sailed, but he did study the color-changing ability of octopuses.

Victor Rault / Captain Darwin

Victor Rault / Captain Darwin

Since Sampaio’s time aboard Captain Darwin coincided with octopus mating season, he was unable to capture the hunting behavior of octopuses, so he instead focused on something closer to Darwin’s observations.

Victor Rault / Captain Darwin

Off the coast of Cabo Verde, Sampaio conducted a mirror test with an octopus — a common test used to gauge if different animals recognize themselves in the mirror.

The octopus changed color when it saw its reflection, but only on the side of its body facing the mirror. Octopuses have not been shown to recognize their reflections, but Sampaio plans to study this in more detail.

Victor Rault / Captain Darwin

Victor Rault / Captain Darwin

Sampaio says he wants to continue his research, using resources and methods unavailable in Darwin’s time to paint a better picture of how animals interact with their surroundings.

Victor Rault / Captain Darwin

In an article published in PLoS Biology, Sampaio says citizen-led expeditions like that of Captain Darwin provide a valuable avenue for research outside of established scientific organizations.

Sampaio points to other recent projects like Under the Pole, a citizen expedition to French Polynesia that found climate-induced coral bleaching has been less profound at great depths.

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Citizen scientists are also commonly involved in astronomy, where their observations have helped identify black holes and classify types of galaxies.

According to Sampaio, citizen-led projects benefit from involving people with skills that aren’t necessarily common among researchers, such as sailing and diving, and their funding sources tend not to conflict with other research.

Victor Rault / Captain Darwin

They may be especially helpful in lower-income countries and remote areas that have little in the way of official scientific funding and research.

Victor Rault / Captain Darwin

Sampaio encourages governmental and scientific agencies to work more closely with citizen scientists. That could attract more people to the world of research, while helping spread findings further than established organizations can do on their own.

Victor Rault / Captain Darwin