RECORD: Darwin, C. R. 1880. Fertility of hybrids from the common and Chinese goose. Nature. A Weekly Illustrated Journal of Science 21 (1 January): 207.

REVISION HISTORY: Scanned, OCRed, corrected and edited by John van Wyhe 2003-8, textual corrections by Sue Asscher 3.2007. RN3

[page] 207


IN the "Origin of Species" I have given the case, on the excellent authority of Mr. Eyton,1 of hybrids from the common and Chinese goose (Anser cygnoides)2 being quite fertile inter se; and this is the most remarkable fact as yet recorded with respect to the fertility of hybrids, for many persons feel sceptical about the hare and the rabbit. I was therefore glad to have the opportunity of repeating the trial, through the kindness of the Rev. Dr. Goodacre,3 who gave me a brother and sister hybrid from the same hatch. A union between these birds was therefore a shade closer than that made by Mr. Eyton, who coupled a brother and sister from different hatches. As there were tame geese at a neighbouring farm-house, and as my birds were apt to wander, they were confined in a large cage; but we found out after a time that a daily visit to a pond (during which time they were watched) was indispensable for the fertilisation of the eggs. The result was that three birds were hatched from the first set of eggs; two others were fully formed, but did not succeed in breaking through the shell; and the remaining first-laid eggs were unfertilised. From a second lot of eggs two birds were hatched. I should have thought that this small number of only five birds reared alive indicated some degree of infertility in the parents, had not Mr. Eyton reared eight hybrids from one set of eggs. My small success may perhaps be attributed in part to the confinement of the parents and their very close relationship. The five hybrids, grandchildren of the pure parents, were extremely fine birds, and resembled in every detail their hybrid parents. It appeared superfluous to test the fertility of these hybrids with either pure species, as this had been done by Dr. Goodacre; and every possible gradation between them may be commonly seen, according to Mr. Blyth4 and Capt. Hutton in India,5 and occasionally in England.

The fact of these two species of geese breeding so freely together is remarkable from their distinctness, which has led some ornithologists to place them in separate genera or sub-genera. The Chinese goose differs conspicuously from the common goose in the knob at the base of the beak, which affects the shape of the skull; in the very long neck with a stripe of dark feathers running down it; in the number of the sacral vertebræ; in the proportions of the sternum;1 markedly in the voice or "resonant trumpeting," and, according to Mr. Dixon,2 in the period of incubation, though this has been denied by others.6 In the wild state the two species inhabit different regions.3 I am aware that Dr. Goodacre is inclined to believe that Anser cygnoides is only a variety of the common goose raised under domestication. He shows that in all the above indicated characters, parallel or almost parallel variations have arisen with other animals under domestication. But it would, I believe, be quite impossible to find so many concurrent and constant points of difference as the above, between any two domesticated varieties of the same species. If these two species are classed as varieties, so might the horse and ass, or the hare and rabbit.

The fertility of the hybrids in the present case probably depends to a limited degree (1) on the reproductive power of all the Anatidæ7 being very little affected by changed conditions, and (2) on both species having been long domesticated. For the view propounded by Pallas,8 that domestication tends to eliminate the almost universal sterility of species when intercrossed, becomes the more probable the more we learn about the history and multiple origin of most of our domesticated animals. This view, in so far as it can be trusted, removes a difficulty in the acceptance of the descent-theory, for it shows that mutual sterility is no safe and immutable criterion of specific difference. We have, however, much better evidence on this head, in the fact of two individuals of the same form of heterostyled plants, which belong to the same species as certainly as do two individuals of any species, yielding when crossed fewer seeds than the normal number, and the plants raised from such seeds being, in the case of Lythrum salicaria,9 as sterile as are the most sterile hybrids.


Down, December 15

1 Charlesworth's "Mag. of Nat. Hist.," vol. iv., new series, 1840, p. 90. T. C. Eyton, "Remarks on the Skeletons of the Common and Chinese Goose".10

2 "Ornamental and Domestic Poultry," 1848, p. 85.

3 Dr. L. v. Schrenck's "Reisen und Forschungen im Amur-Land,' B. i. p. 457.11


1 Thomas Campbell Eyton (1809-1880), ornithologist, specialist in skeletal variation and Cambridge contemporary of Darwin's. Origin p. 253.

2 Darwin discussed the Chinese goose (Anser cygnoides) in Variation 1: 237, Descent 2: 114, 129 and Natural selection 427, 431, 433, 439 and 440.

3 Francis Burges Goodacre (1829-1885), clergyman and naturalist.

4 Edward Blyth (1810-1873), zoologist and Zoological Curator of Museum of Asiatic Society of Bengal, Calcutta, 1844-1862.

5 Thomas Hutton, Captain in the Bengal Army; invalided in 1841; author of works on natural history and scriptural geology in the 1850s and 1860s.

6 Edmund Saul Dixon (1809-1893), clergyman and poultry fancier. From 1854 he published under the pseudonym Eugene Sebastian Delamer. Dixon 1848.

7 The family that includes ducks, geese and swans.

8 Pallas 1780.

9 See Darwin 1864.

10 Eyton 1840.

11 Schrenk 1858.

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