Endless Forms Most Beautiful

Part of the Darwin exhibition.

©AMNH / Denis Finnin

Orchid plants, members of a vast and ancient family, enchanted Darwin late in life and intrigue us still, more than a century later. With over 20,000 species in the wild today, each astonishingly adapted to its habitat and its pollinator in shape, size, color, or fragrance, orchids embody life's richness. And it is that richness that Darwin's work allows us to understand.

Two centuries after Darwin's birth his insights remain fresh and vital. As a young man, he dared to ask how the natural world came to look as it does. How can we explain the amazing diversity of life all around us? And his answer--it had happened through evolution by natural selection--only increased his sense of wonder. "There is," he said, "a grandeur in this view of life," a life in which "endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved."

Angraecum sesquipedale orchid, Madagascar
©AMNH / Craig Chesek

A Prediction

Darwin first saw this astonishing orchid from Madagascar, Angraecum sesquipedale, in 1862. Its foot-long green throat holds nectar--the sweet liquid that draws pollinators--but only at its very tip. "Astounding," Darwin wrote, of this strange adaptation. "What insect could suck it?" He predicted that Madagascar must be home to an insect with an incredibly long feeding tube, or proboscis. Entomologists were dubious: No such insect had ever been found there.

Charles Darwin died in 1882, and more than 40 years later, his insight was confirmed. A naturalist in Madagascar discovered the giant hawk moth, which hovers like a hummingbird as its long, whip-like proboscis probes for the distant nectar. The moth's scientific name, Xanthopan morganii praedicta, honors the prediction of the scientist who never saw it, but whose theory told him that it must exist.