Darwin´s Inspiration: Ecuador´s Galápagos Islands

By Dale Morris   Photo by Dale Morris

Brief

An introduction to Ecuador´s Galápagos Islands and their importance for today´s science.

Sitting in the Pacific Ocean, one thousand miles to the west of Ecuador, lies a cluster of isolated islands called The Galápagos.

They are mostly dry and barren, studded with rocky hills sitting upon a turquoise sea. Each one is a volcano, with a gaping maw open to an equally clear and brilliantly blue sky. Some are dormant and some are not. Rivers of solidified lava hold testimony to the agitations of a restless land. They resemble black glaciers and are a common feature on many of the isles.

For the moment they are at a standstill, the surface caught in a freeze-frame image of moving liquid, but at some point in the future, they will once again pour as molten rivers into a boiling sea.

It’s a harsh and inhospitable place, devoid of shade, and hot as hell under the equatorial sun. But looking out over the kilometers of buckled, twisted lava we see a rather strange site. Tourists, attired in shorts, sunglasses, flip flops and baseball caps are wandering across the surface, pausing now and then to photograph a giant dinosaurian iguana or a tall, spiny cactus. Roberto Quinata, an ever-smiling man, waves his hands around to emphasise his vocal explanations on the geological history of this place.

He is their guide with an attentive audience listening carefully. For six days we have traveled with Roberto, upon the sailing vessel Darwin Explorer, from island to island learning about the uniqueness of this world heritage national park - one of the earth’s most popular eco-holiday destinations.

We have seen sea lions and tourists basking together upon pristine white beaches and have watched blue-footed sea birds perform choreographed courtship dances just two meters away. I played with penguins as they flew through the waters and witnessed in awe, hammerhead sharks drifting lazily by. Giant tortoises trundle by like slow moving tanks and tiny birds alight upon our shoulders when they feel like a rest.

Nearly 100,000 people visit the Galápagos Islands annually to see a world where animals are not afraid of humans. Scientists call this sort of passive behaviour “ecological naivety,” a fearlessness born from an absence of big predators.

Due to geographical isolation, very few animals ever set foot, claw or paw on these shores. Tortoises probably floated across the miles like a coconut, while lizards arrived upon buoyant trees, washed out from the South American continent during floods.

Reptiles, unlike mammals, are well suited to this kind of dispersal. They can survive months without food or water, and upon reaching terra firma, they easily colonised the land.
Birds, on the other hand, made their own way here, as did sea lions. There are also a few small rodents, which disembarked from floating rafts of vegetation, but no big terrestrial mammals, including human beings, ever made a successful voyage. As a result, nearly all of the native vertebrate fauna is reptilian or avian.

Nine million years passed before the first human set eyes upon the dry vistas of the Galápagos archipelago, and even then it was by accident. In 1535 a Spanish Bishop, voyaging by galleon to Panama, was blown off course by a tropical storm, and as a result, Spain earned a new territory and the name “Galápagos” appeared on official maps for the first time.

It wasn’t long there after that pirates and whalers came seeking riches. They found them in the form of tortoises, whales, penguins, fish, bird’s eggs and seals, which were slaughtered by the thousands.

Three hundred years later, while exploring the islands, a biologist named Charles Darwin made some conclusions on the evolution of life, resulting in a book called The Origin of Species, one of the most important scientific journals of all time. He observed that populations of plants and animals on each of the thirteen major islands, while similar, had slightly different traits specifically suited to the environment in which they lived. On some islands where tough seeds were prevalent, finches had strong beaks, and where the edible cactus grew tall, tortoises had long necks with which to reach them.

Darwin inferred that all species were able to change, albeit slowly through beneficial characteristics passed down from generation to generation. Simply put, those who possessed these traits survived better and produced more offspring than those who didn’t and eventually became distinct species in their own right, often separated by nothing more than a shallow strip of ocean.

This discovery, that all life is in a constant state of change, is still debated by some religious people who believe all animals and plants were created by God in a perfect state and are therefore static in their design.

Today, visitors can sail, very much like Darwin did, from island to island and see for themselves and make up their own minds.

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