The Natural Observation of Evolution – The Unique Beauty of the Galapagos Islands
By Franciso Dousdebes
The Galapagos Islands, a remarkably unusual volcanic archipelago in the eastern Pacific Ocean, harbor some of the most spectacular plants and animals of the world. Española, Santa Fe and San Cristobal, bear some of the oldest rocks in the archipelago, and these were formed about five million years ago; whereas the younger islands, Isabela and Fernandina, are still in the process of formation through stunning eruptions. The archipelago’s volcanic origins produced various islands overtime, but the current makeup of the islands includes over 25 main islands, and dozens of smaller islands and rocks. These islands are scattered over an area in the Pacific Ocean covering about 138,000 Km2 (53,000 mi2), which means there’s not only isolation from the mainland, but also enough interisland isolation.
The islands are placed at the confluence of a series of oceanic currents that have created diverse conditions and singular evolutionary opportunities for the multitude of organisms that reached the islands over millions of years. Cold, nutrient rich waters coming from the south east, carried by the Humboldt Current, bring vital nutrients to the islands. From the west, the Cromwell current generates upwelling jets that play a critical role in the survival of many marine species; from the northeast the Panama current arrives bringing warm waters from Central America. The intensity and importance of these currents varies during the year, changing dramatically every few years when extreme disruptive weather events occur, just like El Niño or La Niña. While much negative commentary is added for El Niño events, it’s exactly those extreme unusual conditions that are connected to the underlying fabric of natural selection. All of this is what makes the Galapagos a fascinating, bizarre, and unique destination on our planet.
Many of the plants and animals that live on the Galapagos Islands came from the mainland by traveling at least 1000km (600 miles), the distance that separates the islands from the continent. Some, such as sea lions, birds, and reptiles, probably swam or flew from the continent, while others came attached to floating rafts of vegetation. The dispersal of plants and some insects is highly connected to other organisms, such as birds’ feathers, whereas spores and very small flying insects probably got blown off by super strong winds.
By far, Charles Darwin has been the naturalist/scientist perhaps most connected to the islands’ evolutionary framework. Books like Voyage of the HMS Beagle (1839) and Origin of Species (1859), not only showcase the remarkable power of observation Darwin had, but allow us to understand how the Galapagos became a fascinating location and continuous source of inspiration and amazement for him. In modern times, any studies and findings regarding evolution and natural selection will surely look back at Darwin, and that will likely bounce back to the islands. The connection between the Galapagos and evolution is undeniable.
Amongst the species that make the Galapagos a wonder for wildlife encounters, giant tortoises, and iguanas are probably the best representatives. Marine iguanas, for example, are the only sea-going lizards of the planet, and forage exclusively on algae found near the volcanic shores. Land iguanas, snakes, geckos, and lizards complete the list of reptiles, and many of these have diversified into different species. Sea lions are probably a mammal species that visitors thoroughly enjoy seeing above and below water. Two endemic species inhabit the islands, and the most frequently seen is the Galápagos sea lion (Zalophus wollebaeki). Its closest ancestors are California sea lions, while the other species came from the cool southern waters of South America, and they are called Galapagos Fur sea lions (Arctocephalus galapagoensis).
The avian fauna of the archipelago includes an array of endemic and native species, from which probably the Galapagos penguins and Darwin’s finches, hold great attention, but others like flightless cormorants, mockingbirds, albatrosses, doves, boobies, and more add to the list of remarkable examples of island adaptation. A delicate balance to maintain, humans now have the responsibility to show our best effort at protecting this natural wilderness. These challenging times, the post-pandemic months, will be very critical for creating awareness and resilience amongst all stakeholders related to tourism. Local authorities, fishermen, visitors, scientists, and the population living on the archipelago, have a responsibility to not only minimize the environmental footprint on the Galapagos, but to lower such footprint in every possible way. All efforts will make a difference.
Creating awareness of the importance of conservation is critical to the Galapagos. 97% of the islands are declared a national park and enclose an immense marine reserve to prevent industrial fishing in the waters surrounding. Moreover, last month the final decree creating the expansion of the marine reserve became official, and this will allow the islands to enter an era of a new line of thinking. A sustainable way of living will continue to foster an example for everyone that gets to experience the islands of the Galapagos Archipelago. Future generations have the right of experiencing the islands as we see them today, and better yet, in more pristine conditions. A collection of responsible tour operators, hotels, and even restaurants have invested in clean energy, sustainable technologies, and even carbon neutrality with programs in biodiverse tropical forests of Ecuador. Hope is certainly there.
If we do things right in the Galapagos Islands, we will get to understand that the survival of the wildlife of the world, and indeed the survival of humankind itself, is in our hands. One cannot help but to fervently hope that the word sapiens (meaning wise) becomes a justly earned part of the name Homo sapiens.