10 Reasons Why the Galápagos are Interesting

by Lisa Barrett

In preparation for my upcoming trip to the Galápagos as part of a course through my graduate program at the University of Wyoming, I read Henry Nicholls’s The Galápagos. Dedicated to Lonesome George, the book describes the natural history of the Galápagos, a group of islands off the coast of Ecuador, and it has really gotten me excited for my trip in January! Below are 10 reasons why you should be interested in the Galápagos:

1. The Name

You may have heard that “galápago” meant “saddle” in medieval Spanish. This would suggest the islands were named after the saddle-shaped shells of the tortoises that inhabit them. However, “galápago” actually meant “tortoise,” so the islands were directly named for the tortoises. And “Silla-galápago” meant a tortoise-shaped saddle.

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Galapagos tortoise

2. Darwin

If etymology doesn’t quite pique your interest, consider the important relationship between the Galápagos and science– and particularly, biology. Charles Darwin is considered to be the father of evolution by natural selection, a vital pillar of biology. He is also the epitome of a curious explorer, and his impressions of the Galápagos profoundly influenced many of his scientific views. In 1835, he visited the islands, sailing on the HMS Beagle, and he took careful observations and collected specimens. In particular, thanks to the interesting species he discovered on the Galápagos, Darwin began to think in terms of natural selection, which forever shaped our understanding of the natural world.

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Charles Darwin as a young explorer

Check out this excerpt from The Galápagos and Darwin’s notes on the mockingbirds: “This kind of variation from one island to the next, Darwin felt, would ‘undermine the stability of Species.’” Darwin also noted a “gradation in form of the bill” after observing various finch species. Such observations forever changed our thinking, and to be in the place where Darwin first made these notes would be monumental (as a scientist) and magnificent (as a citizen of the world)!

3. Model Species

What is it about the animals on the Galápagos that continue to inspire research and conservation today? Many of the animals there represent model species; in other words, many animals on the islands exemplify certain ideas in evolutionary biology and animal behavior, and that is very cool.

Perhaps most notably are Darwin’s finches, whose adaptive radiation in beak size and shape exemplify evolution by natural selection. In other words, he observed that they have different beaks; we now know this is an adaptation to their varied diets. Besides the famous finches, there are the only flightless cormorant in the world, siblicidal boobies, magnificent frigate birds with beautiful mating rituals, and kissing waved albatrosses.

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Various finch species, collectively called “Darwin’s finches”

4. World Heritage Site

Did you know that the Galápagos represent a UNESCO World Heritage Site? Essentially, this means that the Galápagos are so unique that they deserve special protection. For example, the islands contain 11 species of mammals found nowhere else in the world! Read what criteria were met here.

5. How Species Arrived

If you’re interested in the animals living in the Galápagos, you may also wonder how they originally got there. Sure, it is easy to understand how seabirds arrived, but what about those gargantuan tortoises? Actually, for many Galápagos animals it is still a mystery! But perhaps, as with iguanas, tortoises floated/swam on the currents from South America—a very probably explanation since tortoises are able to avoid sinking (albeit awkwardly).

Those tiny invertebrates have a similarly interesting story. However, snails, who we know despise salt, would not have been able to make that journey. In fact, it is more likely that land snails hitchhiked on birds, either in feathers, or in their intestines. Unlike these airlifted snails, insects like beetles and crickets probably migrated via mats of vegetation (no, they didn’t build them themselves) or simply floated on the surface of the water. That’s pretty neat!

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Snails may have arrived to the Galapagos via birds. Okay, maybe not quite like this, but you get the idea!

6. Geology

But how did the 13 islands get there? The Galápagos were formed from the volcanoes on the Nazca Plate. Unlike the Hawaiian islands which were formed from volcanic hotspots and pushed westerly, the Galápagos islands get pushed to the east. And so, the islands furthest from the hotspot in the east are the oldest (as well as the least active). There are underwater mountains that were also formed, such as the Cocos Ridge, and they have since been submerged.

Perhaps even more intriguing, this all means that the islands we now know to belong to the Galápagos will eventually recede under the ocean, from east to west. But this also means that the volcanic hotspots will have created new islands, probably fostering island-hopping by many of the endemic plants and animals.

Not fascinating enough? One of the islands, Isabela, is shaped like a seahorse!

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Some of the islands that make up the Galapagos, including seahorse-shaped Isabela

7. Model for Conservation (past and future)

Throughout their history, the Galápagos have been faced with conservation issues such as invasive species, habitat degradation, and breeding deficits. The volunteers and researchers working on the Galápagos have tackled huge issues, and their success on these projects makes the islands a valuable model for other parts of the world undergoing similar conservation troubles.

Take, for example, Project Isabela, a plan devised to capture goats (an introduced species on the islands), collar them with a radio collar, and send them off in the hopes that they will naturally take on the role of a Judas goat—since goats are gregarious, researchers can track this goat to its goat friends and then kill them. In combination with corrals, aerial sharpshooting, and trained dogs, this tactic helped to make Project Isabela a huge success, and it was eventually replicated on larger islands in the Galápagos.

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A radio-collared goat (aka “Judas goat”)

8. The Early Explorers

There are many other cool stories about the Galápagos, many of which come from early on, when the islands were first becoming known (and exploited) by humans. For instance, the first person to dive in the Galápagos, William Beebe, did so while wearing a 30kg helmet in 1925! In 1825, Fernandina island erupted during American explorer, Benjamin Morrell’s expedition there. He describes the lava meeting the sea: “ ‘The ocean boiled, and roared, and bellowed, as if a civil war had broken out…’” and as the air became oppressively hot, many of his men wanted to jump into the water. However, “At over 40 degrees Celsius, it would have been like diving into a scorching bath.”

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Beebe’s 30 kg “diving helmet”

Did you know that many of the earlier peoples to visit the islands described them as hellish and uninhabitable? This was because the islands were hot, black and rocky (think volcanic origins) and had very few resources to offer. Nevertheless, many sailors took advantage of the once plentiful populations of whales and tortoises. Sperm whales were big business for their oil (refined from blubber). Additionally, sailors and explorers often took hundreds of tortoises onto their boat for meat. These, and many other animal populations, were soon decimated. In fact, director of the New York Aquarium, Charles Townsend notes that, “ ‘It would be within safe limits to credit American whalers with taking not less than 100,000 tortoises subsequent to 1830.’”

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Tortoises were collected by the hundreds for meat.

Many of us will never have the opportunity to explore a new land for the very first time, or to see a volcano explode firsthand (maybe that’s for the best), but it can be humbling, exciting, and even fulfilling to read accounts of early explorers, sailors, and fishermen.

9. Boats & Snorkeling

How does relaxing on the water or swimming with fish, sea lions, and turtles sound? That is exactly what you can do while you’re in the Galápagos, as many Galápagos  tours mean that you live on a yacht for the duration of your stay. Behold the rays, sharks, dolphins, whales, coral, anglerfish, fur seals, and more! If you are already feeling seasick, move on to number 10 below!

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How would you like to swim with this friendly sea lion?

10. Awesome Animals (they don’t call me a zoology student for nothing!)

A substantial part of the appeal of the Galápagos is its numerous species of plants and animals, many of which are not found anywhere else in the world!

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Waved albatross “kissing” behavior

You may want to consider adding the Galápagos to your bucket list! If you’d rather admire the islands from afar, consider checking out the Galápagos Conservancy’s Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/Galápagos Conservancy?fref=ts

References

Nicholls, Henry. The Galápagos : A Natural History. Basic Books: Philadelphia. 2014.

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