Interested in seeing animals not found anywhere else in the world? In encountering wildlife unafraid of people? In observing plants endemic to islands in the middle of the Pacific Ocean? If so, you can tour the Galápagos Islands… or you can take a virtual tour right here.
First, a Bit of History
The Galápagos form an archipelago of 14 major islands and many smaller islands. Created by volcanic activity on the ocean floor, the islands emerged from the depths about four million years ago as barren mounds of cooled lava. Over time—and continued volcanic activity—the mounds grew to the size and shape they are today. Some are still growing!
The islands were discovered in 1535 by Panamanian bishop Fray Tomás de Berlanga while sailing to Lima, Peru. Decades later, Abraham Ortelius named them Galápagos in reference to the saddle-shaped shell of the giant tortoises that live there. (In Spanish, galápagos means “saddle.”) After that—nothing. For hundreds of years the islands remained uninhabited—except for pirates, whalers, and buccaneers who used them as hideouts. In 1832, Ecuador claimed the islands and in 1959 declared them a national park.
How Did It All Get Started?
Given that the archipelago is about 600 miles from the mainland, it’s amazing that any plants or animals live there at all. How could they have reached these barren islands? The answer starts small.
Bacteria and the spores of ferns, mosses, algae, and fungi plants arrived first. Blown in with the wind, these tiny organisms could thrive in places without much soil. Once established, however, they provided the nutrients for larger plants, which probably arrived in the wings and stomachs of seabirds.
As diverse as the flora of the Galápagos is, you won’t find many large flowering plants there. This type of vegetation needs complicated mechanisms for reproduction, which are not present on the islands.
Let’s have a look at what was present long before people arrived on the Galapagos.
Darwin’s Theory of Change
In 1835, Charles Darwin, a 22-year-old British naturalist, spent five weeks on the Galápagos Islands. He didn’t realize it at the time, but the observations he made and the specimens he collected during those weeks would change science forever.
Darwin brought back samples of finches from the islands. Initially, he thought the birds represented different species, such as wrens and blackbirds. Two years after Darwin’s return, famed ornithologist John Gould examined the specimens. Gould announced that they were not different species but actually formed “an entirely new group” with 12 subspecies.
The original birds probably arrived on the islands after being blown off course by strong winds, like so many other species. Once there, the birds on different islands were isolated from one another. Over time each adapted, or changed, in order to survive in its specific environment.
The main adaption was in the shape of the birds’ beaks. On an island where nuts were plentiful, the birds’ beaks became shorter and stronger—the better to crack the shells. Birds on other islands developed thinner, finer beaks to pick insects out of trees. In general, the finches’ beaks became adapted to the food available in their neighborhood.
Darwin continued to study the finches as well as other animal specimens from the Galápagos. After many years, he developed the theory of evolution by natural selection. In 1859, Darwin explained the idea in his now-famous book, The Origin of Species.
From Obscurity to Fame
Since Darwin’s visit, the Galápagos Islands have become world famous. Today, more than 25,000 people live there. More than 150,000 visit each year. And it’s no wonder.
In the Galápagos, you’ll find animals that live nowhere else on Earth, that live without fear, and that live without running away from people.
Do you like the idea of snorkeling with sea lions? Kayaking with dolphins? Having a stare-down with an iguana? If the answer is yes, this may be the place for you.Written by Marjorie Frank.