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Galapagos sapiens – Why are the Galapagos Islands special?

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The Galapagos is an archipelago of volcanic islands and islets that rise up from the Pacific Ocean 1,000 kilometers (600 miles) west of Ecuador. On a desktop globe, they look like a set of freckles on the ocean’s cheek, incongruous and entirely unexpected. They emerged from the ocean just yesterday in geological time, created by a crack in the Earth’s crust between two tectonic plates, known to science as a volcanic hotspot. A very hot spot.

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The Galapagos are special because they have never been connected to the mainland.

Marine Iguanas At Tortuga Bay
Marine Iguanas At Tortuga Bay.

The flora and fauna that reached the islands’ shores – before the intervention of Man at any rate – had to survive the hundreds of miles of the ocean first. Mammals failed almost entirely to complete the journey. Over millions of years, only a small rat made it. The kings of Galapagos fauna are reptiles. How did they get there They were washed away from the banks of rivers on the continent by flash floods, floated on rafts of vegetation skippered by whimsical ocean currents for weeks, and finally disembarked, fortuitously impregnated.

Over millions of years, these reptiles, and many of the marine birds that also alighted on these volcanic isles adapted to their environment. In the words of Charles Darwin – in fact, the sub-title to the first edition of On The Origin of Species their survival followed the principle of – the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life.

Thus a land tortoise that began a little bigger than your foot grew to the length of the six-year-old child; a cormorant became flightless as it gained an advantage by fishing underwater rather than flying; one species of finch arrived and adapted to its environment to such an extent that there are today 13 species; and a mutation of a land iguana whose offspring were good swimmers thrived and reproduced, creating the marine iguana, unique to the Islands. Flora too, mutated and adapted. The scalesia tree, for example, which reaches heights of a good 10 meters (30 feet) in the highlands of some islands, is from the same family as the diminutive daisy.

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The Galapagos are special because we, in our wisdom, have decided to protect them as such. Long may we continue to be so sapiens.

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Updated:March 5, 2024

Published:June 3, 2015

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