A living laboratory of evolution

A living laboratory of evolution

IDEAL HABITAT: Science has not stopped at the Galapagos Islands with Darwin's theory of evolution.

A living laboratory of evolution
The Galapagos is an archipelago of three main islands, six smaller ones and several hundred rocky islets located about 1,000 km west of Ecuador on the South American coastline; the archipelago straddles the equator, and lies at the confluence of four major ocean currents. The islands are a product of some of the most active volcanic activity on the planet. Volcanic eruptions still continue; in the last 200 years, over 60 eruptions have been recorded from the islands. The islands are in a state of constant flux, some continue to move, and some sink, while others are in the process of being formed.

For a naturalist, the Galapagos Islands are the ultimate ‘mecca’— the revered land and its inhabitants that helped Charles Darwin put forth the theory of evolution. The relatively small size, largely pristine nature and isolation make the Galapagos Islands a living biological laboratory. And science has not stopped here with Darwin’s theory of evolution. Path-breaking research still continues on the islands through various studies that are being conducted here in fields such as volcanology and marine biology. The Islands does indeed have a very odd assortment of wildlife, more so because over hundreds of years, animals and plants found here have arrived from the mainland through various means of dispersal. And only those that could adapt to its harsh geographic conditions have survived.

We arrive on the island of Santa Cruz, which is the most central of the five inhabited islands. For the last 25 years, the town of Puerto Ayara on this island has become the main hub for tourists. The Galapagos National Park’s headquarters and the Charles Darwin Research Centre are located here. A two–hour boat ride takes us to Isabela Island, where we perhaps experienced a fraction of what Charles Darwin may have witnessed almost 200 years ago.

A peek into Darwin’s Galapagos

Hundreds of marine iguanas were sunbathing on the boardwalk. They simply would not move. The endemic marine iguana, is quintessential Galapagos. These black iguanas feed exclusively on marine algae and can be found lying in hundreds on black lava rocks, to absorb as much of the sun as they can. There are also two endemic species of land iguana on the islands. This yellow-orange iguana can reach up to 13 kg and more than one metre in length. It is a sight to behold as the iguana holds on to the cactus and chomps on it.

On the beach lay several sea lions, quite undeterred by human beings. They seek body contact and hence are found in large groups on beaches. They can be quite endearing to watch, as they lie on the beaches and swim in the water! I was motivated to go kayaking just to see the penguins. The idea of penguins at the equator sounds absurd, but they do exist. The Galapagos penguin is the third smallest penguin in the world and stands at about 30 cm tall. Penguins usually make burrows in soft peat, but in the absence of this, on these islands they have taken to living in caves and crevices in the coastal lava.

The lava rock islands provide the ideal habitat for the famous mascot of the islands, the blue-footed booby. This bird is famous not so much because it is rare but because it is entertaining. Its courtship, where the male of the bird performs a dance, is indeed worth a watch. It is also very dangerously tame.

But the celebrity animals here are indeed the giant tortoises. As their name suggests, these giant reptiles weigh up to 270 kg, with the carapace length of 1.22m. Once, there were estimated to be over 2,00,000 tortoises, with probably 14 sub-species, distributed on the islands. Today, less than 17,000 survive. The tortoises are found on what used be farming land, and are now protected by the owners who allow tourists to view them. It is almost unreal to observe these huge animals, peacefully grazing on the one-time farmlands.

When tourism poses a threat

Spectacular, fantastic, overwhelming, fabulous are all terms that aptly describe these islands. But is the sun setting on these islands? The stakes are very high and the major cause for concern is the increasing number of tourists. From just about 40,000 tourists in 1990, the number has grown to 2,24,755 in 2015. More tourists means greater disturbance to wildlife, greater need for supplies from the mainland and greater amounts of garbage.

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) declared the islands a World Heritage Site in 1979, but put them on the danger list for precisely this reason. Although, they were taken off the ‘Danger List’ in 2010, the number of tourists continues to grow. The Galapagos now attract almost 30,000 people from the mainland in search of employment.

Tourism on the islands contributes significantly to the country’s economy. But what kind of tourism? We took trips where guides encouraged tourists to take ‘selfies’ with wildlife. The biggest threat comes from the fact that the wildlife species on these islands even today are very tame. One can quite literally walk up to a nesting bird and it will not move. All the more reason for better regulated tourism. Introduced fauna and flora are also one of the biggest threats to the islands. Animals such as the goats are proving to ring the death knell for the endemic island fauna.
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