Galapagos Island Natural History

Isles of fire

Few places on earth are as important to the study of nature and natural history as the Galapagos Inseln (German for Islands). This esteemed place in the world of natural science is thanks to the unique natural history of the islands themselves and also the work of one man, Charles Darwin.

A cluster of thirteen volcanic islands situated just below the Equator, the oldest of the islands is around four million years old. The newest are still being formed by volcanic activity. In fact, it’s one of the world’s most actively volcanic areas.

The Galapagos Inseln (Islands) were accidentally discovered in 1535 by Fray Tomas Berlanga of Panama, on his way to settle a dispute between conquistador Francisco Pizarro and the Incas. When the winds died and the strong currents carried the Fray out to sea, he inadvertently discovered the Galapagos.

From Fray’s accounts, we know the islands were teeming with fantastic nature and unique wildlife, including marine iguanas, sea lions, and the giant tortoises. He marveled at the animals’ tameness – the consequence of millions of years of isolation.
For the following centuries, the islands were used as a stop off for pirates looking to raid Spanish galleons. Whalers and sealers found rich harvests on the islands, decimating much of the wildlife, including the poor tortoises. ‘Lonesome George‘, the very last of the Pinta Islands tortoises sadly passed away aged 100 in 2012.
Charles Darwin was the first to write a science-oriented account of the archipelago in 1835. Young Darwin had recently graduated as a naturalist and was part of the crew on board the HMS Beagle on its trip around the globe described as a scientific and geographic study voyage (1831 – 1836). His travels are accounted as the Voyage of the Beagle and include visits to other areas of South America including the also remote Patagonia.

These days, the wildlife and nature of the Galapagos Inseln are fiercely maintained as part of the Ecuadorian national park system. This is largely thanks to the pioneering research on the islands by Charles Darwin, who was so influenced by the nature he found there that it helped him to develop his landmark ‘Theory of Evolution’.

Today, the Galapagos Islands are home to some of the most outstanding natural life and unique landscapes to be found anywhere on the planet.

Charles Darwin´s voyage to the Galapagos Islands

Charles Darwin’s very radical ideas on the structure of the living world transformed biology from a collection of curious but disconnected facts into a vigorous and unified science. His theory of evolution by natural selection originated during a five-year voyage around the world as a naturalist on board HMS Beagle under the command of captain Robert FitzRoy. The voyage had three missions, two official and one unofficial. The official missions were to map the east and west coasts of South America and to complete a series of chronometric readings while circumnavigating the globe. The chronometric readings are related to the way in which navigators determine longitude. If a sailor knows what local time corresponds to noon Greenwich time, then he simply takes a sighting on the angle of the sun, knowing that at noon, the sun is directly overhead in Greenwich. It is then a simple calculation to determine how many degrees he has traveled from Greenwich. The unofficial mission was to repatriate three Tierra del Fuegian natives captured by FitzRoy during the previous voyage of the Beagle. Fuegians were normally hostile to shipwrecked sailors and FitzRoy hoped that by educating these captives and teaching them English manners, they would ultimately convert their countrymen to developing a friendly attitude towards sailors.

FitzRoy was terrified of the loneliness and isolation that he would face as captain (the captain on the previous voyage, on which FitzRoy was the first mate, committed suicide, and FitzRoy himself was emotionally high-strung and mentally unstable). As captain of an English ship, he would be restricted from any close relationships with his crew. He, therefore, hit upon the idea of inviting a gentleman of appropriate social standing to be his guest and companion. In return, the companion would have a rare opportunity to visit exotic locales and see new and wondrous sights. The position was offered to the naturalist and clergyman Leonard Jenyns, who declined because of his parish responsibilities. Jenyns recommended John Henslow, a famed botanist, and clergyman, who declined because of his family situation. Henslow, who was also Darwin’s friend and mentor, recommended Darwin as the best-qualified person who would be likely to accept.

Darwin’s father, Robert, was most unhappy about the situation and forbade him from accepting the offer. But he did leave an out by saying that if Charles could find one reasonable man to convince him otherwise, then he would allow Charles to go. Darwin enlisted the aid of his uncle, Josiah Wedgewood, and finally received his father’s blessing. The Beagle departed on 27 December 1831 on what was meant to have been a three-year voyage and returned on 2 October 1836. On 16 September 1835, the Beagle reached the Galapagos Archipelago, a cluster of islands on the equator 600 miles west of South America.

During his five weeks in the Galapagos, Darwin found the giant tortoises that differed from one another so greatly that anybody with half an eye could immediately say which island they came from. Two forms of iguanas lived in the islands. Each type had affinities with the common South American green iguana, yet they had adapted so profoundly to different ecologic niches in the islands that they had evolved into separate genera. Conolophus, adept at living on the arid islands and feeding on the sharp-spined Opuntia cactus became the land iguana, while Amblyrhynchus, with its flattened tail for swimming, its strong claws for hauling itself out on the water, and its blunt, shortened snout for scraping algae off of rocks, became the marine iguana. Moreover, many islands developed their own races of these unusual lizards. Many of the birds that Darwin found, especially the land birds, were endemic species found nowhere else on earth. There were thirteen different types of finches whose beaks were modified to different sub-environments on the islands.

The Galapagos islands were volcanic in nature and relatively recently formed, Darwin reasoned, and the animals that dwelt there had to have come from someplace else. Those most closely resembling the Galapagos community were the animals that lived closest to the islands on the mainland. But they were not the same animals. Why?

Why? That was the question that plagued Darwin. Why? Eight years after his return, Darwin wrote to his close friend and colleague, Sir Joseph Hooker: Galapagos animals and plants”At last gleams of light have come, and I am almost convinced (quite to the contrary to the opinion I started with) that species are not (it is like confessing a murder) immutable.” According to Genesis, God created all plants and animals, and they have not changed significantly since that time. Yet the only way that Darwin could explain all of his observations was that they had indeed changed. The pivotal role of the Galapagos islands in shaping Darwin’s new worldview is clear from a passage in his ornithological notebooks:

“If there is the slightest foundation for evolution, the zoology of the Galapagos will be well worth examining…”

Voyagers Travel organizes both Island hopping tours and nature cruises in the Enchanted Isles, fill in our travel planner and receive a free custom trip proposal.

Galapagos Archipelago constantly formed by volcanic forces

The Galapagos Archipelago, 600 miles off the coast of South America and found in the Pacific Ocean, is made up of some 13 major islands as well as a number of smaller ones. Thousands of visitors head towards the islands, lured by their sheer beauty of nature, their illustrious history and the fact that the islands are also a national park and a research-, wildlife, and observation center.

The islands were formed by erupting volcanoes millions of years ago. Lava built up underwater and later broke through the water, forming islands which are believed to be some three to four million years old. The Hot Spot is responsible for the creation of the Galapagos Archipelago and is located near the Equator on the Nazca Plate.

The way the Galapagos Islands were formed is part of the attraction of the islands, which first made their appearance on maps in the late 16th century. They were named the ‘Islands of the Tortoises’ or ‘Insulae de los Galopegos’ because of the enormous Galapagos tortoises found roaming these amazing islands.

Most of the islands were formed less than one million years ago, but the most recently formed island is known as Fernandina. A volcanic eruption took place on this island as recently as 2009, but in the last 200 years, there have been many eruptions on the different islands. The ongoing seismic and volcanic activity is an indication that the islands are still undergoing formation, and in fact, they are thought to be one of the most actively volcanic islands in the world.

Discovered in 1535 by Fray Tomas de Berlanga, and named as a natural heritage site by UNESCO because of its pristine nature, the Galapagos archipelago is a fascinating mix of lush green highlands, barren sun-baked lava formations, tropical beaches and the most amazing and abundant wildlife. Isla Santa Cruz has the largest town, known as Puerto Ayora, and it is here that you will find the best infrastructure in the Galapagos along with trendy restaurants, shops, and even a small hospital. It is also where you will find the Charles Darwin Research Station, the Darwin Foundation as well as the Galapagos National Park.

The islands became famous after a young naturalist, Charles Darwin, landed in 1835 to study the unusual wildlife and nature. At first, Darwin believed in the creation theory; but this soon changed to his Theory of Evolution, after which the Charles Darwin Foundation was formed and which conducts important research and conservation efforts.

Darwin noted that the wildlife and plants were endemic to the islands, and this contributed to his theory and his endorsement of evolution that species evolve from natural selection; and that those who adapt are the ones that survive. He also stated that, because the islands were volcanic, they formed after the creation of the world and that the organisms living there came from somewhere else. Because the organisms were not found anywhere else, Darwin concluded they evolved there.

Yachts take you to Exciting Visitor Hot Spots

The Galapagos Archipelago’s high season is year round, but because tourism can interfere with the island’s fragile ecosystem, the National Park Authority has come up with 50 visitor sites. Visitors will be accompanied by a National Park Naturalist guide and be part of an organized tour. These sites are reached by landing tenders that yachts carry, and tourists have wonderful opportunities to swim, snorkel and revel in all that this mysterious, fascinating island offers.

Arrival of species and adaption to the volcanic environs

Created from a volcanic hot spot located on the ocean floor, the Galapagos are oceanic islands which have never been connected to a continent. All of the organisms found in the Galapagos arrived in the islands by swimming, flying or floating.

The majority of nature and organisms present in the Galapagos originated from North, South or Central America the Caribbean or the Antarctic. The unique location of the archipelago in relation to the Southern Humboldt Current and the Northern Panama Current has played a large role in the nature of the island, which is a unique mix of plants that somehow have made their way to the islands.

The currents and the trade winds have transported plants and animals to these remote islands that have a distinctly different biological make-up than those species found on the neighboring continent. California Sea Lions, Pink Flamingos, Finches, and Warblers made their way south from North America and the Caribbean while Fur Seals and Penguins made their way north from Antarctica.


Species had 3 methods of arrival in the islands, marine life including whales, dolphins, fish, seals, and penguins arrived by swimming along with the currents. Birds arrived by flying, and so did many seeds, mosses, orchids, and ferns, even though they arrived by air currents rather than actual flight. Other species such as tortoises, iguanas, trees, insects, and some seeds arrived by floating either due to a built-in air chamber or by floating on trees and other plants.

Once these species arrived, the islands became populated with an unbalanced collection of species; the presence of reptiles but no amphibians, numerous birds but few mammals, kinds of grass and ferns but hardly any plants with large flowers or heavy seeds.

The species that were able to make the journey across the ocean began to distribute themselves throughout the archipelago. Since the landscape, nature, and resources of each island varied, the plants and animals able to establish themselves on the islands varied too. Many species found it necessary to adapt to the environment in order to survive. As the years progressed and adaptations occurred, new species and subspecies began to populate the islands. The lack of natural predators allowed many species to flourish and eventually give the Galapagos their unique makeup.

Arrival of species and adaption to the volcanic environs

Charles Darwin arrived at the Galapagos aboard the Beagle, and before that he had spent years observing the various nature, plants, and animals around the world. This voyage and the visit to the Galapagos helped him make formulate an astonishing theory. He concluded that flora and fauna evolve over time in a process of natural selection. The species to survive would alter based on environmental conditions.

The Galapagos Islands provided ample example of species of adaptation for Charles. One example is the 13 species of finch, collectively known as Darwin’s Finches. Each originating from a common ancestral species, they developed their own traits over years in order to compete for survival within its environment.

In the case of Darwin’s Finches, the birds are similar in appearance yet the scarcity of food required that they adapt in order to survive. Over thousands of years each species sought food from a different source and the finch’s beaks evolved in order to efficiently cope with the variety of food sources. Ground Finch developed large beaks allowing them to crush seeds where the Warbler Finch developed a pointed beak for eating insects.

The Charles Darwin Research Station in Puerto Ayora offers an interpretive display discussing the evolution of life and nature in the Galapagos Islands.

“In any population of animals, a relatively large number of young are produced. Since not all survive, a struggle for existence must occur.

Within a population, there is much variability. Some differences may confer an advantage in the struggle for existence. Those organisms, which are best adapted to their environment, will survive.

Due to heredity, offspring tend to resemble their parents. Well-adapted organisms tend to have well-adapted offspring. Thus, certain traits become established in the population.

If environmental conditions change, there may be a selection for different traits. The variability within a population determines whether it will be able to survive these changes.”

Darwin’s theory set the world on edge when his book ‘The Origin of Species by Natural Selection’ was published. His ideas still create conflict with those who believe in Creation rather than Evolution. While traveling through Darwin’s Islands visitors have the opportunity to observe the same animals that he did in order to make their own conclusions. The most obvious conclusion is the creatures of the Galapagos having lived years without the threat of predators do not have the natural fear of human that most animals possess. Viewing the wildlife is an easy and fun experience.

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