The Galápagos: A Natural History
Yet the Galápagos is far more than a wild paradise on earth—it is one of the most important sites in the history of science. Home to over 4,000 species native to its shores, around 40 percent of them endemic, the islands have often been called a “laboratory of evolution.” The finches collected on the Galápagos inspired Darwin’s revolutionary theory of natural selection.
In The Galápagos, science writer Henry Nicholls offers a lively natural and human history of the archipelago, charting its course from deserted wilderness to biological testing ground and global ecotourism hot spot. Describing the island chain’s fiery geological origins as well as our species’ long history of interaction with the islands, he draws vivid portraits of the life forms found in the Galápagos, capturing its awe-inspiring landscapes, understated flora, and stunning wildlife. Nicholls also reveals the immense challenges facing the islands, which must continually balance conservation and everencroaching development.
Beautifully weaving together natural history, evolutionary theory, and his own experience on the islands, Nicholls shows that the story of the Galápagos is not merely an isolated concern, but reflects the future of our species’ relationship with nature—and the fate of our planet.
of giant mussels, each about 15 cm long. A little way off, a crab scuttles across the lava bed. In 1977, the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration sent the deep-sea submersible Alvin through the Panama Canal to take two men down for a closer look. In February and March, they made twenty-four dives in the region where the 1976 expedition had produced its photos. The warm, chemical soup spewing from these vents seemed sufficient to sustain an entire community of weird creatures in
Chapter 5. Invertebrates Most visitors to the Galápagos will overlook its smallest inhabitants in favour of the larger, more charismatic species, like the blue-footed booby. But Charles Darwin was not your typical visitor. He’d had a love of beetles from an early age and described his collecting during his Cambridge University days as the activity that gave him the most pleasure. One day, out in the countryside, he’d grabbed hold of two rare beetles from beneath a chunk of bark, holding one in
herpetologist John Van Denburgh to assimilate all the opinions expressed in preceding decades. In a two-hundred-page manuscript, he recognised fifteen different species of Galápagos tortoise, two of which he judged had already gone extinct. Van Denburgh’s classification has largely stood the test of time. Today we recognise fourteen different species of Galápagos giant tortoise, of which four are now extinct. In general, the rule of thumb is one island, one tortoise, but on the biggest island,
food to pass from one end to the other, though twelve days is more typical. In this time, even the most sluggish of tortoises will have moved some distance, typically more than 500m and in one instance more than 3 km, from the parent plant. Perhaps the biggest test of the giant tortoise’s role as an ecosystem engineer is taking place on Pinta. This island has not had a tortoise since 1972 (when the last-known member of the species, Lonesome George, was taken off the island and into captivity).
and sedges (from around 500m above sea level and up). On Santa Cruz, the quinine tree is now thought to occupy more than 110 km2, which corresponds to roughly 10 percent of the island. Are these trees doing any harm to the rare habitats they’ve reached? Recent research suggests they are. The closer to one of these quinine trees, the fewer species there are and the thinner their ground coverage. This is particularly evident at the highest elevations, where the quinine cuts out almost all of the