Galapagos Islands

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Galápagos Islands

Within the theory of evolution , the concept of adaptive radiation (evolutionary development of several species from a single parental stock) has had as its prime example, a group of birds known as Darwin's finches. Charles Darwin discovered and collected specimens of these birds from the Galápagos Islands in 1835 on his five-year voyage around the world aboard the HMS Beagle. His cumulative experiences, copious notes, and vast collections ultimately led to the publication of his monumental work, On the Origin of Species, in 1859. The Galápagos Islands and their unique assemblage of plants and animals were an instrumental part of the development of Darwin's evolutionary theory.

The Galápagos Islands are located at 90° W longitude and 0° latitude (the equator), about 600 mi (965 km) west Ecuador. These islands are volcanic in origin and are about 10 million years old. The original colonization of the Galápagos Islands occurred by chance transport over the ocean as indicated by the gaps in the flora and fauna of this archipelago compared to the mainland. Of the hundreds of species of birds along the northwestern South American coast, only seven species colonized the Galápagos Islands. These evolved into 57 resident species, 26 of which are endemic to the islands, through adaptive radiation. The only native land mammals are a rat and a bat. The land reptiles include iguanas, a single species each of snake, lizard, and gecko, and the Galápagos giant tortoise (Geochelone elephantopus ). No amphibians and few insects or mollusks are found in the Galápagos. The flora has large gaps as wellno conifers or palms have colonized these islands. Many of the open niches have been filled by the colonizing groups. The tortoises and iguanas are large and have filled niches normally occupied by mammalian herbivores. Several plants, such as the prickly pear cactus, have attained large size and occupy the ecological position of tall trees.

The most widely known and often used example of adaptive radiation is Darwin's finches, a group of 14 species of birds that arose from a single ancestor in the Galápagos Islands. These birds have specialized on different islands or into niches normally filled by other groups of birds. Some are strictly seed eaters, while others have evolved more warbler-like bills and eat insects, still others eat flowers, fruit, and/or nectar, and others find insects for their diet by digging under the bark of trees, having filled the niche of the woodpecker. Darwin's finches are named in honor of their discoverer, but they are not referred to as Galápagos finches because there is one of their numbers that has colonized Cocos Island, located 425 mi (684 km) north-northeast of the Galápagos.

Because of the Galápagos Islands' unique ecology , scenic beauty and tropical climate , they have become a mecca for tourists and some settlement. These human activities have introduced a host ofenvironmental problems, including introduced species of goats, pigs, rats, dogs, and cats, many of which become feral and damage or destroy nesting bird colonies by preying on the adults, young, or eggs. Several races of giant tortoise have been extirpated or are severely threatened with extinction , primarily due to exploitation for food by humans, destruction of their food resources by goats, or predation of their hatchlings by feral animals. Most of the 13 recognized races of tortoise have populations numbering only in the hundreds. Three races are tenuously maintaining populations in the thousands, one race has not been seen since 1906, but it is thought to have disappeared due to natural causes, another race has a population of about 25 individuals, and the Abingdon Island tortoise is represented today by only one individual, "Lone-some George," a captive male at the Charles Darwin Biological Station. For most of these tortoises to survive, an active capture or extermination program of the feral animals will have to continue. One other potential threat to the Galápagos Islands is tourism. Thousands of tourists visit these islands each year and their numbers can exceed the limit deemed sustainable by the Ecuadoran government. These tourists have had, and will continue to have, an impact on the fragile habitats of the Galápagos.

See also Endemic species; Ecotourism

[Eugene C. Beckham ]



Harris, M. A Field Guide to the Birds of the Galápagos. London: Collins, 1982. Root, P., and M. McCormick. Galápagos Islands. New York: Macmillan, 1989.

Steadman, D. W., and S. Zousmer. Galápagos: Discovery on Darwin's Islands. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1988.

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Galápagos Islands

Galápagos Islands, a group of nineteen volcanic islands and numerous islets in the eastern Pacific, lying astride the equator, 600 miles west of mainland Ecuador, of which the islands are a province. The island group, officially named the Archipiélago de Colón by Ecuador in 1892 to honor Christopher Columbus, encompasses a land area of 3,075 square miles and is spread out over 36,000 square miles of sea. The population of the Galapagos was listed as 9,785 in the 1990 census.

Each island was named by both Spanish and English explorers and renamed by Ecuador in 1892. The official Ecuadorian names are cited in this article; however, researchers will find the English names in most earlier descriptions of the islands. The largest island is Isabela, approximately 82 miles long, covering an area of 1,700 square miles, over half the land mass of the others combined. Isabela is typical of the islands in its lava composition; it also has the highest peak, Mount Azul, at 5,541 feet. The five other larger islands are Santa Cruz, Fernandina, San Cristóbal, San Salvador, and Santa María.

In 1535, Thomás de Berlanga, bishop of Panama, inadvertently discovered the Galápagos when his ship was blown off course en route to Peru. He named them Las Encantadas (The Enchanted) due to their mist-shrouded otherworldly appearance and the unusual wildlife typified by giant tortoises and iguanas. The islands were a haven for pirates in the seventeenth century and became a regular stop for whaling vessels in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The islands were unclaimed until 1832, when Ecuador took official possession.

In 1835 the English naturalist Charles Darwin visited the islands and chronicled their flora and fauna. His experiences in the Galápagos contributed significantly to his ideas about evolution and natural selection and his account of the islands brought them international acclaim.

In the early twentieth century, Ecuador considered selling the islands to France, Chile, and the United States but decided to retain possession. In World War II, Ecuador permitted the United States to construct an air base on Baltra Island for the purpose of patrolling Pacific approaches to the Panama Canal. The base was turned over to Ecuador in 1946 and today serves as the principal airstrip.

The unique native animals and plants remain the main attraction of the islands. The archipelago's tortoise is thought to be the longest-lived animal on earth. While there are only nine mammals, two bats, and seven rodents, no amphibians, few reptiles, and approximately eighty species of birds indigenous to the islands, animal life is nevertheless of extreme scientific importance due to the islands' centuries of isolation from humans in an austere environment that has led to unique adaptive changes. Large parts of the islands are now preserved as national parks and wildlife refuges.


Charles Darwin, A Naturalist's Voyage Round the World in HMS Beagle (1839).

William Beebe, Galápagos, World's End (1924).

Theodore Wolf, Geography and Geology of Ecuador (1933).

Herman Melville, The Encantadoas or Enchanted Islands, with an introduction, critical epilogue, and bibliographical notes by Victor Wolfgang von Hagen (1940).

Victor Wolfgang Von Hagen, Ecuador and the Galápagos Islands (1949).

Ian Thornton, Darwin's Islands: A Natural History of the Galápagos (1971).

John Hickham, The Enchanted Islands (1986).

Additional Bibliography

De Roy, Tui. Galapagos, Islands Born of Fire. Toronto: Warwick Pub., 1998.

Luna Tobar, Alfredo. Historia política internacional de las islas Galápagos. Quito, Ecuador: Ediciones Abya-Yala, 1997.

Ospina Peralta, Pablo. Galápagos, naturaleza y sociedad: Actores sociales y conflictos ambientales en las islas Galápagos. Quito, Ecuador: Corporación Editora Nacional, 2006.

Palmerlee, Danny, Michael Grosberg, and Carolyn McCarthy. Ecuador and the Galápagos Islands. Footscray, Vic.: Lonely Planet, 2006.

Rachowiecki, Rob, and Teresa Bladé. Ecuador y las isles Galápagos. Barcelona: GeoPlanet, 2001.

Stewart, Paul D. Galápagos: The Islands that Changed the World. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2006.

Tagliaferro, Linda. Galápagos Islands: Nature's Delicate Balance at Risk. Minneapolis, MN: Lerner, 2001.

                                George M. Lauderbaugh

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Galápagos Islands (gəlăp´əgōs) [Span.,=tortoises], archipelago and province (1990 pop. 9,785), 3,029 sq mi (7,845 sq km), Ecuador, in the Pacific Ocean c.650 mi (1,045 km) W of South America on the equator. There are 13 large islands and many smaller ones; Isabela (Albemarle; c.2,250 sq mi/5,827 sq km) is the largest. Puerto Baquerizo Moreno, on San Cristóbal, is the provincial capital.

The islands, created by the southeastward movement of the Nazca plate over a geological "hot spot" (see plate tectonics), are largely desolate lava piles. They have little vegetation or cultivable soil except on the high volcanic mountains whose upper slopes receive heavy rains from the prevailing trade winds and are mantled by dense vegetation. The climate is modified by the cool Humboldt Current. The Galápagos are famous for their wildlife. Although the gigantic (up to 500 lb/227 kg) land tortoises the islands are named for now face extinction, there are land and sea iguanas and hosts of unusual birds, such as the flightless cormorant, which exists nowhere else, and the world's northernmost penguins. Shore lagoons teem with marine life.

The islands were discovered in 1535 by the Spaniard Tomás de Bertanga and originally known as the Encantadas. Early travelers were astonished by the tameness of the animals. In 1832 Ecuador claimed the Galápagos. Charles Darwin visited the islands (1835) during the voyage of the Beagle, and gathered an impressive body of evidence there that was used later in support of his theory of natural selection. Although buccaneers, seeking food, made inroads on the fauna, real depredations did not begin until the arrival in the 19th cent. of the whalers and then the oilers, who killed the tortoises wholesale for food and oil.

During World War II the United States maintained an air base on the islands for the defense of the Panama Canal, and in 1967 a satellite tracking station was established. On the centennial (1959) of the publication of Darwin's Origin of Species the Galápagos were declared a national park; the surrounding waters are a marine resources reserve. The Galápagos remain one of the few places in the world where naturalists can study living survivals of species arrested at various evolutionary stages. They also are an increasingly popular tourist spot.

See C. Darwin, The Voyage of the H.M.S. Beagle (1840); B. Nelson, Galapagos: Islands of Birds (1968); I. W. Thornton, Darwin's Islands (1971); N. E. Hickin, Animal Life of the Galapagos (1980); J. Hickman, The Enchanted Islands: The Galapagos Discovered (1985).

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GALÁPAGOS ISLANDS. A strategically important archipelago (group of islands), the Galápagos lie some 600 miles off the coast of Ecuador. American interest in annexing the islands began in the mid-nineteenth century and peaked half a century later. In 1906 and 1911, negotiations to build a U.S. coal station failed, largely because of popular opposition in Ecuador. During World War II, the United States established weather and signal stations on the islands. In the 1960s and 1970s, Ecuador seized a number of U.S. fishing boats in the area. In retaliation, the United States temporarily suspended military aid to Ecuador.


Baily, Samuel L. The United States and the Development of South America, 1945–1975. New York: New Viewpoints, 1976.

Schoultz, Lars. Beneath the United States: A History of U.S. Policy Toward Latin America. Cambridge, Mass.; London: Harvard University Press, 1998.

E.T.Parks/a. g.

See alsoFishing Bounties ; Guano ; Latin America, Relations with ; Latin American Wars of Independence .

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Galápagos Islands (Sp. Archipiélago de Colón) Pacific archipelago on the Equator; a province of Ecuador; c.1050km (650mi) w of mainland South America. The capital is Baquerizo Moreno, on San Cristóbal. Other main islands include Santa Cruz, San Salvador and Isabela. There are numerous smaller islands. The islands are volcanic with sparse vegetation, except for dense forests on the high lava craters, which rise to 1707m (5633ft) at Volcán Wolf (Isabela). Mangrove swamps and lagoons teem with wildlife. Many animal species are unique to the islands, such as the giant land tortoises. Other native creatures include marine and land iguanas and flightless cormorants. The Galápagos National Park is a world heritage site, established in 1935 to protect the wildlife. In 1832 Ecuador annexed the archipelago and established a settlement. In 1835, Charles Darwin spent six weeks studying the fauna which provided much support for his theory of natural selection. Area: 7845sq km (3029sq mi) Pop. (2000 est.) 16,917.

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Galápagos Islands A group of oceanic islands, about 970 km from the west coast of South America, which Darwin visited in 1835. He encountered a number of endemic (see endemism) species that were to prove influential in the development of his ideas on evolution.

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Galápagos Islands A group of oceanic islands, about 970km from the west coast of S. America, which Darwin visited in 1835. He encountered a number of endemic (see ENDEMISM) species that were to prove influential in the development of his ideas on evolution.

views updated

Galápagos Islands A group of oceanic islands, about 970 km from the west coast of S. America, which Darwin visited in 1835 and where he encountered a number of endemic species that were to prove influential in the development of his ideas on evolution.