Galápagos – the “textbook” of evolution

“If life is but a dream, as poets say, a journey through the Galapagos is a journey of dream, a dream that is worth reliving again and again.” Michael AW

Galapagos is a must on everyone’s bucket list.  Beyond the norm of enjoying nature’s splendor at its finest, it is in the Galápagos where one becomes part of the wilderness on islands, above and below the water. Isolated from the mainland of South America, creatures on Galapagos lack an instinctive sense fear of humans and their benign curiosity means you are allowed some interaction.

One of the most photographic productive hangouts is the patio of Solymar Hotel, at Puerto Ayora, the principal tourist town on Santa Cruz Island. Black iguanas (big lizard-like antediluvian reptiles) are predictably found sunning themselves on the rocks. It is thought that these marine iguanas have evolved from their terrestrial counterparts due to the lack of food in the volcanic environment, to be able to swim and feed on algae underwater. Marine iguanas (Amblyrhynchus cristatus) are the only sea-going lizards in the world and possibly the first animals to colonize the Galápagos. As is the case for many other Galápagos fauna, different subspecies are found on different islands. In the case of the marine iguana, the difference is most apparent in their coloration, particularly in the males. For example, green color is dominant on Santiago Island, whereas red is dominant on Española, and black on Santa Cruz and on Floreana. We also found many half-green and half-red, indicating the onset of mating season.

It is without doubt that the Galápagos ecosystem is entirely marine dependent, greatly influenced by the seven major oceanic currents that bathe the islands, creating a mosaic of unusual fish species – a melting pot of tropical, temperate and cool water. Of the 300 species, over 54 percent are from the tropical Panamic province, swept southwest by the Panama current. Another major influence comes from the south - the Peru coastal (Humbolt) and Peru Oceanic Currents originating from the Antarctica, sweeps directly into the islands bringing rich food source to support sea-going mammals such as fur seals, sea lions and whales. It is strange, but the Galápagos is the only place on the Equator to harbor an endemic population of Antarctic origin archetypal penguin,(Pinguinos de Galápagos) the only species that lives in the Northern Hemisphere. Though similar in trait to those of California, the Galápagos sea lion is an endemic subspecies (Zalophus wollebacki) indicating that have arrived here possibly only 2 million years ago when sea temperatures were significantly colder. Sea lions are easily found on sandy beaches and rocky foreshores of the central and southern islands, living in bachelor ‘pads’ or with harems of 20 to 30 females dominated by one huge alpha bull.

An astounding 23% of fish life found here is endemic, though a few are reportedly found in Malpelo and the Cocos Island to the northeast. The genus distribution is equally diverse ranging from Galápagos snake eels, damsels, blenny, puffer, cardinalfish to grunts and gobies. One that is perhaps popular among marine photographers is the Red-lipped batfish or Ogcocephalus darwini, an oddball that seems perpetually unhappy with its exaggerated red downturned lips. Without a swim bladder, this grouchy fish hobbles, hops and lunges along the bottom with its gnarled limbs, resembling a cantankerous mother-in-law. 

Underwater, Galápagos is not for the inexperienced explorer; the swift currents that swirl around submerged mountain tops are strong and unpredictable, one moment sweeping out to sea, the next, sucking you down towards abyssal depths. It is not uncommon for divers to wear out three pairs of gloves hanging on to razor sharp barnacles. Despite the treacherous environment, one can dived with mantas, dolphins, swirling jacks, sea lions and hundreds of hammerheads sharks at Darwin and Wolf, the two northern most islands. Quite often divers find themselves surrounded by face-to-face with inquisitive dolphins and in the next instance swam into ginormous sized whale shark. Galápagos is addictive (and expensive) place to go.

The Galápagos is the epitome of evolution. As the journey progresses through the archipelago, one will in essence, experience evolution in motion. The evidence of behavioral evolution, adaptation and genetic creativity among the abundance of endemic animals, vividly and visibly happens in real time.  “As an amateur naturalist, I was enchanted even after six trips.  I am still searching for words to describe the experience.  Galápagos is a three-dimensional “textbook” of evolution that everyone should experience at least once in a lifetime. If you are to embark on only one trip or make that one last trip in your life, it has to be the Galápagos. However, it is most likely that you will return. MA

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