Interested in exploring breathtakingly beautiful islands in the middle of the Pacific Ocean? In seeing animals and plants not found anywhere else in the world? In encountering wildlife unafraid of people? If so, you need to make plans to tour Ecuador’s Galápagos Islands!
First, a bit of history.
The Galápagos form an archipelago of 14 major islands and many smaller islands. Created by volcanic activity on the ocean floor, the islands emerged from the depths about four million years ago as barren mounds of cooled lava. Over time—and continued volcanic activity—the mounds grew to the size and shape they are today. Some are still growing!
The islands were discovered in 1535 by Panamanian bishop Fray Tomás de Berlanga while sailing to Lima, Peru. Decades later, Abraham Ortelius named them Galápagos in reference to the saddle-shaped shell of the giant tortoises that live there. (In Spanish, galápagos means “saddle.”) After that—nothing. For hundreds of years the islands remained uninhabited—except for pirates, whalers, and buccaneers who used them as hideouts. In 1832, Ecuador claimed the islands and in 1959 declared them a national park.
The value of Galapagos as a natural space which is home to ecosystems and unique species of flora and fauna is unquestionable. Unlike other similar volcanic islands, due to the delayed human colonization and the conservation efforts in place since mid-century, Galapagos still retains much of its original biodiversity. That is why it has become the flagship place of conservation recognized on a worldwide level. Galapagos constitutes a unique eco-region, where key ecological processes are still active and operating with little interference by man; it even earned the nickname a “natural laboratory of evolution.”
The National Park and Marine Reserve of Ecuador reflects the commitment made by the Ecuadorian government to preserve this important legacy for future generations of Galapagos, Ecuador, and humanity in general. It is unquestionable that Ecuador and the world have an interest in sharing joint responsibility for maintaining the Galapagos in the best possible condition, which implies that the human population and goods and services generated by ecosystems in the archipelago should be managed from a perspective of sustainable development.
Wildlife in Galapagos
The Galapagos Islands are world-famous for natural wonders and unique wildlife. Darwin’s studies of the plants and animals there played a pivotal role in the development of his theory of natural selection. Thanks to his work and writings, much of the wildlife of the islands has become famous in its own right.
Since they played such an important role in the development of Darwin’s theory of natural selection, the remarkable finches of the Galapagos are among the most famous animals on the islands. Around 13 different species exist, though they all evolved from a single ancestral species. Each species is most easily distinguished by differences in beak size and shape.
These giant tortoises are so iconic that the islands were named after them (“galapago” means “tortoise” in Spanish). They are the largest tortoises in the world and among the longest living vertebrates, with potential lifespans in excess of 170 years. In the absence of any major predators, adult tortoises evolved with a docile demeanor, which unfortunately made them easy to exploit by early human settlers. It has been estimated that a population in excess of 250,000 once existed on the islands as recently as 200 years ago, but there are only about 15,000 alive today.
A candidate for the most unusual native species on the Galapagos, the flightless cormorant is the only cormorant in the world that has lost the ability to fly. As a result, it has also been able to grow rather large; it is the heaviest cormorant species in the world. Because this species does not fly, it is susceptible to being preyed upon by later introduced predators such as dogs, cats, rats and pigs. Today only around 1,600 of these special birds exist.
One of the smallest penguins in the world, the Galapagos penguin is also the only penguin in the world that lives north of the equator. It can only be found in the Galapagos.
Blue-footed boobies are most easily recognized by their signature blue feet. The birds’ mating ritual is also an entertaining affair, as males lift their feet up and down in a strutting display for the females. Interestingly, the blueness of their feet is also an indicator of a bird’s health, since the color comes from pigments obtained from a diet of fresh fish. They are not found exclusively on the Galapagos Islands, but about half of the world’s population breeds there.