The Galapagos Islands are an archipelago, or chain, of 13 large islands with about 100 small islets. These islands are located approximately 600 miles (966 km) off the coast of South America and are a territory of Ecuador. Only five of the Galapagos Islands are inhabited by people with an approximate population of 28,000.
Located on the equator, the Galapagos Islands are most famous for their highly diverse and rich ecosystems. However, the Galapagos Islands are not only famous for their wild inhabitants but also for their unique geological composition and their importance in the development of Charles Darwin’s Theory of Evolution.
The wildlife of the Galapagos Islands includes species of plants, reptiles and birds that are not found anywhere else on the planet. Furthermore, the wildlife that inhabits each island is unique and usually cannot be found on any of the other surrounding islands. One of the most famous species of this archipelago, the Galapagos tortoise, is the islands’ namesake. Here, “lonesome George” resides, thought to be the last surviving individual of one species of Galapagos giant tortoises. Other notable species are the Marine Iguana, thirteen endemic species of finches known as Darwin’s finches; the Galapagos penguin, which is the only penguin found outside of the Antarctic; and Scalesia or “daisy tree,” a family of shrubs and trees often referred to as the Darwin’s finches of the plant world.
Surrounding the Galapagos Islands is a large marine reserve of 82, 642 miles (133, 000 km) which has an equally rich aquatic ecosystem as the islands do. In fact, the biodiversity in the Galapagos marine reserve contains more species of plant and animal life than anywhere else in the world with the exception of Australia’s Great Barrier Reef. One reason that the Galapagos marine reserve is so unique is because it is situated at a geographic location where currents from different waters meet. This results in at least four different biogeographic habitats that are relatively close to one another.
In 1831, Charles Darwin was commissioned by the British government to partake on a worldwide expedition as an appointed naturalist. It was at the Galapagos Islands that Darwin confirmed emerging suspicions that life on earth was not created all at once, but rather changed and evolved over time. For example, after observing that mainland species looked similar to species found on the islands but lived in completely different habitats, Darwin developed his theory of natural selection.
At the onset of the expedition, Darwin like most people, believed in the creation theory; the theory that everything on earth was created directly by the hand of God in its original form. Darwin emerged from the Galapagos Islands with his Theory of Evolution which is widely accepted by the majority of scholars today. In honor of this profound discovery, the Charles Darwin Foundation was developed, and still conducts important research and conservation efforts. One of the Galapagos Islands is named after Darwin and houses the headquarters of the foundation.
Unfortunately, the Galapagos Islands are threatened due to environmental degradation. Many of the native species have become endangered or extinct due to foreign species that have been introduced along with other human activity. One major problem for the Galapagos Islands is the introduction of domestic goats, which were released by sailors to be hunted as a food source. Since the goats have no natural predators on the islands, their population boomed. These goats have ravaged much of the vegetation and have forced the giant tortoises and other species to unsuccessfully compete for food. The Charles Darwin Foundation, the Ecuadorian government and other conservationists have worked hard to eradicate the goats and other non native species, achieving a good amount of success.