July 6, 2004
The Galápagos Islands are one of the few places on earth that allow humans to view many unaltered geographic features and a wide range of endemic creatures. Ninety seven percent of the Islands and the waters surrounding them have become part of the Ecuadorian natural park system so human intervention has been cut to a minimum. Introduced animals such as feral goats, dogs and cats are currently being eradicated from the islands. It is predicted that as many as 350,000 goats need to be killed in order for the Galápagos to remain as one of the prime ecological sites in the world. (Picture 1) Not only is the Park being protected against human intervention and introduced animal destruction, but many efforts are being made to restore the populations of native and endemic species to the island such as the famous Galápagos tortoises. Although, the process seems simple, the animal and plant populations on the islands are less numerous and variant than neighboring continental land masses, so even the slightest change to the environment can cause a disastrous wave of destruction to the island's ecosystems. With the amount of tourism increasing at dramatic rates, more and more conservation laws are being placed on the islands in order to keep the landscape intact. Tourists are restricted to small corners of the islands and need to stay on set paths dictated by the government in order to keep the natural ecosystem in tact. Although the tourists are only allowed to be on less than five percent of the islands, it would be a shame to destroy the wonderful scenery and devastate many plants and animals on the islands just for a few years of human enjoyment.
When I first heard about the trip to the Galápagos, I thought of palm trees, ninety degree weather and breathtaking white sand beaches. During the first orientation, I was very surprised to find out that what I assumed was all wrong. As I arrived and visited the many islands, what I did not see the gorgeous white sand beaches lined with beautiful women basking in ninety degree weather. I also did not see the beautiful resorts that line the beaches in such places like Cancun and Punta Cana. What I saw was something better then I could have imagined. (Picture 2) This area was marked with desert landscapes, barely inhabitable areas due to the lack of fresh water and black basalt volcanic rocks replacing the pearly white beaches. In many spots off shore where the clear blue warm water should have been, the seventy one degree water was filled with plankton and extremely murky. Although the Galápagos are not a normal tourists dream, for a scientist it is truly a wonderful place.
The reason why this area is so much better than urbanized tropical getaways is because of the extremely rich amount of undisturbed natural sciences that are present wherever one might turn. Every one of the plants and animals on the Island fills their specific niche and since the islands are relatively small, the entirety of our group and other scientists were able to absorb the many ways in which the animals and plants interact without human intervention.
Darwin's finches are a perfect example of how animals can evolve in order to fit different niches in the environment without human intervention and how introduced animals such as a wasp can invade and dominate the different niches that once were inhabited by the finches. (Picture 3 ) It is currently thought that one species of finch was blown over to the Islands and due to the many open niches on the island, the process of descent with modification occurred and the fitches grew many adaptations to fit different environments. Some finches evolved and gradually started preferring animal food such as insects over plant food such as seeds. Everything was near equilibrium when most, if not all, the possible niches for finches were occupied. The equilibrium was disrupted as a few wasps were likely transported by boat over to the Islands. Since all the niches the wasps could take were filled, they needed to compete with another native or endemic organism for the same food source. The unfortunate organism in the case was a species of the finch that feeds on plants. Since wasps are very efficient at out competing different organisms for food because on the mainland the wasps have many competitors that would love to have their niche. The finch does not have the more efficient adaptations of the two animals, therefore the wasp is slowing starving out the finch population.
Another introduced animal that is quite possibly the most disastrous to the ecosystem is the feral goat. These goats were introduced by sailors after the islands were running low on tortoises in order to keep a steady food source. The goats destroy and eat all the vegetation around them as they move through the islands. This takes away valuable habitats for many of the native and endemic animals on the islands. On our visit to Isabella, a few of the crew members decided to go ahead of the tour group and go goat hunting. As we were walking, we saw the crew members ahead of us carrying a plastic tub. As the crew approached us the tour group noticed that they had a baby goat following them around. Naturally, the kid was tremendously cute and I even petted the animal but when everyone realized the kid was going to die from starvation because it no longer had a mother, the mood became pity. As we continued on our tour, the kid started to follow us down the path hoping that we could give it aid. (Picture 4) Eventually, after some coaxing, the kid went its own way. Although this situation is very sad because everyone was sympathetic to the baby goat, it is for the good of the island that the population of goats be exterminated. Through these examples, if there were no restrictions on what could be introduced to the Islands, the introduced species would eventually overtake many, if not all, of the native and endemic species and the ecosystem would be in shambles.
Not only do people bring harmful animals to the island, but various unwanted foods and materials as well. There were a couple of times on different islands that I noticed signs of human habitation that were not wanted on the island. On the second day of the trip as we were looking into the water on the north side of Santa Cruz we saw something floating. This mysterious floating object did not resemble any native or endemic animal or plant. As I moved towards it, I realized that it was an iceberg, that is, an iceberg lettuce. This head of lettuce must have drifted around Santa Cruz from a dock and human habitation is allowed. The next day, we visited an one hundred year old lava flow on Santiago Island. Somehow, a long string of toilet paper found its way about half a mile onto land. There is no way high tide could possibly reach that far, so the only logical conclusion is that a tourist walking on the same path we were dropped it and left it on the ground to decompose. (Picture 5) Our fearless leader, Dr. Merck, not knowing what the toilet paper was used for, risked disease and famine in order to preserve the environment and bravely picked up the toilet paper. Luckily, Dr. Merck did not sustain any major illnesses because of this event. (Picture 6)
Revitalizing the Galápagos Islands is just as important as preserving what is there. On day 7 we visited the Charles Darwin Research Center located on Santa Cruz. The Charles Darwin Research Center's goal is to both provide information to visitors and to raise awareness of the Islands. The first pace we visited in the Research Center was the visitor's center where we watched a movie and looked at many posters with statistics of how the Natural Park is hoping to protect many types of plants and animals and erradicate introduced species. The Research Center took the remaining twelve Hood tortoises (2 males and 10 females) off of Española to where they are currently mating them in order to repopulate the island. This is a very expensive process that takes four to five years to complete. Every baby turtle that is kept in captivity costs 1,000 dollars. (Picture 7) If one thinks about how many tortoises in the present and future are being saved, the amount adds up very quickly. Because the electricity in Santa Cruz is not the best, the cabinets that the tortoise eggs were being kept in kept blowing fuses and the eggs would die because they became too cold. To solve this problem, lots of cheap hair driers were bought to provide warm, dry air to the eggs in order to keep them warm. After the eggs hatch, the tortoises are placed in cages. In order for the baby tortoises to be completely safe from the feral cats, dogs and mice that live on the island, they are kept in a cage that fully encloses them even from the top. After we saw all the baby turtles, we went over to Lonesome George's area. Lonesome George is the only tortoise left in his species and after he dies, his species will die with him. (Picture 8) Many scientists study the way George acts around females and they are collecting many interesting observations. Currently there are two females in George's area and George does not even really pay attention to either of them. Using this observation, the scientists made the hypothesis that a turtle reproducing is not an innate behavior but a learned behavior. The only way to test this hypothesis is to place another experienced male tortoise in George's area and hope that George learns to reproduce like the other male tortoise. Only time will tell if this hypothesis will be tested in this manner.
Although most of the animals on the islands are very friendly to humans, the park service does not really want land iguanas to be as friendly as the other animals because humans would kill them in Santa Cruz. In order for the iguanas to be scared of humans, they placed them in an area away from any human contact. Since the iguanas are already afraid of humans, this is the best option because the more the iguanas see humans, the more comfortable they get with them if the humans are not hunting them. It was once thought that the iguanas did not like humans because when troops were stationed at the military base in Baltra, they blew off the iguana's heads for fun. This has since been refuted because President Roosevelt sent strict orders not to harm any of the animals. That order acted like a double edge sword because the goats were allowed to roam free and eat all the vegetation on the islands. Since the goats out competed the iguanas for food, all the iguanas on Baltra died out.
Before the Galápagos were protected by a national park, it was used as target practice for torpedoes. Since there is a military base on Baltra, the nearest land forms to Baltra are all the Islands surrounding it. The troops figured that the islands would be a perfect place to test their torpedoes because no one really lived on many of the islands so no one would complain if they blew parts of them apart. The effects of this can be seen when we looked at Pimacle rock on the north side of Santa Cruz the first day we were in the Islands. (Picture 9) No natural geological event could have formed a rock to look that way.
Overall, I believe that visiting the Galápagos was one of the best decisions I have made. I learned and had so much fun while I was there. Although when I tell people about the disposal of the goats from the islands some people question the motives of the Research Station, I have learned that it is for the best and I would much rather have an island full of beautiful endemic organisms rather than an island full of goats and introduced animals. (Picture 10)