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The Galápagos Islands are an archipelago of volcanic islands distributed around the equator in the Pacific Ocean, 972 km west of continental Ecuador. It is a UNESCO World Heritage site: wildlife is its most notable feature.

The Galápagos islands and its surrounding waters are part of a province, a national park, and a biological marine reserve. The principal language on the islands is Spanish. The islands have a population of around 40,000, which is a 40-fold expansion in 50 years.

The islands are geologically young and famed for their vast number of endemic species, which were studied by Charles Darwin during the voyage of the Beagle. His observations and collections contributed to the inception of Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection.

The first crude navigation chart of the islands was done by the buccaneer Ambrose Cowley in 1684. He named the individual islands after some of his fellow pirates or after the English noblemen who helped the privateer's cause. More recently, the Ecuadorian government gave most of the islands Spanish names. While the Spanish names are official, many users (especially ecological researchers) continue to use the older English names, particularly as those were the names used when Charles Darwin visited.

The islands are located in the eastern Pacific Ocean, 973 km (604 miles) off the west coast of South America. The closest land mass is the mainland of Ecuador to the east (the country to which they belong), to the North is Cocos Island 720 km (447 miles) and to the South is Easter Island and San Felix Island at 3200 km (1,990 miles).

The islands are found at the coordinates 1°40'N-1°36'S, 89°16'-92°01'W. Straddling the equator, islands in the chain are located in both the northern and southern hemisphere with Volcan Wolf and Volcano Ecuador on Isla Isabela being directly on the equator line. Española the southernmost island and Darwin the northernmost island are spread out over a distance of 220 km (137 miles). The International Hydrographic Organization (IHO) considers them wholly within the South Pacific Ocean, however. The Galápagos Archipelago consists of 7,880 square km (3,042 sq. miles) of land spread over 45,000 square km (28,000 miles) of ocean. The largest of the islands, Isabela, measures 4,640 square km and making up half of the total land area of the Galápagos. Volcán Wolf on Isabela is the highest point with an elevation of 1,707 m (5,600 ft.) above sea level.

The group consists of 13 main islands, 5 smaller islands, and 107 rocks and islets. The islands are located at the Galapagos Triple Junction. It is also atop the Galapagos hotspot, a place where the Earth's crust is being melted from below by a mantle plume, creating volcanoes. The oldest island is thought to have formed between 5 and 10 million years ago. The youngest islands, Isabela and Fernandina, are still being formed, with the most recent volcanic eruption in April 2009 where lava from the volcanic island Fernandina started flowing both towards the island's shoreline and into the center caldera.

European discovery of the Galápagos Islands occurred when Spanish Fray Tomás de Berlanga, the fourth Bishop of Panama, sailed to Peru to settle a dispute between Francisco Pizarro and his lieutenants. De Berlanga's vessel drifted off course when the winds diminished, and his party reached the islands on March 10, 1535. According to a 1952 study by Thor Heyerdahl and Arne Skjølsvold, remains of potshards and other artifacts from several sites on the islands suggest visitation by South American peoples prior to the arrival of the Spanish.

The islands first appeared on maps in about 1570 in those drawn by Abraham Ortelius and Mercator. The islands were called "Insulae de los Galopegos" (Islands of the Tortoises).

The first English captain to visit the Galápagos Islands was Richard Hawkins, in 1593. Until the early 19th century, the archipelago was often used as a hideout by mostly English pirates who pilfered Spanish galleons carrying gold and silver from South America to Spain.

Alexander Selkirk, whose adventures in Juan Fernández Islands inspired Daniel Defoe to write Robinson Crusoe, visited the Galápagos in 1708 after he was picked up from Juan Fernández by the privateer Woodes Rogers. Rogers was refitting his ships in the islands after sacking Guayaquil.

The first scientific mission to the Galápagos arrived in 1790 under the leadership of Alessandro Malaspina, a Sicilian captain whose expedition was sponsored by the King of Spain. However, the records of the expedition were lost.

In 1793, James Colnett made a description of the flora and fauna of Galápagos and suggested that the islands could be used as base for the whalers operating in the Pacific Ocean. He also drew the first accurate navigation charts of the islands. Whalers killed and captured thousands of the Galápagos tortoises to extract their fat. The tortoises could also be kept on board ship as a means of providing of fresh protein as these animals could survive for several months on board without any food or water. The hunting of the tortoises was responsible for greatly diminishing, and in some cases eliminating, certain species. Along with whalers came the fur-seal hunters who brought the population of this animal close to extinction.

Ecuador annexed the Galápagos Islands on February 12, 1832, naming it Archipelago of Ecuador. This was a new name that added to several names that had been, and are still, used to refer to the archipelago. The first governor of Galápagos, General José de Villamil, brought a group of convicts to populate the island of Floreana and in October 1832 some artisans and farmers joined.

The voyage of the Beagle brought the survey ship HMS Beagle under captain Robert FitzRoy to the Galápagos on September 15, 1835 to survey approaches to harbors. The captain and others on board including his companion the young naturalist Charles Darwin made a scientific study of geology and biology on Chatham, Charles, Albemarle and James islands before they left on October 20 to continue on their round-the-world expedition. Darwin noticed that mockingbirds differed between islands, though he thought the birds now known as Darwin's finches were unrelated to each other and did not bother labelling them by island. The Englishman Nicolas Lawson, acting Governor of Galápagos for the Republic of the Equator, met them on Charles Island and as they walked to the prison colony told him that tortoises differed from island to island. Towards the end of the voyage Darwin speculated that the distribution of the mockingbirds and the tortoises might "undermine the stability of Species". When specimens of birds were analysed on his return to England it was found that many apparently different kinds of birds were species of finches which were also unique to islands. These facts were crucial in Darwin's development of his theory of natural selection explaining evolution, which was presented in The Origin of Species.

José Valdizán and Manuel Julián Cobos tried a new colonization, beginning the exploitation of a type of lichen found in the islands (Roccella portentosa) used as a coloring agent. After the assassination of Valdizán by some of his workers, Cobos brought from the continent a group of more than a hundred workers to San Cristóbal island and tried his luck at planting sugar cane. He ruled in his plantation with an iron hand which lead to his assassination in 1904. Since 1897 Antonio Gil began another plantation in Isabela island.

Over the course of a whole year, from September 1904, an expedition of the Academy of Sciences of California, led by Rollo Beck, stayed in the Galápagos collecting scientific material on geology, entomology, ornithology, botany, zoology and herpetology. Another expedition from that Academy was done in 1932 (Templeton Crocker Expedition) to collect insects, fish, shells, fossils, birds and plants.

During World War II Ecuador authorized the United States to establish a naval base in Baltra island and radar stations in other strategic locations. Baltra was also established as a US Air Force Base at this time. Crews stationed at Baltra patrolled the Pacific for enemy submarines as well as providing protection for the Panama Canal. After the war the facilities were given to the government of Ecuador. Today the island continues as an official Ecuadorian military base. The foundations and other remains of the US base can still be seen as one crosses the island. In 1946 a penal colony was established in Isabela Island, but it was suspended in 1959. The Galápagos became a national park in 1959 and tourism started in the 1960s.

Though the first protective legislation for the Galápagos was enacted in 1934 and supplemented in 1936, it was not until the late 1950s that positive action was taken to control what was happening to the native flora and fauna. In 1955, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature organized a fact-finding mission to the Galápagos. Two years later, in 1957, UNESCO in cooperation with the government of Ecuador sent another expedition to study the conservation situation and choose a site for a research station.

In 1959, the centenary year of Charles Darwin's publication of The Origin of Species, the Ecuadorian government declared 97.5% of the archipelago's land area a national park, excepting areas already colonised. The Charles Darwin Foundation (CDF) was founded the same year. The core responsibility of CDF, an international non-governmental organization constituted in Belgium, is to conduct research and provide the research findings to the Government of Ecuador for effective management of Galápagos. CDF´s research efforts work began with the establishment of the Charles Darwin Research Station on Santa Cruz Island in 1964. During the early years conservation programs, such as eradication of introduced species and protection of native species, were carried out by research station personnel. Now much of that work is accomplished by the Galapagos National Park Service using the research findings and methodologies developed by CDF.

In 1986 the surrounding 70,000 square kilometres (43,496 sq mi.) of ocean was declared a marine reserve, second only in size to Australia's Great Barrier Reef. In 1990 the archipelago became a whale sanctuary. In 1978 UNESCO recognised the islands as a World Heritage Site, and in 1985 a Biosphere Reserve. This was later extended in December 2001 to include the marine reserve.

Noteworthy species include:

• Galápagos land iguanas, Conolophus spp.
• Marine Iguana, Amblyrhynchus cristatus, the only iguana feeding in the sea
• Galápagos tortoise (Galápagos Giant tortoise), Geochelone elephantopus, known as Galápago in Spanish, it gave the name to the islands
• Galápagos Green Turtle, Chelonia mydas agassisi, a subspecies of the Green Turtle.
• Sea cucumbers, the cause of environmental battles with fishermen over quotas of this expensive Asian delicacy.
• Flightless Cormorant, Phalacrocorax harrisi
• Great Frigatebird and Magnificent Frigatebird
• Blue-footed Booby, Sula nebouxii, popular among visitors for their large blue feet which they show off in courtship
• Galápagos Penguin, Spheniscus mendiculus, the only living tropical penguin
• Waved Albatross, Phoebastria irrorata, the only living tropical albatross
• Galápagos Hawk, Buteo galapagoensis, the islands' main scavenger and "environmental police"
• 4 endemic species of Galápagos mockingbirds, the first species Darwin noticed to vary from island to island
• 13 endemic species of tanagers, popularly called Darwin's finches. Among them is the Sharp-beaked Ground-finch Geospiza difficilis septentrionalis which is sometimes called the "Vampire Finch" for its blood-sucking habits, and the tool-using Woodpecker Finch, Camarhynchus pallidus
• Galápagos Sea Lions, Zalophus californianus, closely related to the California Sea Lion, but smaller

Introduced plants and animals, such as feral goats, cats, and cattle, brought accidentally or willingly to the islands by humans, represent the main threat to Galápagos. Quick to reproduce, these alien species decimate the habitats of native species. The native animals, lacking natural predators on the islands, are defenseless to introduced species and fall prey.

Some of the most harmful introduced plants are the Guayaba or Guava Psidium guajava, avocado Persea americana, cascarilla Cinchona pubescens, balsa Ochroma pyramidale, blackberry Rubus glaucus, various citrus (orange, grapefruit, lemon), floripondio Datura arborea, higuerilla Ricinus communis and the elephant grass Pennisetum purpureum. These plants have invaded large areas and eliminated endemic species in the humid zones of San Cristobal, Floreana, Isabela and Santa Cruz. Also, these harmful plants are just a few of introduced species on the Galápagos Islands. There are over 700 introduced plant species today. There are only 500 native and endemic species. This difference is creating a major problem for the islands and the natural species that inhabit them.

Many species were introduced to the Galápagos by pirates. Thor Heyerdahl quotes documents that mention that the Viceroy of Peru, knowing that British pirates ate the goats that they themselves had released in the islands, ordered dogs to be freed there to eliminate the goats. Also, when colonization of Floreana by José de Villamil failed, he ordered that the goats, donkeys, cows, and other animals from the farms in Floreana be transferred to other islands for the purpose of later colonization.

Non-native goats, pigs, dogs, rats, cats, mice, sheep, horses, donkeys, cows, poultry, ants, cockroaches, and some parasites inhabit the islands today. Dogs and cats attack the tame birds and destroy nests of birds, land tortoises, and marine turtles. They sometimes kill small Galápagos tortoises and iguanas. Pigs are even more harmful, covering larger areas and destroying the nests of tortoises, turtles and iguanas as well as eating the animals' native food. Pigs also knock down vegetation in their search for roots and insects. This problem abounds in Cerro Azul volcano and Isabela, and in Santiago pigs may be the cause of the disappearance of the land iguanas that were so abundant when Darwin visited. The black rat Rattus rattus attacks small Galápagos tortoises when they leave the nest, so that in Pinzón they stopped the reproduction for a period of more than 50 years; only adults were found on that island. Also, where the black rat is found, the endemic rat has disappeared. Cows and donkeys eat all the available vegetation and compete with native species for the scarce water. In 1959, fishermen introduced one male and two female goats to Pinta island; by 1973 the National Park service estimated the population of goats to be over 30,000 individuals. Goats were also introduced to Marchena in 1967 and to Rabida in 1971. However a recent goat eradication program has cleared most of the goat population from Isabela.

The fast growing poultry industry on the inhabited islands has been cause for concern from local conservationists, who fear that domestic birds could introduce disease into the endemic and wild bird populations.

The Galápagos marine sanctuary is under threat from a host of illegal fishing activities, in addition to other problems of development. The most pressing threat to the Marine Reserve comes from local, mainland and foreign fishing targeting marine life illegally within the Reserve, such as sharks (hammerheads and other species) for their fins, and the harvest of sea cucumbers out of season. Development threatens both land and sea species. The growth of both the tourism industry and local populations fuelled by high birth rates and illegal immigration threaten the wildlife of the Archipelago. The recent grounding of the oil tanker Jessica and the subsequent oil spill brought this threat to world attention.

Currently, the rapidly growing problems, including tourism and a human population explosion, are further destroying habitats.

In 2007, UNESCO put the Galápagos Islands on their World Heritage in Danger List.

On January 28, 2008, Galapagos National Park official Victor Carrion announced that 53 sea lions (13 pups, 25 youngsters, 9 males and 6 females) were killed at Pinta, Galapagos Islands nature reserve with their heads caved in. In 2001 poachers killed 35 male sea lions.

The Galápagos Islands were short-listed as a candidate to be one of the New7Wonders of Nature by the New Seven Wonders of the World Foundation. As of February 2009 the archipelago was ranking first in Group B, the category for islands.

September 2009

1 comment:

bathmate said...

very good posting. i liked it. :-)


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