Darwin’s inspiration for his theory on Evolution

19 July 2010 | Fact sheet

The Galápagos Islands, Ecuador, World Heritage Site

Background

The first World Heritage site, the Galápagos Islands (Islands of the Tortoises) of Ecuador consists of an archipelago of 19 volcanic islands in the equatorial Pacific Ocean, 973 km off the Pacific coast of South America. Straddling the Equator, islands in the chain are located in both the northern and southern hemisphere. The group consists of 15 main islands, four smaller islands, and 107 rocks and islets. The oldest island is thought to have formed between 5 million and 10 million years ago. The youngest islands, Isabela and Fernandina, are still being formed, with the most recent volcanic eruption in April 2009.

The Galápagos became a national park in 1959. In 1986 the surrounding 70,000 km2 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. In 2007, UNESCO put the Galápagos Islands on their World Heritage in Danger List, after being declared in danger by the President of Ecuador. The Galápagos Islands were also short-listed as a candidate to be one of the New7Wonders of Nature by the New Seven Wonders of the World Foundation.

The islands are administered by a provincial government of Ecuador. The capital is Puerto Baquerizo Moreno.

The Galápagos Islands are a World Heritage Site because of the many endemic species (not found anywhere else) that live on each of the islands of this Archipelago. The Galapagos Islands also have the second largest protected marine reserve after the Northwestern Hawaian Islands in America with an extension of nearly 130,000 Km2 .

View images of the site


Size

The Galápagos Archipelago consists of 7,880 km2 of land spread over 45,000 km2 of ocean.

Flora and fauna

One of the best known species is the Galápagos tortoise, which lives on seven of the islands. It has an average lifespan of more than 150 years. The marine iguana is the only iguana adapted to life in the water. Land iguanas, lava lizards, geckos and other harmless snakes can also be found on the islands. Around 56 varieties of birds live in the archipelago, of which 27 are found only in the Galápagos. Some of these are found only on one island. The most outstanding are penguins, which live on the colder coasts, Darwin's finches, frigatebirds, albatrosses, gulls, boobies, pelicans, Galápagos hawks and the flightless cormorant, a peculiar bird which has lost the ability to fly. On the other hand, there are few mammal species, mostly sea mammals such as whales, dolphins and sea lions. A few species of endemic Galapagos mice (or rice rats) - the Santiago Galapagos mouse and the Fernandina Galapagos mouse - have been recently rediscovered.

On the larger Galápagos Islands, four ecological zones have been defined: coastal, low or dry, transitional and humid. In the first, species such as myrtle, mangrove and saltbush can be found. In the second grow cactus, the incensé tree, carob tree, poison apple tree, chala and yellow cordia, among others. In the transitional zone taller trees, epiphytes and perennial herbs can be seen. The best known varieties are the cat's claw, espuela de gallo. In the humid sector are the cogojo, Galápagos guava, cat's claw, Galapagos coffee, passionflower and some types of moss, ferns and fungus.

Each of the archipelago's islands has its own character and unique qualities.

Santa Cruz Island supports one of the largest human populations of the five islands. The Charles Darwin Research Station is located on this island.

Espanola (Hood) Island is one of the oldest of the islands. It is used by a transient colony of sea lions, and is a major nesting site for marine turtles.

Bartolomé (Bartholomew) Island is one of the few that is home to the Galapagos penguin which is the only wild penguin species to live on the Equator, and the green turtle.

Baltra (South Seymour) Island is a small, flat island located near the center of the Galápagos. The island is very arid and vegetation consists of salt bushes, prickly pear cacti and palo santo trees. It is the home of the Baltra's land iguanas.

Darwin (Culpepper) Island named after Charles Darwin has fur seals, frigates, marine iguanas, swallow-tailed gulls, sea lions, whales, marine turtles, red-footed and Nazca boobies.

Española is the oldest island and due to its remote location has a large number of endemic fauna. Marine iguanas on Española are the only ones that change colour during the breeding season. The waved albatross is also found on the island. The island's steep cliffs serve as perfect runways for these large birds which take off for their ocean feeding grounds near the mainland of Ecuador and Peru. It has migrant, resident, and endemic wildlife including Española lava lizards, hood mockingbirds, swallow-tailed gulls, blue-footed booby, red-footed booby, Nazca boobies, Galápagos hawks, and a selection of finches.

Fernandina (Narborough) Island the youngest and westernmost island hosts hundreds of marine iguanas, the famous flightless cormorant, Galápagos penguins, pelicans and sea lions. Different types of lava flows can be compared and the mangrove forests observed.

Floreana (Charles or Santa María) Island has flamingos and green sea turtles. The 'patapegada' or Galápagos petrel, a sea bird which spends most of its life away from land and an underwater volcanic cone with coral formations.

Genovesa (Tower) Island “the bird island” has frigatebirds and swallow-tailed gulls, the only nocturnal species of gull in the world, red-footed boobies, noddy terns, lava gulls, tropic birds, doves, storm petrels and Darwin finches. There is a large Palo Santo forest.

Isabela (Albemarle) Island is the largest island of the Galápagos. Its highest point is Wolf Volcano with an altitude of 1,707 m (5,600 ft). The island's seahorse shape is the product of the merging of six large volcanoes into a single land mass. On this island, Galápagos penguins, flightless cormorants, marine iguanas, pelicans and Sally Lightfoot crabs abound. At the skirts and calderas of the volcanos of Isabela, land iguanas and Galápagos tortoises can be seen, as well as Darwin finches, Galápagos hawks, Galápagos doves and very interesting lowland vegetation. It is also the only place in the world where a penguin can be in its natural habitat in the Northern Hemisphere.

Marchena (Bindloe) Island is inhabited by Galápagos hawks, sea lions and the Marchena Lava Lizard, an endemic animal. North Seymour Island is home to a large population of blue-footed boobies and swallow-tailed gulls. It hosts one of the largest populations of frigate birds.

Small islet of North Seymour. North Seymour was created by seismic uplift rather than being of volcanic origin. The island has a flat profile with cliffs only a few metres from the shoreline. A tiny forest of silver-grey Palo Santo trees stand just above the landing. The island is teeming with life: sea lions, marine iguanas, flocks of pelicans, swallow-tailed gulls and seasonally, Nazca boobies. It is home to one of the largest populations of nesting blue-footed boobies and magnificent frigate birds.

Pinta (Abingdon) Island with sea lions, Galápagos hawks, giant tortoises, marine iguanas, and dolphins was home to the last remaining Pinta tortoise, called Lonesome George. He does not live on Pinta Island any longer but at the Charles Darwin Research Station on Santa Cruz Island where scientists are attempting to breed him.

Rábida (Jervis) Island has a distinctive red colour due to the high amount of iron contained in the lava. White-cheeked pintail ducks, brown pelicans, boobies and nine species of finches have been reported in this island.

San Cristóbal (Chatham) Island, the first island in the Galapagos Archipelago that Charles Darwin visited. This island hosts frigate birds, sea lions, giant tortoises, blue- and red-footed boobies, tropicbirds, marine iguanas, dolphins and swallow-tailed gulls. Its vegetation includes Calandrinia galapagos, Lecocarpus darwinii, and trees such as Lignum vitae. It has the largest fresh water lake in the archipelago, Laguna El Junco. The capital of the province of Galápagos, Puerto Baquerizo Moreno, lies at the southern tip of the island.

Santa Cruz (Indefatigable) Island hosts the largest human population in the archipelago. The Charles Darwin Research Station and the headquarters of the Galápagos National Park Service are located here. They operate a tortoise breeding centre, where young tortoises are hatched, reared, and prepared to be reintroduced to their natural habitat. The Highlands of Santa Cruz offer an exuberant vegetation and are famous for the lava tunnels and large tortoise populations including Black Turtle Cove, a site surrounded by mangrove which sea turtles, rays and small sharks use as a mating area.

Santa Fé (Barrington) Island hosts a forest of Opuntia cactus, which are the largest of the archipelago, as well as swallow-tailed gulls, red-billed tropic birds, shearwater petrels, Santa Fe species of land iguanas and lava lizards.

Santiago (San Salvador, James) Island is inhabited by marine iguanas, sea lions, fur seals, land and sea turtles, flamingos, dolphins and sharks, Darwin finches, Galápagos hawks as well as a colony of fur seals. Pigs and goats, which were introduced by humans to the islands and have caused great harm to the endemic species, have been eradicated. At Sullivan Bay a recent (around 100 years ago) pahoehoe lava flow can be seen. Wolf (Wenman) Island hosts fur seals, frigatebirds, Nazca and red-footed boobies, marine Iguanas, sharks, whales, dolphins and swallow-tailed gulls as well as the most famous vampire finch, which feeds partly on blood pecked from other birds and is only found on this island.

South Plaza Island has opuntia cactua and sesuvium plants, which form a reddish carpet on top of the lava formations. Iguanas (land and marine and some hybrids of both species) are abundant and there are large numbers of birds that can be seen from the cliffs at the southern part of the island, including tropic birds and swallow-tailed gulls.

Threats

The continued fascination with this natural wonder is also jeopardizing its future health. As more people visit or make their homes on the islands and exchange goods from the continent, the site's natural resources are increasingly threatened. Introduced plants and animals such as feral goats, cats, and cattle, brought accidentally or intentionally to the islands by humans, represent the main threat to Galápagos. Quick to reproduce, these alien species decimate the habitats of native species.

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, 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.  These harmful plants are just a few of introduced species on the Galápagos Islands - there are over 700 introduced plant species today compared to only 500 native and endemic species. This difference is creating a major problem for the islands and the natural species that inhabit them.

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 grounding of the oil tanker Jessica in 2001 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.

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, IUCN 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.

The Darwin FoundationIn

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 programmes, 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.

Why should we protect the area?

The islands are geologically young and famed for their vast number of endemic species,such as the land iguana, the giant tortoise, and many types of finches which were studied by Charles Darwin and helped form his theory on evolution. The archipelago's marine and terrestrial ecosystems have provided a wealth of information and help in understanding life on earth. The remote volcanic archipelago remains as it was millions of years ago and  over the course of centuries, animal and plant life from the Americas reached the islands and gradually evolved into new forms, which are found nowhere else on earth.