The intriguing Galapagos Islands

(Copyright image: Taylor Menagh)

Cheryl Menagh and her son Taylor recently went on the Peregrine Taste of Galapagos tour, and caught up with its most famous resident, Lonesome George:

“Who is lonesome George?” I whisper to my partner-in-crime, while surreptitiously listening in on the conversation of the couple sitting in front of us on the flight to Quito, Ecuador’s capital. “Maybe it’s the name of a country and western singer,” mumbles Taylor as I quickly start flicking through our guide book on the Galápagos Islands.

Well, it turns out Lonesome George is their most famous resident and a conservation icon. According to the Guinness Book of World Records, he is the “rarest living creature”, suspected to be the last surviving member of his subspecies– Geochelone elephantopus abingdoni – the Galápagos Giant Tortoise.

Aged somewhere between 90 and 100 years, George is a native of Pinta, an isolated northern island
of the Galápagos although he now resides at the Charles Darwin Research station on Santa Cruz Island.

Scientists have been trying to get George to procreate since 1993 to ensure that his line does not become
extinct. They introduced two female tortoises of a different subspecies from the neighbouring island of Isabela into his pen, but to no avail. It seems George is in no hurry.

The unique Galapagos
George’s existence is an example of the sort of amazing facts that come to light on a trip to the unique Galápagos Islands, which lie in the pacific ocean 965 kilometres west of mainland Ecuador, South America. I know the word ‘unique’ is probably one of the most overused and misused words in the English language, but in this case it’s true.

In all its dramatic and desolate volcanic beauty, this living natural laboratory is home to some marine and land creatures found nowhere else in the world!

What makes these islands so special is their location. Straddling the equator, the islands form a chain across both the northern and southern hemisphere and are situated on the Galápagos Triple Junction – a geological area where three tectonic plates meet. In addition, two small microplates are caught in the junction, and turn synchronously to create counter-rotating currents which bring in colder waters, enabling sea life such as penguins and sea lions to survive on the equator.

Meet the locals
UNESCO has declared the 13 main islands and dozens of smaller islets and rocks of the protected volcanic Galápagos archipelago a World Heritage site. Nearly a quarter of all species are endemic and some, such as the flightless cormorant, marine iguana, Galápagos mockingbird, and the Galápagos giant tortoise are only found here.

Described as a separate “centre of creation” by Charles Darwin, the extraordinary wildlife on these remote islands was the inspiration for his theory of evolution during his visit in 1835. It is easy to see why his ideas were shaped by how these animals were moulded by their different environment, which ultimately led to his scientific work, On The Origin of Species.

Evolution in practice
Look at Lonesome George who hails from Pinta, a very dry and desolate place as the island’s vegetation had been devastated for several decades by introduced feral goats. The diminishing food supply nearly led to the extinction of native tortoises.

To try and survive they resorted to eating the cacti and other high growing plants, hence their neck needed to be longer to reach up and their shell developed into a ‘saddle back’ to allow more upward movement.

Compared to the other giant tortoises living on the more fertile islands of Santa Cruz and southern Isabella, where they are able to graze on the easily available lush grass, you see the difference – the tortoises retained their domed shell, short necks and grew much bigger!

The finch theory
Examining finches was instrumental to Darwin’s evolutionary theory – looking at how the same species of bird developed different beaks depending on the environment where they found food. Did they live on the cacti or seeds; hard seeds or soft seeds? 

Don’t misunderstand,Taylor and I are not avid bird-watchers by any stretch of the imagination, but something mystical happens in the Galápagos and you just can’t help but become intrigued by the reasons why.

Want to meet Lonesome George for yourself? Why not check out all our trips to the magical Galapagos Islands. You can request a brochure and then sign up to our monthly eNews for trip updates, inspirational images and great competitions.

If you've already been, why not leave your tips and advice in the comments section below. Or head to Twitter and Facebook to share your stories with the rest of the Peregrine community.

 

 

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