Evolution in the Galapagos Islands

Evolution in the Galapagos Islands – A Never-Ending Story

The Galapagos Islands formed from a series of coincidental geological events, making their story of evolution incredibly unique. Located precisely over an equatorial ocean hotspot at the center of three major ocean currents and 1,370 kilometers (851 miles) from the closest landmass means that the islands developed in almost complete isolation. The majority of life found there today arrived by mistake – seeds carried by the wind, birds blown off course – and once they came, they were forced to evolve or perish. These events resulted in some of the most extraordinary creatures on earth while providing us with a startlingly clear picture of evolution that has forever altered the world’s understanding of life itself.

Initial Impact – Making it to the Books

The Galapagos Islands were first thrown into the scientific spotlight by Charles Darwin. Darwin visited the islands in 1835, during a time in which society at large could not even begin to comprehend the notion that humans had evolved from a “lesser” species. However, scientists were starting to suggest that species developed from less complicated organisms over thousands of years, but they were unable to explain how. Consequently, their ideas on evolution were thrown to the wayside.

Charles Darwin discovered a key piece to that “how” in the Galapagos. The legendary rarity and even bizarreness seen in Galapagos species provided Darwin with the perfect laboratory to solidify his idea of speciation by natural selection. Many of the species now found in the Galapagos at one point evolved from the few originals that arrived thousands of years or even millennia ago, which means that it is possible to study the stepping stones between each species and how they evolved from generation to generation. A beautiful example of this is the Darwin finches. It is believed that just one or two species of finch have since involved in at least 13, each revealing only slight differences from the other based on their habitats.

The Galapagos’ Sustaining Impact

Evolutionary research in the Galapagos did not end with Darwin’s departure, however. Thanks to extensive efforts by the Galapagos park authorities and the Ecuadorian government, the Galapagos Islands have managed to protect their degree of isolation to this day, and, as a result, Galapagos life can continue adapting and evolving much as it has over the centuries. As recently as 2017, a new species of finch was discovered in the Galapagos by Peter and Rosemary Grant, and a new species of the giant tortoise was discovered in 2015.

Scientists, educators and volunteers from all over the world continue to flock to this “living laboratory of evolution” to study the processes of evolution that Galapagos species are subject to. The Charles Darwin Research Station has been at the center of many of the Galapagos’ most influential research and conservation projects, and visitors can learn about many of these projects in the exhibition hall.

Nevertheless, one of the most critical aspects of the Galapagos Islands is not what they have taught us, but what they have yet to show. Here, the evolution continues its fascinating work, almost undisturbed by outside influences. The Galapagos Islands are at the center of modern evolutionary knowledge because they have provided not only the right environment for evolutionary processes to flourish but also the setting for humans to study it. The secrets of this delicate process may still be discovered for years to come.

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