Darwin’s Galapagos

“Seeing this gradation and diversity of structure in one small, intimately related group of birds, one might really fancy that from an original paucity of birds in this archipelago, one species had been taken and modified for different ends.” – Charles Darwin Voyage of the Beagle (1839)

By Eilene Lyon

Just after completing my environmental biology degree in December 2007, we took an appropriate trip to Ecuador, including a 4-day excursion in the Galapagos Islands. My “mentor,” Charles Darwin, spent five weeks exploring the islands in the fall of 1835, exactly 300 years after their discovery.

Darwin was on a 5-year circumnavigation of the southern hemisphere on board the Beagle. Though only in his early 20s during the journey, his 1839 book about it reveals his intelligent and inquisitive mind. He didn’t publish The Origin of Species for another 20 years, but he was clearly piecing together a theory on this trip. He took every opportunity to explore the lands along the way – especially since he never got over his vulnerability to seasickness.


HMS Beagle at the Galapagos Islands by Keith R. W. Kersting of Hawai’i from Voyage of the Beagle (2000)

From these maps, you can see that the names of the islands were changed since Darwin’s day. The endemic wildlife has suffered decline since he visited, particularly the tortoise populations. I thought I’d accompany my photos with some of the great scientist’s insights and observations.


Despite predation by humans in earlier times, the wildlife today is completely unafraid of visitors. Even birds do not fly off at your approach. It’s as if they don’t even see you –  almost conjuring a sense of invisibility. The only carnivorous bird on the island is the Galapagos hawk. Sea lions do not hunt on shore. Generally, the animals just die of old age.


Galapagos hawk


Sea lion and iguana carcasses, most likely natural deaths.

“The remaining land-birds form a most singular group of finches, related to each other in the structure of their beaks, short tails, form of body and plumage.”


A large-beaked finch eating berries


Blue-footed boobies doing a mating ritual


A boobie couple with their chick in the “nest.” You really need to watch your step!

“Nothing could be less inviting than the first appearance. A broken field of black basaltic lava, thrown into the most rugged waves, and crossed by great fissures, is everywhere covered by stunted, sun-burnt brush-wood, which shows little signs of life.”


Barren, basaltic coast of Española Island


Unique vegetation on South Plaza Island, including prickly pear trees.

“The absence of the frog family in the oceanic islands is the more remarkable, when contrasted with the case of lizards, which swarm on most of the smallest islands. May this difference not be caused, by the greater facility with which the eggs of lizards, protected by calcareous shells, might be transported through salt-water, than could the slimy spawn of frogs?”


Marine iguana

“The rocks on the coast abounded with great black lizards, between three and four feet long; and on the hills, an ugly yellowish-brown species was equally common.”


Land iguana

“As I was walking along I met two large tortoises, each of which must have weighed at least two hundred pounds: one was eating a piece of cactus, and as I approached, it stared at me and slowly walked away; the other gave a deep hiss, and drew in its head.”


“While staying in this upper region, we lived entirely upon tortoise-meat: the breast-plate roasted (as the Gauchos do carne con cuero), with the flesh on it, is very good; and the young tortoises make excellent soup; but otherwise the meat to my taste is indifferent.”

“The old males are the largest, the females rarely growing to so great a size: the male can readily be distinguished from the female by the greater length of its tail.”


Lonesome George (d. 2012) in his enclosure at the Darwin Research Center. He was the last of his species of tortoise.

“Considering the wandering habits of the gulls, I was surprised to find that the species inhabiting these islands is peculiar, but allied to one from the southern parts of South America.”


Swallow-tailed gulls


Mating dance of the waved albatross


Uncooperative flamingo – refused to lift its head even once!


Masked boobie

Darwin didn’t mention sea lions in his chapter about the Galapagos. But they are a delight to tourists. We were told not to approach them, but they apparently weren’t given the same message.




A Galapagos sunrise

Source of all quotations:

Darwin, Charles. 2000. The Voyage of the Beagle with an Introduction by H. James Birx. Great Minds Series, Prometheus Books, Amherst, New York.



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