Wednesday, August 13, 2014

What We're Reading: New Natural History

The Galapagos: A Natural History
by Henry Nicholls

This is a short and altogether charming overview of the natural history of the Galapagos, one that looks at some of the famous explorers who visited the islands, recounts the growing understanding over time of the natural history of the islands, explains how the islands became so celebrated in the history of evolutionary theory, explores the impact of human habitation that occurred in the 20th century, and looks at the modern history of the islands as an example of eco-tourism and as a model project in ecological conservation and restoration. Nicholls speculates on what that modern history may teach us about preserving important ecological systems elsewhere on our planet. There are three appendices to the text. The first is a comprehensive overview of how to plan a trip to the Galapagos. The second lists organizations in countries around the world that work to support preservation of the islands. The third is essential reading if you want to understand the importance of the islands' particular geography and climate cycles, for these of course constitute the fundamental context in which life occurs in the Galapagos. There is a short insert that contains contemporary color photos of some of the famous species that live on the islands. These are supplemented by antique period plates of plant and animal species, which have been integrated into the text.

A composite of various species of Galapagos Tortoises (in nature only one species exists on any particular island) from Brehm's Life of Animals, 1892.

Robert Bowman, an ornithologist who carried out a survey of the islands on behalf of UNESCO in 1957, wrote, “No area on Earth of comparable size has inspired more fundamental changes in Man’s perspective of himself and his environment.” This is why, in brief, the Galapagos are important. Nicholls quotes extensively from Darwin’s notes from his Voyage of the Beagle and his Journal of Researches about what he observed while on his visit to the islands. He explains how the association between Darwin, the Galapagos, and the theory of evolution came about. Darwin, while always curious about a large range of natural phenomena, was primarily interested during the time of his visit in the geology of the islands, although he did collect plant and animals specimens. It was only in later years that the fact that a different species of giant tortoise seemed to reside on each island, or that islands had differing species of mocking jays, entered into his thoughts about adaptation and radiation of species in isolated environments. And the now famous finches, which have become the signature example of speciation, of where species originate, were not studied by Darwin. He had not collected the necessary specimens, although he had some knowledge of the variation in the beak design and comparative sizes of the birds. They were made famous by subsequent researchers. But the association with Darwin of the Galapagos became indelible because the islands were a place where his theories about the origin of species could be observed; they were a rare laboratory where the processes of evolution were observable as they unfolded.

In addition to Darwin’s observations, Nicholls includes quotations from the wonderful first-hand narrative of Benjamin Morrell, who happened to be in the Galapagos in 1825 at the exact time of a spectacular eruption of the volcanoes on Fernandina. The text is also enlivened by passages from Herman Melville’s account of his visit to the islands in the sketches of the Encantadas, as well as from the writing of explorer William Beebe, who produced a popular book on his scientific exploits in the Galapagos in the early twentieth century.

Marine iguanas.  While visiting the Galapagos, Darwin threw one of these creatures into the water.  It swam back to him.  He repeated this three times, with the iguana returning immediately each time. He speculated that sharks were nearby and the iguana did not want to risk diving to feed on its favored meal of algae below the water. We now know that the iguana was instinctually concerned, as all reptiles must be, about maintaining his body temperature. In short, the water was too cold!

What is Henry Nicholls's purpose in writing this book? Is it to get you to want to visit the Galapagos, or is it to make you a person who is interested in and ardent about their preservation? Well, that is the rub here. He can’t do one without doing the other. Anyone who reads this book will start thinking that the Galapagos and their wonders are something they might want to see in person. But the problem is that the very appreciation of the islands that an understanding of their importance engenders, and the desire for eco-tourism that it inspires, is at the heart of an ecological conundrum that must be solved in modern times. It is the conflict between human economic needs and desires and the values of conservation and preservation. The specialness of the islands and the desire of people to visit their wonders have given the Galapagos a small booming economy, one with a growth and standard of living that is much greater now than that of the rest of the country of Ecuador, which owns the islands. It is an economic magnate. People want to move there for a better life. And with growing human habitation comes a set of needs that often are not consonant with preservation of the islands in their pristine ecological state.

In 1950 there were slightly more than 1,000 people living in the Galapagos, while by 1990 there were 10,000. Today there are more than 25,000 people living on the islands. With humans have come non-endemic species. The most destructive of these are the mammals among the 30 or so vertebrate species that have been introduced--primarily goats, pigs, and rats. There have been more than 536 introduced invertebrates, and more than 870 introduced plant species, some of them both invasive and destructive of the native flora. Much of the hope of conservationists has been placed in the notion of indigenous populations finding (largely through the economic returns of eco-tourism) the preservation of their unique environments more economically rewarding than their exploitation and destruction. But as the challenges facing the Galapagos show, it is more complicated than that. How the Galapagos, the Ecuadoran government, and the international community and organizations interested in solving these problems will find solutions to these challenges will be important to similar efforts around the world. The Galapagos Islands are not only a laboratory of evolution, but a laboratory, as well, in which we will figure out--or fail to figure out--how we will preserve our important natural history venues and, in its more general implications, preserve the ecology of our planet.

The famous blue-footed booby of the Galapagos. 
The bluer your feet, the more attractive you are to female boobies.

No comments: