Darwin reaches the Galapagos Islands (1835)

On September 15, 1835, H.M.S. Beagle sighted land and dropped anchor at the Galapagos Islands.  The naturalist on board, Charles Darwin, started collecting specimens and taking notes—and the science of evolution and ecology began its own evolution in his brain.  Neither the islands nor the world would ever be the same again.

Captain Robert FitzRoy was in command of the Beagle, leading it on a five-year voyage to chart the coast of South America.  He had invited on board a young gentleman to be his companion and to serve as the voyage’s naturalist.  Charles Darwin was 22 when the journey began, a mere 26 when he landed at the Galapagos.

Darwin explored the islands for 35 days as Captain FitzRoy cruised the archipelago making charts of its shorelines, natural harbors and navigational dangers.  When he arrived, Darwin was most intrigued by the volcanoes of the islands, but he collected and studied the flora and fauna as well.  “I dutifully collected all the animals, plants, insects, & reptiles from this Island,” he wrote about his visit to the island Floreana.

As he explored the living species of the islands, two groups gave him cause to wonder about the immutability of life.  One was the mockingbirds.  Darwin noted that mockingbirds from different islands looked different, assigning them to three different species.  The second was the giant tortoises.  The tortoises from different islands looked different as well, a fact related to him by the vice-governor of the islands, who claimed that by the peculiar and distinctive shapes of their shells, “he could at once tell from which island any one was brought.”  (Although the tortoises were impressive, the major impact they made was on the explorers’ diets—tortoises were more valuable as roasted meat and soup than as biological specimens!)

The fauna of the Galapagos Islands had a major impact on Darwin’s thinking, including his famous finches (drawing from Darwin’s journal by John Gould)

It took a long time for the impact of the Galapagos biodiversity to make its full impact on Darwin—the visit included no “ah ha!” moment.  The Beagle left the islands on October 17, and Darwin spent the long homeward voyage preparing specimens and completing his notebooks.  When he returned to London, he turned over his bird collection to the accomplished ornithologist and artist John Gould.  Gould discovered that Darwin had misclassified a large array of specimens as minor variants of known species, when in fact they were new species of finches that had radiated to fill ecological niches available on the islands.  The now-famous “Darwin’s finches” took on special meaning to Darwin when examined in this way, influencing his continuing development of the ideas of variation and natural selection.

When he finally got around to publishing his masterpiece, On the Origin of Species, in 1859, the role of his observations on the Galapagos was apparent:

“The relations just discussed … [including] the very close relation of the distinct species which inhabit the islets of the same archipelago, and especially the striking relation of the inhabitants of each whole archipelago or island to those of the nearest mainland, are, I think, utterly inexplicable on the ordinary view of the independent creation of each species, but are explicable on the view of colonisation from the nearest and readiest source, together with the subsequent modification and better adaptation of the colonists to their new homes.”

References:

Darwin Online.  Darwin’s field notes on the Galapagos:  ‘A little word within itself.’  Available at:  http://darwin-online.org.uk/EditorialIntroductions/Chancellor_Keynes_Galapagos.html.  Accessed September 14, 2017.

Galapagos Conservancy.  Charles Darwin.  Available at:  https://www.galapagos.org/about_galapagos/about-galapagos/history/human-discovery/charles-darwin/.  Accessed September 14, 2017.

Sulloway, Frank J.  2005.  The Evolution of Charles Darwin.  Smithsonian Magazine, December 2005.  Available at:  http://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/the-evolution-of-charles-darwin-110234034/.  Accessed September 14, 2017.

This Month in Conservation

September 1
Martha, the last Passenger Pigeon, Died (1914)
September 2
President Roosevelt Dedicated Great Smoky National Park (1940)
September 3
Wilderness Act passed (1964)
September 4
Fort Bragg, Home of Red-cockaded Woodpeckers, Established (1918)
September 5
UNESCO Established First World Heritage Sites (1978)
September 6
Alcide d’Orbigny, French Naturalist, Born (1802)
September 7
Edward Birge, Father of Limnology, born (1851)
September 8
UN Millennium Declaration ratified (2000)
September 9
First “Bug” Found in Computer (1945)
September 10
Henry Hardtner, Father of Southern Forestry, Born (1870)
September 11
World Wildlife Fund Began Operations (1961)
September 12
Canyonlands National Park Established (1964)
September 13
Walter Reed born (1851)
September 14
Marc Reisner, Author of Cadillac Desert (1948)
September 15
Darwin reaches the Galapagos Islands (1835)
September 16
Ed Begley Jr., Environmental Advocate, born (1949)
September 17
Edgar Wayburn, Wilderness Advocate, Born (1906)
September 18
Grey Owl, Pioneering Conservationist in Canada, Born (1888)
September 19
Urmas Tartes, Estonian Nature Photographer, born (1963)
September 20
AAAS Founded (1848)
September 21
Assateague Island National Seashore Created (1965)
September 22
Peace Corps becomes law (1961)
September 23
Rose Selected as U.S. National Flower (1986)
September 24
President Kennedy Dedicated Pinchot Institute (1963)
September 25
Pope Francis Addressed the UN on the Environment (2015)
September 26
Johnny Appleseed Born (1774)
September 27
“Silent Spring” Published (1962)
September 28
National Public Lands Day
September 29
Steinhart Aquarium opens (1923)
September 30
Hoover Dam Dedicated (1935)
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