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

February 1
Afobaka Dam and Operation Gwamba (1964)
February 2
Groundhog Day
February 3
George Adamson, African Lion Rehabilitator, Born (1906)
February 4
Congress Overrides President Reagan’s Veto of Clean Water Act (1987)
February 5
National Wildlife Federation Created (1936)
February 6
Colin Murdoch, Inventor of the Tranquilizer Gun, Born (1929)
February 7
Karl August Mobius, Ecology Pioneer, Born (1825)
February 8
President Johnson Addresses Congress about Conservation (1965)
February 8
Lisa Perez Jackson, Environmental Leader, Born (1982)
February 9
U.S. Fish Commission Created (1871)
February 10
Frances Moore Lappe, author of Diet for a Small Planet, born (1944)
February 11
International Day of Women and Girls in Science
February 12
Judge Boldt Affirms Native American Fishing Rights (1974)
February 13
Thomas Malthus Born (1766)
February 14
Nature’s Faithful Lovers
February 15
Complete Human Genome Published (2001)
February 16
Kyoto Protocol, Controlling Greenhouse-Gas Emissions, Begins (2005)
February 16
Alvaro Uglade, Father of Costa Rica’s National Parks, Born (1946)
February 17
Sombath Somphone, Laotian Environmentalist, Born (1952)
February 17
R. A. Fischer, Statistician, Born (1890)
February 18
Julia Butterfly Hill, Tree-Sitter, Born (1974)
February 18
World Pangolin Day
February 19
Lincoln Boyhood National Memorial Established (1962)
February 20
Ansel Adams, Nature Photographer, Born (1902)
February 21
Carolina Parakeet Goes Extinct (1918)
February 22
Nile Day
February 23
Italy’s Largest Inland Oil Spill (2010)
February 24
Joseph Banks, British Botanist, Born (1743)
February 25
First Federal Timber Act Passed (1799)
February 26
Four National Parks Established (1917-1929)
February 27
International Polar Bear Day
February 28
Watson and Crick Discover The Double Helix (1953)
February 29
Nature’s Famous Leapers
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