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Galapagos Islands

Of all the places in the world, there’s no place like the Galapagos. The 19 volcanic islands are relatively new in geologic time, ranging from one to four million years old, with new islands still sprouting. They sit along the equator, between 700 to 1000 kilometers (435 to 621 miles) from the nearest land masses, and the isolation has also made the islands a natural laboratory for evolution. The Galapagos are most famous for their iguanas, tortoises, blue-footed Boobies and, of course, Darwin’s finches. There are tropical, sub-tropical, and almost Antarctic species. It is the only place with both penguins and coral reefs.

The Galapagos Islands are a province of Ecuador (.ec) and have no TLD of their own. The largest ethnic group is composed of Ecuadorian Mestizos, the mixed descendants of Spanish colonists and indigenous Native Americans, who arrived mainly in the last century from the continental part of Ecuador. There is also a large number of whites, mostly of Spanish descent. Some descendants of the early European and American colonists on the islands also still remain on the islands. In 1959, approximately 1,000 to 2,000 people called the islands their home. In 1972 a census in the archipelago recorded a population of 3,488. By the 1980s, this number had risen to more than 15,000 people, and in 2010 there were 25,124 people in the Galápagos.

The Galapagos Islands, which are part of Ecuador, sit in the Pacific Ocean about 1000 km (620 miles) west of South America. As the three craters on the largest island (Isabela Island) suggest, the archipelago was created by volcanic eruptions, which took place millions of years ago.

At the north end of the Galapagos’ largest island, Isabela, a volcano straddles Earth’s equator. It is the Wolf Volcano, or Volcan Wolf, and it ranks among the archipelago’s most active volcanoes. Volcan Wolf’s first historical eruption was recorded in 1797, and nine more documented eruptions followed over the next two centuries. In late May 2015, the highest volcano in the Galapagos Islands erupted for the first time in 33 years. The explosive eruption at Wolf volcano on Isabela Island sent volcanic gases and ash roughly 15 kilometers (50,000 feet) into the sky, while lava flowed through a fissure, down eastern and southeastern slopes, and eventually reached the sea. In early June, the sulfur-rich lava flows on the slopes appeared to subside.

In the early days of the 2015 eruption, conservation groups feared for the safety of a rare species of pink iguanas, which are only found on Isabela Island, and for the local population of giant tortoises and yellow iguanas. Neither species has been endangered so far by the eruption because ash and lava have tended to flow east and southeast, while the animals live mostly to the north and west of the summit.

Unlike most remote islands in the Pacific, the Galapagos have gone relatively untouched by humans over the past few millennia. As a result, many unique species have continued to thrive on the islands. Over 95 percent of the islands’ reptile species and nearly three quarters of its land bird species cannot be found anywhere else in the world. Two of the more well known are the Galapagos giant tortoise and marine iguanas. The unhindered evolutionary development of the islands’ species inspired Charles Darwin to begin The Origin of Species eight years after his visit there. To preserve the unique wildlife on the islands, the Ecuadorian government made the entire archipelago a national park in 1959. Each year roughly 60,000 tourists visit these islands to experience what Darwin did over a century and a half ago.

As the three craters on the largest island (Isabela Island) suggest, the archipelago was created by volcanic eruptions, which took place millions of years ago. Unlike most remote islands in the Pacific, the Galapagos have gone relatively untouched by humans over the past few millennia. As a result, many unique species have continued to thrive on the islands. Over 95 percent of the islands’ reptile species and nearly three quarters of its land bird species cannot be found anywhere else in the world. Two of the more well known are the Galapagos giant tortoise and marine iguanas.

The marine life is influenced by unique oceanographic conditions. Specifically, the deep “equatorial undercurrent,” or Cromwell Current, flows from the middle Pacific and slams into the islands, pushing up cool water and nutrients from the depths and into the shallower waters. Fingers of this water push east, between and beyond the islands, fertilizing the ocean on the leeward side and creating biological abundance and diversity in an area that might otherwise be barren. The nutrients nourish phytoplankton, which form the base of the ocean’s food web. Many fish, birds, and marine mammals depend on the phytoplankton.

During the El Niño in 1997 and 1998, the surface water in the eastern equatorial Pacific off the coast of South America was warmer than normal. This warm water trapped the ocean nutrients that normally come to the surface in the upwelling cold water, leading to a drastic decrease in phytonplankton and other ocean life in the region. The unique Galapagos ecosystem was severely affected and many species, including sea lions, seabirds, and barracudas, suffered a very high mortality level. During the second week of May, 1998, the ocean temperatures plummeted 10 degrees in one day, and the ocean productivity exploded with large phytoplankton blooms. After this time, many species recovered very rapidly and the land species started to reproduce immediately.

The unhindered evolutionary development of the islands’ species inspired Charles Darwin to begin The Origin of Species eight years after his visit there. To preserve the unique wildlife on the islands, the Ecuadorian government made the entire archipelago a national park in 1959.





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