Evolution on the Galapagos
Sporadic colonisation and unusual ecologies have created a very high proportion of unique species ‘endemic’ to the Galapagos (that is, found only there). All but 2 of the 21 species of iguanas, lava lizards, geckos, snakes and the giant tortoises are endemic to the archipelago. Some species are restricted to a single island only.
29 species of land birds are found on the islands, of which 22 are endemic, including most famously Darwin’s 13 species of finch. On his visit to the islands in 1835 Darwin observed their differently sized and shaped beaks and concluded that they had been adapted to exploit different niche food sources. The Cactus Finch has an edge crushing, probing bill to feed on cactus seeds. The Woodpecker Finch has a biting tipped beak and uses a tool, such as a cactus spine, to probe holes in trees for wood-boring grubs. In Darwin’s words from The Voyage of the Beagle :
“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.”
Darwin eventually proposed in The Origin of Species that evolution through variability of inherited qualities and natural selection of individuals was the likely process by which this had occurred.
The extraordinary ecology of the Galapagos creates a laboratory of evolution. Through Darwin, its animals and plants have led us to understand a great deal more about the natural world, our position within it, and how we came to be here.
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