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The Galápagos Islands, Pacific Ocean

July 10th, 2006 / / Links: Google Earth, Google Maps, Yahoo! Maps, Virtual Earth / Nearest places
 
 

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The Galápagos Islands (Spanish name: Archipiélago de Colón or Islas Galápagos) are an archipelago made up of 13 main volcanic islands, 6 smaller islands, and 107 rocks and islets. The very first island is thought to have formed between 5 and 10 million years ago, as a result of tectonic activity. The youngest islands, Isabela and Fernandina, are still being formed, with the most recent volcanic eruption in 2005.

The Galápagos archipelago is politically part of Ecuador, a country in northwestern South America.

The islands are distributed around the equator, 965 kilometres (about 600 miles) west of Ecuador (recently found to have 3 volcanos in the center island, all of them active)(0° N 91° W).

They are famed for their vast number of endemic species and the studies by Charles Darwin that led to his theory of evolution by natural selection.

The adjective "Galápagan" may be used to describe things from or related to the islands.

Though the first protective legislation for the Galápagos was enacted in 1934 and supplemented in 1936, it was not until the late 1950s that positive action was taken to control what was happening to the native flora and fauna. In 1955, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature organized a fact-finding mission to the Galápagos. Two years later, in 1957, UNESCO in cooperation with the government of Ecuador sent another expedition to study the conservation situation and to choose a site for a research station.

In 1959, the centenary year of Darwin's publication of The Origin of Species, the Ecuadorean government declared 97.5% of the archipelago's land area a national park, except areas already colonised. The Charles Darwin Foundation was founded the same year, with its international headquarters in Brussels. Its primary objectives are to ensure the conservation of unique Galápagos ecosystems and promote the scientific studies necessary to fulfil its conservation functions. Conservation work began with the establishment of the Charles Darwin Research Station in 1964. During the early years, conservation programs, such as eradication of introduced species and protection of native species, were carried out by station personnel. Currently, most resident scientists pursue conservation goals; most visiting scientists' work is oriented towards pure research.

When the national park was established, approximately 1,000 to 2,000 people called the islands their home. In 1972 a census was done in the archipelago and a population of 3,488 was recorded. By the 1980s, this number had dramatically risen to more than 15,000 people, and 2006 estimates place the population around 30,000 people.

In 1986 the surrounding ocean was declared a marine reserve. UNESCO recognised the islands as a World Heritage Site in 1978, which was extended in December 2001 to include the marine reserve.

Introduced plants and animals, which have been brought accidentally or willingly to the islands by humans, represent the main threat to Galápagos. They bring imbalance to the ecosystem of Galápagos by quickly propagating, since they lack natural predators.

Some of the most harmful introduced plants are the Guayaba or Guava Psidium guajava, avocado Persea americana, cascarilla Cinchona pubescens, balsa Ochroma pyramidale, blackberry Rubus glaucus, various citrus (orange, grapefruit, lemon), floripondio Datura arborea, higuerilla Ricinus communis and the elephant grass Pennisetum purpureum. These plants have invaded large areas and eliminated the endemic species in the humid zones of San Cristobal, Floreana, Isabela and Santa Cruz.

A long list of many animals was introduced to the Galápagos mainly by pirates and buccaneers. Heyerdahl quotes documents that mention that the Viceroy of Peru, knowing that British pirates ate the goats that they themselves had released in the islands, ordered dogs to be freed there to eliminate the goats. Also, when colonization of Floreana by José de Villamil failed, he ordered that the goats, donkeys, cows, and other animals from the farms in Floreana be transferred to other islands for the purpose of later colonization.

Non-native goats, pigs, dogs, rats, cats, mice, sheep, horses, donkeys, cows, poultry, ants, cockroaches, and some parasites inhabit the islands today. Dogs and cats attack the tame birds and destroy nests of birds, land tortoises, and marine turtles. They sometimes kill small galapagos tortoises and iguanas. Pigs are even more harmful, covering larger areas and destroying the nests of tortoises, turtles and iguanas. Pigs also knock down vegetation in their search for roots and insects. This problem abounds in Cerro Azul volcano and Isabela, and in Santiago pigs may be the cause of the disappearance of the land iguanas that were so abundant when Darwin visited. The black rat Rattus rattus attacks small galapagos tortoises when they leave the nest, so that in Pinzón they stopped the reproduction for a period of more than 50 years; only adults were found on that island. Also, where the black rat is found, the endemic rat has disappeared. Cows and donkeys eat all the available vegetation and compete with native species for the scarce water. In 1959, fishermen introduced one male and two female goats to Pinta island; by 1973 the National Park service estimated the population of goats to be over 30,000 individuals. Goats were also introduced to Marchena in 1967 and to Rabida in 1971.

The fast growing poultry industry on the inhabited islands has been cause for concern from local conservationists, who fear that domestic birds could introduce disease into the endemic and wild bird populations.

Currently, the rapidly growing problems caused by shark finning, development, tourism, and a human population explosion are further destroying habitats.

The archipelago has been known by many different names, including the "Enchanted Islands" because of the way in which the strong and swift currents made navigation difficult. The first crude navigation chart of the islands was done by the buccaneer Ambrose Cowley in 1684, and in those charts he named the islands after some of his fellow pirates or after the English noblemen who helped the pirates' cause. The term "Galapagos" refers to the Spanish name given to the Giant Land Tortoises known to inhabit the islands.

The main islands of the archipelago (with their English names) are (alphabetically):

Baltra (South Seymour)

During WW II Baltra was established as a US Air Force Base. Crews stationed at Baltra patrolled the Pacific for enemy submarines as well as providing protection for the Panama Canal. After the war the facilities were given to the government of Ecuador. Today the island continues as an official Ecuadorian military base.

Until 1986, Baltra was the only airport serving the Galapagos. Now one of two airports, most flights operating in and out of Galapagos still fly into Baltra.

During the 1930's scientists decided to move 70 of Baltra's Land Iguanas to the neighboring island of North Seymour as part of an experiment. This move had unexpected results for during the WWII military occupation of Baltra, the native iguanas became extinct on the island. During the 1980's iguanas from North Seymour were brought to the Darwin Station as part of a breeding and repopulation project and in the 1990's land iguanas were reintroduced to Baltra.

(Source: Wikipedia)

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