Sunday, February 15, 2009

Galápagos Tortoises

Charles Darwin was born two hundred years ago this week. In late 1831, he embarked on the HMS Beagle on a five-year voyage around the world with the primary mission to perform a hydrographic survey of the coasts of South America.

The HMS Beagle being hailed by native Fuegians during the survey of Tierra del Fuego,
painted by Conrad Martens who became ship's artist in 1833.

The Galápagos Islands was not a primary port of the expedition.

Captain Robert FitzRoy commissioned Darwin to be the mineralogist and geologist, and gentleman naturalist who could also be his companion while the ship was at sea. When the HMS Beagle arrived at the Galápagos Islands nearly four years into their voyage, they encountered an abundance of giant tortoises. The Governor of Galápagos told Darwin that the tortoises’ shell shapes differed from island to island and that on seeing a tortoise he could “pronounce with certainty from which island it has been brought"*.

Thus began Darwin’s journey of discovery and reflection which led to two of the most important theories of biological science: the theory of natural selection and the theory of evolution.

* * *
Fast forward to August 2007. My family and I had the great fortune of following Darwin in his footsteps. We traveled to the Galápagos Islands, near the equator in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. We visited the Charles Darwin Research Station in Puerta Ayora on Santa Cruz Island where they had displayed the varying shapes of giant tortoise shells:

There are domed, intermediate, and saddle shapes. The right-most shell is a from a leatherback turtle.

The saddle-shaped shells allow the necks to extend longer, giving a competitive advantage when reaching for the Galápagos prickly pear cactus.

The Darwin Research Station is a successful breeding center for the giant tortoise:

They also care for injured and infirmed tortoises that would not survive in the wild:

This is also the home of the world’s rarest creature, Lonesome George (Solitario Jorge):

George, who has a saddleback shell, is the last known individual of the Pinta Island Tortoise subspecies . Other individuals of the subspecies were decimated when introduced feral goats ate the vegetation leaving no food or shelter for the tortoises . Despite many valiant efforts, the center has been unsuccessful in mating poor ol' George. Last summer, George fertilized eleven eggs, but alas, none of them were viable. The center offers a $10,000 reward for anyone who finds him a suitable female. The tourist shops in town sell very funny postcards and t-shirts featuring cartoons of George wearing reading glasses poring over a Playboy Magazine.

As fantastic as it was to see these magnificent creatures, we were sad to see the crowded conditions and the scummy pond water made my stomach turn.
I couldn’t help but wonder what Darwin would have thought about the conditions at the research station that bears his name.
* * *
Our next destination was about ten miles north. This tortoise reserve was presumably in a more natural setting. We were buoyed by the promising sight of the vegetation:
It was a wonderful, slightly misty, dewy afternoon; we were instructed to speak in hushed tones. If I was a tortoise, I'd want to live in this peaceful paradise. For that matter, if I was a human I'd want to be here. After a short walk, I began to see grey-brown mounds. Anywhere else in the world, I would have mistaken them for boulders.

I was in awe of this tree:

As we walked, we saw more and more tortoises, lazily grazing in the grass, completely unperturbed by our presence:

This one is checking on her nest:

This reserve is owned by an American who purchased the land and intentionally left holes in the fencing, allowing the tortoises to wander in and out.

The end of the outing was capped with a nice warm cup of coffee waiting for us at the coffee house.

* Wikipedia: Second voyage of HMS Beagle ; The evolution of the tortoises .


Ruth said...

This is just incredible! It's thrilling to follow your steps through this exploration. The photos remind me of Ireland, but then to see these creatures there.

The postcards sound wonderful! :D

beth said...

I would have loved to have been there with you...what great photos !!!

CC said...

Poor George.

Wonderful tortoise portraits.

Gabby said...

Simply astonishing. I have always dreamt of going there and had no real idea of how it looks...and now I do! Thank you!!!!!!

Anonymous said...

Love the turtles and your ruminations on evolution. It's in the air! Cool blog. Nice to see Elsa on your short list with Vermeer and Bellini!!! I'll have to alert the MOMA! I'll even forgive your inclusion of "Spanglish" on any listing of best or favorite films. Have you seen the doc "Rivers and Tides" about artist Andy Goldsworthy? I think you'd like it.


paris parfait said...

How fantastic that you got to visit! Wonderful images. I saw a piece on BBC a couple of days ago that they're now restricting tourist visits here.

Dutchbaby said...

Dear Ruth,
Yes, the tortoise reserve is very similar to Ireland, but there are no cows on Santa Cruz Island.

Dear Beth,
I would have loved to have had you as my snorkel partner!

Dear CC,
I felt so bad for that poor tortoise. He's middle-aged, only 80 years old; hopefully they will find a mate for him.

Dear Gabby,
Stay tuned, I will have more photos and more stories. I had no idea what to expect either. I was quite surprised how varied the terrains around the islands were.

Dear william,
I'm so glad you enjoyed my post and my blog.

Elsa is a wonderful artist and I will help you alert MOMA!

I would love to hear what you have against "Spanglish" because I truly love that movie.

I am a huge Goldsworthy fan; I own "Rivers and Tides" and have seen it many times. I plan to add his name to my list of favorite artists as soon as I write a post about him. I find it uncanny that you figured out that I would like his work just from reading my blog. Here I think I'm being all coy and reserved yet it seems I'm an open book.

Welcome to my blog!

Dear paris,
It was a spectacular vacation. Tourism is a double-edged sword for the Galapagos Islands. It helps their economy, yet additional tourism puts the ecosystem at risk. Poaching is another battle they face. I will be discussing this more in future posts.

Anonymous said...

Well done! congratulations....Had to include it in my blog about Tidbits from Galapagos at I hope to see some more....

Dutchbaby said...

Dear rhtgalapagos,

Thank you! You have a very interesting website. Yes, I do plan to post more in the future.

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