For centuries the Galápagos Islands have fascinated explorers and scientists and have served as a laboratory of evolution. Located just over 900km from mainland Ecuador, the equatorial, volcanic islands have only a few sources of freshwater, two climatic seasons, a wet and garua season, and the highest numbers of endemic species (species that cannot be found anywhere else in the world). The marine (including the Galápagos penguins) and terrestrial species of the islands inspired Charles Darwin’s theory of natural selection and is why the Galápagos Islands have been called “the birth place of modern biology”. Peter and Rosemary Grant (2015) have followed Darwin’s Finches on Daphne Major Island for 40 years documenting that natural selection continues at a rapid pace.
The islands are at the convergence zone of two major currents: the northward moving Humboldt (or Peruvian) Current and the eastward moving Equatorial Countercurrent (or Cromwell Current). Upwelling of deep, cool water derived from the Cromwell Current brings nutrients to the surface and drives the food chain that supports a wide range of species including the Galápagos penguin. Boersma started the first survey of the penguins in 1970’s and we hope you will join us in helping the conservation and understanding the only penguin that lives on the equator.
The volcanic archipelago began to form approximately 5 million years ago. The present islands are about 3-4 million years old but there is evidence of a much more ancient origin of islands over the hot spot. Today 13 larger islands and 7 smaller islands make up the Galápagos. The islands were formed by a hotspot, or hole in Earth’s mantle through which lava from the Earth’s core rises to the surface. The hot spot lies on the western boundary of the islands, and the upward flow of lava continues to build and shape the Archipelago. As the Nazca plate moves East-southeast, away from the hotspot, the volcanoes cool and become inactive. With the exception of Isabela, which has 6 large volcanoes, each of the larger islands has one volcano, which vary in size and activity. Isabela is the largest of the Galápagos Islands and has the tallest of the volcanoes, Volcán Wolf, where a new species of pink land iguana was recently discovered. Isabela and Fernandina have the most active volcanoes, are the youngest, and have erupted several times since 2000. They are likely to continue to grow until the Nazca plate moves far enough away from the hotspot and new volcanoes are formed.
In the early 1930s people began to recognize the importance of conservation in the islands and requested that the government of Ecuador declare some of the species protected. In 1959 Ecuador formed the Galápagos National Park, and in 1998, after an expansion of its boundaries, the Galápagos Marine Reserve was formed. In 1978 the islands were listed as UNESCO World Heritage Site by the United Nations, but in 2007 were placed on the list of “World Heritage Sites in Danger” due to uncontrolled immigration and other conservation challenges. Internationally humans are also having a negative impact on the climate of the Galápagos. Increased use of fossil fuels has caused global warming associated with the increased severity and frequency of El Niños. During these events the currents slow, which decreases upwelling and food becomes scarce. Our research focuses on monitoring the penguin population, monitoring and protection of the resources they depend on, and building nest sites to boost reproductive success. Although we cannot manage climate and oceanic conditions in the short-term, we work closely with the Galápagos National Park, conservation groups, including the Galápagos Conservancy, and the Charles Darwin Foundation to find ways to balance human resource use and enhance protection of the diverse, endemic species of these islands. Visitors, guides, and residents of the Galápagos can help us in this research. Visit iGalápagos.org to learn more about our iGalápagos project.
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