Galápagos: the inhabited isles | Battle at the end of eden (multimedia)

  • Galápagos: The Inhabited Isles

    Exploring the cultural identity of the world's most sacred ecosystem

  • Images from the Galápagos typically feature sweeping vistas of volcanic terrain, devoid of people and lush with some of the most storied flora and fauna on earth. While it's true that 97% of the archipelago's land is maintained as a nature preserve, nearly 30,000 people live on the remaining 3% (approx. 100 sq mi), spread over five islands.
    Map creator: Eric Gaba; Translator: NordNordWest; Source: Wikipedia Commons

  • Santa Cruz Island has the largest population, with approx. 20,000 residents.

    Map creator: Eric Gaba; Translator: NordNordWest; Source: Wikipedia Commons

  • Puerto Ayora, located on the island's southern shore, is the archipelago's hub of tourism and economic activity. The main street is lined with restaurants, hotels, clothing boutiques, and souvenir shops.

  • The Galápagos has no indigenous culture and is one of the most recently colonized places on the planet. Most residents emigrated from Ecuador, with the first inhabitants arriving on Floreana Island in 1807. Permanent settlements on Santa Cruz date back to 1920.

  • A public awareness campaign, sponsored by the Ecuadorean Navy, aims to instill within residents a sense of appreciation and responsibility to care for the archipelago's unique wildlife. This billboard reminds passersby that nature is life and to be careful not to harm it.

  • A poster on a main street kiosk announced a public festival with the theme: "Defending the ecosystems of the Galápagos Islands is the responsibility of everyone."

  • Still, on any given street, the species that possess an almost mythical status in science history and Western consciousness, often retain all the grandeur of a pigeon or squirrel on the streets of Manhattan.

  • Galápagos sea lions snooze on a city sidewalk close to the waterfront.

  • A marine iguana, belonging to the world's only species of marine lizard, returns from a mid-day meal of algae off the ocean floor. Behind it, surfers head out into the waves.

  • A lone blue-footed booby perches on a guano- and graffiti-stained rock wall that lines Academy Bay just off the coast of Puerto Ayora.

  • The fishermen and brown pelicans of the Galápagos have a special relationship. Hoping to partake in the spoils of the fishermen's daily conquests, the birds, with their long bills and papery throat pouches, track the fishermen's every move. Here they stay close at hand as fish are transfered from boats to the shoreside scaling-and-gutting station.

  • This pod of pelicans stood rapt, as a fisherman prepared his catch. Moments later, as he set the fish carcass on the ground and used a hose to wash out the innards, the birds swarmed him, their powerful beaks snapping up bits of offal dislodged by the spray. The spectacle occurs every morning and evening as the fishermen skin, cut, and debone their fresh hauls of yellowfin tuna. (see video, next slide)

  • A mural on the outside wall of an elementary school features portraits of Galápagos wildlife painted by local children. Below it reads: "We live in the marine reserve."

  • In this child's rendering, a stark, black fence represents the marine reserve, protecting the abundant Galápagos sea life. Outside the fence, the waters are empty. 

  • Co-opting the archipelago's ecological attributes, a local band bills its music as endemic nature rock. 

  • A small church on the west side of town weaves imagery of Galápagos wildlife among its traditional iconography.

  • Stained glass windows, usually reserved for the portrayal of apostles, instead show dolphins, flamingos, sharks, opuntia cacti, coral reefs, frigate birds, and manta rays.

  • Above the altar, a stained glass window depicts a pelican with its wings outstretched.

  • At the east end of the island, sculptures and statues bear reverence to a different deity.

  • Centered on the arch, Charles Darwin's divine, white-bearded visage presides over a sculpture of a blue-footed booby.

  • Signs posted all along Ave. Charles Darwin, Puerto Ayora's main drag, tempt tourists with promises of access to the archipelago's untouched wilderness. The first organized tours of the islands began in 1974. By 1990, the Galápagos was hosting 40,000 tourists annually. Today, the yearly number of visitors exceeds 170,000.

  • If there is one species whose likeness has been enlisted to bear the brunt of souvenir exploitation, it's the blue-footed booby. 

  • But with its striking blue feet, suggestive name, and funky mating dance, the sea bird perhaps was destined to become charismatic fauna.

  • This store is named after Lonesome George, the last remaining giant tortoise from Pinta, an island located at the archipelago's northern edge. In 1972, Lonesome George was brought to live at the Charles Darwin Research Station on Santa Cruz, where scientists hoped he would mate with females from a closely related species. The attempts were unsuccessful. His death in June 2012 marked the extinction of the Pinta Island tortoise.

  • On the east side of town, the main street tapers to a smaller road that leads to the Galápagos National Park offices and the Charles Darwin Research Station, which houses the tortoise nursery.

  • The influx of people to the Galápagos over the past 40 years has introduced an estimated 1,500 invasive species, some intentional (such as livestock) and some not (black rats, a fly that parasitizes finch chicks, and the A. aegypti mosquito, which carries dengue fever.) Poison traps like the one above were ubiquitous on Santa Cruz. Their target, an invasive paper wasp, arrived via cargo in the '80s and is now found on all major islands.

  • Scientists at the Charles Darwin Research Station design educational materials to alert residents and tourists alike as to how destructive invasive species can be to native Galápagos wildlife.

  • In this cartoon, the villainous fanged berries, declaring their infinite reign, belong to the Mora or blackberry plant, an aggressive invasive that has spread across several Galápagos islands. An opuntia cactus tree, endemic to the archipelago, perspires in the background.

  • This poster at the Charles Darwin Research Station shows some of the invasive species that appear on each island, as well as those that have been successfully eradicated.

  • Next to the human footprints are the claw tracks and trail a marine iguana leaves as it drags its tail through the sand. Efforts to remove invasive species from the inhabited Galápagos islands will require tight collaboration between residents and scientists. Read about the quest to protect the Galápagos and other islands threatened by invasive species in the The Atlantic's single "Battle at the End of Eden."

Images from the Galápagos are typically devoid of people and lush with some of the world’s most storied flora and fauna. Yet people first settled in the archipelago in 1807 and today, nearly 30,000 residents live on five of the major islands. While in the U.S. and Europe, the Galápagos is revered for its role in the history of science, to Galapagueños, most of them emigrants from Ecuador, the islands symbolize something totally different: a paradise refuge from poverty and crime on the mainland. This slideshow explores the emerging cultural identity of the Galápagos as one of the most recently colonized places on earth. Read about the quest to eradicate invasive species from the archipelago’s inhabited islands.

All photos and video by Amanda R. Martinez and Rob McGinnis unless otherwise noted

Floreana: a virtual tour | Battle at the end of eden (multimedia)

  • Floreana Island, Galápagos

    A virtual tour

  • Floreana is located at the southern edge of the Galápagos, about a two-hour boat ride due south of Santa Cruz, the archipelago's most populous island. 

    Map creator: Eric Gaba; Translator: NordNordWest; Source: Wikipedia Commons

  • Ninety-seven percent of Floreana's land is a nature preserve, owned by the Galápagos National Park. The island's 150 residents own the remaining 3% and live in Puerto Velasco Ibarra, Floreana's only town.

  • When I visited, Floreana had no pier. A few feet from shore, I transfered from the boat I was on to a smaller water taxi, capable of pulling up alongside the concrete slab that stood in for a dock. Residents were in the process of building a pier.

  • Entering Puerto Velasco Ibarra, Floreana's only town

  • Floreana's church

  • Up the road, a sign points to Floreana's elementary school. Floreana's roads are unpaved. There are, at most, eight cars on the island.

  • Escuela Amazonas is attended by the kids of Floreana's 38 families. At age 12, the kids leave the island to attend high schools on Santa Cruz or San Cristóbal.

  • A student's drawing reflects efforts by scientists from the Charles Darwin Research Station to help kids on Floreana develop an appreciation and respect for the island's wildlife and environment.

  • A multi-purpose space for community performances

  • This mural lines one wall of the open-air performance space

  • Several billboards, like this one, which hangs in the performance space, can be found around town. Designed by scientists at the Charles Darwin Research Station, the signs aim to foment a sense among residents that they are intimately connected to Floreana's land and wildlife, and that this connection can serve as a source of pride.

  • A billboard on the side of a home celebrates biodiversity

  • Floreana only has a few restaurants, which are essentially set up on the front lawn of owners' homes. This restaurant, run by the family of Floreana's president, features another pro-biodiversity billboard by Charles Darwin Research Station scientists.

  • A finch solicits food from diners at a restaurant run by one of the archipelago's most famous dynasties, the Cruz family.

  • There was no menu. You just walk up to the kitchen window of the house and ask if they'll make you a meal. The food was amazing. Lunch consisted of yucca soup, fried banana chips, and this shrimp-and-rice dish. For dinner: a creamy pea soup, deep-fried yucca root, and salted fish with rice, broccoli, carrots, and green beans.

  • In one of the island's three trucks, I accompanied Floreana's president, Max Freire Salgado, on a tour of the agricultural region located in the fertile, humid highlands. Except for rice and a few other crops, residents grow almost all their own food.

  • As we ascended, the black lava rocks and dry vegetation of the coast morphed into lush and verdant scenery and the temperature cooled.

  • Freire Salgado leads the way with his black lab, Negro, through farmland owned by his 100-year-old grandmother.

  • In the rich soil at Floreana's high altitudes, residents grow pineapple, yucca, oranges, lemons, guavas, bananas, carrots, onions, corn, peas, and coffee (pictured here).

  • Freire Salgado holds great pride in the bounty that Floreana's residents are able to provide for themselves. At one point, standing amid a field of crops, he spread his arms wide and said, "This is our good life."

  • Freire Salgado emerges from a cluster of trees with a handful of limas, a hybrid fruit, half lemon, half orange, that tastes like a sweet lemon.

  • In 2009, the Galápagos National Park eradicated Floreana's feral goats, sheep, and pigs. The free-roaming livestock had overgrazed opuntia cactus, the mockingbird's preferred habitat. "This is a huge difference," said Ruiz Ballesteros, an anthropologist who studies Floreana culture. Before it was like "a paradise, the possibility of hunting animals for free and now you have to breed them." Cows, pigs and donkeys are now kept in enclosures.

  • Freire Salgado's dog, Negro, came along for the ride.

  • As Floreana flirts with modernization, there exist fascinating contrasts between old and new ways of life. Residents live off the land as subsistence farmers ...

  • But they all have Facebook accounts.

  • Some residents burn trash in their backyards ...

  • But the island has more sophisticated recycling infrastructure than most any interstate rest stop in the United States.

  • The view from my hotel—a private beach by virtue of Floreana's extremely low population density. Both Freire Salgado and the anthropologist Ruiz Ballesteros say that residents most value the serenity and simplicity of their lifestyle ...

  • Yet they desire the economic prosperity and entrepreneurial opportunities that restoring the island's native ecosystem could bring in the form of increased tourism.

  • One morning, as residents built Floreana's new pier, a boat-load of recently arrived tourists (background, right) surrounded two marine iguanas that were sunning themselves on black lava boulders. As the cameras clicked away, the reptiles quickly escaped to the sea.

  • Read about the quest to save the Floreana mockingbird and other threatened island species across the globe in the The Atlantic's single, "Battle at the End of Eden."

When Charles Darwin visited the Galápagos in 1835, Floreana was the archipelago’s only inhabited island. Floreana’s endemic mockingbird helped to spur Darwin to his insights on natural selection and evolution. But the species has been extinct on Floreana for more than a century, driven from the island by invasive rats and feral cats to two tiny islets just off the coast. Island Conservation hopes to help Galápagos scientists reintroduce the critically endangered bird by eradicating Floreana’s rats and feral cats in 2014. But first, Floreana’s 150 residents must approve the project. Read the story of the quest to save this iconic bird and other threatened island species across the globe.

All photographs by Amanda R. Martinez and Rob McGinnis unless otherwise noted

Galápagos wildlife | Battle at the end of eden (multimedia)

  • Galápagos Wildlife

    Meet the cast of evolution's living laboratory 

  • Galápagos marine iguana (Amblyrhynchus cristatus)
    The world's only sea lizard, the marine iguana can grow to be 2.5 feet long. The largest of these lizards will dive down more than 80 feet to harvest algae from rocks off the ocean floor. This iguana, fresh from a mid-day meal, sports an "algae-mustache."

  • Galápagos iguanas are thought to have descended from lizards that "rafted over" from South America. A few million years of evolution has flattened their noses for optimal algae grazing, sharpened their claws to ease their daily climb from sea onto land, and strengthed their limbs, especially their powerful tails, for swimming.

  • Listed as "vulnerable" by the IUCN, marine iguanas are threatened on several islands by invasive populations of feral cats and rats.

  • Diving for food in the frigid water of the east Pacific steals the iguanas' body heat. After they scramble ashore, the lizards make their way to a sun-baked patch of sand to warm up.

  • During feeding dives, the iguanas ingest a lot of salt water. Once on land, they expel excess salt by snorting the concentrated crystals through a gland in their noses.

  • The Charles Darwin Research Station, located in Puerto Ayora on Santa Cruz Island, is dedicated to preserving the Galápagos ecosystem. Established in 1964, the station runs breeding programs for land iguanas and giant tortoises.

  • In 1972, scientists brought what they believed to be the last giant tortoise on Pinta Island to live at the station and named him "Lonesome George," (seen here a few months before he died in June, 2012). Note his saddle-shaped shell with its front arch—an adaptation that allowed Pinta tortoises to stretch their necks up to reach high vegetation in the island's dry environment. 

  • Galápagos giant tortoise (Chelonoidis nigra)
    Giant tortoises on the lusher, leafier Galápagos islands, such as the one pictured here, have dome-shaped shells that lack the adaptation.

  • For more than a century, invasive black rats, which feed on tortoise eggs and hatchlings, have prevented the giant reptiles from breeding on Pinzón island. Research Station scientists have kept the species alive, raising the tortoises in captivity until they are large enough to be "rat-proof" (~4 years of age), at which point they are repatriated.

  • In December 2012, Island Conservation, in partnership with local agencies, performed an eradication to rid Pinzón of black rats. The groups must now wait to see if the project was successful.

  • Galápagos land iguana (Conolophus subcristatus)
    Invasive goats, feral cats, and rats are the greatest threat to the archipelago's two endemic species of land iguana (the other is C. pallidus). In 1976, the Charles Darwin Research Station began a land iguana breeding program to fortify the islands' dwindling populations.

  • Blue-footed booby (Sula nebouxii)
    While this seabird isn't endemic to the Galápagos, it breeds on several of the islands, and is also quite possibly the single greatest inspiration to the archipelago's souvenir designers.

    Source: Wikipedia, Author: Pete

  • Galápagos sea lion (Zalophus wollebaeki)
    Found lounging on shores throughout the archipelago, the sea lion is often the only mammal present on islands that have no introduced species.

  • Brown pelican (Pelecanus occidentalis)
    While not endemic to the islands, the pelicans that inhabit the Galápagos exhibit the naiveté of island species. Proof of this plays out daily on Santa Cruz where pelicans hoping for scraps, boldly perch mere inches from fishermen as they clean their catch.

  • Magnificent frigatebird (Fregata magnifcens)
    Reflecting on the frigate's striking eight-foot wingspan and dexterity in flight, Charles Darwin dubbed the sea bird the "Condor of the ocean." Frigatebirds breed in the Galápagos. One can barely make out the red patch on the neck of this male bird, but when it's time to woo the ladies, the bird inflates this sac like a large red balloon for a sight that is magnificent indeed.

  • Galápagos Lava Lizard (Microlophus)
    The archipelago hosts anywhere from 7 to 9 endemic species of lava lizard. The lizard pictured here was spotted on Santa Cruz Island.

  • Galápagos finches (Geospiza, Camarhynchus, Platyspiza, Cactospiza, Certhidea)
    The 13 finch species found on the Galápagos, a.k.a. Darwin's finches, all evolved from a single ancestor.

  • The greatest difference between the finch species is the size and shape of their beaks, which correlate to the birds' primary diet (grains, insects, or cactus nectar). Finches, like the one seen here, (likely a large ground-finch), use their large beaks to extract seeds from the spiny pods of the Tribulus cistoides plant, a low-growing vine.

  • Galápagos mockingbird (Mimus parvulus)
    The archipelago's finches usually claim the glory for having spurred Darwin to his theories of natural selection and evolution. But in fact, it was the variations Darwin noted between mockingbird specimens that he collected from different islands during his 1835 visit that sparked his initial inspiration.

  • Four species of mockingbird, (in Spanish, cucuve), inhabit the Galápagos. The mockingbird seen singing here was spotted on Santa Cruz Island.

  • Prickly pear cactus (Opuntia)
    If there's one plant on which the unique wildlife of the Galápagos relies most, it's the opuntia cactus. The plant is often one of the only sources of sustenance on the arid islands; its thick, juicy pads provide both food and water to land iguanas and giant tortoises. Finches consume the cacti's seeds and flowers, and mockingbirds and iguanas, its fruit.

  • Of the more than 200 species of opuntia found in the planet's arid regions, six are endemic to the Galápagos. Only on the archipelago does the species manifest as a tree, reaching heights of nearly 40 feet, with trunks measuring more than four feet thick. The plant is thought to have evolved its tree-like form to fend against overgrazing by giant tortoises.

  • The reddish bark and inner trunk of the Opuntia echios cactus

  • Anatomy of a dried opuntia cactus pad

  • Read about the quest to save Galápagos wildlife and other threatened island species from extinction in the The Atlantic's single "Battle at the End of Eden."

The Galápagos islands have been called a living laboratory of evolution. As one of the most recently colonized places on earth, (the first permanent settlements date back just over 200 years), the archipelago still retains 95 percent of its pre-human biodiversity. With so many varied species extant, a tableau of Galápagos wildlife reveals the process of speciation at work, whether it be 13 finch species that, descending from a single ancestor, evolved different beaks to accommodate distinct diets, or a cactus that, unlike any of the more than 200 other species in its genus worldwide, evolved to assume a tree-like form to fend against overgrazing by giant tortoises. Read about the quest to save Galápagos wildlife and other threatened island species from extinction.

All photos and video by Amanda R. Martinez and Rob McGinnis unless otherwise noted

A portal into jellyfish behavior | Marine Biological Laboratory

In 2005, a marine ecologist, a biologist and a fluid-dynamics engineer walked into a raw bar in Woods Hole, Massachusetts and the idea for the SCUVA, a new underwater camera, was born. This audio slideshow I produced explains how the SCUVA reveals mysteries of true jellyfish behavior that aren’t replicable in a lab setting. The piece was later picked up by Science 360.

Woods Hole folksingers carry on | Marine Biological Laboratory

For forty-seven years, Phyllis Goldstein led the long-cherished Woods Hole summer tradition of weekly folksinging at the MBL Club. When Goldstein passed away in January of 2011, Jeremy Korr stepped in to lead the event, ensuring that Goldstein’s legacy would live on. In this audio slideshow I produced, Korr, who grew up attending Folksinging Night, remembers Goldstein—her magic, her music and her heart.