The Evolving Nature
of the Galapagos
Glenda C. Booth, Class of 1966
“What are you doing?” an American tourist asked as I stood at the edge of a dense tropical forest on a Pacific island in the morning sun. “Sharpening my machete,” I answered coolly, as I methodically scraped a metal file across the machete until the blade glistened. By now, the daily sharpening was commonplace, but the tourist was taken aback a bit by the image of a silver-haired American woman preparing her machete for a day’s work in the jungle.
For two weeks in November and December 2005, I volunteered in the Galapagos Islands, 600 miles west of Ecuador on the equator, on a 12-member team removing 3,000 introduced plants from a critically-endangered and unique Scalesia forest. Our work was led by the Earthwatch Institute (see www.earthwatch.org), an organization that recruits people for scientific field research worldwide to achieve a sustainable environment.
Our group – volunteers age 27 to 68 of varied backgrounds – helped scientists from the University of Michigan and the Charles Darwin Research Station control nine non-native plants because they out-compete and threaten the islands’ unique ecology.
I give some credit to my 1963 Longwood biology professor, Dr. Robert T. Brumfield, who turned me, a small-town Virginia girl, onto Charles Darwin’s theories of evolution and unlocked some of the secrets of science. It was in these islands in 1835 that Darwin made observations that led him to publish The Origin of Species in 1859. He noticed, for example, that several species of finch had different bill shapes adapted to different “diets.” Some finches eat seeds, some insects, some nectar, some fruit, and one even uses a “tool.” This speciation led Darwin to understand adaptive radiation, the theory that one ancestral species can give rise to many species who adapt to survive in their environment. Today, you can study 13 different finches adapted for their ecological niches.
Coincidentally, the university had another presence on this project. Dr. Sandra Breil, Longwood biology professor from 1969 to 1998, was on her second trip to the islands. Why? “I want to see the Galapagos Islands protected because these islands are priceless,” she said. “And it was a chance to see what led Darwin to come up with the origin of the species. That was a major turning point in the study of biology.”
Every day, we were trucked to the forest by 8 a.m. Dressed in full field gear, we wore sturdy boots and strapped on a GPS (Global Positioning System) unit, compass and whistle for navigation. Everyone learned how to use the GPS because the jungle was a gnarly thicket of vines, shrubs, plants, ferns, thorns, groundcover and trees. Only the GPS would get us to safety if we got lost.
In teams of four, we walked, climbed and crawled on a GPS transect, identifying the target plants. There is only one way to get through this tangled mass of green – by whacking with a machete. When we found a target plant, we gave it a GPS “waypoint,” cut it down or scraped off the bark, sprayed the cut area with an herbicide, and recorded our effort. The tree we were saving is the endemic Scalesia (Scalesia pedunculata), which can reach 50 feet in height and form a feathery, umbrella-like canopy.
We traipsed over a rugged terrain, a hodgepodge of lava rocks, often hidden by a mat of vegetation. The Galapagos Islands are actually tips of underwater volcanoes. “It looked as though God had caused it to rain stones,” wrote the first known human visitor to the islands in 1535, a Panamanian who was swept off course. We inched along gingerly to avoid toppling into a lava tunnel or lodging an ankle in a covered crevice.
We finished each day around 3 p.m. and sometimes collapsed in a pleasant mist called garua. We were monitored at arms length by vermillion flycatchers and Galapagos mockingbirds.
From afar, these islands are bleak and jagged moonscapes speckled with giant cactuses and topped with tropical forests at their highest points. Why would 12 people spend two weeks hacking their way through a jungle and carefully zigzagging over volcanic rocks? These “enchanted islands” really are a special place. They are a natural laboratory for the study of evolution where one can see what Darwin saw in 1835 – some of the least disturbed areas on earth.
Known mainly for the 500-pound tortoises the size of television sets, the Galapagos Islands are a UNESCO World Heritage site because of their unusually natural environment and their contribution to evolutionary biology. On this 13-island archipelago scattered over an area the size of West Virginia, there are animals and plants found nowhere else in the world – marine iguanas, Galapagos penguins, the flightless cormorant, the Scalesia tree, for example. Isolated and with no natural predators, the animals have little fear of humans so we could see them up close. I could almost touch the blue-footed boobies staring at me cross-eyed. I snorkeled with frolicking sea lions.
The islands are home to 180 plants that can’t be found anywhere else in the world. The largest remaining stand of Scalesia forest, at 345 acres, is severely degraded by introduced plants like passion fruit vine, quinine trees and Cuban cedar. Waiting five to ten years may be too late to save this forest.
Thankfully, the Ecuadorian National Park Service protects 97 percent of the islands, but human activity is taking a toll. One new plant species is introduced every year, say officials at the Darwin Research Station. There are now around 650 introduced plants. Some have been introduced intentionally, such as blackberries for agriculture; others arrive accidentally, like seeds on shoes. Other threats are introduced dogs, cats, rats, goats, cattle and donkeys. But the most devastating invader is humans.
Why care? Non-native species overwhelm and destroy native species, like the English ivy, bamboo and kudzu crowding out native species in America. When we lose part of nature, we can lose unknown genetic potential. World-renowned biologist Edward O. Wilson says that only 10 percent of Earth’s organisms are known. Extinction is forever.
Plants are the source of many medicines. For example, a fungus gave us penicillin; the breast cancer drug, Taxol, comes from a tree. One Galapagos plant is used to ease toothache and another as an antiseptic. As the “top-of-the-line” predator, we humans are stewards of our natural resources.
College should open one’s eyes and mind. Thanks to some excellent Longwood professors like Dr. Brumfield, my curiosity led me 40 years later to a very special place where I was not just a tourist, but where I hopefully made a difference. Bruised, scraped, scratched, punctured by the cat’s claw thorn, and dog-tired, I came home even more determined to protect our natural heritage.
Glenda C. Booth, ’66
Originally from Vinton, Virginia, Glenda C. Booth is a freelance writer and legislative consultant in Northern Virginia. A 1966 graduate of Longwood College, she earned a master’s degree from the University of Virginia and had a 30-year career in legislative work and public policy, primarily as a staffer in the U.S. Senate and the U.S. House of Representatives, Washington, D.C. She has two sons and three granddaughters.