Published: February 10, 2020

Following Darwin to the Galápagos

Molly Butler, Marketing Coordinator, Marketing

Alert

A Field staffer shares her experience visiting one of the most biodiverse places on Earth.

Molly Butler crouches in the grass near three Galapagos giant tortoises.

Most of us know about Charles Darwin from our high school science classes. That was certainly the extent of my knowledge of the famous biologist before I took my marketing job at the Field. On one behind-the-scenes museum tour, I became interested in Darwin after coming across some of his original letters in our library’s rare book room. I flipped to a letter where Darwin writes, “I have been ill during the last two months and have done no scientific work.” Scientists—they’re just like us! 

As well as these letters, our collections contain many specimens originally collected by Darwin, like finches and giant tortoise specimens that are unique to the Galápagos Islands and helped Darwin form his theory of evolution. The theory of evolution is everywhere in the museum, including the Griffin Halls of Evolving Planet exhibition, which tells the story of evolution on Earth over 4.5 billion years. After my encounter with Darwin’s letters, plus my general interest in all things Field Museum, I wanted to learn more about the famous scientist and the birthplace of the theory of evolution. So I booked a trip to the Galápagos to experience these islands’ incredible biodiversity and history for myself.

A giant tortoise wanders the reserve on Isla Santa Cruz. Galápagos giant tortoises can live to over 100 years old and weigh up to 500 pounds.

Like nowhere else in the world

Darwin went to the Galápagos in October 1835, and I retraced his visit 184 years later in October of 2019. I went with a group led by a marine biologist, who stressed that nowhere else in the world can you find these species of saddleback tortoises, Blue-footed Boobies, sea lions, or Magnificent Frigatebirds. Everywhere we walked or swam there was another creature you can only find in the Galápagos—like the marine iguana, the only lizard that swims in the ocean. 
 

A male marine iguana strolls along the beach on remote Isla Floreana. Normally black for most of the year, the iguana’s bright coloring appears during mating season.

The delicate balance of biodiversity

Part of the Galápagos’ unique biodiversity comes from the islands’ remote geographic location—the nearest coast is 600 miles away in mainland Ecuador. The volcanic islands sit along the equator in the middle of several intersecting ocean currents that provide the right balance of nutrients and temperatures for the islands’ endemic species to flourish. That, plus the lack of freshwater sources, allowed wildlife to thrive without many invasive predators (including humans) for a long time. When Darwin visited the islands he noted the tameness of the animals; the historic absence of natural predators left wildlife unafraid of human presence. The islands currently have about 30,000 residents and a strict policy on who is allowed to move there to prevent over-using their natural resources.

Traveling responsibly

Today, Darwin’s fame and the islands’ unmatched wildlife bring over 250,000 tourists a year, but at a potentially huge cost to this unique environment. The local government does everything it can to protect the wildlife and nature from the worst invasive species: people. Everywhere you look there are signs in English cautioning tourists to keep a minimum distance of six feet from wildlife, to not feed the animals, and to be responsible visitors. The Galápagos National Park requires a $120 fee to enter the islands, which goes towards conserving the islands’ parks and wildlife. It’s more important than ever to conserve nature, especially in historic ecosystems like the Galápagos.

But not everyone visiting this UNESCO World Heritage site will travel responsibly, and it shouldn’t be all on the local government. The tour provider I used is certified by the Jane Goodall Institute, which aims for responsible ecotourism. And of course, flying can be hard to avoid, but be thoughtful about your air travel. This starts with really considering how many flights you’re going to take in a year and then making an effort to minimize your impact when you do fly

As tourists, it is our responsibility to respect the places we visit and leave them as good as we found them. This is not only part of our work at the Field, but it should be part of everyone’s attitude toward nature. If you plan your next vacation considering your individual environmental impact, you’ll help conserve these invaluable landscapes for the people, animals, and plants that live there, as well as future scientists following in Darwin’s footsteps.