What's So Special About the Galapagos Islands?

Here's why these unique islands became the home of modern ecology.

Galapagos Island Tortoise
Photo: Getty Images.

The Galapagos Islands are the home of modern ecology, where noted ecologist Charles Darwin developed his theories on evolution and adaptation.  And they are the location that ecologists from all over the world continue to flock to in their studies of the world's most unique ecosystems.

But what is so special about the Galapagos Islands?

There are two major factors that have contributed to the unique environment found in the Galapagos - an island chain west of Ecuador.

One is the island chain's extreme isolation from other areas. Long ago, a variety of species made their way to the Galapagos Islands. Over time, these parent species colonized the islands while evolving peculiar characteristics suitable to their environment.

Another major factor that makes the Galapagos Islands so unique is the area's unusual climate. The islands straddle the equator, making the climate temperate. But the current carrying waters from the chilly Antarctic and North Pacific cools the water surrounding the islands.

These two conditions combine to make the Galapagos Islands a breeding ground for some of the world's most interesting ecological research.

Galapagos Islands Species Are a Treasure Trove of Ecological Specimens

Giant Tortoise: The Galapagos Giant Tortoise is the largest living species of tortoise in the world. Undisturbed, this species can live over 100 years, making it one of the longest-living vertebrates on record.

Darwin's Finches: In addition to the giant tortoise, the Galapagos finches played a large role in the development of Darwin's theory of evolution. About 13 different species exist on the islands, each with unique beak characteristics especially suited to their habitat. By observing the finches, Darwin theorized that the finches descended from the same species, but adapted to become seed-eaters or insect-eaters with specialized beaks suited to their habitat needs.

Marine Iguana: The islands' marine lizard is the only existing species of marine lizard on the planet.  The theory is that this lizard made it's way into the water to find food it couldn't find on land. This marine lizard feeds on seaweed and has specially adapted nasal glands to filter out the salt from its food.

Flightless Cormorant: The Galapagos Islands are the only place in the world where cormorants have lost the ability to fly. Their tiny wings and huge feet help the birds dive in the water and balance on land and they may even serve as heat regulators. But their inability to fly has made them particularly vulnerable to introduced predators - such as dogs, rats, and pigs - that have been brought to the islands.

Galapagos Penguins: The Galapagos penguins are not only one of the smallest species of penguins in the world, they are also the only one to live north of the equator.  

Blue-Footed Boobies: This cute little bird with the funny-sounding name cane be recognized easily by its signature blue feet.  And while it is not found exclusively on the Galapagos Islands, about half of the world's population breeds there.

Galapagos Fur Seal: The fur seal is one of the only endemic mammal species in the Galapagos Islands.

It is also the smallest eared seal in the world. Their riotous barks have made them as much of a hallmark of the islands as any of the areas other unique species.