As a geologist and climate change expert at the National Geographic Society, I am thrilled to be on Santa Cruz Island in the Galápagos this week. We are on the equator, 600 miles from the coast of Ecuador, and it is nothing short of amazing.
The Galápagos Islands are a living laboratory for science and conservation, which is why my colleagues and I are here to host a Sciencetelling™Bootcamp for some of the people who have devoted their lives to studying and protecting this paradise. We are based at the Charles Darwin Research Station (CDRS), which is a constant reminder that the foundations of evolutionary theory began on these treasured seamounts.
The Galápagos is world-renowned for its rare and magnificent endemic species that populate these remote islands. In fact, the extreme biodiversity here is the result of geodiversity (varied geologies), which why this region is so dynamic and beautiful. Beginning millions of years ago, each volcanic island in the archipelago rose from the sea, one after another, due to plate tectonic movement and hot-spot volcanism.
As a result of these deep Earth processes, each island’s geology is different and the biology here has adapted to each island’s micro-environment. Isla Baltra is small, flat, and arid, with a desert landscape of weathered volcanic rocks. Española Island is the oldest and has endemic species of Galápagos tortoise, lava lizard, and birds that are found nowhere else on Earth. Isabela and Fernandina are still being formed by active volcanism and are covered by large swaths of black lava rocks.
Black (and even one green) sand beaches abound, resulting from weathered volcanic rocks; while perfect white coral-based beaches are also here. Some of this coral comes from islands deep below the waves; one of our participants, Dr. Patricia Marti Puig (Senior Marine Ecologist at CDRS), is part of the first project to explore these complex organisms that live up to 1.7 miles beneath the surface in the Galápagos.
The climate of the Galápagos plays a large role in driving the diversity of species, especially off shore. These waters are fed by the Humboldt Current, a deep, nutrient-rich current that upwells in the region. Every 4-7 years, El Niño-Southern Oscillation brings warm surface waters to cluster in the equatorial Pacific, reducing the nutrient levels and raising regional sea level. One of the Bootcamp attendees, Dr. Pelayo Salinas-de-León (Pristine Seas, CDRS), researches the predatory fishes and sharks–including the enigmatic and Endangered hammerhead sharks–that thrive in these bountiful waters.
For the majority of people who are not as geologically inclined as I am…the record-breaking biodiversity is what really draws crowds to this corner of the Pacific. On land, there are midnight-black bees, giant land tortoises, and, of course, Darwin’s famed wide variety of finches. Participant David Anchundia, an ornithologist with the CDRS, monitors the 17 species of finches.
The biological amazement continues with ten-foot-tall prickly pear cactus trees that bring a Seussian feel to the landscape. Under the sea, marine iguanas the size of Labradors swim past during the day and, at dusk, golden and spotted eagle rays cruise by the coast on their nightly feeding rounds.
Large portions of this region are already under preserved status; however, conservation issues remain regarding environmental change due to urbanization, oceanic changes, invasive species out-competing endemic species, and continued overfishing. For the Galápageño researchers and conservationists, the goal is to further conserve and restore this amazing region. Among the conservationists at this workshop, Paula Castaño (Island Conservation) is a veterinarian with a specialty in conservation medicine and the island restoration.
I am really excited to be here to see this amazing place and meet so many researchers and conservationists who are actively involved in this mission. In addition to the grants that many participants have received from the National Geographic Society and Lindblad Expeditions-National Geographic Fund, we want to do more! With financial support from the Helmsley Charitable Trust, we have brought National Geographic communications experts, photography teachers, and videography teachers to help attendees share their work with the world.
Dr. Aurora Elmore is a geologist, climate change expert and Program Officer for the “Our Changing Planet” grant program at the National Geographic Society. She received her Ph.D. in geology with a focus on oceanic chemistry and deep-sea circulation and then worked as a researcher at several American and British universities before coming to National Geographic.
All photographs by Aurora Elmore.