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Where Animals Don't Run Away

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Today, one of us (RMP) is writing from Ecuador.

This post is being typed on the rear deck of the schooner Diamante, which is at this moment sailing across the equator. In front of the laptop, the sun is setting and two sea lions are cavorting. Behind it, a jagged volcano rises straight out of the Pacific, part of the island Isabella, the largest and one of the youngest chunks of land in the Galapagos archipelago.

A visit to the Galapagos is something of a pilgrimage for biologists; relative to their tiny area, these islands have contributed a disproportionate amount to our understanding of life on this planet. Darwin's stop here in the 1830s gave him a gentle push towards postulating natural selection as a driving force of evolution. About 140 years after that, the Galapagos provided the setting for one of the most compelling demonstrations that natural selection actually works -- and can work extremely rapidly -- in nature. Other island chains worldwide have been congenial for studying evolution, but none so much as these.

Darwin's ideas were stimulated in part by the realization that the creatures of the Galapagos were similar but different, both from island to island within the archipelago, and from the islands to the continental coast of South America. Later studies, by Henry Lack in the 1930s and by Peter and Rosemary Grant and colleagues in the 1970s, zeroed in on a particular group of ordinary-looking birds of the genus Geospiza, known as Darwin's finches.

The saga of Darwin's finches is beautifully recounted by Jonathan Weiner in his Pulitzer Prize winning 1994 book The Beak of the Finch. The high intrinsic variability of these birds' traits, especially the size and shape of their beaks, provides ample raw material upon which natural selection can act. The harsh conditions of the Galapagos islands, long dry seasons with wet seasons that frequently fail to show up, do the selecting. A drought can decimate a population of Darwin's finches, leaving alive only birds with certain characteristics -- such as deep beaks suited to cracking especially hard seeds -- to pass along these highly heritable traits to their offspring. An especially wet El Niño year can have the opposite effect, punishing big birds with clumsy beaks and high metabolic requirements.

The famous giant tortoises for which the Galapagos are named also vary among the islands. Someone with experience can look at a tortoise's shell and tell you which island the animal came from.

These islands would be stunning today even if it weren't for the famous finches and tortoises. This is a bizarro land of black lava full of bizarro creatures that you can't find anywhere else in the world and that are, for the most part, completely unafraid of humans. Despite occasional predation by sailors and pirates over a few centuries starting around 1600, people haven't been a major factor shaping these animals' behavior. That's why these animals couldn't give less of a damn about you. While swimming, you accidentally bump into sea lions and sea turtles. Likewise the marine iguana, the planet's only oceangoing lizard. Darwin called them "hideous reptiles," "stupid and sluggish," and from the way they lie strewn around on the rocks like fat lumps, practically asking to be stepped on, you'd almost agree. But then you'd remember: This is the world's only seafaring, seaweedeating lizard! It grows to the size of a prize piglet! Those things in themselves makes this animal a beautiful thing, not hideous; and once you see them in the water, you realize they're not so sluggish, either. (They might actually be stupid, but that doesn't differentiate them from most lizards.) So Darwin was wrong -- about the aesthetics and athletics of the marine iguanas, at least.

It's a haul to get here. You have to get to Quito and then Guayaquil, book a flight or a ship to Baltra island, and from there charter a boat and hire a guide to take you around to the other islands. It's not cheap. But it's well worth it to experience the "tameness" of these animals.

Tame is a bad word for it, actually. Indifferent would be better. We tame an animal when we bribe it, breed it, or bore it into tolerating people in close quarters. Pigs and pigeons and zoo animals are tame. These Galapagos animals aren't tame; they're just the product of a set of geographical and historical circumstances in which people have never been major predators. Hawks, yes, sharks and orcas yes, people not really. That's a rare and special thing, and its very rarity drives home our role as global apex predators in a way that no other experience can.

Think about it: why should tripping over an albatross or a blue-footed booby be a remarkable experience? Yet it is, because in almost every other place on earth we've been spearing and snaring and shooting at animals for hundreds or thousands or tens of thousands of years. A constant drumbeat of evolutionary selection for fear. So they run when they see us, and that's normal. In East Africa, where we work and where humanity has been killing animals since day one, everything either runs away from you or tries to kill you or first one and then the other. That's all in accordance with our expectations of wild animals. But when we stumble across a set of wild animals that just look at us, or ignore us completely, that's something to write home about (literally, for most people who visit the Galapagos).

So perhaps the best way to think about a trip to these islands is as a voyage out of your ecological niche. As a tourist in the Galapagos, you are not an apex predator, the way you are in the rest of the world. You're just an awkward, pinkish, harmless something else. It's amazing how amazing it is to be so uninteresting for once.

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