(STEM and Children’s Books)
Ellen Prager, marine scientist, writer of science books for kids, author of Escape Galápagos
What makes the Galápagos Islands unique? Is it the strange mix of animals that have adapted to a remote location (600 miles from mainland Ecuador), many of which have evolved into new species? Or is it the confluence of ocean currents that impinge on the islands, influencing the seasons and bringing new animals to the region? There’s also the underlying and mysterious hot spot that feeds volcanic eruptions and creates the land. Or is it something else? The answer: All of the above!
The Galápagos Islands are full of unusual wonders. There’s the goofy courtship dance of the blue-footed booby (let alone their big bright-blue webbed feet). The weird braying and torpedo-like swimming of the second smallest and most northern penguin in the world, which are also extremely adorable. The somersaulting and leaping of sea lion pups that play in shallow rocky pools as they learn to hunt and grow strong. The world’s only truly marine iguana that swims and dives into the sea to feed on algae. The flightless cormorants that, with little competition and plentiful food, have over time lost the ability to fly, but are excellent swimmers and divers. How about the lumbering giant tortoises, the sleeping-in-caves white-tip sharks, leaping manta rays, and a host of variously beaked Darwin’s finches? But it’s not just the strange mix of animals and their unique adaptations that make these islands so rare and unusual. It is also their origin and location.
Underlying the Galápagos Islands is one of the world’s hot spots, where for some unknown reason it is unusually hot deep within the Earth. This heat creates magma or molten rock that rises to the surface, and with time and repeated volcanic eruptions produces the islands. Due to the motion of the Nazca tectonic plate on which they sit, the islands also move eastward away from the hot spot (it remains stationary). The land cools, sinks into the underlying mantle, erodes and weathers. The islands in the western Galapagos are relatively young and fresh—their volcanic origin is plain to see. But to the east and south, the islands’ fiery nature is masked by vegetative overgrowth and the well-worn land.
The Galápagos Islands also straddle the equator. To the northeast, the Panama Ocean Current brings warm water south. To the southeast, the Humboldt or Peru Current brings cold water north. And directly to the west is the Equatorial Undercurrent that flows east and hits the base of the islands at depth, causing deep, cold, nutrient-rich water to well up to the surface. In combination, shifts in these currents influence the seasons in the Galápagos, and it is the upwelling that feeds and produces the islands’ incredibly rich food web.
Nature alone is not responsible for the Galápagos of today. The Ecuadorian government and Galápagos National Park Directorate have protected the islands so that landscapes are preserved, and the animals are unafraid. Problems due to invasive species, climate change, and development persist. But on the islands, birds lay their eggs and raise their chicks near to or in some cases in the middle of hiking trails. While walking on designated paths, visitors may have to step around chicks as well as iguanas, sea lions, and giant tortoises. Long lenses are not required here to see wildlife or witness amazing behaviors. It is truly remarkable how close (no closer than six feet ,though!) one can get to the animals without disturbing them.
Nature and how humans are now protecting the Galápagos Islands makes it a place like nowhere else on Earth. It is truly wondrous and the perfect place for an adventure.
For a fun middle-grade Galápagos adventure, read Escape Galápagos by Ellen Prager, from Tumblehome Books.