Tuesday, December 8, 2009  
   Volume 79 - Issue 49 Website:www.passherald.ca   email: passherald@shaw.ca   $1.00   
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Quote of the Week
“Administration is recommending a mutual agreement be developed so we can bring this to a conclusion.”
- CAO Gordon Lundy  
- on sorting out the   
Crowsnest Centre   

 

Looking Back - John KinnearThere is no question that the Galapagos Islands can be considered the Garden of Eden when discussing the nature of the evolutionary process. They are a living laboratory of biological science. Unfortunately this evolutionary laboratory that Darwin explored in 1835 is in trouble.
It was very disheartening to read seven years ago about an Ecuadorian tanker incident in which 700,000 liters (240,000 gallons) of diesel fuel leaked from a ship near San Cristobal Island, one of the 4 main islands in this remarkable chain. Eleven months after the spill the toll was 15,000 dead marine iguanas.
 It was just one more worrisome incident involving the influence of man there, an influence that has afflicted these islands ever since their discovery 400 years ago.  Eleven months after the spill the toll was 15,000 dead marine iguanas.
Even more worrisome is the invasive plants, animals and diseases that are stowing away among the growing shipments of food and supplies heading to the islands. These include cottony cushion scale insects that have devastated local citrus trees and animal diseases such as distemper and avian malaria. These are biological agents for which Galapagos and its remarkable inhabitants are not prepared for. Through the year’s dogs, cats, pigs, goats and traffic have devastated indigenous populations who had never before seen a mammal predator or a car. "Species are being overfished; native wood is being used for building and sand is being dug up from beaches to mix in with cement.” Last year the islands saw 173,000 tourists.
 “Galapago” is the Spanish word for "tortoise" and the Galapagos Archipelago is known as the home of giant 400 pound tortoises. Early European buccaneers and pirates provisioned their ships with them, keeping them alive for extended periods with minimal care as a source of fresh meat. They were followed to the islands later by whalers and sealers and finally, of course, by settlers.
 With settlers came their wrecking crew of rats, goats, swine, dogs and cats who served as a death warrant to a long list of native animals on these delicate oceanic islands. Many of the spectacularly unique creatures of this isolated archipelago are virtually defenseless against our barnyard menagerie. Several races of land tortoises are now extinct which is a terrible loss as they evolved quite differently from one another on each island. One type of land iguana is also wiped out and others are threatened. Hordes of goats are over foraging islands, devouring everything green is sight and eliminating the food supply of indigenous animals and birds and causing erosion. Hogs root out tortoise nests, rats destroy native bird's eggs and dogs and cats prey on anything defenseless. There is also the constant threat of poachers.
The uniqueness of the fauna of the Galapagos bears revisiting as a reminder of how important they are to us and why we must fight to preserve them. Because of their isolation these ancient volcanic remnants allow us to seem a "speeded up" version of the lengthily evolutionary process, one that can become so obscured on continental areas.       
 Three quarters of the Galapagos’s birds and virtually all its reptiles are unique. They have their own dove, penguin, cormorant and snake. They also have two specialized gulls and the world's only salt-water foraging lizard, the marine iguana.
A classic example of the complex adaptation that has occurred in one species is that of the Galapagos mockingbirds. Mockingbirds normally behave like catbirds or robins over here but over there they act more like jays, a species they are definitely not related to. In typical jay fashion they do a lot of predation; killing and eating young finches, other bird’s eggs and small lizards.
 
They act like jays, fly quietly and inconspicuously like jays and one species has developed a heavy long bill like a jay for punching holes in eggs. Incidentally there are no jays to be found on the islands.
The Galapagos mockingbird has in a sense sort of evolved into a new kind of predatory bird from an old kind of song bird. There are four different types of mockingbirds with no two occurring on the same island. They have theoretically evolved from one original source. It must be extremely exciting for genetic researchers to go there and witness this species "on the assembly line".
We have all heard of the remarkable Darwin finches of Galapagos fame, a group of small birds that played a principal part in his publication:"The Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection or The Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life". There are 13 different species of Darwin's finches that live in a wide variety of Galapagos Island habitats, habitats that vary from arid coastal cactus forests to tall trees and grasslands. Of course they are correspondingly different in appearance and behaviour because of these habitat influences. They act like warblers, nuthatches, woodpeckers and chickadees all of which are totally absent from the islands. You have probably seen at some time video of the Cactospiza Pallida finch using a cactus spine to extricate insect larvae from a hole. I've always found this a remarkable act as I see it not as an instinctive action but as a habit that is a manifestation of the intelligent relating of abstracts; cause and effect! The African chimpanzee demonstrates the same technique with a long blade of grass, using it to draw termites out of their mounds.
Of the two specialized Galapagos gulls I mentioned earlier one has adapted to frigate bird attacks by becoming the only night foraging gull in the world. It has developed a relatively larger eye for night flying and its face and bill are strikingly marked in black and white. This serves apparently as a more visible target at night for its young chicks. Normal mainland gulls that are diurnal (daytime operators) are marked red or yellow for their young.
The other unique critters indigenous only to this strange archipelago are the penguin and the cormorant. The Galapagos penguin is the smallest and most northerly chilly-willy to be found. It is like all other penguins in that it is flightless. Remember the Dodo and the Great Auk? No land based dangers led to them giving up the power of flight. It was to no advantage to them.
Then we showed up!
The Galapagos cormorant is the world's largest and is also flightless. It seems that isolated island life can often lead to giantism. Even the Galapagos grasshopper is a whopper, growing up to four inches long. How would you like to have one of those babies bounce off your windshield?
These are but a few of the living reasons why this unique and special place needs to be closely protected. Personally I don't think arresting and charging the Ecuadorian tanker crew was enough. If that tanker is registered in Ecuador its government is responsible for allowing that piece of junk on the high seas. The time has come for the countries of the world to come together and form an international force to patrol and monitor tanker traffic on our oceans. Ships regularly use the seas they travel on as their toilet, dumping all manner of toxic garbage into the water. It is time for Greenpeace to pass the torch to the rest of the world to stop using our oceans as water based landfills.
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