A Naturalist’s Pilgrimage to the Galapagos

Smithsonian’s Laura Helmuth vacationed in the Galapagos Islands and returned with even more respect for Charles Darwin

The Galapagos is no place for a mammal. But it's a great place to be a reptile. Land animals had to make the trip here via rafts of vegetation that broke loose from the mainland, which isn't so bad if you have scaly skin, are cold-blooded and can go for a long time without fresh water. A few rodents managed to colonize the islands, and there are some native bats, but reptiles rule. One of the weirdest reptiles is the marine iguana, the world's only seagoing lizard. It basks on lava rocks to warm up in the morning, then swims around in the surf eating seaweed. They get to be four feet long or more and look for all the world like Godzilla. Like other Galapagos creatures, they aren't particularly bothered by humans gawking at them. (Laura Helmuth)


Lava rock on Isabela Island
(Maura McCarthy)
The islands are brutal. They are simply the tops of volcanoes, so they're mostly made of black, jagged lava rock, much of which is called "'a'a" rock (pronounced "ah! ah!") for the pained sound one makes while trying to walk on it. This image of 'a'a rock is from the edge of Isabela Island; notice the cloud-shrouded volcano in the background. The Galapagos is a forbidding place to go collect specimens, especially in the days before sunscreen and high-tech hiking boots.

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