Thursday, June 20, 2024

Scientists recreate historic Galapagos

Like Charles Darwin did in 1831, a group of scientists and environmentalists set sail last year from the English port of Plymouth, headed for the Galapagos Islands off the coast of Ecuador.

However, what they found on their arrival last month differed vastly from what Darwin saw during his 1835 visit, which was crucial to developing his groundbreaking theory of natural selection.

Today, the Galapagos is protected as part of a marine reserve and is classified as a World Heritage Site. Despite these protections, the area faces more threats than ever, including pollution, illegal fishing, and climate change.

There to observe the challenges, with a well-thumbed copy of her great-great-grandfather’s “On the Origin of Species” in hand, was botanist Sarah Darwin.

“I think probably the main difference is that, you know, there are people working now to protect the islands,” the 60-year-old told AFP aboard the “Oosterschelde,” a refurbished, three-mast schooner built over 100 years ago. The ship has been on a scientific and awareness-raising expedition since last August, stopping in locations such as the Canary Islands, Cape Verde, Brazil, and Chile, among others.

Darwin’s ‘heirs’

In colonial times, the islands—located in one of the world’s most biodiverse regions—served as a pit stop for pirates who caught and ate the giant turtles that inhabit them.

During World War II, the archipelago hosted a U.S. military base.

“I think if (Darwin) were able to come back now and see the efforts that everybody is making, both locally and globally, to protect these extraordinary islands and that biodiversity—I think he’d be really, really excited and impressed,” Sarah Darwin told AFP.

Sarah Darwin first visited the Galapagos in 1995, where she illustrated a guide to endemic plants. She then devoted herself to studying native tomatoes.

She also mentors young people through a project aimed at creating a group of 200 Darwin “heirs” to raise awareness about environmental and climate threats to the planet.

During its journey from Plymouth to the Galapagos, the Oosterschelde made several port stops, exchanging groups of young scientists and activists at each location. One participant, Indian-born Laya Pothunuri, who joined the mission from Singapore, told AFP that the Galapagos “holds significant scientific importance.”

Pothunuri’s goal was to enhance the irrigation systems in the islands’ coffee-growing regions. “I plan to do it using recycled plastic, which is also a major issue here,” she said, noting that plastic waste often ends up being ingested by wildlife.

Plastic peril

In the Galapagos, the expedition members collaborated with researchers from the private Universidad San Francisco de Quito (USFQ), the Charles Darwin Foundation, and the NGO Conservation International to address invasive species and protect endemic ones.

Last year, a study by the Charles Darwin Foundation found that giant turtles in the area were ingesting harmful materials due to human pollution. The samples revealed that nearly 90 percent of the waste consumed was plastic, eight percent was fabric, and the remainder consisted of metal, paper, cardboard, construction materials, and glass.

On Sunday, the Oosterschelde set sail again to continue its world tour, with planned stops in Tahiti, New Zealand, Australia, and South Africa.

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