Welcome to the Galapagos Islands. They are located about 600 miles off the west coast of South America in the Pacific Ocean, and are part of the country of Ecuador. In 1959 the Ecuadorian people established the Galapagos as a National Park. Today, the chain of islands, called an archipelago, is listed as a Natural World Heritage Site.
One of the reasons the Galapagos is so important and famous is that in 1835, a young man named Charles Darwin visited the islands as part of a long expedition to explore South America. He was surprised by how many of the animals and plants he saw were like their “cousins” on mainland South America, but also unique to the islands.
He had many questions. How did the ancestors of these animals get to the islands, so far away and separated by a vast ocean? Why did they look different from their mainland relatives? Was that because they had to change over time to be able to live and reproduce under the harsher conditions of the islands? How did this change happen?
He looked at the strange marine iguanas, that resembled prehistoric creatures, to find some answers. After the Galapagos Islands were born of volcanic activity, and had some plant life on them, iguanas may have floated over to the islands on logs. Once there, they were forever separated from the mainland but they now lived in a different, more difficult environment. Only the individuals who were able to survive the unique conditions on the Galapagos continued this original population of iguanas. Today the marine iguana is unique in the world, the only one known to feed on algae from the sea!
While Darwin observed the wildlife of the Galapagos, he collected samples to take home with him and he wrote up his notes. Later his ideas and observations would lead him to create his well-known theory of natural selection.
Another reason why the Galapagos is so important is because it harbors several populations of one of a kind species, and remains to this day, a beautiful, natural laboratory in which to study evolution.