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When Europeans first explored the Galapagos Islands, a rugged archipelago 650 miles off the coast of Ecuador, they were astounded by the forbidding landscape and the odd behavior of the animals and plants they found there. "The place is like a new creation," wrote ship captain George Anson, a nephew of the poet Lord Byron. "The birds and beasts do not get out of our way; the pelicans and sea-lions look in our faces as if we had no right to intrude on their solitude; the small birds are so tame that they hop upon our feet; and all this amidst volcanoes which are burning around us on either hand."
Others who followed, like the onetime sailor and writer Herman Melville, took a dimmer view, calling the place "evilly enchanted ground." Whatever the sentiment, the Galapagos attracted generations of scientists, who, following the example of Charles Darwin, traveled there to test theories of speciation, adaptation, migration, and selection. Their work in the field helped overturn the prevailing orthodoxies of special creation, writes Edward J. Larson in his vigorous history of the islands and their role in the development of modern biological science. Their work also changed the face of the islands themselves, as hundreds and thousands of plants and animals were killed or removed for collections far afield, with a single expedition taking more than 10,000 birds and skins.
Today, the islands face other threats, as tens of thousands of ecotourists travel there each year, disturbing sensitive environments, and as alien plant and animal species are introduced. Still, Larson notes at the close of his fine book, "the archipelago's ecosystem has proved surprisingly resilient in the past," and conservation measures may yet be found to preserve the islands' "age-old solitude." --Gregory McNamee [via]