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Of Tortoises and Finches and the Cactus Pears…

Written by CHI Co-Founder, Tom Areton

When Charles Darwin (1809-1882) arrived on the islands of Galapagos as a scientist-in-residence on the sailing ship Beagle, he didn’t yet realize the tremendous impact he would have on the way we look at all the world’s living things, including human beings. His discovery of how all the living organisms originate and go on their merry ways was not an “aha!” moment, but a slow, deliberate reflection on the anomalies he had observed within the same species of animals in different places on Earth during his travels. When he finally published “The Origin of Species” (1859), it was met with astonishment, admiration, but also derision and condemnation.  Some interpreted Darwin’s findings of the process of natural selection as the winner-take-all “survival of the fittest.” Applied to mankind, it brought into sharp focus the inequities of wealth and poverty – and spawned new political philosophies dedicated to eliminating economic disparities.

The above were some of my musings when Lilka and I visited these fascinating islands, 600 miles into the Pacific, west of Ecuador. These volcanic islands, bathed by 4 different ocean currents, some cold (from Antarctica), some hot (from the Equator), indeed presented a challenge to the animals and the flora that “ended up” there. Each island has its own unique ecology and there isn’t much land and food, so survival was at stake. Was it going to be a bloodbath where only the fittest would survive by sheer brute force? Surprisingly, no…

Galapagos Penguin

Animals that went on living were not the strongest, fastest or the most ruthless and cunning. Instead, they were the ones that quickly and cleverly adapted to the circumstances in which they unwittingly found themselves. Of the fifteen species of finches on these small islands each developed their own unique beaks and hunting strategies, so they didn’t have to all compete for the same food. Some have strong beaks to eat hard seeds other finches’ beaks can’t crack. One (woodpecker finch) even developed an ability to use thorns, held in its beak, to “fish out” worms from the holes in the tree trunks! No other finch can perform this masterful trick.

The penguins became small, though no less cute, so they did not need as much food as their Antarctic cousins three times their size. Each of the 18 larger islands had tortoises that developed differently shaped carapaces, so they could reach different kinds of food.

Galapagos Tourtous

Some tortoise shells are perfectly sloped down, – those tortoises ate grass; other bend upward at the head, looking like a saddle, so those tortoises could stand on hind legs and extend their necks upward to reach the sweet cactus pears even 4 feet up.

Cactus pears developed their own adaptive strategy – they started growing trunks, some 10 or more feet tall. (Inside of the trunk looks like the core of a car radiator.)

Bathed by many currents, our student exchange world is also constantly changing. We will live on because we quickly adapt to the forces beyond our control, just like those tortoises, finches – and even cactus pears in the Galapagos.

Galapagos is indeed a life’s lesson worth remembering.

Galapagos Tom and Lilka
Spotted: 2 (two) Homo Sapiens Adaptabilis, gen. CHI-Smilicus and 1 (one) Giant Tortoise

View more photos from Tom and Lilka’s trip to the Galapagos. Click to view them larger

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