Galápagos Past and Present

Early explorations of the Galápagos Islands are helping today's scientists preserve and restore one of the most important archipelagos in the world.

When members of the first Academy expedition to the Galápagos Islands stepped onto its shores in September 1905, they were in awe of its unique animal and plant life. For about a year, the scientists and professional collectors inventoried everything from plants, fossils, and birds that are now extinct, to the famous iguanas that still bask on coastal rocks. Today, their detailed daily observations are helping to preserve the islands that so impressed them.

drawings of Galapagos finches from Darwin's Journal of Reserches, 1835
Comparative beak sizes of Galápagos finches from Charles Darwin's Journal of Researches. His drawings, done in 1835 during his visit to the islands, provided data leading to his theory of natural selection and evolution.
page from expedition journal of ornothologist Gifford, 1905
A glimpse of ornothologist Gifford's observations from the expedition journal, 1905.

The Academy is transcribing these original field journals to make this trove of biological information available to Island land managers and researchers. The records are revealing important surprises. Ornithologist Edward Winslow Gifford's 702-page journal describes the warbler finch, Certhidea olivacea, on Floreana, an island it no longer occupies, but does not mention the ground finch, Geospiza magnirostris, which Darwin collected on this island in 1835. This suggests that the ground finch went extinct on Floreana between 1835 and 1905. Gifford also describes mockingbirds and finches with missing toes and nails, indicating that they were diseased.

Other journals have revealed more about native populations, including the location of previously unknown tortoise nesting grounds. Island scientists such as Heidi Snell are excited to have this information at their fingertips. The journals will "bring the old and the new together to have a better picture of the whole of what is Galápagos," says Snell.

Photo:  the schooner Academy, 1906
A view through tree like cactuses toward the schooner Academy anchored in Santa Cruz's Academy Bay, 1906. Photo: Rollo Beck, expedition leader, CalAcademy Archive.