Galápagos Islands

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Galápagos Islands

(gəlăp`əgōs) [Span.,=tortoises], archipelago and province (1990 pop. 9,785), 3,029 sq mi (7,845 sq km), Ecuador, in the Pacific Ocean c.650 mi (1,045 km) W of South America on the equator. There are 13 large islands and many smaller ones; Isabela (Albemarle; c.2,250 sq mi/5,827 sq km) is the largest. Puerto Baquerizo Moreno, on San Cristóbal, is the provincial capital.

The islands, created by the southeastward movement of the Nazca plate over a geological hot spot (see plate tectonicsplate tectonics,
theory that unifies many of the features and characteristics of continental drift and seafloor spreading into a coherent model and has revolutionized geologists' understanding of continents, ocean basins, mountains, and earth history.
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), are largely desolate lava piles; eight of the volcanoes in the Galápagos have erupted at least once since 1800. The islands have little vegetation or cultivable soil except on the high volcanic mountains whose upper slopes receive heavy rains from the prevailing trade winds and are mantled by dense vegetation. The climate is modified by the cool Humboldt Current. The Galápagos are famous for their wildlife, although the gigantic (up to 500 lb/227 kg) land tortoises the islands are named for are now endangered. There also are land and sea iguanas and hosts of unusual birds, such as the flightless cormorant, which exists nowhere else, and the world's northernmost penguins. Shore lagoons teem with marine life.

The islands were discovered in 1535 by the Spaniard Tomás de Bertanga and originally known as the Encantadas. Early travelers were astonished by the tameness of the animals. In 1832 Ecuador claimed the Galápagos. Charles DarwinDarwin, Charles Robert,
1809–82, English naturalist, b. Shrewsbury; grandson of Erasmus Darwin and of Josiah Wedgwood. He firmly established the theory of organic evolution known as Darwinism.
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 visited the islands (1835) during the voyage of the Beagle, and gathered an impressive body of evidence there that was used later in support of his theory of natural selection. Although buccaneers, seeking food, made inroads on the fauna, real depredations did not begin until the arrival in the 19th cent. of the whalers and then the oilers, who killed the tortoises wholesale for food and oil.

During World War II the United States maintained an air base on the islands for the defense of the Panama Canal, and in 1967 a satellite tracking station was established. On the centennial (1959) of the publication of Darwin's Origin of Species the Galápagos were declared a national park; the surrounding waters are a marine resources reserve. The Galápagos remain one of the few places in the world where naturalists can study living survivals of species arrested at various evolutionary stages. They also are an increasingly popular tourist spot.


See C. Darwin, The Voyage of the H.M.S. Beagle (1840); B. Nelson, Galapagos: Islands of Birds (1968); I. W. Thornton, Darwin's Islands (1971); N. E. Hickin, Animal Life of the Galapagos (1980); J. Hickman, The Enchanted Islands: The Galapagos Discovered (1985).

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The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Galapagos Islands


Archipiélago de Colón, a group of islands in the Pacific Ocean below the equator and to the west of South America. The group belongs to Ecuador. Total area of the 16 islands, 7,800 sq km. Population, 3,100 (1967).

The Galápagos are volcanic in origin and covered with the cones of a large number of extinct and active volcanoes, which reach an altitude of 1,707 m. The climate is dry equatorial, but the cold Peru Current keeps temperatures moderate (yearly average temperature, 23° C). The vegetation is primarily of the xerophytic succulent shrub type. Representatives of tropical and antarctic flora and fauna—lianas and mosses, tropical birds and gulls from Antarctica, parrots and penguins, and seals—are found coexisting closely in the Galápagos. There is a great abundance of unique local species, such as the endangered giant tortoises and iguanas. The islands were declared a national park in 1965. Darwin used material drawn from his observations in the Galápagos to substantiate his theory of the origin of species.


Darwin, C. Puteshestvie naturalista vokrug sveta na korable “Bigl’.” Moscow, 1954.
Peterson, R. T. “The Galapagos: Eerie Cradle of New Species.” National Geographic Magazine, 1967, vol. 131, no. 4.
The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.