The wildlife of the Galapagos is at home in one of the most unique environments on the planet. When Charles Darwin travelled to the archipelago to study its flora and fauna, his findings and subsequent theories changed everything we knew about ecology. |
Today, the animals that inspired such groundbreaking research and led to the creation of Darwin's theories of natural selection are encountering an entirely new set of environmental factors. Global warming and its accompanying issues could well threaten their survival.
How Global Warming Could Affect the Wildlife of the Galapagos
In many ways, the islands of today exhibit the same phenomenon that Charles Darwin encountered nearly 200 years ago. The plants and animals continue to weather and adapt to the changes of time and tide – the very process which became the basis of Darwin's theories. But global warming, otherwise known as the scourge of the planet, is already beginning to show signs of causing irreparable damage to the unique and delicate ecosystem of the archipelago.
The Changing Oceans
In recent times, divers have measured water temperatures around the islands to be (on average) more than four degrees warmer than their long-term average. In the ocean, there are also signs of coral bleaching, which occurs when the water temperatures become too warm. The bleaching, which results in a gradual fading of the coral reefs’ normally vibrant colours, is a precursor to their eventual death. With fewer coral reefs, the myriad fish and marine life that depend on them for their food and shelter could dwindle. Experts believe that this initial coral bleaching is possibly just the beginning of widespread changes that will occur in the next decade and beyond.
The warm water temperatures also increase the growth of barnacles on rocks, and when sharks brush up against these, they can cause infections on their skin. The excessively warm waters are also harmful to the many algae that grow close to the shores, which are a primary food source of the famous Marine Iguanas. On Isla Fernandina, some iguanas are already dying of starvation, as the availability of the algae is decreasing.
Still a Microcosm of Evolution
Scientists are currently studying climate change’s negative effect on the wildlife of the Galapagos, whose remote location and diversity of species and habitats make it (still) one of the most fascinating places to study evolutionary changes.
There are very few places on Earth where the survival of its wildlife species is so detrimentally affected by the external climatic changes – in particular by the so called El Niño and La Niña effects, which trigger drastic changes in temperatures and ocean currents.
In turn, those changes affect everything from the habitat to the availability of food sources, both on the volcanic islands themselves and in the ocean that surrounds them. For example, it's estimated that the vast amounts of rain that accompany El Niño will appear once every 10 years from now on, instead every 20 years (which was previously the norm).
In addition, scientists predict that the rising sea levels and warmer waters will reduce the amount of fog that appears in the highlands of the islands. This reduction in fog causes a reduction in moisture, which could have serious ramifications for the plant life in the surrounding habitat.
An Uncertain Future
Along with the effect of global warming on food sources and the habitat, the increased presence of humans (there's a resident population of almost 25,000 on the inhabited islands now) may also have a negative impact on the wildlife of the Galapagos.
While the archipelago is currently home to some of the planet's most impressive land and tropical marine ecosystems, the WWF and Conservation International predict that all of the most iconic species are expected to decline as a result of climate change. Scientists fear that these modern-day threats may have the potential to prove catastrophic, causing some of the species of wildlife of the Galapagos to disappear altogether.
Marissa Ellis-Snow is a freelance nature writer with a special interest in the unique wildlife of the Galapagos Islands. Marissa chooses the expert-led itineraries organised by Naturetrek, which have brought her unforgettable sightings of a wide range of wildlife in one of the most spectacular regions on Earth.
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