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He commented that it was very tasty when roasted in the shell or made into soup. He was the first geologist to appreciate that such sandstone-like structures, which rise to a height of more than 1, feet, owe their peculiar features to submarine eruptions of lava and mud; they mix at high temperatures with seawater, producing tiny particles that shoot into the air and rain down on the land to form huge cinder cones.

The ship spent the next two days completing a survey of the two northernmost islands and then, 36 days after arriving in the archipelago during which he spent 19 days on land , the Beagle sailed for Tahiti. Although Darwin did not yet fully appreciate it, a revolution in science had begun. To Darwin, such logistics would have been even more problematic, as he did not have the lightweight equipment, such as aluminum-frame backpacks and plastic water containers, that we have today.

Assisted by his servant, Darwin would have brought his geological hammer, a clinometer for measuring inclines, a shotgun for collecting birds, a compass, plant presses, rodent traps, specimen bottles, spirits of wine for preserving invertebrates, a notebook, a sleeping bag, food and, of course, water. Our two guides had suggested a shortcut across a coastal lava flow.

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As we began our trek across this perilous field of jagged lava, we had no idea how close to death we would all come. What was supposed to be a 6-hour excursion became a hour nightmare as we climbed over jumbled piles of blocks with razor-sharp edges, and in and out of steep ravines formed by meandering lavas and collapsed lava domes. During our second day on that Santiago lava flow, our water ran out.

To make matters worse, our two guides had failed to bring any water of their own and were drinking ours. By the afternoon of the third day we were all severely dehydrated and were forced to abandon most of our equipment. In desperation, our guides hacked off a candelabra cactus branch, and we resorted to drinking the juice, which was so bitter that I retched. Before we finally made it to the coast, where a support vessel was frantically looking for us, one member of the expedition was delirious and close to death. He was subsequently hospitalized for five days, back in the United States, and it took him more than a month to recover.

The day was unusually hot, and Tye, after a few hours of hiking, felt the onset of heat exhaustion and asked me to take over the lead. Using a machete to help clear our way through the brush, I too became heat exhausted, and began to vomit.


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Heat exhaustion turned out to be the least of my problems. I had inadvertently cut the branch of an overhanging manzanillo tree, whose apples are poison to humans but beloved by tortoises. The sting from the sap was almost unbearable, and dousing my eyes with water did nothing to help. For the next seven hours I was nearly blinded and could open my eyes for only a few seconds at a time. As I walked back to our campsite, five hours away, I often had to balance, with my eyes shut, on huge boulders in a dry riverbed, and on the edge of lava ravines.

Those were the most painful seven hours I have ever spent. Legend has it that Darwin was converted to the theory of evolution, eureka-like, during his visit to the islands. How could he not have been? In retrospect, the evidence for evolution seems so compelling. I owe this historical insight to a curious fact—Darwin was a lousy speller. We know, moreover, from the complete record of his unpublished scientific notes that he was personally dubious about evolution. According to creationist theory, species were a bit like elastic bands. He and his servant did take back to England, as pets, two baby tortoises.

Those juvenile tortoises further misled Darwin, because differences among subspecies are evident only in adults. Not realizing the importance of tortoises for the theory he would eventually develop about the origins and diversity of living things, Darwin and his fellow shipmates ate their way through 48 adult tortoise specimens and threw their shells overboard. They have become one of the most famous cases of species adapting to different ecological niches.

For example, Darwin thought the cactus finch, whose long, probing beak is specialized for obtaining nectar from cactus flowers and dodging cactus spines , might be related to birds with long, pointed bills, such as meadowlarks and orioles. He also mistook the warbler finch for a wren. Not realizing that all of the finches were closely related, Darwin had no reason to suppose that they had evolved from a common ancestor, or that they differed from one island to another. One of my most unexpected discoveries in the Darwin archives was the piece of paper on which Darwin recorded his crucial meeting with Gould.

Stunned by the realization that evolving varieties could break the supposedly fixed barrier that, according to creationism, prevents new species from forming, he quickly sought to rectify his previous collecting oversights by requesting island locality information from the carefully labeled collections of three Beagle shipmates. The birth of the Darwinian revolution was a highly collaborative enterprise. The case for evolution presented by this shared ornithological evidence nevertheless remained debatable for nearly a decade.

Darwin was not entirely convinced Gould was right that all the finches were separate species, or even that they were all finches.

Darwin also knew that, without specimens in hand, island-to-island differences among the tortoises were contestable, even though a French herpetologist told a delighted Darwin in that at least two species of tortoise existed in the islands. Unlike the birds, the plants all had accurate localities attached to them—not because Darwin had collected the plants with evolutionary theory in mind, but because plants have to be preserved in plant presses shortly after being collected.

Hence the specimens from each island had all been pressed together, rather than being intermixed. Of these, three-quarters were confined to single islands—yet other islands often possessed closely related forms also found nowhere else on earth.


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At last, Darwin had the kind of compelling evidence that he felt he could really trust. In the end, it is perhaps a question of courageous willingness to consider new and unconventional ways of thinking. Along with visiting whalers, early settlers also hunted the giant land tortoises to extinction on some islands, and they nearly wiped them out on other islands.

Darwin himself would doubtless have applauded the indefatigable efforts of the Charles Darwin Research Station and the National Park Service to stem the tide of destruction to the fragile ecosystem, and he would also have marveled at some of the occasional success stories, such as the recent eradication of feral pigs from Santiago.

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