An insider's guide to the Galápagos

February 01, 2021

A new book penned by Randy Moore shares stories and perspectives on these islands made famous by Charles Darwin often left out of introductory biology textbooks. 


Professor Randy Moore has led more than 200 CBS students to Galápagos over the course of the past decade (including those pictured above). Most trips were alongside colleague Sehoya Cotner, an associate professor also in the Biology Teaching and Learning Department. Moore just published his third book about the islands — Galápagos: An Encyclopedia of Geography, History, and Culture. This one is meant to be comprehensive and includes new insights into the history, scandals, mysteries, operations, and conservation challenges in Galápagos. We recently caught up with Moore for a Q&A.

When did you first visit Galápagos and why did they capture you?
Like all biologists, I heard a lot about Galápagos ever since I was an undergraduate. You can’t open an introductory biology textbook without reading about Galápagos, Darwin’s visit in 1835, and their iconic place in the history of evolutionary thought. I had a chance to go for the first time in 2006 with a group of biology teachers from Texas. It’s a remarkable place. You literally watch life cycles of animals unfold in front of your eyes. We’ve watched births, deaths and mating rituals from just a few feet away. It’s raw nature on display and it’s stunning to see.

What makes it possible to view nature in ‘a raw form?’ 
None of the animals run away. In part, that’s because, except for the giant tortoises, these animals weren’t hunted. There are no indigensous communities, and permanent settlers didn’t colonize the islands until the 1800s because of the islands’ extremely limited amount of fresh water. Today, 98% of the land area, and virtually all of the ocean surrounding that land, is a National Park. The other 2 percent is where about 30,000 residents live. So in that way, it’s unique compared to many other parks. It’s also not managed like most other parks are. If an animal dies, they don’t sweep away from sight. Death is everywhere there, as is renewal and beauty. 

You’ve written other books about Galápagos. How does the new book compare? 
The first book I co-wrote with Sehoya focused on biology. We explained the biological aspects of the many curious things that you see when you visit. Three years ago, Sehoya and I, along with some of our students, finished a study of how evolution is taught in the islands’ schools. I also co-wrote a book about the islands’ hard-to-find places. Most of these sites aren’t marked.  For example, you could walk right past where Darwin first set foot in the islands and not know it. This new book is the most comprehensive. It covers a wide variety of topics — including agriculture, scandals, history, misconceptions, Darwin’s legacy, tourism, invasive species, and, of course, the islands’ unusual plants and animals. 

What’s a common misconception about the islands?
There are many! Most students are convinced that Darwin went to the islands, saw the finches, and formulated evolution by natural selection while he was there. No, he didn’t. It takes a while to convince students that Darwin paid no attention to finches when he was in the islands. Instead, it was mockingbirds that most impressed Darwin in Galápagos and gave him his first appreciation of interisland diversification of species in Galápagos.

Many people also believe that Galápagos is uninhabited and pristine. Some parts are pristine, but most are not. Five islands are inhabited, and people are always accompanied by invasive species. The National Park works hard to make sure that the major visitor-sites aren’t overrun by invasive species. But when you drive away from any of the islands’ three airports, or go 100 meters beyond some of the visitor areas, you see invasive species; lots of them. Thick brambles of blackberries are one of the worst invasive species on the islands. And blackberry, like other invasive plants, is spreading; for example, birds carry seeds to new areas. It’s not just invasive plants though that are damaging ecosystems there. Invasive microbes and parasitic flies are also big problems in the islands.

Describe the tension between tourists and the conservation efforts.
Tourists bring money, which helps pay for conservation. However, tourists also bring invasive species. Some people say to stop tourism, but this isn’t a realistic option. Given the current state of the islands, if tourism ended, so would conservation, and the islands would be destroyed by the invasives already there. The money that tourists bring to Galápagos won’t solve the problem of invasive species, but it will help conservationists manage them and continue research to help mitigate their effects. 

What surprises students about Darwin?
In addition to his paying no attention to finches while he was there, students are always surprised by how little time he spent there. Students in our courses visited more islands than he did! He only spent three weeks there and set foot on only four islands. He was also a creationist when he arrived in the Galápagos and when he left. He didn’t have a Eureka moment when he was there. He was impressed by the place, but the impact of the islands on him was retrospective. 

What’s a research study from the Galápagos that stands out to you?
I have tremendous respect for the researchers Peter and Rosemary Grant, both faculty members at Princeton University. They were true pioneers — hauling water up the side of a volcano and living in challenging conditions for months at a time. In my opinion, their study of evolution in Galápagos is the most impressive evolutionary study of vertebrates in the field ever done. . They picked an island in the middle of the Galápagos and worked there for forty years. They marked every single finch on the island and then traced their offspring. They measured their bills and then a drought  would come through. Then they’d watch how a change in conditions changed food abundance, and thus preference for food, and how that influenced bill size. They watched the pressures of natural selection occur in the field in real time among vertebrates, which is truly remarkable. They didn’t get to go home at night, sleep in a comfortable bed, and shower. 

What’s a special place for you in Galápagos?
Floreana island is a unique place. There’s a small village there that few tourists visit. You don’t make a reservation for a table at a restaurant, you make a reservation to ensure that they open the restaurant. There’s also  a little hotel operated by the descendants of  a family that arrived in 1932. Their family name is Witmer. The husband died soon after arrival and the wife persisted and forged a life there. Tough is an understatement. She was beyond that to persist in such a rugged place alone. Remember, there is very limited fresh water on the islands. Her daughter now helps run the hotel. I’ve often talked with her daughter about her now late mother. Her story is remarkable and one that I detail in the book. Each of the four most-inhabited islands have an iconic family. On Floreana, it’s the Witmers. 

What was a challenge in writing a book about a place as well publicized as Galápagos?
It’s hard to see all of Galápagos. Tourist itineraries are tightly controlled. You can’t just go out and visit whatever islands you’d like to see. You can only go where the National Park will let you go, and you must be accompanied by a National Park naturalist guide.  It took a long time to write this book because it took me more than a decade to get to the places I needed to see. I am grateful for the help of my many friends there who took me to places that most other people don’t get to see. 

— Claire Wilson