January 9, 2008

Galapagos Flora

Wishing to follow the sun’s path as it reached its southernmost point on the horizon, winter solstice, a small group of my family and friends traveled to greet the sun on the equator this past December. We visited the South American country bearing the name derived from the latitude line that bisects the earth, Ecuador.

Six hundred miles off the coast of mainland Ecuador sits the archipelago known as the Galapagos Islands, our ultimate destination. These exotic islands are defined by salt water, volcanoes, endemic wildlife found nowhere else in the world, and plants that have reached the islands just as we did, via water currents over the last million or so years.

Surprising to human visitors, Galapagos wildlife is unfazed by the smell of sunscreen or the sound of clicking cameras. Colorful birds of many stripes, sea lions, land and sea iguanas, penguins, sharks, rays, giant land tortoises, and sea turtles go about their lives with no apparent notice of the oddly dressed foreign two-legged monkeys observing every movement and sound made by these wild creatures.

Equally captivating to fauna is Galapagos plant life, often receiving less attention than the fascinating wildlife. Hiking on the volcanic trails I was taken with the feeling that I was traveling on a totally unfamiliar landscape. The islands lie in the Pacific Dry Belt so most of the archipelago’s land area is covered by semi-desert or desert vegetation. While hiking on one island I saw Salt Bush in the Coastal Zone meeting Candelabra, Lava, and Prickly Pear Cacti living on the banks of land crashed by Pacific waves.

Intriguing were the mangrove forests edging many of the islands we visited. Paddling amongst the deep roots of these mysterious trees we searched from a rubber raft for Galapagos white tipped sharks, manta rays, fish and sea turtles. Echoing were the barking voices of sea lions frequenting the mangroves for shelter and resting places. These sea mammals literally climb into the trees to sleep on heavy branches!
Red, black, white and button mangrove species have adapted themselves to the saltwater environs of the Galapagos. Sending out roots deep into the brackish salt waters and extending branches above the water line the vertical branches act as aerating organs for filtering salt. The filtering process allows the leaves to receive fresh water.

Certainly Galapagos plants are the foundation of most biological communities. Pale yellow land iguanas depend on the opuntia cactus pads and fruit. We watched as one female stood on her hind legs while munching the buttercup yellow flowers of the endemic scalesia daisy tree. Giant land tortoises, some individuals older than Montana, survive on poison apple, guava and cactus pads.

Many plants on the islands are considered to be pioneer species, meaning they are hardy plants that have crossed oceans and managed to establish themselves in the often-hostile environment of the islands. There are 560 native species of plants in the islands and almost one-third of them are endemic (meaning they are found nowhere else on earth). For example, Galapagos has its own species of cotton, pepper, guava, passionflower, and tomato.

Back on mainland Ecuador we drove into the mountains to stand on the Equator. Posing as the tourists we were for one last photo, we all reflected. Our toes were north of the Equator, our heels south of the line. We had just returned from an incredible place, the Galapagos, where time seems to have frozen somehow, its toes in prehistoric times, its heel in the 21st century with much to celebrate about both.

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