IN A HISS: Planet of the Reptiles
Herman Melville, author of Moby Dick, was unyielding in his Galápagos ‘sketches’, Las Encantadas: “The chief sound of life here is a hiss,” he wrote with undeniable disdain, expressing what most visitors had felt before him. These were islands not fit for higher forms of life. Melville goes on: “in no world but a fallen one could such lands exist”.
The Galápagos, as a poetic parable, posed a fascinating conundrum to the thinkers of the 19th century: why? Why would God create land on His Earth that was truly no place for Man, His most precious creation? To Melville, Galápagos was, and could only be, a mysterious reptilian realm, a primitive, primeval, critter-ridden Hell.
“If now you desire the population of Albemarle,” he notes, “I will give you, in round numbers, the statistics: Men, none; ant-eaters: unknown; man-haters, unknown; lizards, 500,000; Snakes, 500,000; Spiders, 10,000,000; Salamanders, unknown; […] making a clean total of 11,000,000.” Authors such as Edward Larson believe Melville was making a none-toosubtle dig at Charles Darwin’s, mocking the uselessness of Darwin’s ‘statistical’ Galápagos species totals published in his Journal of Researches (popularly known as The Voyage of the Beagle). The British scientist would have the last word, however, hinting that there was far more to Melville’s inexplicable heaps of cinder: “Hence, both in space and time, we seem to be brought somewhat near to that great fact – that mystery of mysteries – the first appearance of new beings on this earth.”
Darwin reached the shores of the Galápagos in late 1835. He was homesick by the time he arrived. The two-year journey aboard the HMS Beagle was already well into its third year. And even when the islands’ volcanic activity posed some geological interest, Darwin became disappointed upon observing that most of the land was dried up lava. Even most craters seemed long extinct. But parallel to the geology of the place, lay the animals, which became more and more interesting as the days went by. And on his fourth day, the spectacular giant tortoise, his first encounter with one, changed his life.
He describes the meeting as ‘Cyclopean’, a clear reference to Homer’s Odyssey. He may have meant that the gigantic tortoise appeared to be, like the Cyclops, the larger-than-life ruler of the island. But, just as the Cyclops caused Odysseus no end of turmoil on his nine-year voyage home, I like to think the term also presages the turmoil Darwin would endure as he developed his theory of natural selection (while married to a devout Christian) in a world unprepared for such a revelation – an odyssey that finally ended in 1859, with the forced and rushed publication of On the Origin of Species.
There are basically four families of reptiles on the Galápagos: tortoises, iguanas, lizards and snakes. But each is a world within itself. Drastically diverse, almost every island is home to a different version of iguana, tortoise and lizard. Lizards, which differ subtly in terms of their coloration, have very different behavioral patterns from island to island. Tortoises have obviously different shells (this had already been noted before Darwin; information he took into account when deciphering evolution). Iguanas are so revealing, they actually present an evolutionary pattern from land-dwelling to water-thriving (see next page). Land iguanas also present speciation from island to island, with Santa Fe Island’s land iguana being clearly unique, but also show differences on the same island: only five years ago, the fantastic Pink Land Iguana was discovered in the highlands of Alcedo Volcano on Isabela, where you can also easily observe the common golden-yellow species.
Lower forms of life, as Melville’s contemporaries view them as? I don’t think so. Reptiles have made the Galápagos Islands their own evolutionary canvas, their higher form of adaptive art.
Iguana terrestre de Galápagos común. / Common Galápagos land iguana.