IN A HISS: Pla­net of the Rep­ti­les

Nan Magazine - - ESPECIAL / FEATURE -

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.

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