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EXPLORATIONS – December 4, 2002: Galapagos Islands - 2002-12-03


VOICE ONE:

This is Mary Tillotson.

VOICE TWO:

And this is Steve Ember with the VOA Special English program EXPLORATIONS. Today, we tell about the Galapagos Islands in the Pacific Ocean and the unusual creatures that live there.

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VOICE ONE:

Love is not easy to find when you are the last male of your kind. At least that is how it seems for the Galapagos Islands tortoise that scientists call Lonesome George. He is just one of the many animals and plants that live on the famous group of Pacific Ocean islands.

The islands were named for the large land turtles that live on them. At one time, the islands were home to about fifteen different kinds of land turtles. The largest island, Isabela, has five different kinds of tortoises. But, Lonesome George is not one of them. He comes from a smaller island called Pinta.

Scientists found George almost thirty years ago. Humans and non-native animals had caused much damage to the environment on his island. Some animals and plants had disappeared. Lonesome George was the only tortoise found on Pinta.

VOICE TWO:

Scientists took the turtle to the Charles Darwin Research Center on Santa Cruz Island. They wanted to help him find a female tortoise for mating. The scientists had been successful in similar efforts for thousands of other tortoises.

The researchers placed George in the same living area as females from the nearby island of Isabela. Scientists thought George would be more closely related to the females from Isabela than to other Galapagos tortoises. But, Lonesome George proved hard to please. Scientists say that George never showed any interest in getting close to the females around him. Scientists say hopes of finding a mate for George are decreasing. If no mate is found, the Pinta Island tortoises will disappear when George dies.

VOICE ONE:

Research suggested that scientists might have to look on other islands for a mate for George. D-N-A testing showed that George’s closest relatives do not live on Isabela as the scientists thought. Turtles most like George live on the islands of San Cristobal and Espanola.

The finding surprised scientists because San Cristobal and Espanola are the farthest Galapagos islands from Pinta. They are almost three hundred kilometers to the south. The D-N-A discovery is just another mystery of the Galapagos.

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VOICE TWO:

Mystery always has been part of the Galapagos. In Fifteen-Thirty-Five, a ship carrying the Roman Catholic Bishop of Panama came upon the Galapagos accidentally. Tomas de Berlanga named the Galapagos group the Enchanted Isles. He was surprised to see land turtles that weighed almost three-hundred-kilograms. He said they were so large each could carry a man on top of itself. Bishop Berlanga also noted the unusual soil of the islands. He suggested that one island was so stony it seemed like stones had rained from the sky.

VOICE ONE:

The British nature scientist Charles Darwin is mainly responsible for the fame of the Galapagos Islands. He visited the islands in Eighteen-Thirty-Five. He collected plants and animals from several islands.

After many years of research, he wrote the book “The Origin of Species.” He developed the theory of evolution that life on Earth developed through the process of natural selection. The book changed the way people think about how living things developed and changed over time.

Darwin said the Galapagos brought people near “to that great fact -- that mystery of mysteries -- the first appearance of new beings on earth”.

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VOICE TWO:

More than one-hundred-twenty-five land masses make up the Galapagos. Only nineteen are large enough to be considered islands. The Galapagos are a province of Ecuador. The island group lies across the equator about one-thousand kilometers west of the coast of South America.

The Galapagos Islands are generally dry. Giant cactus and other smaller thorny desert plants grow just above the coast of the larger islands. Higher up is a wetter area that produces small trees. Above that are tall trees and bushes. That level can be foggy with wet clouds surrounding the tree tops. Sunflower trees live on the highest part of the tallest islands. They can grow more than fifteen meters in height.

VOICE ONE:

Scientists have been wondering for years about the position of the Galapagos in the Pacific Ocean. Scientists used to think that the islands were connected to the South American mainland and floated out to sea slowly. Today, most scientists think the islands were always where they are now. But, they think the islands once were a single land mass under water. Volcanic activity broke the large island into pieces that came to the surface of the sea over time.

But scientists wonder how animals arrived on Galapagos if the islands were always so far from the mainland. Scientists think most Galapagos plants and animals floated to the islands. When rivers flood in South America, small pieces of land flow into the ocean. These rafts can hold trees and bushes.

The rafts also can hold small mammals and reptiles. The adult Galapagos tortoise clearly is too big for a trip hundreds of kilometers across the ocean. But, turtle eggs or baby turtles would be small enough to float to the islands.

VOICE TWO:

The islands are home to many unusual birds, reptiles and small mammals. Some of the animals live no where else on Earth. The tortoise is the most famous Galapagos reptile. But it is not rarer than the marine iguana. It is the only iguana in the world that goes into the ocean. The marine iguana eats seaweed. It can dive at least fifteen meters below the ocean surface. And it can stay down there for more than thirty minutes.

Several strange birds also live on the Galapagos. One of them is the only penguin that lives on the equator. Another is the frigate bird. It has loose skin on its throat that it can blow up into a huge red balloon-like structure. It does this to attract females who make observation flights over large groups of males.

VOICE ONE:

The Galapagos also are noted for a bird that likes water better than land or air. The cormorant is able to fly in all the other places it lives around the world. But, the Galapagos cormorant has extremely short wings. They can not support flight. But they work well for swimming.

The Galapagos Islands also have a large collection of small birds called Darwin’s finches. Charles Darwin studied the finches carefully when he visited the Galapagos in Eighteen-Thirty-Five. He separated the birds by the shapes of their beaks. Finches that lived in different places and ate different foods had different shaped beaks.

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VOICE TWO:

Scientists continue to study life on the Galapagos Islands. But, they have just begun to study the deepest parts of the ocean that surrounds the islands. The Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D-C sent marine biologist Carole Baldwin to the Galapagos. Mizz Baldwin traveled nine-hundred meters down to the bottom of the ocean near the islands. She did so in a clear plastic bubble watercraft called the Johnson Sea-Link Two.

The Sea-Link has powerful lights to battle the extreme darkness of the deep. The watercraft also has several long robotic arms. They collect sealife. The trips to the bottom of the sea resulted in the discovery of more than ten new kinds of sea life. Some of the discoveries were captured on film.

VOICE ONE:

The Smithsonian currently is showing a special movie about Mizz Baldwin’s trip to the Galapagos. The movie was filmed using the Imax 3-D technique. The movie is shown on a huge screen at the Museum of Natural History in Washington, D-C. Three-D movies on huge screens give images much more depth. People who watch the movie wear large glasses to observe the 3-D effect. They experience the movie in a different way.

For example, some viewers reach out to touch a Galapagos tortoise because it seems so close. Other viewers throw back their heads to avoid the splash of a wave on a rock on Santa Cruz island. It is easy to forget that the images are on a screen and are not real. The movie tries to provide an experience similar to a forty-minute visit to the interesting and unusual Galapagos Islands.

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VOICE TWO:

This Special English program was written and produced by Caty Weaver. This is Steve Ember.

VOICE ONE:

And this is Mary Tillotson. Join us again next week for another Explorations program on the Voice of America.

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