The oldest islands of the Galapagos are an estimated 5 million years old, while the youngest ones – Fernandina and Isabela – are still being formed by volcanic activity.
For centuries the resident animals of the Galapagos Islands remained isolated from life on mainland. The first animals likely arrived on floating bundles of reeds or were carried by the ocean currents or strong winds. Reptiles and various types of birds began to flourish in the Galapagos, evolving over the generations. There are very few mammals in the islands.
The human discovery of the Galapagos came in 1535 when Dominican Fray Tomás de Berlanga, the Bishop of Panama, was on his way to Peru to mediate an argument between a Spanish conquistador and his lieutenants after their conquest of the Incas. His ship drifted to the islands when the winds died. Since then, the Galapagos Islands have been a source of various social and economic interests.
Pirates once used the islands as a hiding place for gold and silver treasures they pilfered from the Spanish. The location of the Galapagos also made it a convenient place to repair their ships and refuel food – principally tortoise meat – for future journeys.
In the late 1700s, the islands became a hotspot for whalers. Unfortunately, the crews that worked on these missions significantly diminished tortoise life – even eliminating certain species – on some islands, taking tortoises in large numbersas they used the meat of these animals for sustenance during the months they were at sea. Fur hunters were also responsible for bringing the population of this Galapagos animal close to extinction during thisera.
The Galapagos Islands became part of Ecuador in 1833.
During the mid-1800s, Charles Darwin visited the Galapagos Islands during a scientific survey expedition aboard the HMS Beagle. He was amazed not only by how Galapagos creatures were so different from their mainland counterparts, but also by the fact that even between the islands, Galapagos species of similar characteristics still managed to adapt uniquely and perfectly to their own environment. The finch was one particular animal that caught Darwin’s eye, and it is now known commonly as the Darwin Finch. These finches were vital when writing his theory of evolution in The Origin of Species as he based some of his thought in assuming that the birds shared a common ancestry.
The government of Ecuador declared the islands a national reserve in 1936 and later was declared a national park in 1959. In September of 1978, Galapagos was declared a Natural Heritage Site by UNESCO for its scientific prestige.