While Charles Darwin most certainly popularized the Galapagos Islands -- his findings there set the stage for his theories of evolution and natural selection -- he was not the man responsible for their discovery. In fact, the islands were discovered nearly 300 years before Darwin ever set foot there. In 1535, a Panamanian vessel carrying Bishop Tomas de Berlanga landed there. While de Berlanga did not stay long, he and his crew did give the islands a name, Galapagos, the Spanish word for tortoise.
Even though he didn't discover the Galapagos Islands, Darwin studied their animals enough to know as much about them as any native son. For example, among the many species of distinctive Galapagos animals are the so-called "Darwin's finches," a group of 13 distinct species of finch, named after the noted scientist, who collected them for study. These finches are unique because when they originally arrived on the Galapagos Islands, they were one species. As time passed, the species migrated, and through mutation, natural selection and isolated speciation, it developed into 13 different variations, each one specially adapted for its local terrain. These birds are named for Darwin because of the evidence they provide for Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection.
The finches weren't the only creatures Darwin studied when he was on the islands. Hundreds of years later, Darwin got a close-up look at the same giant tortoises for which de Berlanga named the islands. The slow-moving, hulking creatures can weigh more than 500 pounds (227 kilograms) and carry five-foot (two-kilogram) shells. Darwin saw an abundance of the land-dwelling tortoises, and he was clued in by the islands' Vice Governor to the fact that the turtles differed based upon which island they lived [source: Galapagos Online]. It's possible Darwin may even have brought back from the islands to England a tortoise that came to be called "Harriet," though that hasn't yet been conclusively proved. Harriet lived to be 176 years old, and, sadly, died in 2006 [source: The U.K. Register].
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