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Published: October 4th 2017
Traveling exigencies being what they were, we were up at an ungodly hour to get our bags out for placement on our small bus, and to get breakfast and a cup of coffee before a very early departure back to Quito, by way of the Middle of the Earth or nearby.
In 1736 the very first major international scientific expedition was launched by the French and Spanish to measure the roundness of the earth. There was considerable debate at the time as to whether the circumference of the earth was greater at the poles or at the equator. The expedition showed the that the earth was an oblate spheroid (a sphere flattened at the poles) and the greatest circumference was at the equator. A separate French/Swedish expedition to Lapland at the same time completed its work first, and thus the work in what was then the Spanish territory of Quito did not really establish the earth's shape. However, like many other scientific endeavors, it had added benefits, and out of that expedition came the identification of the correct species of cinchona to make the anti-malarial quinine, and their work led to the establishment of the metric system. They also first
observed the tapping of rubber trees and production of rubber. It also gave the first good descriptions of the flora and fauna of the region, and led to the explorations of Alexander von Humboldt and others.
A second expedition over 50 years later located the markers used by the first expedition and erected a monument. In 1936 Ecuador erected a large monument to mark the Middle of the Earth. It is visited by hundreds of thousands of tourists every year, but unfortunately failed to be properly located on the equator, which is 240 meters north. If you want to be on the equator in a real monument, got to the Intiñan Solar Museum nearby, where the Inkas got it exactly right. In the interests of time, we did not visit either of those sites, but stopped at another place purportedly on the equator, where couples got the obligatory across-the-equator kissing pictures and tried to demonstrate the reputed limb weakness at the equator, without convincing evidence of such. We were fortunately spared the bogus demonstration of coriolis effects on water. Given the situation with regard to the Middle of the Earth monument, I have no idea whether we were actually
All decked out for panga ride
Both of us got the hat and life vest memo
on the equator, but assume we were pretty close. Arguably, one would put the Middle of the Earth somewhere in the Atlantic Ocean off the western coast of Gabon (Africa) where the prime meridian crosses the equator.
We checked in for our flight at the Quito airport, flew to Guayaquil and then on to San Cristóbal Island in the Galápagos. There are two airports in the islands, and this is the smaller and therefore less busy one, chosen by Natural Habitat Adventures for precisely that reason.
The Galápagos Islands, particularly for those with a scientific bent, are a fabled destination. The theory of evolution, first proposed by Darwin and Alfred Wallace, underlies just about all of biology, maybe even holding a similar place for biology as Einstein's general relativity does for physics. The folklore is often presented that Darwin took his voyage on the Beagle, noticed the different shapes of finch beaks on the different islands of the Galapágos, and came home and wrote On The Origin of Species. Actually, Darwin was unaware of what he had when he returned to England. He Was both more interested in, and more prepared for, the study of the geology of
Adopting usual wary and attentive pose
the places he visited on his 5 year voyage on the Beagle. His Galápagos interests leaned more toward the mockingbirds than the finches. When he returned to England, he wrote book about his journey that made him a best-selling author, but his On the Origin of Species
did not come until about 20 years later. His breakthrough came about as he came to realize that natural selection as a result of competitive pressures could explain evolution. His theory has undergone substantial revision over time to account for more mathematical analyses and for discoveries in cell biology and genetics, but remains at the core of the bedrock that underlies all of biology today. The implications for human evolution were recognized immediately, and there was the expected backlash from some clerics, although others supported evolution as being just another method by which the Deity accomplished His ends. Strikingly, the word evolution is never used in the book, the closest being a single use of the world "evolved" in the final concluding statement. I will leave it to the reader to examine the contributions of others, and most particularly Alfred Wallace, to the scientific advance.
Today, even a casual visitor can see
In typical roosting pose
that the various islands have differing species and body morphs. One one island the marine iguanas are small, on another island they are bigger. One one island the prickly pear cactuses have just soft hairs rather than spines in order to not make it inconvenient for the mockingbirds that act as their pollinators, whereas on another island they have copious stiff spines as protection from predators. The beaks of finches are shaped according to the feeding needs of their location. Tortoise shells vary in shape according to whether the animals are able to feed on the the soft grasses in highlands or must reach high for the foliage of shrubs. Furthermore, you can envision the evolutionary effect of population isolation easily, since birds that are able to fly between the islands have uniform types (such as boobies, pelicans, etc.)
Since our day was largely consumed with travel, the opportunity for sightseeing was limited to a panga ride along the coast of San Cristobal, seeing many of the animals from the boats that we would later encounter up close on land.
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