No Two Alike

While they are all volcanic, each island is unique. On Española, the sand is soft and white. On Floreana, the sand is the color of brown sugar. But if you look closely, you will see specks of green.

On Floreana, millions of tiny shards of a precious gem called olivine, or peridot, coat the beach. Genovesa’s beaches could not be more different from these. Its beaches are made up of large, razor‑sharp rocks that can slice through the soles of your shoes.

Older islands seem more lush and green. That’s because they’ve had more time to develop plants and animals. Weathering and erosion from wind and waves break rocks down into fertile soil and sand. Trees and other plants take root in the rich soil. As they grow, they create good places for animals to live and forage.

Waved albatrosses rule the skies over the Galápagos islands.

Sea lions bask on the volcanic rock.

Coming to Galápagos

The Galápagos are sparsely populated with people. Five of the islands are inhabited—Santa Cruz, Isabela, Floreana, San Cristóbal, and Baltra.✻  The total population is only about 30,000, but the islands host some of the strangest biodiversity of plants and animals in the world. How did they reach these remote places? The answer to this question might surprise you.

Most of the plants and animals there today came from those that traveled from South America long ago. Some of the first animals were probably birds. Seabirds, like the waved albatrosses or the massive, jet‑black frigatebirds, may have come to the islands for a resting or nesting place. These birds may have brought seeds from the mainland that they caught in their feathers. Seeds may also have reached the islands in bird poop. Whichever way they came, those seeds took root and grew.

No one lives on Baltra, but people work there.

Over time, many plants have taken root and grown all over this island.

By Sea and By Air

Other seeds floated to the islands. Mangrove seeds are long, thin, waterproof, and weighted on one end. Ocean currents carry them until they hit a shoreline. Then they tip, heavy‑side down, and take root. Many Galápagos Islands are ringed with mangrove forests. Their roots form a grid that slows the tide. These places become nurseries for many species of fish—a safe place for their young.

Insects arrived on the island as well. Some species of beetle had wings strong enough to fly there. Others came another way. Galápagos spiders “ballooned” their way across the ocean. Shooting out a specially adapted silk that is flattened like a blade, spiders were carried hundreds of kilometers on winds.

Long ago, giant tortoises floated to the Galápagos from South America.

Many Galápagos flowers bloom white or yellow—the colors that draw the islands’ carpenter bees.

Carpenter bees arrived by mistake. These creatures typically lay their eggs in pieces of driftwood. The driftwood was carried by ocean waves straight to the islands.

What about larger animals? Giant tortoises can’t swim, but they can float. Other reptiles may have floated their way there on patches of vegetation. Because reptiles can go for long periods without food or water, they easily survived the long trip.

With no predators to gobble them up once they’d arrived, these creatures settled into their new home and slowly evolved to cope with life on the islands. These were some of the islands’ first colonists. But many more were to come, brought to the islands by the ocean itself.