Galapagos Islands, expedition, scientific research, California Academy of Sciences, Charles Darwin, evolution, Darwin’s finches, giant tortoises, San Francisco, earthquake

A Galapagos Expedition with a Mission: California Academy of Sciences, 1905-1906

The California Academy of Sciences 1905-1906 Galapagos expedition set sail with a mission. Despite the challenges it faced, it came home triumphant, leaving us with a deeper understanding of the islands’ evolution and ecology.

The California Academy of Sciences (CAS) was founded in 1853 in San Francisco, California, only three years after that state joined the union. It was the first institution of its kind in the western United States. CAS was a cutting-edge academy, drawing the best scientific minds of the time and encouraging women scientists to join its ranks.

At the beginning of the 20th century, CAS decided to expand its scope of study from that of California’s fascinating natural history. It would set sail for the Galapagos Islands. The mission: to gather as many Galapagos Islands species as possible and to prove Charles Darwin’s Theory of Evolution.

On June 28, 1905, the 89-foot schooner Academy left San Francisco, then the major and richest U.S. port on the Pacific coast. Aboard were eight sailor-scientists, including a geologist, mammologist, ornithologist and other specialists. At the helm of the expedition and the ship was Rollo H. Beck, considered to be the foremost specimen collector of his day.

 

The California Academy of Sciences Explores the Galapagos

The turn of the century found scientists concerned with the disappearance of species around the world. The thought at that time was that as many specimens should be collected before extinction set in. It was better that these flora and fauna be preserved in museums for future scientific research.

The Academy began its 15-month journey by making occasional stops along the Pacific coast of Mexico and Central America to gather specimens. The crew also found their sailing ship at the mercy of uncertain currents and the weather’s whims, at times becalmed and at other times lashed about in strong winds.

On September 23, 1905, the sailor-scientists finally caught sight of Chatham (San Cristobal) Island. This was the beginning of a systematic survey of the Galapagos’ flora and fauna, collecting as much as possible before the expected extinction of the islands’ unique wildlife. They touched land on 24 islands, including all the major ones (San Cristobal, Santa Cruz, Floreana, Isabela, Santiago and Española) which they visited numerous times.

These sailor-scientists gave us many lasting legacies of their time there, but three stand out. One is that they captured the only known specimen of the Fernandina species of giant tortoise (Chelonoidis phantastica); it is believed this species had a natural extinction due to the island’s frequent volcanic eruptions.

The second one is that the crew witnessed the real-time destruction of Barrington (Santa Fe) Island’s environment. Not only did they see the damage being caused by introduced species like the black rat on land iguanas and other local animals, but also the near-extinction of that island’s giant tortoise population at the hand of humans.

The third major legacy of this expedition was the name of Academy Bay on the south side of Santa Cruz Island. On November 5, 1905, upon entering this bay, the schooner Academy almost shipwrecked on a reef. (At the time, this island was uninhabited. It is amazing to think it is now home to Puerto Ayora, the largest town in the Galapagos Islands.)

The crew of the Academy received horrifying news on April 20, 1906 from the passing cargo ship, the Cotopaxi: A devastating 7.8 earthquake had struck their homeport, San Francisco, two days earlier. The city was heavily destroyed. What these sailor-scientists would not know for many months yet to come was of the three-day fire that swept the city afterward, nor the fates of their families and of the California Academy of Sciences. Their scientific mission must continue.

After one year and one day in the Galapagos archipelago, the Academy and its crew of sailor-scientists departed Culpepper (Darwin) Island – the same last visage Charles Darwin had of the Galapagos – and sailed northward.

 

The California Academy of Sciences’ Galapagos Mission Continues

When the Academy pulled into San Francisco harbor on November 29, 1906, it found a city rebuilding itself. The CAS museum and labs – which had been destroyed in the earthquake and subsequent fire – were still in ruins. The CAS would not reopen until 1916.

The over 78,000 plant, mollusk, insect, bird, mammal and reptile specimens the scientists gathered would become not only the basis for the CAS’ new museum, but also the largest Galapagos specimens collection in the world. With such a vast array of specimens, scientists gained a better understanding of the origins and evolution of the Galapagos Islands’ iconic species, the Darwin finches and the giant tortoise. Into the 21st century, these specimens are still used by scientists.

The 1905-1906 CAS expedition also yielded dozens of scientific publications, including Beck’s log (which can be read online). The entire voyage is recounted in Log of the Schooner “Academy” On a Voyage of Scientific Research to the Galapagos Islands 1905-1906 (California Academy of Sciences, Occasional Papers, XVII, 1931) by Joseph Richard Slevin, the expedition’s  assistant herpetologist and second mate, and Collecting Evolution: The Galapagos Expedition that Vindicated Darwin by Matthew J. James (Oxford University Press, 2017).

Since that first expedition to the Galapagos, the CAS has continuously returned to the islands, sponsoring dozens of expeditions. In the past few decades, it has focused on the archipelago’s marine environment. In this underwater world, CAS scientists have discovered dozens of new species. The CAS also helped establish the Charles Darwin Research Station and Galapagos National Park, and continues to collaborate in scientific research projects with these institutions.

 

The majority of the present-day knowledge of the Galapagos Islands stems from the California Academy of Sciences’ 1905-06 expedition. To this day, we continue to enjoy its legacies at the Academy’s museums, in scientific literature and in the islands themselves. When you walk the grounds of the Charles Darwin Research Station, keep your eyes peeled for a plaque dedicated to the Academy’s arrival at Academy Bay.

 

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Photo credit: Paul Krawczukm

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