600m sw fernandina wet forest1

Dr. Godfrey Merlen on the slopes of Fernandina Volcano, Galapagos Islands.

Dr. Godfrey Merlen is an English biologist who has called the Galapagos Islands home for the last forty years. He is known as an eloquent and tireless advocate for the archipelago and its wildlife and has played a pivotal role in many of the most important conservation issues in the islands over the last four decades, including the establishment of airplane fumigation procedures to help prevent the arrival of new invasive species and the creation of the Galapagos Whale Sanctuary. He has worked with various NGOs in the islands including the Charles Darwin Foundation and Sea Shepherd International, where he has focused his efforts on fighting illegal fishing and protecting the Galapagos Marine Reserve. Dr. Merlen has published three books on the wildlife of the islands. 

About Galapagos: How did you end up in the Galapagos, of all places? 

Godfrey Merlen: In a nutshell, I was young and working in the fishing industry off the east coast of England when I decided my life needed a drastic turn. It was dreadfully apparent that the by-catch was tremendous and hours were spent by the crew shoveling this mass of organic and inorganic “unwanted “ debris back into the sea, whilst the gulls forever followed the wake of the boat. I had read widely, including “Silent spring” and “Great Waters,” concerning nature and the fate of biodiversity and decided one night that I needed to see what this “biodiversity” was about and what ails it! Galapagos is known to the world not only for the extraordinary biota it contains and its association with Charles Darwin, but also for the tameness of its creatures. It was rumored you could see nature “up close.” This seemed to be the place for me! And it was and is, after 40 years and more! Moreover the islands abounded in wilderness and wildness. Rough country. I worked as a volunteer at the Charles Darwin Research Station and loved its library and the contact with the scientists who sometimes spent months literally at “World’s End.” I was permitted to go on field trips during which a fascination of the islands was born that has never left me.

About Galapagos: What are some of the biggest changes that you’ve seen in the islands, positive and negative, during that time?

Godfrey Merlen:  In one word; transport. The explosion of transport systems between the South American continent and the Galapagos Islands has been staggering. There were no scheduled flights when I arrived. Traveling to Baltra in hopes that a military airplane would take you back to the mainland was risky, for there was no shelter and no guarantee that a plane would arrive and, if it didn’t, that there would be an old creaky fishing boat to take you home! Today three companies serve the islands and multiple flights arrive every day. Positive in the sense that you can come and go more or less as you like. Negative in that there is no doubt that the continuing arrival of new species is due to cargo boats and aircraft that transit the seas and air. Many species are not invasive, but it is extremely difficult to know which will be and which not. Some have arrived that are extremely dangerous for the fragile oceanic island ecosystems.

 About Galapagos: In your mind, what are the biggest conservation challenges in the Galapagos right now?

Godfrey Merlen: In two words; invasive species. From the beginning of the arrival of mankind many domestic animals were brought to the islands to support farming and survival. Amongst them dogs, cats, cattle, horses, mules, donkeys, chickens, and goats. At the same time, rats and mice arrived accidentally. Goats are voracious herbivores and dogs, cats, and rats are top line predators. Both herbivores and predators are dangerous to the fragile ecosystems of the Galapagos Islands.  Since that time many plants and insects have arrived, mostly by accident, some of which threaten the survival of species, even ecosystems. The hill raspberry, whose origin is India, is known as a transformer species, capable of transforming ecosystems by its dominance of other plants. The fly Philornis, whose larva can kill nestlings in nests of small land birds, is now widespread, reducing the reproductive success of rare and endemic birds. It is considered the most grave threat to the land birds.  

About Galapagos: What have been the biggest conservation success stories?

Godfrey Merlin: The governments of Ecuador have been well aware of the immense value of the Galapagos, a World Heritage Site, for decades. To this end the Galapagos National Park was created in 1959 and the Marine Reserve in 1998. These are protected areas. There is no question that several species of the symbolic giant tortoises have been saved from extinction by a close collaboration between Ecuador and the Charles Darwin Foundation. This was achieved through a captive breeding program developed specifically for the purpose. The removal of goats from the great volcanoes of Isabela was a singularly successful campaign saving a unique habitat from desertification. Another highly noteworthy achievement was the control of a species of introduced scale insect from Australia which was attacking 80 species of native and endemic plants. This was the outcome of a meticulous scientific study of the insect and its natural predator, a ladybug. Releasing the ladybug was predicted to achieve control of the scale insect, without danger to native or endemic species. The prediction proved correct! The creation of the new Biosecurity Agency by the present government is an exceptional sign of awareness that introduced species are a very grave issue and demanded a specialized department of the Ministry of the Environment to combat them, both those established in the islands and the prevention and detection of those that potentially arrive in luggage on aircraft or stowed away on cargo vessels. This excellent decision demonstrates that transport systems, the lifeblood of the economy of the islands, have broken the isolation of the islands, and continue to pose a risk to the biodiversity and ecology of Galapagos.

About Galapagos: Are you optimistic about the future of the Galapagos? 

Godfrey Merlen: I suppose I’m an optimist at heart believing that we, as human beings, will finally come to understand the extraordinary processes of nature, wonder at them, and be inspired by the beauty of the inorganic and organic worlds that lie before us each day. We are of nature and therefore inseparable from it. Our cultures are riddled with stories of the natural world. The question for Galapagos is how we view nature now. If we uniquely see it as a producer of “services,” of things we need, I am unsure of its destiny. If we see it as a system of vital organisms, as vital as we view ourselves, then the panorama changes for the better.

About Galapagos: Why do you think people should care about protecting the Galapagos Islands?

Godfrey Merlen: There are many epithets that have been applied to Galapagos; unique, Darwin’s Islands, adaptive radiation, greatest treasures, incredible, magical. Some are more practical and down to earth but others express a feeling that the place imposes, and, I would dare to say, that it is that feeling, gained from an open-minded experience, which is the most important reason to save the Galapagos Islands. I believe I know what people mean by the deep feeling they find here. It has, perhaps, something to do with being in an intimate space with other living creatures on their own terms and within a highly dynamic environment. Take the picture below. You might say that it is a view of a cactus on a huge lava field. The reality is that you sense the huge extent of the lava of this young volcano, hot from the sun. You hear the wind whispering through the spines of the cactus. You see the fallen stem segments, and wonder how this plant arrived here, perhaps. Yet all this turns into a deep indescribable feeling that will remain. Perhaps for all your life. This is an immense value that nothing can replace. And Galapagos is irreplaceable.

Cactus in lava field, Galapagos Islands


About Galapagos: What is the most important or most surprising thing you’ve learned from living in the Galapagos for so long?

Godfrey Merlen: I have been privileged to see deep into the ocean, high into the sky. I have found new fish, described the hunting of furseals and the adaptation of snakes. Have wandered deep into Galapagos with sperm whales, penguins, and giant tortoises, and seen the sea white with bioluminescence. But the lesson is simple: That the power of observation and listening to nature are priceless treasures. Galapagos abounds in unique opportunities for both.  

About Galapagos: What would you like to tell people who are going to be visiting the Galapagos for the first time?

Godfrey Merlen: Do not expect anything, Just go with an open mind and unexpected surprises will greet you wherever you look. But remember to look and don’t hurry by. Live the journey for the destination may not be the expected one! It is always worth keeping in touch with Galapagos. Its conservation is a very complex issue and perhaps you might be interested to actively help. As a starting point I would suggest checking out the Charles Darwin Foundation on the web. It has the longest record of working to conserver the Islands and is, at present, investigation some of the most difficult, yet vital, issues that face the future well being of Galapagos. Earlier this year, you announced a surprising discovery that you made – you identified a previously unknown behavior in a small species of land snake on the island of Fernandina. Can you tell us about it and why you think it’s important? For me this discovery was fascinating and brought the natural history of the Islands bright and clear to my mind.  The fact is that so much is written about Galapagos and the adaptation of species that you almost feel “it all happened back then,” and that now we live in a steady state of species adapted to particular, sometimes remarkable and unique ways. The blood drinking finches of Wolf Island or the iguanas the feed on the bottom of the sea are two examples. But in the present day on the wild shores of the vigorously active volcano Fernandina, perhaps only 31,000 years in the making, endemic snakes have taken to the intertidal zone to feed on fish, an unrecorded and rather bizarre adaptation since none of their relations in South America have this habit. Their principal diet at Cape Douglas appears to be another curiously adapted animal, the four-eyed blenny, endemic to the Galapagos. This fish spends considerable time out of the water between high tides where it is free from marine predators and feeds on crustaceans. Now, unfortunately for these little animals, they are available to the darting jaws of the cunning, and remarkably adaptive, snakes!

It’s importance lies in the fact that it demonstrates the capability of animals in novel environments to adapt to them and then, potentially, to evolve both behaviorally and/or morphologically into new species. Darwin’s theory in action! I am delighted to bring this activity to the public notice and state, categorically, that Galapagos truly lives vigorously involved in the deepest processes of nature, adaptation! This must be the extremely valid argument for conserving the Enchanted Islands.