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Fear Takes a Holiday : Animals of Galapagos Islands Appear to Lack That Instinct

October 09, 1988|DELTHIA RICKS | United Press International

GALAPAGOS ISLANDS, Ecuador — If ever there was a land on the other side of the looking glass, this is it--a stark volcanic outpost in the Pacific where the ground is mostly rock and many animals seem to lack the instinct of fear.

Here a person can still stare down a perching hawk, nearly eye to eye, walk a path through 100 dozing iguanas, or step within inches of nesting flightless cormorants. Few animals bother to budge.

But scientists are divided over why the animals greet humans without ruffling feathers or seeking safer ground.

Heat Theory

Some say that in a place with only two seasons--dry and wet--where equatorial heat often soars well above 100 degrees, animal inhabitants try to expend as little energy as possible. And many animals' eggs would cook if left unattended in the hot sun.

But other scientists tend toward a more provocative argument, saying Galapagos creatures apparently forgot how to fear, their ancestors leaving the instinct of "fight or flight" behind when they swam, flew or floated here to escape prehistoric predators on the South American mainland.

In this archipelago of 13 islands, 600 miles off the Ecuadorean coast--often called a living laboratory of evolution--these scientists say it is the relative isolation that helped suppress the instinct and only a reckless presence of humans can bring it back.

"Fear is a very basic instinct in all animals, be they person or lizard," said biologist Graham Watkins, who studied the special flora and fauna of the Galapagos Islands at the Charles Darwin Research Station on the island of Santa Cruz.

"It's not that the instinct failed to make an imprint in these animals, it's just that many of them haven't had a need to invoke it in the way an African gazelle would, or even people who live in cities and who have a fear of crime.

"They lived here for hundreds of thousands of years before man ever arrived, in a paradise of animals, so to speak, where they all could exist in relative harmony and where, for the most part, one animal wasn't another's dinner."

This tameness, he said, has been observed in other areas of relative isolation, primarily remote islands where birds or reptiles were usually the first and, hence, predominant colonizers.

"The Falkland Islands are an example of this phenomenon," he said. "The colonizers there are very similar in behavior, and the same is true of those in the South Georgia Islands near Antarctica.

"You can walk among the albatross colonies there and not a single bird will move."

On a hike over the rocky terrain of the island of Espanola, in the Galapagos' southeast, he points to colonies of blue-footed boobies, sea birds with feet as distinctive as their habit of nesting on the ground.

This ancient nesting style could have meant extinction in an environment filled with predators, Watkins said.

Nearby, amid low-growing brush, a cousin, the masked white booby, ambles near its chick as humans walk within inches. A hawk perches on a boulder nearby.

The hawk is not a predator to either of the boobies, birds with rather formidable-looking beaks that narrow to a point. The boobies got their names from a mispronunciation of their Spanish name, bobo .

Other Factors

The fact that the birds and other animals of these islands show relatively few signs of fearing humans could have something to do with the unusual geology and equatorial positioning of the island group, as some scientists suggest.

The archipelago as a whole is a surrealistic picture come to life.

Acre upon acre of land has little or no fresh water; the barren white trees called palo santo grow in volcanic ash, and inland saltwater ponds are striking for their stillness and tinge of green caused by algae.

Any one of the 13 species of finches--made famous in evolutionary studies by 19th-Century naturalist Charles Darwin--perch within inches of people without obvious fear.

Colonies of black and orange sea iguanas, nearly camouflaged on slabs of black volcanic rock, do not scatter when people walk among them.

Pairs of albatrosses and 2-foot-tall cormorants sit nearly motionless, unfazed by human presence.

California biologist Gary Robinson, a curator at the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History, who leads walking tours of the islands, said it is speculated that the instinct of fear left the sea birds and reptiles gradually.

"One way of looking at it is that over time, they felt there was nothing to worry about. They could make their nests on the ground and not have to be concerned about the animals around them.

"They tend to respond to humans the way they respond to other animals. Most of the animals--the flightless cormorants are a good example--evolved in these islands without any major predators.

"This is their environment, and for many of them, there's nothing to worry about."

But the Galapagos Islands are not without problems.

Human Population

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