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Nature, Where Art Thou? Adelheid Fischer

sea as a school of baby white-tipped sharks swam around their ankles. They strolled through cactus forests every bit as strange and fantastical as storybook drawings by Dr. Seuss. But these memories came at a price. Everywhere we looked, we found evidence that the Galápagos Islands were straining under the weight of visitors just like us. Most of the supplies that support tourists as well as residents, for example, are shipped from the mainland, everything from cereal, drinking water and cement mix to restaurant chairs, chocolate bars and “I Love Boobies” coffee mugs. Although the government limits the number of berths on tourist ships to prevent “overtourism,” land-based visitation is unregulated. And pressures are growing. For example, studies by the Charles Darwin Foundation, a nonprofit organization that promotes wildlife research and conservation, point out that the number of hotels in the Galápagos climbed from 65 in 2006 to 317 in 2017. The infrastructure that supports such increases in visitation—basic, big-ticket items such as roadway construction, trash management and sewage treatment—is inadequate. With the greater numbers of well-meaning wildlife watchers has come more pollution, more fossil-fuel consumption, more invasions of

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nonnative species and greater disturbances of native ones. All of this has led me to ask this question: Can we study nature’s adaptations closer to home, I mean, really close like in our basements and backyards, our abandoned city lots, our roadway swales? Do we have to travel to nature destinations like the Galápagos to witness what biologist Schilthuizen calls “the power of evolution and the relentless adaptability of the living world?” Experts in the emerging field of urban evolution say no. They point to selection pressures in urban areas that are as strong as any found in the Galápagos, and these pressures are forcing plants and animals to evolve in ways that are every bit as interesting. In his book Darwin Comes to Town: How the Urban Jungle Drives Evolution, Schilthuizen describes how the urban heat island, for example, is causing changes in the evolution of city ants vs. their country cousins or how the mosquitoes that live in the London Underground are not only a different species from above-ground mosquitoes, but they also are genetically different from from one subway station to another. Urban evolution research is alive and well even in the Galápagos. Scientists studying Darwin’s finches since the 1970s, Schilthuizen writes, have observed that the

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