Spiders and insects on the Galápagos
The Galápagos Islands are known the world over, thanks to Charles Darwin, who spent five weeks there in 1835 during his voyage on the Beagle. His observations of the flora and fauna were later to inspire him when, in his book entitled ‘On the origin of Species’, he expounded his theory of evolution. More than 1000 km from the mainland, the islands are home to many plant and animal species found nowhere else in the world. These are the islands’ endemic species, the best-known example being the Galapagos giant tortoise.
Scientists come from all over the world to study the biodiversity of the Galápagos. One of these scientists is Léon Baert, an arachnologist at the Museum of Natural Science, who has been studying the spiders of the Galapagos for 28 years.
“The Museum has had a connection with the Galápagos for a long time. In 1959, Victor Vanstraelen, the former director of the Museum, became the first president of the Charles Darwin Foundation. This international organisation gives scientists the opportunity to study the Galapagos and play an active part in preserving the nature there. It is thanks to the Charles Darwin Foundation that I was able to go on my first expedition to Galápagos in 1982. Since then I have been 10 times, most recently in early 2010. So, you could actually call this study my life’s work.”
“Expeditions to the Galápagos take a lot of time, money and effort,” says Léon For this reason, we always go as a group, and take with us not only people interested in spiders, but scientists studying other insects, such as ants or beetles. When I started in the 1980s, we knew virtually nothing about the spiders of the Galápagos Islands. The first job was to visit every island and catch spiders in as many places as possible. It was by doing this that we were able to get a picture of the spider populations. Then, in the 1990s, we began a molecular study using allozymes. These proteins tell us the degree of relatedness between species. In 2000 we started a DNA study, to try to uncover the genetic relationships between the different populations and species and, in this way, understand how they came about through the process of evolution.”