Threatened Galapagos plants are focus of biologist's field guide

December 06, 1999

HARRISONBURG, Va. - They are found nowhere else in the world - and the last look we have at them may be in a new book written and photographed by a James Madison University assistant professor of biology.

"They" are some of the endemic plants of the Galàpagos, a 13-island archipelago off the coast of Ecuador made famous in 1845 by naturalist Charles Darwin. In imminent danger of extinction due to pressures exerted by man, these and other plants are depicted in Conley K. McMullen's comprehensive field guide, "Flowering Plants of the Galàpagos."

"Many plants native to these islands are tremendously threatened right now," McMullen said. "Some of them are found nowhere else in the world. To lose them because of interference by humans would be a tragedy."

McMullen, who first traveled to the Galàpagos in 1983 as a graduate student studying plant pollination, said some areas of native vegetation are being choked out by imported plants that thrive in the moderate island climate. Several plants that were introduced for human use or simply because they were pretty have slowly encroached on some of the less competitive endemic species and are now on the verge of eliminating them.

Many of these imported plants have no practical uses, he said.

"Even the quinine tree, which produces a treatment for malaria, is useless in the Galàpagos," McMullen said. "There is no malaria in the islands, but the tree is there in nearly uncontrollable numbers."

An additional threat comes from the many thousands of wild goats that populate a few of the major islands. Originally brought in by Ecuadorians seeking a life in the islands, these animals have voracious, non-discriminating appetites. To them, said McMullen, vegetation is vegetation, whether it's endangered or not.

And then there's man himself.

"Even though tourism to the islands has gone from about 18,000 visitors per year 16 years ago to approximately 70,000 per year today, it isn't really tourists who are trampling and destroying the vegetation," McMullen said. "Tourists travel along carefully plotted pathways. Not so the many Ecuadorians who come to the islands looking to make a living off the tourists."

McMullen said his book wasn't intended as an environmental manifesto, although it may well become that should the plants it details become extinct. Rather, he said, he wrote "Flowering Plants of the Galàpagos" as a practical, in-depth, yet compact guide to the plant life of the islands based on his fieldwork over the last 16 years.

While many reference works exist on the animal life of the Galàpagos, McMullen's book on the flora of the region is the only one of its kind and is geared toward both the layman and the scientist.

"On many of my trips to the islands, naturalist guides would ask me to accompany them on their trips," he said. "They knew plenty about the animals, but didn't know the plants, and it embarrassed them in front of tourists to not be able to answer questions. Now, with this book, both the guides and the tourists can get all the information they need about the plant life they see in the Galàpagos."

McMullen said protecting plant life in the Galàpagos is a concern of the Ecuadorian government, but one that is dictated by available funding. In the last few years the government has eliminated the goat population on one of the islands and pulled up or poisoned encroaching vegetation on others, but the problem is still overwhelming for a country that does not have unlimited resources.

"Some people might ask, 'why bother?'" McMullen said. "Certainly from a practical standpoint no one will miss some of the Galàpagos plants if they become extinct. But if we allow that to happen, we help reduce the wonderful diversity of life in nature. We impoverish ourselves and our world."

It was after conducting research in South America and the Gapàpagos Islands on the HMS Beagle from 1831 to 1836 that Darwin published his "Origin of Species," which proposed the theory of evolution.

"Flowering Plants of the Galàpagos" is published by Cornell University Press and contains a foreword by Sir Ghillean Prance, director of the Royal Botanic Gardens in the United Kingdom.
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For further information, call Dr. Conley McMullen at 540-568-3805, or write him via e-mail at

NOTE: Two JMU-led groups will travel to the Galàpagos in 2000 for natural history tours of the archipelago.

In January, Dr. Norlyn Bodkin, retired professor of biology and director of the arboretum, will lead a group of arboretum supporters to the Galàpagos and the Amazon rain forest. In addition to an examination of the flora and fauna of these two areas, the 16-day tour will include a visit to the Ecuadorian capital of Quito.

From May 12-31, Dr. Conley McMullen, assistant professor of biology, will lead students to the Galàpagos for a study that will include such plant life as the cactus forests and "daisy" trees, and animals like giant tortoises, marine iguanas and penguins. The group, which will operate out of Quito, will also visit a number of historic sites on mainland Ecuador.

December 1999 Writer: Charles Culbertson, 540-568-3674
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James Madison University

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