“Survival of the Weirdest”

Survival of the Fittest Weirdest

Several hundred kilometres off the coast of Ecuador, there rises an archipelago of islands known as the Galapagos. Initially, these islands gained fame due to Charles Darwin, who studied them during his fateful voyage upon the Beagle. Today, people journey to this World Heritage site because of the abundance and incredible diversity of its wildlife.

My reasons for travelling to the Galapagos were almost as diverse as the wildlife, but for the sake of this recollection, I would like to focus on just two of them. The first was that I wanted to walk in the footsteps of the man who penned the Theory of Evolution (with a respectful nod to Wallace). Few individuals have had such a profound influence—and created such enduring controversy—as the great biologist. Simply put, Darwin kicked butt: he threw a wrench into almost two thousand years of conventional thought, and he did it with the most understated document I’ve ever read—well, tried to read. (From the perspective of an English major, On the Origin of Species is as dry as week old Melba toast.) My second reason for travelling to the Galapagos was that I wanted to see a waved albatross.

Ironically, these two reasons would come to clash, and the bizarre behaviour of the albatross would leave me wondering if Darwin had overlooked some quirky loophole of natural selection.

In the Galapagos archipelago, the waved albatross can only be found on the island of Espanola, and, given that the albatross can remain in flight for an inconceivably long duration, the timing of one’s visit to the island is important. When I arrived, luck was with me, and a large colony of the birds was present.

I have to admit that my desire to see the albatross was more literary than it was biological. Ever since I read Coleridge’s “Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” I’ve wanted to experience this tragic bird for myself. In the poem, the ill-fated mariner kills an albatross—normally a portent of good luck. By doing so, he dooms his shipmates and is left to grapple with the resultant guilt.

Now, to a large extent, my perception of reality is determined by its depiction in poetry: first comes the poem, then comes the actual experience. (Doesn’t everyone do this?) Naturally, then, I anticipated seeing a bird equal to its reputation—a grim beast of forbidding aspect. What I actually witnessed could not have been more antithetical to my expectations.

I hate to admit this, but sometimes literary myth does not reflect biological truth. (Although I’ve listened for it, I’ve never heard a raven “quoth . . . nevermore.”) Contrary to my expectations, the albatross is beautiful—not scary at all. Adults stand over two feet tall and their heads are brushed with a delicate gold, richer than any precious metal.

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As I walked amongst the colony of birds, it quickly became apparent that the processes of mating and preproduction were in full swing. (Perhaps the expression “swing” may be misleading here—albatrosses mate for life.) I saw pairs of lovers gazed google-eyed at each other, and I swear I caught a glimpse of entangled wings flash momentarily from behind a rock. (Modesty precluded closer investigation.) Scattered within the fields, lone mothers protected exposed eggs. What really surprised me, however, was their mating dance. It was one of the most peculiar things I had ever seen in the wild.

Darwin’s idea regarding the process of evolution was that natural selection determined which species (or individuals within a given species) would survive and flourish. Those with traits that were the best “fit” to a certain environment would be those most likely to survive within that environment—hence the expression: survival of the fittest. But what natural process could possibly have led to the mating dance of the albatross? Survival of the fittest? More like survival of the weirdest. How could Darwin have missed this?

En route to the Galapagos, I anticipated that I would experience a variety of emotions. After all, the process of life and death is daily played out upon those islands. I saw new born chicks hugging tightly to their mothers, and immediately after would stumble upon the fresh corpse of a young sea lion. Joy, sadness, wonder, awe. It’s all there.

What I didn’t expect was comic relief. I didn’t expect to laugh out loud. I’ve heard of sexual sparring, but the sword fight of the albatross puts even the most flirtatious co-eds to shame. I do not claim to understand what manner of evolutionary process led to the creation of such a ritual, but (with tongue firmly in cheek) I must say that Darwin got this one wrong.

(To see the video, please use the following link: Youtube.)

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