A trip of a lifetime

A trip of a lifetime

The cactus-eating finch on the Galapagos Islands in the Pacific Ocean sports a long, thin beak that works well for crushing seeds. Other mangrove-dwelling finches grew a thick beak that gives them the upper hand when hunting insects. Believe it or not, all 13 finch species on the islands are descended from the same ancestor.

When British scientist Charles Darwin arrived on the isolated archipelago more than 100 years ago, he was astonished by the wealth of wildlife to be found. His observations led him to develop his influential theory of natural selection. And thanks to the islands' remoteness, and some astounding conservation efforts, the flora and fauna there today are no less astonishing, as a group of students discovered.

Ten budding University of Hong Kong scientists spent nearly two weeks studying the islands' wildlife last summer. Their findings form part of a new exhibition "Spice Up, Galapagos!", a tribute to Darwin's voyage, at K11 shopping mall.

The ecology students just missed seeing the Galapagos Islands' best-known resident, a giant tortoise called Lonesome George. He died in June last year, aged more than 100, the month before the students arrived.

The islands were named after the giant tortoises - "galapago" is old Spanish for "tortoise". Lonesome George was the last known Pinta Island tortoise, but many other 100-year-old tortoises survive at a reserve on the island of San Cristobal.

Student Chung Yun-tak was amazed by how the giant reptiles have evolved. "Those that feed on high-growing cactus have developed a curved shell, shaped like a horse saddle, which allows their long necks to extend," he says. "Other grass-eating tortoises have flatter, dome-shaped shells."

The tortoises' slow metabolism and large internal stores of water mean they can survive without food for up to 18 months, he says.

"The good thing is they are survivors, and can live for up to 152years," he adds. "But they don't reproduce frequently. They were hunted for their meat in the past, and this has affected their numbers." Today, only 15,000 giant tortoises remain.

Other highlights of the students' field trip, led by biologist Billy Hau Chi-hang and sponsored by K11, were the basking lizards, which change colour according to their body temperatures, and close-up encounters with curious sea lions and flightless cormorants.

Chung says his favourite memory was swimming in the shallows as blue-footed boobies and brown pelicans dived into the sea to feed only a metre away.

"It's something you see only on television," he says. "But I was standing there in chest-deep water. It was amazing to watch how the birds could control their speed and the depth of their dives."

Fellow student Yusei Lo Oi-yan was surprised by how fearless and curious the animals were when they saw tourists. Some baby sea lions rushed towards her, she says. "We had to step back and stay two metres away for safety and health reasons," she says.

Female seals recognise their young using scent, she says. "If humans touch them, the pups may lose their scent and their mothers will abandon them. Females don't usually adopt another's pup, so once one is deserted, it'll die."

The students faced strict quarantine regulations on the islands. All trips were made with guides, and there was a ban on night visits. All overhead luggage compartments on flights were sprayed with pesticides to stop foreign species, such as seeds, ants and worms, posing a threat to the islands' indigenous ecosystem.

The trip was "a once in a lifetime experience", says Chung. "Even if we could fund a second trip, we'd never recreate the thrill of being with nine other nature lovers."

"Spice Up, Galapagos!" runs at K11 until March 17

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