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The truth about Vonnegut's iguanas in Galapagos

How they digested the inedible seaweed

Dear Matthew: In his novel Galapagos, Kurt Vonnegut describes the dining habits of the iguanas in the region. Basically, he says they make their way down the rocky cliffs to the sea, where they eat a large quantity of indigestible seaweed. So they lie on the rocks, bake in the sun, and thus become the cooking vat for the seaweed. Is that true, or is it another Kurtism? I’ve been to libraries, had friends check it out on the Internet, made a fool of myself by asking a ridiculous array of people, and now I’m even resorting to asking you! — H. Ross, Solana Beach

Take it from me, nothing builds character faster than making a fool of yourself in print. Think of your inquiry not so much as a desperation move, but as one more hour on the great psychic NordicTrak to wellness. Personally, I’ll ignore the part about my being some exponential step beyond “ridiculous.”

The science in Galapagos was based on Kurt’s background in anthropology and a trip he took to the islands in the early ’80s, escorted by several biologists. But of course, he’s a novelist given to tweaking reality, so a Vonnegut fan should hardly be surprised when he extends fact into the realm of imagination. The animal in question is the marine iguana (Amblyrhinchus cristatus), the only marine lizard, found nowhere else in the world. As Vonnegut says, it does “waddle down to the ocean” to feed. The marine iguana eats a certain kind of (readily digestible) red-brown algae; and as a cold-blooded creature, it must bask in the sun for many hours after a dunk in the ocean to raise its body temperature. But it is not “using itself for a covered stewpot, getting hotter and hotter while the sunshine cooks the seaweed.”

If literary imagination isn’t enough of an explanation for Vonnegut’s scenario, here’s my guess about the origin of lizard-baked seaweed. If he was on the islands in the early ’80s, he would surely know about the sudden die-off of marine iguanas caused by the rise in ocean temperature from the severe ’82-’83 El Nino. The iguanas’ primary food became scarce, and they began eating a type of seaweed that for them was indigestible. For a long time afterward, biologists found marine iguanas stuffed full of food but dying of malnutrition. Vonnegut perhaps extended the image of the dying iguana into an image of resourceful iguana as convection oven. The peabrained animals in Galdpagos, after all, were unconsciously more noble and “smarter” than the vicious, venal, big-brained humans.

And what did you make of the “vampire finches” that pecked at the idiot captain’s bedsores until he jumped into the ocean and was eaten by a shark? Were they real? A Kurtism? Well, one sharp-beaked type of Darwin’s finch on the Galapagos does peck at other birds for their blood, but they don’t attack humans. Except in a Vonnegut novel.

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Dear Matthew: In his novel Galapagos, Kurt Vonnegut describes the dining habits of the iguanas in the region. Basically, he says they make their way down the rocky cliffs to the sea, where they eat a large quantity of indigestible seaweed. So they lie on the rocks, bake in the sun, and thus become the cooking vat for the seaweed. Is that true, or is it another Kurtism? I’ve been to libraries, had friends check it out on the Internet, made a fool of myself by asking a ridiculous array of people, and now I’m even resorting to asking you! — H. Ross, Solana Beach

Take it from me, nothing builds character faster than making a fool of yourself in print. Think of your inquiry not so much as a desperation move, but as one more hour on the great psychic NordicTrak to wellness. Personally, I’ll ignore the part about my being some exponential step beyond “ridiculous.”

The science in Galapagos was based on Kurt’s background in anthropology and a trip he took to the islands in the early ’80s, escorted by several biologists. But of course, he’s a novelist given to tweaking reality, so a Vonnegut fan should hardly be surprised when he extends fact into the realm of imagination. The animal in question is the marine iguana (Amblyrhinchus cristatus), the only marine lizard, found nowhere else in the world. As Vonnegut says, it does “waddle down to the ocean” to feed. The marine iguana eats a certain kind of (readily digestible) red-brown algae; and as a cold-blooded creature, it must bask in the sun for many hours after a dunk in the ocean to raise its body temperature. But it is not “using itself for a covered stewpot, getting hotter and hotter while the sunshine cooks the seaweed.”

If literary imagination isn’t enough of an explanation for Vonnegut’s scenario, here’s my guess about the origin of lizard-baked seaweed. If he was on the islands in the early ’80s, he would surely know about the sudden die-off of marine iguanas caused by the rise in ocean temperature from the severe ’82-’83 El Nino. The iguanas’ primary food became scarce, and they began eating a type of seaweed that for them was indigestible. For a long time afterward, biologists found marine iguanas stuffed full of food but dying of malnutrition. Vonnegut perhaps extended the image of the dying iguana into an image of resourceful iguana as convection oven. The peabrained animals in Galdpagos, after all, were unconsciously more noble and “smarter” than the vicious, venal, big-brained humans.

And what did you make of the “vampire finches” that pecked at the idiot captain’s bedsores until he jumped into the ocean and was eaten by a shark? Were they real? A Kurtism? Well, one sharp-beaked type of Darwin’s finch on the Galapagos does peck at other birds for their blood, but they don’t attack humans. Except in a Vonnegut novel.

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