Today, the Galapagos of the Indian Ocean. The
University of Houston's College of Engineering
presents this series about the machines that make
our civilization run, and the people whose
ingenuity created them.
The Socotra Archipelago
reaches 250 miles east from Somalia into the Indian
Ocean. Its four islands lie about that same
distance south of Yemen. The area of the large
island, Socotra, is 1400 square miles. Quiet and
remote, its population is some 44,000. (Only sixty
or so people live on the three small islands.)
For years the Archipelago was owned by South Yemen,
a Marxist friend of the old Soviet Union. A Soviet
air base on Socotra kept it isolated. Then, the
Soviet Union collapsed, North and South Yemen
reunited, and the Archipelago began opening up. In
1999, passenger jets began flying in. Now
developers want to start building five-star hotels
and golf courses.
But there's a catch. Socotra is a great pocket of
odd flora and fauna -- like the Galapagos. Both are
small chains, severed from the historical flow of
evolution in the continents. Both are homes to
major, separate, evolutionary processes.
More than eight hundred plant species have been
identified on Socotra, and 240 of them are unique.
The study of its animal species is far less
complete. So far, 140 bird species have been
identified, with new ones turning up all the time.
Socotra's reptiles are almost all indigenous
The identification of Socotran insects has hardly
begun. But one general feature is apparent: The
indigenous ones all have shorter wings -- wings
that keep them from reaching the mainland.
For all this biodiversity, Socotra has no
indigenous mammals beyond some local bats. That,
and the kinship of its plants with ancient forms,
suggests that Socotra has been isolated from Africa
and the Arabian Peninsula since before the
evolution of mammals.
So this is a fine window into the past. Science
Magazine goes to Yemen's minister of foreign
affairs, Abdulkarim Al-Eryani, who happens to be a
Yale-educated biologist. Al-Eryani points to some
imported sheep, munching quietly upon a very
unfamiliar-looking tree. As they chew, a red fluid
flows forth. This is called the Dragon's Blood
Tree, for it bleeds red sap when it's wounded.
The United Nations has now pledged five million
dollars to explore sustainable development and
conservation on Socotra. Yemen has put in another
third of a million. And, while they work on
protecting Socotra, you can book
an ecotour. But you'll find no hotels on Orbitz
-- well, at least not yet.
The people of Socotra fish, herd, and do
subsistence farming. The fishing's superb, and, in
recent years, Socotran waters have drawn outside
fishermen. Their large boats and net-fishing pose a
severe threat to the Socotran food supply.
Well that's the problem when you live in Eden.
Others want to join you -- with their five-star
hotels, golf courses, and dune buggies. I write
this in 2004 and I will certainly want to
take another look at Socotra in -- say -- 2010.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
Here is a fine article, written in 1995, on the
ecology of the Socotra Archipelago. http://www.aiys.org/webdate/wran.html
This web site offers some fine photos of flora and
fauna on Socotra (including the Dragon's Blood
Tree) as well asr advertising an ecotour:
E. Sohlman, A Bid to Save the 'Galapagos of the
Indian Ocean'. Science, Vol. 303, Issue
5665, 19 March, 2004, pg. 1753.
The island of Socotra is identified on the right.
You can make out one more island member of the
Socotra Archipelago to the left of Socotra.
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
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