The 138 islands that make up the Queen Charlotte archipelago lie about 130 km off the mainland coast on the edge of the continental shelf. Still a very active earthquake area, the Islands were born in a violent volcanic upheaval. Their history can be read in the intruded, uplifted and folded rock which was last glaciated approximately 12,000 years ago. Since that time when scientists postulate a land bridge existed between the islands and the mainland, the Charlottes have developed in relative isolation. As a result, a distinct flora and fauna has evolved, significantly different from what is found on the mainland.
Many species common to the BC mainland do not exist here; others have evolved as unique subspecies. Several mammals are unique to the area, including a subspecies of the North American Black Bear, a subspecies of Pine martin and species of Deer mouse, Dusky shrew, and Short-tailed weasel. The islands are also home to several subspecies of birds and plants. Subspecies of three birds, the Saw-whet owl, the Hairy woodpecker and the Stellars jay, are found only in the Charlottes. A subspecies of the Pine grosbeak is found here and on Vancouver Island, while a subspecies of the Song sparrow is here and also on the Alaskan islands. Indigenous plants include five mosses and liverworts that exist only in the Charlottes; in addition there are others known only here and in Japan or in Western Europe.
The waters around the Charlottes abound with life and activity. The arrival of spawning herring in the Spring begins an annual cycle of life for many species. Sea lions, Orca, Harbour porpoises, great flocks of seabirds all compete for this food resource. Halibut and salmon abundance is also directly related to the movements of herring, their primary food source. The Grey whales too follow the herring north in the spring and can be seen regularly through early summer in several locations. Orca, Humpback, Sei, Finback and Minke whales are also frequently seen in these waters. The largest breeding colony of Stellars sea lions on the west coast resides near Cape St. James.
Perhaps the most spectacular natural phenomena of the Charlottes is the arrival and nesting activities of an estimated 1.5 million seabirds along some 25,000 km shoreline from May through August. Many of these species are burrow-nesters such as the Ancient murrelet, Rhinoceros auklet, Tufted and horned puffin, Cassin's auklet, and Leach's and Fork-tailed storm petrels. Common murres and Pelagic cormorants also nest along the Charlottes coastline as do hundreds of Bald eagles and Peales peregrine falcons.
Until recently the Islands have provided prime undisturbed habitat for an abundance of nesting seabirds. Now however, the unique ecosystem that has inspired biologists to refer to Haida Gwaii as the "Canadian Galapagos" is threatened. With the coming of European settlement, came many new species as well. Some startling facts: at least 20% of the leafy plants that are reproducing and spreading on Haida Gwaii have been introduced in the past century; approximately 50% of mammal species have been introduced since 1900. Local plants, animals and birds are now suffering the consequences of these introductions. Nesting seabird populations are in particular jeopardy given their vulnerability to predation by rats, raccoons, and red squirrel.