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Ecosystem Restoration: Penguin and Cormorant Censuses
CURRENT

 

Project:        Penguin and Cormorant Annual Census
Partners:     Charles Darwin Foundation, Galapagos National Park, Galapagos
                      Conservation Trust
Status:          In Progress

Flightless Cormorants on Fernandina Island (Photo by Victoria Kong)

 

Galapagos is one of the most important areas for birds in the world. More than half the bird species are endemic, and many are iconic for scientists and visitors alike. The islands are also home to some of the world’s best-known endemic seabirds. Some of these, such as the Galapagos Penguin (Spheniscus mendiculus) and the Flightless Cormorant (Phalacrocorax harrisi) have small and fluctuating populations and are listed as “Endangered” in the IUCN Red List.

The exceptional marine conditions found only in Galapagos allow these two endemic and flightless species to persist; the cold but very productive water of the Cromwell current provides them with enough resources in a relatively small area. Because El Niño episodes modify marine currents and thus considerably affect flightless species, the Galapagos penguin faces a 30% probability of extinction in the next 100 years due to the effect of more frequent El Niño episodes, as is likely to occur under global warming.

These two species are key in the terrestrial monitoring program at the CDF as not only are they endangered, but they also represent indicator species for potential impact of climate change. High quality data is essential to inform strategies for the long-term conservation of the Galapagos Penguin and the Flightless Cormorant. This project aims to continue with data collection and analysis, but also to focus on the training of National Park staff in better scientific methodology for monitoring and data analysis in general.

This annual census provides data crucial for conservation of these endemic flightless species, helping managers understand whether populations are stable, increasing, or decreasing, and to diagnose the causes of population change. Flightless species are limited in their ability to move within the Islands, and they provide a very strong indicator of ecosystem health.

The recent detection of a Plasmodium parasite species in penguin populations was of great concern. Members of this genus of parasite, transmitted by mosquitoes, cause avian malaria, and it is unknown to date whether the identified species also cause the disease. Furthermore, the potential effects of the expanding tourism industry increase the threats of these unique birds and their ecosystems.

In addition to gathering population data, scientists will use the annual census to measure dispersal of previously PIT-tagged penguins and reproduction and foraging behavior of individuals with satellite tracking devices. They will also obtain year-round data on sea surface temperature at several points in the range of the penguins and correlate changes in sea surface temperature with bird demographic factors.  As with all ongoing monitoring efforts, scientists and conservation managers will provide regular training workshops and practical sessions to park guards and technicians in monitoring techniques and basic data analysis.

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