Galapagos 2014: Year in Review

December 31, 2014

It’s been a great year for conservation in Galapagos, from hand-rearing endangered mangrove finches to repatriating tortoises to their islands of origin. Here are ten of our favorite stories from 2014:

1. The Galapagos Tortoise Webcams Come to Life

With more than 1,000 visitors per month worldwide since their launch in late 2013, the four webcams at the Fausto Llerena Tortoise Center on Santa Cruz have become an increasingly popular way to watch Galapagos tortoises remotely…but it wasn’t easy installing the first wildlife webcams in the remote Galapagos Islands! One of our favorite blog posts of 2014 was our interview with Dr. James Gibbs of the State University of New York’s College of Environmental Science and Forestry (SUNY-ESF) and Sean Burnett of Wildlife Intel, who worked closely with the Galapagos National Park to get the cameras set up and running smoothly. From guiding Ethernet cables over trees to shielding the cameras from 400-pound adult tortoises, this was by no means a small feat. 

A young tortoise peers into a web camera.

2. Hope for Endangered Mangrove Finches

A landmark program to prevent mangrove finches from going extinct launched in 2014, and with great success. There are only 60-80 mangrove finches left in existence, all on the western coast of Isabela Island — making extinction a sobering possibility. Like other land birds in Galapagos, mangrove finches are threatened by the parasitic fly Philornis downsi, whose larvae feed on the blood of nestlings and cause a high mortality rate. This past spring, researchers hatched and hand-reared 15 mangrove finch chicks in captivity before successfully releasing them back to their natural habitat — effectively keeping the threat of extinction at bay, for now. In the meantime, scientists are studying the Philornis fly in order to find a way to eradicate it permanently.

A mangrove finch awaits its release.

3. Crisis Averted: Wrecked Cargo Ship Removed from Galapagos Waters

Galapaface I ship being sunk.More than two months after running aground off Punta Carola on San Cristóbal Island, the cargo ship Galapaface I was successfully towed to a safe distance outside of the Galapagos Marine Reserve (GMR) and sunk in July of this year. Concerns that the ship posed a contamination risk after running aground in May abounded in the wake of the oil tanker Jessica that wrecked in 2001 — spilling 175,000 gallons of diesel and fuel oil into the ocean. Thankfully, a similar fate was averted with the Galapaface I, as its fuel stores and other contaminants were painstakingly removed shortly after it initially ran aground. Periodic environmental monitoring studies are being conducted to ensure the fragile marine ecosystems surrounding San Cristóbal have not sustained any lasting damage from the wreck.

4. Radiolab Podcast Explores Galapagos Conservation Efforts

Radiolab logoIn July, popular podcast Radiolab dedicated an episode to some of the biggest conservation successes and challenges in the Galapagos Islands. Produced by WNYC and picked up by nearly 500 NPR stations across the US, Radiolab’s podcasts are downloaded by more than 4 million people each month. This special hour-long episode dedicated solely to Galapagos features interviews with GC’s Dr. Linda Cayot and many of our grantees and partners in the Islands. 

5. Artificial Nests Give Galapagos Penguins a Boost 

The Galapagos penguin is the most endangered penguin species in the world, in part due to limited options for nest sites in the Islands. Many nests used in the past either no longer exist or are no longer viable, which inspired Dr. Dee Boersma of the University of Washington and her research team to build 120 artificial nests in 2010. This summer, Dr. Boersma reported that ten of the constructed nests sites contained eggs or chicks, and at least one-quarter of the total active nests have been constructed nests since the project’s inception. Dr. Boersma has recommended that the Galapagos National Park create several “Penguin Conservation Zones” in order to provide additional, ongoing protection for these rare birds.

Two Galapagos penguins.

6. Using Drones to Advance Conservation Science

In Galapagos, a research team is using drones — or Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) — to photograph entire islands at remarkably high resolution as part of the Galapagos UAV Project. The resulting images make it possible to identify individual plants and animals with virtually no impact on the environment. This past summer, a research team visited the islands of Plazas and Española to take an initial set of baseline images; follow-up images will be taken at the same points in several years in order to monitor changes in the ecosystem over time. In addition to providing a baseline, imagery will be used to survey the number of waved albatross and prickly pear cactus on Española, land iguanas on South Plazas, and eventually giant tortoises on Santa Fe. 

A research team with a drone on Plazas Island.

7. Lonesome George Exhibit Launches in NYC

The Lonesome George exhibit at AMNH.In September, the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) hosted a panel discussion moderated by Chief Conservation Scientist Dr. Eleanor Sterling to launch the opening of the long-awaited exhibit for Lonesome George — the last known tortoise from Pinta Island who died in 2012. A sold-out audience of 300 listened to the remarks of Galapagos National Park Director Dr. Arturo Izurieta, GC President Johannah Barry, GC Science Advisor Dr. Linda Cayot, and Dr. James Gibbs of SUNY-ESF, all of whom knew and had worked with Lonesome George for years prior to his death. Following the iconic tortoise’s death in 2012, Galapagos Conservancy took on the complicated task of coordinating and funding the international journey to bring his body to the Museum, where a team of master taxidermists worked for more than a year to preserve him for posterity. Lonesome George will be on exhibit at AMNH in New York until January 2015 before being returned to Ecuador. 

8. Conservation Success Story for the Española Tortoise

A study published in PLOS ONE in October reported that efforts to reintroduce the endemic Española giant tortoise have been successful — which is saying a lot, considering that their population had dwindled to only 15 individuals in the 1960s. Those remaining tortoises were captured and bred in captivity, and over the last nearly 40 years, nearly 2,000 have been repatriated to Española Island. According to the study, approximately half of those tortoises are alive today, and many are now breeding naturally on the island. This means that their population is considered stable, making the risk of future extinction low. The study’s authors included Dr. James Gibbs of SUNY-ESF, Dr. Linda Cayot of GC, and Giant Tortoise Restoration Initiative (GTRI) Director Wacho Tapia.

An Espanola Island tortoise.

9. First-Ever Review of the Galapagos Tortoise Breeding and Rearing Centers 

Juvenile tortoises at a breeding center.In November, the first annual review of the three Tortoise Breeding and Rearing Centers in Galapagos was completed by GC’s Dr. Linda Cayot, Dr. Joe Flanagan of the Houston Zoo, Wacho Tapia of the GTRI, and Galapagos National Park staff. At all three Centers, the team encountered hundreds of healthy tortoises and several with problems, most of which they hope to remedy with improved diet and increased access to sunlight. They also identified several areas for improving the overall program, including data management, infrastructure maintenance, and tortoise feeding — some of which are already being implemented by Park staff. The best practices from each facility will eventually be combined into a care manual to improve the production and vitality of tortoises used to restore Galapagos biodiversity.

10. Comprehensive Population Survey Conducted of Pinzón Island Tortoises 

Wacho Tapia surveys the rough terrain of Pinzon Island.Dr. James Gibbs, Wacho Tapia, and Galapagos National Park rangers conducted a  comprehensive population survey of the giant tortoises of Pinzón in December, an island where tortoise numbers had dropped to less than 200 following their depredation by whalers in the 1800s. Rats, introduced to Pinzón in the late 1800s, then preyed on all young hatchling tortoises and effectively prevented any future population growth. Dr. Gibbs and his team now estimate the overall population of tortoises to be more than 500 — a near tripling of the population since the Galapagos National Park was established in 1959, thanks to a successful captive rearing and repatriation program and a rat eradication campaign.

We’re happy to end the year on a high note, and look forward to many more exciting developments in 2015. Happy New Year!


Photo credits, from top: © J. Gibbs, F. Cunninghame, GNP, Radiolab, L. Wesley, J. Gibbs, JargaPix Photography, J. Gibbs, J. Flanagan, J. Gibbs.


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