May was a busy month for Galapagos, from a new study on Darwin’s Finches’ fight for survival to the cargo ship that remains stranded on the rocks off of San Cristobal. Here we recap some of the month’s top stories.
Darwin’s Finches Use Cotton Balls to Fight Deadly Parasite
The parasitic nest fly Philornis downsi represents a serious threat to Darwin’s finches, the iconic species that informed Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution. Fly larvae feed on the blood of newly-hatched nestlings and can kill most or all nestlings at a given site. Researchers have been grappling with how to eliminate the flies without harming the birds — and Sarah Knutie, a Biology PhD student from the University of Utah, may have found a solution. She recently led a research team that treated cotton with a mild pesticide and dispersed it throughout a field site on Santa Cruz Island for birds to take back to their nests.
By the end of the breeding season, they found that nests woven with insecticide-treated cotton only harbored about half as many flies compared to nests woven with water-treated cotton (the control for the study). Overall, more nestlings fledged from experimental nests than from control nests, suggesting that “self-fumigation” for these iconic birds may be an effective way to combat the parasite. Such an effort would complement the Mangrove Finch Captive Rearing Program at the Charles Darwin Foundation, which hand-rears these critically endangered chicks in a Philornis-free environment and will attempt to successfully release juveniles into the wild.
Citizen Science: New Penguin and Vermilion Flycatcher Sightings in Galapagos
A naturalist guide kayaking near Genovesa recently spotted a juvenile penguin, making it the first reported penguin sighting ever for the island. Galapagos penguins are the rarest and most endangered penguin species in the world, and conservation efforts such as building artificial penguin nests are helping to increase their population. Similarly, a Vermilion Flycatcher was recently seen on Rabida Island, also by a naturalist guide — which is the first sighting on record since 1906. Shortly after announcing the latter sighting on Facebook, GC was contacted by a member of an unrelated research team in Galapagos who shared his personal photos of several Flycatchers on Rabida in 2010 and 2011.
Vermilion Flycatchers are declining on certain islands in Galapagos, which makes these observations important to scientists and conservationists. The recent penguin and Flycatcher sightings are great examples of “citizen science,” whereby members of the Galapagos community, naturalist guides, and visitors to the Islands can help to inform research efforts by reporting observations that aren’t always possible for scientists in the field to capture.
Wrecked Cargo Ship Off San Cristobal a Challenge to Remove
San Cristobal residents were given an unpleasant reminder of the oil tanker Jessica that ran aground off the coast of Puerto Baquerizo Moreno in 2001 when cargo ship Galapaface 1 suffered the same fate earlier this month. Luckily, unlike the Jessica, — which resulted in a 175,000-gallon oil spill in one of the worst environmental disasters in Galapagos history — most of the toxic cargo on board the Galapaface 1 has been removed, and close monitoring of the surrounding ecosystem and animals has yet to reveal any issues. However, it could take up to a month to remove the ship from the rocks, and a State of Emergency was declared by the Ecuadorian government in order to deploy the necessary resources to ensure its safe removal. Authorities estimate that the effort could cost up to $6 million.
A Celebration of Turtles and Tortoises Around the World
May 23, 2014 marked “World Turtle Day,” a day dedicated to educating people about turtles, tortoises, and conservation efforts worldwide to preserve them. Earlier in the month, Mother Nature Network published the online article, 19 Weird and Wonderful Turtle and Tortoise Species, which features the Galapagos tortoise at #14. While some of these unique reptiles have a face only a mother could love, we enjoyed seeing some of the amazing turtles and tortoises beyond Galapagos that (slowly) walk the Earth.