There is so much yet to be discovered and understood in the natural world. Every day we are reminded of what we don’t know about our oceans and our landscapes, even in a world which seems so digitally knitted together. Our wild places continue to provide a context for our human behavior, and we would do well to listen to the natural world.
I have written before that Galapagos still has the power to amaze us. Despite the loss of isolation, committed conservation action has kept the vast majority of this archipelago almost untouched by human activity. And those efforts will continue this year with what we believe will be historic outcomes.
The Giant Tortoise Restoration Initiative continues, building on the extraordinary success of the Wolf Volcano expedition late last year. That trip produced 32 breeding adult tortoises representing two species believed to be extinct in the wild. Dedicated field scientists joined with the genetics team at Yale University to find and capture tortoises previously identified as “high conservation value” individuals representing both the Pinta and Floreana tortoise species. Once the genetics of these tortoises is determined, they will be placed in a captive breeding program and, in just a few generations, it should be possible to obtain tortoises with 95 percent of their “lost” ancestral genes.
With captive breeding and luck, new populations of tortoises could be released on Pinta and Floreana Islands in five to ten years, helping to restore their lost ecosystems — a concept that we simply could not have imagined even a few years ago.
Just recently, genetic analysis, conducted by an international group led by Dr. Gisella Caccone at Yale University, has clearly identified a new tortoise species. Previously thought to be part of a single, abundant population on the Santa Cruz Island, the newly named Eastern Santa Cruz Tortoise (C. donfaustoi) has been found to be a distinct species. The new Eastern Santa Cruz Tortoise was named in honor of Fausto Llerena Sánchez (“Don Fausto”), who dedicated 43 years of service to giant tortoise conservation with the Galapagos National Park Directorate. Genetics is playing an increasingly larger role in guiding development of conservation strategies in Galapagos.
But discovery on land is overwhelmed by discovery in the Galapagos waters. Recent research identified a number of previously unknown seamounts on the ocean floor, which may well yield information about previously undiscovered marine species. Seamounts are biodiversity hotspots and are important for migratory species passing through Galapagos waters, including many species of sharks and whales.
Galapagos offers not only these moments of surprise and wonder, but solutions to many of the difficult problems faced by island ecosystems, the most notorious of which is invasive species. Scientists at the Charles Darwin Foundation (CDF), working with colleagues across the globe, have made significant strides in understanding and successfully combating the invasive bot fly Philornis downsi, which is responsible for significant devastation in land bird populations throughout the Islands.
Invasive plants, such as blackberry and quinine, are being contained through a variety of management techniques created by scientists at the CDF that are now allowing native plants to thrive. And sniffer dogs, first deployed in Galapagos as “agents of change,” are successfully combating the introduced Giant African Land Snail, a voracious predator of native invertebrates. All of these techniques and protocols — born of significant work in the lab and in the field — show promise not only for Galapagos, but for other island ecosystems across the globe.
As we begin this new year, we are extremely optimistic for the future of Galapagos. There is much to be discovered, understood, and implemented in the Islands for the benefit of its iconic species. But this cannot be done in isolation of the Archipelagos’ resident population, who, with the support of the Government of Ecuador, are eagerly participating in a transformational education improvement initiative aimed at creating engaged and competent stewards of the Islands and future conservation leaders.
Margaret Mead famously said, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” We are so fortunate to count our supporters among those who will change these islands for the better.
Johannah Barry is the founder and President of Galapagos Conservancy.