Tortoises, Finches, and Penguins: Spring 2014 Galapagos Update

March 20, 2014

I recently returned home to the mountains of California after nearly two weeks in the Galapagos Islands. Although I sat in meetings most of the time, I came away energized and excited about the future – specifically regarding tortoises, finches, and penguins. Every meeting – with the director of the Galapagos National Park, the director of the Galapagos Biosecurity Agency, scientists funded by Galapagos Conservancy at the Charles Darwin Research Station, and others – was forward-looking and highlighted collaboration among all for the good of Galapagos.

Galapagos TortoiseThe main focus of my trip was to ensure the advancement of the Giant Tortoise Restoration Initiative. Since the Tortoise Workshop in July 2012 we have been doing bits and pieces of the planned work, but next month we will jump-start a major collaborative effort between GC, visiting scientists, and the Galapagos National Park (GNP) to continue to increase the number of tortoises in all populations and to improve tortoise habitat throughout the archipelago. I envision future populations in the hundreds of thousands – similar to pre-whaling numbers – long after I am gone from this Earth. In 2014 this group of collaborators will be focusing on:

  • Studying tortoise-cactus-woody-vegetation interactions on Española Island;
  • Preparing for and initiating the return of giant tortoises to Santa Fe, where they have been extinct since the mid-1800s;
  • Completing the operational plan for the Giant Tortoise Recovery Project on Wolf Volcano (to recover Pinta and Floreana hybrids for breeding programs) – including a trip to determine where and how to build a quarantine tortoise corral onsite; 
  • Conducting a comprehensive review of the three tortoise centers (Santa Cruz, Isabela and San Cristóbal) to ensure better alignment of protocols and methodologies, improvement of overall conditions, and long-term infrastructure repairs and maintenance.

Mangrove finch chickAside from the tortoises, I was fortunate to tour the small lab at the Charles Darwin Research Station where scientists are incubating and rearing Mangrove Finches. I watched as one scientist fed the tiny birds with tweezers. What thrilled me most was watching as he candled an egg: during incubation, eggs are periodically set over a strong light (called candling) to determine the age of the growing chick and time until hatching. Looking through the thin eggshell, I could see the tiny beak of the bird as it began to peck its way out.

 

FinchThis project is an important step to ensure that this rarest species of Darwin’s finches does not go extinct. Given that this species now occurs in only two sections of mangrove on the western side of Isabela Island and has fewer than 100 birds, due in part to an invasive avian parasite, there’s no time to waste. The first eight nestlings will soon be returned to western Isabela where they will be held in an aviary for observation prior to being released into the wild. If the project is successful, scientists plan to eventually release young birds throughout the historical range of mangrove finches in an effort to expand the population to its historical numbers.

During my trip, I also received more good news from Godfrey Merlen, long-time Galapagos naturalist. Penguins are using more of the artificial nests that Dr. Dee Boersma (University of Washington) and her team built to help increase the population.

While there is still a lot of work to do to ensure the long-term conservation of Galapagos – including restoring species that were decimated in centuries past to their historical numbers (tortoises) and those that are in serious trouble today (mangrove finches, among others) – I came home with renewed energy and optimism for the future of Galapagos.

 

Dr. Linda Cayot is GC’s Science Advisor, and has played a critical role in Galapagos conservation efforts for more than 30 years.

 

Let us know what you think –  leave a comment below.

 

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  1. Thank you Linda for sharing such great information. I had read about how Darwin’s research on the giant tortoise of Galapagos helped him understand the process of evolution. As a tortoise loving person, I was concerned about the news of Giant tortoises being threatened with extinction. Thanks to Giant Tortoise Restoration Initiative conducted by Galapagos Conservancy and the GNPS for their efforts to increase their population.

  2. Great summary Linda. After exploring the Antarctica in January and observing 8 species of penguins including the Emperor, we surely don’t want the Galapagos penguin to go extinct. What special “birds”.

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