The 2015 Expedition to Wolf: A First-Time View of Galapagos

January 11, 2016

By Jane Braxton Little, writer and photographer.

A giant tortoise is bigger than a bale of hay and moves at the pace of its proverbial racing ancestor. Why is finding one so hard?

I am thrashing through the thickets of lower Wolf Volcano, flailing at vines with three-inch spines and trying to keep up with Secundino Masaquizo, a wiry Galapagos National Park mariner. He has an uncanny ability to locate stable footing on the wobbly lava and slip unscathed past plants that seem bent on grabbing me. I concentrate on keeping him in sight — more as a survival tactic than a hedge on finding a tortoise.

I am a journalist, lured to this wild and remote corner of the Galapagos Islands by an unprecedented scientific commitment to recover Pinta and Floreana giant tortoises, both officially extinct species. As a first-timer to Galapagos, the odd and utterly unfamiliar flora and fauna I confront on this initial day of exploration seem more weird than wonderful. Every plant has something to offer, and for me, an invasive species, none of the hand-outs is hospitable. The first land iguana I startle is more frightening than fascinating. And why are all the tortoises so elusive?

Group photo on Wolf volcano

From left: Joe Flanagan, James Gibbs, Gisella Caccone, Secundino Masaquizo 

Even knowing in advance what I learned in those first four hours on Wolf would not have deterred me. When Linda Cayot, Galapagos Conservancy’s Science Advisor, contacted me about this 10-day expedition I was in the midst of writing about the sixth mass extinction. Who wouldn’t augment that reality with a chance to participate in an extinct species restoration project?

So day after day I gladly scramble across the lava following James Gibbs, a soft-spoken professor of conservation biology and science partner with the Galapagos Conservancy whose passion for reversing tortoise extinction inspires this expedition. Ahead of me I can hear the fetching Italian accent of Gisella Caccone, a Yale geneticist who has devoted decades to uncovering the DNA footprint of Galapagos tortoises. And there’s no mistaking the booming voice of Joe Flanagan, chief veterinarian at the Houston Zoo, who combines extraordinary knowledge of Galapagos species with a particular devotion to giant tortoises. I am crawling through thorny tortoise tunnels with the species’ most dedicated scientists. If only we could find just one of the wily reptiles!

The Sierra Negra vessel

That afternoon we are rewarded on board Sierra Negra, the Galapagos National Park ship that has brought us to Wolf. The first of 32 tortoises found by other field teams, combing higher on Wolf’s volcanic flanks, arrives on board by helicopter. James, Gisella and Joe work with impressive efficiency, turning the deck into a makeshift science lab where they label, measure and take blood samples for later genetic analysis. These tiny drops in a tube will measure the success of the expedition, and may ultimately determine the future of the Pinta and Floreana giant tortoise species.

My second morning’s search on Wolf brings the thrill of discovery: our group’s first giant tortoise. James yells, “Tortuga,” quickly muttering “don’t get your hopes up.” A tortoise the size of a salad plate is hunkered on a smooth sheet of lava scattered with dried leaves. It is too young to determine its gender or whether it will develop the flared carapace typical of Pinta and Floreana tortoises. Still, I am elated, knowing that this youngster all alone in this harsh place could be related to Lonesome George or the even longer lost Floreana tortoises.

Young tortoise on Wolf Volcano

Over the next six days we find many small tortoises among the scrub. They transform my perception of Wolf’s lower arid slopes. Beneath the brush I begin to see mats of moist soil that sound hollow when I thump them: nests dug by females laying their eggs in these lowlands before moving upslope. Soon I see nests everywhere; it’s like learning a new word. These unstable piles of lava, those ankle-grabbing vines and arm-stabbing thorns are protecting a gigantic tortoise nursery. What seemed hostile to me represents safety for tortoises by evolutionary design. Here the second cousins of Lonesome George will hatch; some will survive to mature and eventually mate. A few may play their part in restoring the species of their ancestors.

Finding a young tortoise on Wolf

I leave Wolf Volcano grudgingly, reluctant to relinquish the grip of this place so exquisitely suited to perpetuating the creatures that have found their way here. Before stepping through the fringe of mangroves to the lava-strewn beach, I do a surreptitious bow: To the tortoises that promise the hope of restoring extinct species; to the habitat that nourishes them; and to the scientists devoted to their conservation.

Jane Braxton LittleJane Braxton Little writes about science and the environment from California’s northern Sierra Nevada. Her work has appeared in Scientific American, National Geographic, Discover and Audubon, where she is a contributing editor.

All photos © Jane Braxton Little.

Author photo at left © Sue Gutierrez.

 

This is Part 5 of a six-part blog series from various participants of the expedition documenting the events of the 2015 expedition to Wolf Volcano. Read Part 1: Overview by Wacho Tapia and Part 6: Keeping Tortoises Healthy by Joe Flanagan, DVM.

 

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