Needles in a Haystack: Expedition to Wolf Volcano to Collect Hybrid Tortoises with Pinta and Floreana Ancestry
By Wacho Tapia, Director of the Giant Tortoise Restoration Initiative
Field trips to Wolf Volcano on northern Isabela are always a challenge, not only because of extreme conditions with dense and thorny vegetation and wide expanses of rugged a’a lava, but also because of its remoteness and the near impossibility of communicating with the outside world. Organizing and leading this expedition — the biggest and most ambitious scientific expedition of the Giant Tortoise Restoration Initiative to date — was even more challenging.
I began working with the Galapagos National Park Directorate on the operational plan for the expedition more than a year ago. With much of the needed equipment unavailable in Ecuador, it was purchased in the USA. Unfortunately, it did not arrive in time due to complicated importation procedures, despite months of preparation. The entire team worked near miracles to ensure adequate replacements: Dr. James Gibbs hand-carried stoves from Syracuse, NY; creative park rangers set up rocks to support the pots purchased at the last moment in Guayaquil. I would like to thank all of the park rangers and scientists who readily adapted to the conditions and completed their work with enthusiasm in the face of adversity.
As we set sail from Puerto Ayora late at night on November 18 on the Sierra Negra, each member of the expedition — armed with their sleeping bag and pad — searched for a place to rest during the near 14-hour trip. Shortly after sunrise, we sailed past the new lava flow that had reached the sea during the eruption on the northeastern slopes of Wolf Volcano in May/June. As we continued around the northern end of Isabela, we formed the field teams and gave specific instructions to each, along with their equipment and materials.
Once anchored in Banks Bay on the west coast of the volcano, the groups established camps within the designated search areas shown on the above map. The helicopter then delivered their materials, equipment, food, and water. With a 5:30 AM start the next morning, all teams began the search for and subsequent collection of tortoises. In addition, we took advantage of the massive effort to carry out a tortoise census in each area in order to estimate the size and status of the population. We also collected blood samples from all previously unmarked saddleback tortoises (which have the highest potential for genetic material from Pinta or Floreana).
In spite of major search efforts, the first few days were a disappointment, as we found only a few tortoises. The area was experiencing severe drought, so the tortoises were probably at higher elevations. But on the third day, it began to rain. As on our trip in December 2014, the tortoises seemed drawn towards the canyons and ephemeral streams where water accumulates and where they could drink their fill. This facilitated the work of most of the field teams.
At 3:00 PM, the most anticipated moment of each day, each team would turn on our radios to report any tortoises of interest we’d found to the crew aboard the Sierra Negra, and to provide coordinates for their pick-up. The helicopter would arrive with a net tied to a 100-foot cable to collect them. Each day as I listened to the group leaders report on tortoises located, I became ever more excited — knowing that each animal transported to the ship represented hope for the future resurrection of two extinct tortoise species. But for me, November 24th was perhaps the best day of all.
As I climbed alongside a canyon, at an approximate elevation of 1,000 feet, I saw in the distance the slender figure of a saddleback tortoise, craning its neck in curiosity. I reported to my team and walked over to take some pictures. As I approached, my excitement grew: it was as if Lonesome George stood in front of me — a male saddleback tortoise, nearly identical to this iconic tortoise that died in 2012. My surprise and happiness was even greater when I measured the carapace and found that it was almost identical to that of George. When I finished I sat down and said to my colleagues, “This is my birthday present.” And indeed, that very day was my birthday. At 3:00 PM, I called the Sierra Negra and the helicopter came to retrieve this amazing find.
The Lonesome George look-alike, along with 31 other tortoises (13 males and 19 females), are now residents of the Fausto Llerena Tortoise Center in Santa Cruz. They are currently undergoing quarantine procedures. Once genetic analyses of their blood samples are carried out to determine their precise ancestry, they will become part of new breeding programs for Pinta and Floreana. In the coming years, we will be able to witness the repopulation of both Pinta and Floreana with giant tortoises, as well as the long-term restoration of the ecological integrity of both islands.
This is Part 1 of a six-part blog series from various participants of the expedition documenting the events of the 2015 expedition to Wolf Volcano. Read Part 2: The Genetics by Gisella Caccone. All photos © Wacho Tapia.