Wolf Volcano Eruption a Potential Risk for Giant Tortoises and Pink Iguanas

May 28, 2015

Galapagos Conservancy’s Director of the Giant Tortoise Restoration Initiative, Wacho Tapia, was asked by the Galapagos National Park Directorate and the Governing Council of Galapagos to participate in their overflight of Wolf Volcano during its eruption on May 26, 2015. His knowledge of the range of pink iguanas and giant tortoises was crucial to determining potential impacts.

By Wacho Tapia, Director of the Giant Tortoise Restoration Initiative 

It has been a little over a year since I became Director of the Giant Tortoise Restoration Initiative (GTRI), a project promoted by Galapagos Conservancy in collaboration with the Galapagos National Park Directorate (GNPD), to rebuild tortoise populations back to their original numbers and range. I have had the opportunity to do many amazing things that I am passionate about, and the position can be quite exciting at times. This includes very recently: in the early hours of May 25th, I was scanning Facebook and learned that Wolf Volcano on Isabela Island had just erupted. The photo below was taken by a naturalist guide, a friend, who gave permission to use it here. Wolf Volcano is near and dear to me; I was hiking its slopes just last December planning the next big GTRI project, and am one of the few people in the world who knows the volcano well because of my years studying pink iguanas and giant tortoises there.

Wolf volcano erupting in May 2015.

On the evening of May 25th, I had been working on a field trip report and was about to go to sleep. But I couldn’t sleep! I kept thinking about what the magnitude of the eruption might be. My mind was overflowing with questions: Will the lava flow move down to the west side inhabited by giant tortoises? In the blood of many of those tortoises is a valuable treasure: no less than the genes of the extinct tortoise species of Pinta and Floreana Islands. Would it be necessary to evacuate these individuals to avoid re-extinction? And what about the newly described species — the pink land iguanas? Would they be okay? I was anxious for official news from the authorities.

Despite my concerns about Wolf, my immediate problem was severe pain in my ribs, the result of a sharp fall I suffered a few days before while completing fieldwork for the GTRI on Española Island. The next morning I boarded a small boat in the Puerto Ayora harbor to travel to South Plaza Island, in rough seas, to work with colleagues of the Charles Darwin Foundation and the Galapagos National Park on a cactus restoration project. Just before they pulled anchor, I realized the pain was too great so I hailed a water taxi and went ashore. Good thing! I went to hospital where I was given a cocktail of medications to treat my rib pain. While doctors examined me, my cell phone kept ringing. When they finished, I could see calls from directors of the GNPD and Galapagos Governing Council, both asking me to participate as an expert on tortoises and pink iguanas in an overflight of Wolf Volcano. Our job was to assess the magnitude of the eruption and the likelihood that it had or could impact either tortoise or pink iguana populations. Despite the pain I was in, how could I resist such a request?

By 11:30 am, I was sitting on a small plane next to Danny Rueda, Director of Ecosystems of the GNPD, and Diego Añazco, who was recruited by the GNPD to take images and video. The plane belonged to the Ecuadorian Navy and had come from San Cristóbal with technicians from various institutions.

Initially we flew in the direction of Alcedo Volcano located in the center of Isabela Island, and from there headed north along the eastern coast to Wolf Volcano. The flight was quite bumpy because of the strong turbulence, but we hardly noticed — we were all too excited about soon seeing the magnificent natural spectacle of a volcanic eruption. In Galapagos, unlike many other parts of the world, volcanic eruptions usually result in an initial burst that produces magma, which flows downslope and hardens quickly — rare events to observe.

Ash and smoke from Wolf Volcano at 5,000 feetUnfortunately, the sky above Wolf Volcano was very cloudy; all we could see was a great column of smoke and ash that rose about 60,000 feet, forming a kind of huge mushroom cloud. But after observing other eruptions in Galapagos over the last 20 years, my eyes were accustomed to look for details. I spotted two small lava flows on the southeastern slope of the volcano. We moved north with the idea of crossing to the west side of the volcano, but the clouds were too dense; we could see nothing. When we returned east and flew some 3000 feet to the south, we could see the same two small lava flows I’d seen before. A little further south we saw another stream of lava, but by this point the cooling process had advanced such that it was predominantly black and starting to harden, with several small fires along its sides where the flow met vegetation.

Lava flow formed on 25 May 2015 and cooling process with evidence of fires in adjacent vegetation

Although impossible to see the source of the lava flow or if there was lava flowing in another direction or into the crater, we could be certain that so far the eruption was not affecting the areas inhabited by pink iguanas or giant tortoises. I created a map combining my knowledge of the range of the tortoises and iguanas with my observations on the approximate location of the new lava flows. Surely a few individual tortoises and iguanas who occasionally migrate to the area could have died, but it was comforting to know that the larger populations were not in danger. They were lucky, as were we not to have lost them. Had the lava flowed in any other direction, we might have had a serious problem on our hands.

A map of Wolf showing the locations of pink iguanas and giant tortoises.

Area with a pink border indicates the range of the pink iguana population;
area with a white border indicates the range of the giant tortoise population.

Galapagos eruptions are natural processes. Volcanism created the archipelago in the middle of the ocean in the first place, producing the isolation that ultimately resulted in the archipelago’s magnificent and unusual biodiversity. We should not intervene in these natural processes, except in the case of populations of endangered species, when their plight is due to the direct and indirect impacts of earlier actions and mistakes of humans. That might have been the case with this eruption, but luckily the lava flowed in the only direction that would cause little risk to these animals. Next time it could be different. It will be important to keep an eye on Wolf Volcano and other volcanoes in Galapagos. We need to determine when we should just admire these spectacular natural events and when we must intervene to save our beloved tortoises, iguanas, and other species — many of which are under a long-term recovery process, thanks to the conservation programs of the Galapagos National Park and its many collaborators.

 All photos © W. Tapia unless otherwise noted.

 

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