Wolf Volcano Expedition August 2021 © Joshua Vela / Galápagos Conservancy

Dispatches from the Field: Wolf Volcano Expedition 2021

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Dispatches from the Field: Wolf Volcano Expedition 2021

Wolf Volcano Expedition August 2021 © Joshua Vela / Galápagos Conservancy

In early August, a team of researchers and park rangers from Galápagos Conservancy and the Galápagos National Park Directorate (GNPD) traveled to Wolf Volcano on Isabela Island to conduct the first-ever comprehensive population census of the critically endangered Pink Land Iguana. We hope you’ll enjoy this behind-the-scenes look at the expedition with Galápagos Conservancy Conservation Manager Jorge Carrión, plus an introduction from Galápagos Conservancy Director of Conservation Washington Tapia.



EXPEDITION BACKGROUND

Washington Tapia: The critically endangered Pink Land Iguana is not only Galápagos’ most recently described megafauna species but it is also living evidence of the deep divergence within the Galápagos land iguana lineage around 3.7 million years ago. Pink Iguanas are not just a different color from other Galápagos land iguanas; they are morphologically, behaviorally, and genetically different.  Much of what we know about their reproductive biology is based on circumstantial evidence. To protect this small, isolated population, the Galápagos National Park Directorate needs solid data so they can make the best management decisions. Galápagos Conservancy’s recent expedition to Wolf Volcano is a first step to begin building knowledge for a long-term restoration program. This is a new project for our Rewilding Species Program, and we hope to recover the population of these unique animals just as we have with our highly successful Giant Tortoise Restoration Initiative.

As a 30-year veteran in the field myself, I must underscore the impressive efforts of the incredible team of researchers and park rangers who trekked to the summit of Wolf Volcano — one of the most inhospitable places in Galápagos. The results of this expedition are not only a testament to their exceptional field skills but also their determination and commitment to protecting their irreplaceable home.  I hope you enjoy journeying to this top of this remote, active volcano with our Conservation Manager Jorge Carrion as he shares his insights and takes you behind the scenes of this critical expedition.

Thank you to the Galápagos Conservancy community for your generosity in making this expedition possible. Important conservation work like this can only continue with you on our side.

The head of a Pink Land Iguana

A Pink Land Iguana on Wolf Volcano © Joshua Vela / Galápagos Conservancy.


WHAT DOES THIS TRIP MEAN FOR REWILDING GALÁPAGOS?

Jorge Carrión: Our recent expedition to Wolf Volcano was primarily a Pink Land Iguana population census, and the data collected will be a game-changer for defining the action plan to rescue this enigmatic reptile. They are iconic as much for being recently discovered and limited to a small geographic area, as for the inherent challenges of managing the future of an animal of which we know very little about. During the expedition, we documented never-before-seen behavior such as the symbiotic relationship with Darwin’s finches, which feed on parasites on the iguana’s body, and the unusual sight of an iguana seeking out the sun on a tree branch in an area where the sunlight couldn’t penetrate the dense undergrowth. Unfortunately, we found no juveniles among the 53 iguanas we found and marked. The big mystery is when and where do the Pink Iguanas nest. We installed 12 camera traps with motion sensors near their active burrows, allowing us to capture the behavior of these wild animals on film when we can’t be in the field. We hope the cameras will give us insights into their general behavior and reproduction cycle as well as the relationship with the Yellow Land Iguana population that shares the habitat. While the protection of this rare animal is urgent, we also need to determine its role in the broader Wolf Volcano ecosystem. Watch some of the first footage from these camera traps below.

TELL US ABOUT AN UNEXPECTED OR UNFORGETTABLE MOMENT.

Carrión: Living on the summit of a volcano for 10 days provided many special moments. My passion for photography was rewarded with unique and unforgettable images of rare animals, unusual sightings, and the work of the park rangers. My personal favorite is the image of a park warden settling in for the night in a tent illuminated by torchlight under a clear starry sky; an homage to all those who work tirelessly to protect the planet no matter what elements must be faced to succeed. 

Expedition campsite on Wolf Volcano

Expedition campsite on Wolf Volcano © Jorge Carrión, Galápagos Conservancy

 

While most people would think such an expedition is the world of men, we also have women park rangers including the highly skilled and dedicated Diana Gil.  Another unique image almost went unnoticed until a fortuitous slash of pink caught the eye of my colleague Freddy Jimenez as we were leaving an area where we had searched but not found Pink Iguanas in the thick vegetation. I was able to capture the first-ever image of a Pink Iguana sunning itself on a tree branch, high above the shaded understory.  

Pink Land Iguana in a tree

The world’s first-ever photo of a Pink Land Iguana sunning in a tree ©
Jorge Carrión, Galápagos Conservancy


WHAT RESULTS ARE YOU HOPING FOR?

Carrión: Our expedition coincided with the colder dry season, magnified by the extreme winds and temperatures found at 5,600 feet. This time of the year is when you would expect the female Yellow Land Iguanas to make the journey to their nesting areas. However, we found an equal ratio of pink males and females, indicating that they potentially do not share the same reproductive cycle as the yellow iguanas.  We hope that the trap cameras will help fill in many gaps in the baseline knowledge of this rare animal, such as identifying the time of year they breed and pinpointing the Pink Iguana nesting zone. The cameras will also document other important behavior, such as the role of the burrows in regulating body temperature protecting the iguanas from natural predators like the Galápagos Hawk, and introduced threats including feral cats and rats, which are known to prey on the eggs and young of the yellow iguana.

DESCRIBE WOLF VOLCANO AS A WORKSITE.

Carrión: The expedition took three days of meticulously cutting a trail through thick vegetation to get to the summit of Wolf Volcano. First, we traversed steep inclines made of fields of loose lava before a brief respite about halfway up in the softer soil and inevitable rain of the tortoise nesting areas. After that, we faced an arduous day of climbing the last sharp flank to reach the arid cactus lands of the summit. Our team is handpicked for their abilities, including for their prowess to work in extreme conditions. Wolf Volcano is the highest point in the Archipelago, so for a team used to sea-level conditions, the summit pushes them to their physical limits. Despite those challenges, our team was undeterred to carry out full days of strenuous activity searching for these elusive animals in dense vegetation. At 5,600 feet, everything is extreme. Relentless winds chilled the already frosty nights when temperatures dropped to around 50 °F after hours working under the sun in 100 °F heat. One ground temperature measurement registered at 160 °F, yet at night, even layered up in every piece of clothing in the backpack and sheltered as best as the exposed summit permitted, the sleeping bags felt like they were made of ice.

Wolf Volcano Above the Clouds

The team worked at a high elevation, sometimes above the clouds, with huge temperature fluctuations. © Joshua Vela / Galápagos Conservancy

 

As if these extremes were not enough, Wolf Volcano has more ticks than any other site in the Islands. The only way to stay healthy is a full body wash every day with a special anti-tick shampoo.  Then there is the capturing and handling of the iguanas. As they are fast and aggressive, we mainly trapped them in their burrows. Each one was captured for just a few minutes. This was enough time to measure their size and weight and to check for any existing identification markers and tagging any without markings. An adult male Pink Iguana is a solid ball of pure muscle, weighing in at an average of 15 pounds, and has sharp claws and a mouth lined with serrated teeth set in a steel trap-jaw. You really need to know how to handle them or you risk losing a finger!


WHAT ARE THE NEXT STEPS?

Carrión: The discovery of a new species of megafauna in Galápagos, a remote yet greatly investigated part of the world, underscored that there is still much to discover. Though only recently described in 2009 as a separate species, these iguanas are so rare and inhabit such a small range that they are already on the brink of extinction. We believe the updated and new data we collected during this expedition, plus the information being gathered in our absence by the trap cameras, will greatly help define the plans for rescuing the Pink Iguana. The Galápagos National Park Directorate hosted a gathering of local, national, and global iguana experts from August 23-25 to develop a plan for the protection and restoration of the Pink Iguana. Galápagos Conservancy staff participated, bringing this new information to the group. The trap cameras we put in place will also provide a better perspective of the Pink Iguana’s behavior and insights into what might need to be replicated should captive breeding be determined as the best path forward.  We do not yet know if the extreme conditions found on Wolf Volcano are important to their well-being and reproduction cycle or if they could adjust to less extreme climate conditions. We also need to determine the role of the burrows that help them thermoregulate in fluctuating temperatures and that protect them from the winds and predators. There are still more questions than answers. The biggest next step is gathering all that knowledge as quickly as possible.

A Pink Land Iguana on the rim of the volcano caldera © Joshua Vela / Galápagos Conservancy

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