Galápagos Digital an online news website about Galapagos Fri, 18 Dec 2015 19:09:33 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Darwin’s Finches: Bye Bye Birdie? /2015/12/18/darwins-finches-bye-bye-birdie/ /2015/12/18/darwins-finches-bye-bye-birdie/#respond Fri, 18 Dec 2015 18:23:24 +0000 /?p=1697 Female ground finch in the Galápagos Islands

Jennifer Koop / University of Utah

Female ground finch in the Galápagos Islands

Darwin’s Finches in Galápagos face possible extinction within decades, according to a new study published December 18th by the University of Utah.  Mathematical simulations show that while parasitic flies are killing the finches, efforts to eradicate the flies might hold out some hope for saving the birds.

The new research “shows that the fly has the potential to drive populations of the most common species of Darwin’s finch to extinction in several decades,” says biology professor Dale Clayton, senior author of the study published online in the Journal of Applied Ecology.

But the research “is not all doom and gloom,” he adds. “Our mathematical model also shows that a modest reduction in the prevalence of the fly – through human intervention and management – would alleviate the extinction risk.”

Several approaches may be needed, such as introducing fly-parasitizing wasps, removing chicks from nests for hand-rearing, raising sterile male flies to mate with females so they can’t lay eggs in finch nests, and using insecticides, including placing pesticide-treated cotton balls where birds can collect them to self-fumigate their nests.

Mockingbirds were more important to Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution than finches, partly because he failed to label finches he collected in the Galápagos to denote the islands where he collected the birds. Nevertheless, Darwin observed how different Galápagos finch species evolved varying beak and body sizes.

“Darwin’s finches are one of the best examples we have of speciation,” says the new study’s first author, Jennifer Koop, who did the research as a University of Utah doctoral student and now is an assistant professor of biology at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth. “They were important to Darwin because they helped him develop his theory of evolution by natural selection.”

Darwin’s finches live only in the Galápagos Islands, off the coast of mainland Ecuador. The finches began as one species and started evolving into separate species an estimated 3 million to 5 million years ago.

The new study dealt with medium ground finches, Geospiza fortis, among the most common of at least 14 species and perhaps 18 species of Darwin’s finches. One of them, the mangrove finch, already “is facing potential total extinction because it is present in only two populations on a single island, Isabela,” Koop says.

Clayton says that if the parasitic nest fly, Philornis downsi, “can lead to extinction of such a common species, then the less common species – which have the same fly problem – are likely at risk as well.”

The study was performed on Santa Cruz Island in the Galápagos. An estimated 270,000 medium ground finches live on that island and perhaps 500,000 live throughout the Galápagos Islands, Clayton says.

Museum records indicate the nest fly arrived in the Galápagos Islands in the 1960s. They first were documented in bird nests there in 1997.

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Start of Sea Cucumber Fishing Postponed Ten Days /2015/07/31/start-of-sea-cucumber-fishing-postponed-ten-days/ /2015/07/31/start-of-sea-cucumber-fishing-postponed-ten-days/#respond Sat, 01 Aug 2015 02:49:47 +0000 /?p=1689 Sea Cucumber in Galápagos Marine Reserve west of Isabela Island

Sea Cucumber in Galápagos Marine Reserve west of Isabela Island

After considerable debate, representatives of the Galápagos National Park and the fishing industry have agreed to postpone the start of fishing for sea cucumbers until August 10th, according to the Galápagos newspaper and online publication Periodico El Colono.  A 45-day season for sea cucumbers had been scheduled to get underway on the first of August, but fishermen weren’t happy with the timing and requested the postponment.

Because the sea cucumbers are endangered and the catching of them by fishermen has stirred controversy, the original agreement between the authorities and fishermen had been reached quietly without the usual public announcements. But when the agreement was leaked through social media, fishermen complained about it while most Galapagueños ignored the news. 

Their attention these days is focused on future protests against changes in the law that they feel could harm the environment and hurt them in the pocketbook. Cost of living bonuses for Galápagos residents would be recalculated under the new Organic Law of Special Regime for Galapagos (LOREG).

As we reported earlier in Galápagos Digital, after a four year moratorium on sea cucumber fishing, the Ministry of Environment of Ecuador through the Galapagos National Park Board authorized the fishery from August 1st to September 15 for a limit of 500,000. The agreement between the authorities and a representative of the fisheries sector was signed July 10.

Surprisingly, in their first public statement on the matter, Friday, July 31, representatives of Fishing Cooperatives disagreed with the decision. Speaking on Radio Encantada, Dionisio Zapata, president of the COPROPAG cooperative said, “In order for this fishery to have good economic results we went to the park management to request an extension, but we were not heard.”

Fishermen and the Galápagos National Park reach agreement

Periodico El Colono

Fishermen and the Galápagos National Park reach agreement

But a few hours later, the National Park Service granted the fishermen’s request. The fishermen say they’ll use the added time to bargain for better prices for their catch.  They’re hoping to gert $5.00 for each sea cucumber. (That would amount to $2.5 million if they caught the maximum 500,000.)

Galápagos Digital has requested further information from the Ministry of Environment and the Galápagos National Park and we’ll post any responses we receive.

Due to the lack of official pronouncements about the sea cucumber fishery, many Galápagos residents haven’t heard about the issue as they prepare to rally against the changes in the law governing the islands.

According to Jairo Gusqui Lopez, leader of the opposition group Frente Insular, people opposed to the new law will meet on Saturday in Santa Cruz to discuss a constitutional challenge to the law that will be submitted to the Constitutional Court of Ecuador next week.

Several groups in Galápagos have also announced they will take part in an August 13 general strike that is planned in major cities of the Ecuadorian mainland.

These are days of disenchantment in the enchanted islands.

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New “Cucumber Conflict” in Galápagos /2015/07/29/new-cucumber-conflict-in-galapagos/ /2015/07/29/new-cucumber-conflict-in-galapagos/#comments Wed, 29 Jul 2015 18:44:53 +0000 /?p=1675 The Galápagos Sea Cucumber, Stichopus fuscus

Courtesy of Henry Nicholls / The Conservation Business. PLoS Biol 2(9): e310. doi:10.1371/journal.pbio.0020310

The Galápagos Sea Cucumber, Stichopus fuscus

The potential opening of sea cucumber fishing in Galápagos has scientists and conservationists surprised  and concerned after news leaked of a July 10 agreement that would allow the collection of 500,000 of the creatures, considered vital to the marine environment.  It reignites a long dispute that has pitted fishermen against the scientific community.

Screenshot of the agreement between the park, the government and fishermen authorizing the collection of up to 500,000 sea cucumbers

Galápagos Digital

Screenshot of the agreement between the park, the government and fishermen authorizing the collection of up to 500,000 sea cucumbers

The agreement, signed by representatives of the Galápagos National Park, the Ministry of Agriculture, Livestock and Fisheries and the Governing Council of Galápagos, hasn’t been officially announced, but according to a version circulating on the internet, it would permit fishing to begin August 1st.  Following that, there would be a 5-year moratorium on further sea cucumber collection with annual monitoring of the sea cucumber population.  If the population grows to more than 11 per 100 square meters, authorities would consider lifting the moratorium.

Here is a link to the complete document (Spanish).

The problem is that after four years of a fishing ban, official population monitoring of the sea cucumbers indicates their number is far below the minimum needed to permit any fishing. The official report shows that the number of specimens averages 6 per 100 square meters, and in the words of the report: “if the density is less than 11 per 100 square meters, the resource is in a state of collapse. It is not economically and biologically sustainable to collect them.”

Population survey of sea cucumbers shows that they number fewer than 11 per 100 square meters in all but one location.

Galápagos Digital

Population survey of sea cucumbers shows that they number fewer than 11 per 100 square meters in all but one location.

Every year, the Galápagos National park and fishermen measure the populations of sea cucumbers around the islands. This year’s survey shows that in most parts of Galápagos, the population is well below healthy levels.

We are providing a link to the full survey (Spanish)

Galápagos Digital has requested further information from the Ministry of Environment and the Galápagos National Park on why the agreement was signed.  We will publish the responses as we receive them.

An observer who was at the meeting told Ecuadorian journalist Isabela Ponce Ycaza that: ”It was not easy to reach that decision … it was a tense encounter.” The journalist further quoted the observer as saying:  “The representatives of the four fishing cooperatives demanded  that the Galápagos national Park permit the capture of sea cucumbers or threatened to protest.”

Fishermen, according to the report, said that because of the decline of other fisheries, they need the sea cucumbers to make a living.   The report also noted that fishermen complained that the monitoring of sea cucumbers “was not carried out with rigor.”

That point was confirmed by a fisherman who wrote to Galápagos Digital asking to remain anonymous:  “The managers of the Galápagos Marine reserve failed” (to conduct a proper survey), he wrote.

Evidently the arguments presented by the fishing guild convinced the authorities to sign the agreement to open the cucumber fishery as part of what the signed agreement calls “a process of consultation and conciliation.”

The decision was not received well by members of the scientific community: “Opening the fishery now sends a message that Galápagos natural resources will be managed by political pressure, not by technical decisions,” one expert, who asked not to be identified, told Galápagos Digital.

Another scientist familiar with the matter, who also wishes to remain anonymous, said “This would deal a blow to a resource that in itself should not be exploited. Even after four years of closure, the fishery should not open even for another 15 years.”

Sea cucumbers are animals, not plants, and are distantly related to starfish and sea urchins. They play an important role in the ocean, feeding on algae and microscopic marine plants, and breaking down these foods into essential nutrients that feed other marine life. In addition, sea cucumbers contribute to the cleaning of the seabed. For these reasons, they are known as the “earthworms of the sea.”

In some parts of the world, sea cucumbers are considered a delicacy and in Southeast Asia, many believe that the creatures possess aphrodisiac qualities to improve sexual performance. That belief has encouraged overfishing of sea cucumbers leading to the decimation of populations.

In the early 1990s, Galapagos fishermen began to collect sea cucumbers from the waters around the islands to meet growing demand. Hundreds of people from mainland Ecuador, seeing an opportunity to make money, moved to Galapagos to participate in the sea cucumber “boom.”

Ecuadorian government efforts to curtail sea cucumber  fishing resulted in angry protests by fishermen in 1993 and 2000.

 In 1998, the then Ecuadorian President Jamil Mahuad signed the Special Law for Galapagos, creating the Galapagos Marine Reserve and imposing restrictions on immigration and fishing.  According to British writer Henry Nicholls: “In 1999, the first season in which fishing for sea cucumbers was controlled and regulated-about 800 fishermen collected more than 4 million specimens worth more $ 3.4 million in a short season of two months. “

Studies by conservation biologists at the Charles Darwin Research Station on Santa Cruz, working in cooperation with the Galápagos National Park, found that the sea cucumber population was severely reduced as a result of overfishing. After the government halted further fishing in January of 2000, fishermen occupied the offices of the Park and the Darwin station, taking some humans and animals hostage. The protests ended peacefully but relations between fishermen and the scientific community remain tense.

Today, the Galapagos sea cucumber, Isostichopus fuscus is listed as “endangered” by the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (ICUN). The “Red List” of the organization says that the population of sea cucumbers has been dramatically reduced, and states: “The area of ​​highest density known for this species, the Galapagos Islands, has had a reduction of around 80% or more . “

Sea cucumbers seized at San  Cristóbal airport in June, 2015

Galapagos National Park

Sea cucumbers seized at San Cristóbal airport in June, 2015

The area of ​​the Galapagos Marine Reserve is huge and despite constant efforts by the Galapagos National Park and the Ecuadorian Navy, it is difficult to patrol. Poachers from the mainland of Ecuador and other countries illegally catch cucumbers and other species in the reserve. As we reported in Galápagos Digital in June of this year, park officials seized 10,852 sea cucumbers at the airport of San Cristobal.  At present there is a huge black market for sea cucumbers driven by demand in China, where they are sold for $ 300 per pound.

This situation becomes more complicated as it occurs at a time of unrest in certain sectors of the islands due to  changes to the Organic Law of Special Regime for Galapagos (LOREG) approved by the National Assembly in June. Those changes led to protests in Galápagos. One change removed Participatory Management Meetings at which decisions such as opening fisheries were discussed by representatives from various sectors before being approved. “The board was not something perfect,” one Galapagueño told Galápagos Digital, “but we felt that at least we had a voice and sometimes they listened to us.”

So far there has been little official information on the matter. The procedure laid down is that once an agreement is signed, it doesn’t take legal effect before the Park management officially announces it.  That has not yet happened.

Galápagos Digital will stay on top of this story and post updates as developments occur.  Once again, the “cucumber conflict” between fishermen and conservation authorities has officials caught in a bind.

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UPDATED: Galápagos Braces for El Niño /2015/07/28/updated-galapagos-braces-for-el-nino/ /2015/07/28/updated-galapagos-braces-for-el-nino/#respond Tue, 28 Jul 2015 16:10:51 +0000 /?p=1668 This year's El Niño temperature pattern in the Pacific compared to 1997's.


This year’s El Niño temperature pattern in the Pacific compared to 1997’s.

In Galápagos, nobody’s rolling out the welcome mat for the recurring weather phenomenon known as El Niño.  Scientists say that it’s returning this year, bringing potentially strong winds, higher ocean temperatures and lots of rainfall, a potentially devastating combination for the fragile island ecosystems.

An El Niño occurs when surface waters in the tropical sections of the Pacific become warmer than normal.  Monitoring shows a strong temperature rise, similar to the one that occurred in 1997.  The giant El Niño that struck that year and lasted into 1998 disrupted weather patterns around the world, killing an estimated 2,100 people and causing $33 billion in property damage.

“There is a 90 percent chance of occurrence of El Niño, according to prediction models and forecasting,” said Eduardo Espinoza, technical director of ecosystems at the Galápagos National Park, quoted in a park news release.

The National Center for Climate Prediction, part of the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) puts the odds at greater than 90 percent with an 80% chance that it will last into the second quarter of 2016.


Galápagos National Park

Rangers from the Galápagos National Park monitor marine iguanas.

Espinoza is particularly concerned about the effect the weather changes will have on Galápagos marine iguanas that live on land but depend on algae in the ocean for their food supply.  “The marine iguanas feed primarily on green and red algae in the subtidal zone,” Espinoza said in an email to Galápagos Digital, “and these algae are the first that are affected by heating and persistence of warmer sea temperatures which lowers their abundance.”

El Niño can also be hard on the birds of Galápagos such as the blue-footed booby.  The changes in water temperature drive away the fish that the boobies eat, leaving the birds to starve. Experts say the boobies don’t reproduce under these conditions.

“Species that are on the border of survival or extinction might actually be tipped over the edge,” Dr. Stuart Banks, a marine scientist with the Charles Darwin Foundation, told Galápagos Digital last year. “We’ve already seen several possible extinctions.”

Scientists from Quito’s University of San Francisco and a group of American scientists from the University of North Carolina will meet in Galápagos in September to monitor some of the key species of the Galápagos marine reserve, including the iguanas.  They’ll be working closely with technicians from the Galápagos National park as they try to assess the effects of El Niño and gather data on the ocean.

“We will work with sea lions, sea birds, plankton, seaweed, sea turtles and coral,” Espinoza said.

For tourists who plan to travel to Galápagos later this year and in early 2016, Espinoza has this advice:  “Bring light clothing, insect repellent and articles for rain.”  He added that in regards to the inhabitants of Galápagos, it is necessary to “promote an awareness of care to species that could be affected by El Niño.

Because South American fishermen originally observed the unusual weather pattern around Christmastime, El Niño gets its name from the Christ Child.

Some climatologists fear that global warming will lead to more frequent El Niño years, increasing the dangers to the wildlife of Galápagos.

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Snail-Sniffing Dogs Doing Well in Galápagos /2015/07/01/snail-sniffing-dogs-doing-well-in-galapagos/ /2015/07/01/snail-sniffing-dogs-doing-well-in-galapagos/#respond Wed, 01 Jul 2015 20:05:13 +0000 /?p=1650 "Darwin" checking out a giant African land snail .

Rebecca Ross / Dogs for Conservation

“Darwin” checking out a giant African land snail .

As Galápagos Digital reported in April, a pair of dogs are working for the Galápagos Biosecurity Agency, helping to protect the fragile ecosystems of Santa Cruz Island by sniffing out a major pest–invasive snails from Africa.  Now, in a follow-up visit, the American organization that placed the dogs in Galápagos has plenty of “attaboys” for the animals, named “Darwin” and “Neville.”

“We recently sent Texas-based trainer Tiffanie Turner back to Galápagos to check on the progress of both the dogs and their human counterparts,” Rebecca Ross, Executive Director of Dogs For Conservation, wrote on the Galápagos Conservancy website.

“Tiffanie reported that Darwin and Neville have acclimated well to their new home and to their handlers,” Ross wrote.

The odyssey of the canine pair hasn’t been completely problem-free, however.  Ross reported that one of the dogs developed “a chronic allergy to a plant found in Galápagos,” although it didn’t prove to be serious.  Veterinarians at the Biosecurity Agency have dealt with the allergy, according to Ross.


Dogs for Conservation

Neville and his handler on Santa Cruz Island

Both dogs and their trainers got a brush-up course from Turner.  “She put them through their paces with lots of training scenarios and real-world field trips to help refresh their memories and keep them motivated,” Ross wrote.  “The key to our training philosophy (both dogs and humans!) is to reward, reward, reward — so the dogs got their toys every time they did the correct behavior (find a snail), and the humans were rewarded with lots of verbal praise and the occasional piece of candy!”

Dogs For Conservation says it hopes that with the continued success of the snail eradication program, set-up with a grant from the Galápagos Conservancy, specially-trained dogs might be employed to detect other invaders that threaten the islands.


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Wolf Volcano Spectacular /2015/06/30/wolf-volcano-spectacular/ /2015/06/30/wolf-volcano-spectacular/#respond Wed, 01 Jul 2015 02:30:14 +0000 /?p=1639 Eruption of Wolf Volcano as seen from space on June 11

Image Credit: NASA Earth Observatory image by Jesse Allen, using data from NASA/GSFC/METI/ERSDAC/JAROS, and U.S./Japan ASTER Science Team

Eruption of Wolf Volcano as seen from space on June 11

The U.S. Space Agency NASA has released some spectacular new photos of Wolf Volcano on Isabela Island following its first eruption in 33 years.

The explosive eruption at Wolf, the highest volcano on the Galápagos Islands, sent volcanic gases and ash roughly 15 kilometers (50,000 feet) into the sky, while lava flowed through a fissure, down eastern and southeastern slopes, and eventually reached the sea. In early June, the sulfur-rich lava flows on the slopes appeared to subside.

This image of Wolf was acquired on June 11, 2015, by the Advanced Spaceborne Thermal Emission and Reflection Radiometer (ASTER) on the Terra satellite. The colors are not real; the photography combined near-infared, infared, red and green light, with vegetated areas appearing in red and lava generally appearing charcoal or black.

Closer view of the Wolf eruption on June 11

Image Credit: NASA Earth Observatory image by Jesse Allen, using data from NASA/GSFC/METI/ERSDAC/JAROS, and U.S./Japan ASTER Science Team

Closer view of the Wolf eruption on June 11

From June 12-16, seismologists from Ecuador’s Instituto Geofisico-Escuela Politécnica Nacional (IG) detected increased activity inside the caldera near the southern rim. The 7-kilometer (4 mile) wide caldera is nearly 700 meters deep. New lava is paving over deposits that were laid down in a 1982 eruption. Wolf is a shield volcano, with relatively broad but gentle slopes (like a Polynesian warrior’s shield) where one lava flow tend to spread out across previous flows. The volcano rises 1,710 meters (5,609 feet) above sea level, sitting near the equator and atop a volcanic hot spot.

In the early days of the 2015 eruption, conservation groups feared for the safety of a rare species of pink iguanas, which are only found on Isabela Island, and for the local population of giant tortoises and yellow iguanas. Those creatures haven’t been endangered so far by the eruption because ash and lave have tended to flow east and southeast, while the animals live mostly to the north and west of the summit.

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Historic Journey: 201 Giant Tortoises Released on Santa Fé Island /2015/06/30/historic-journey-201-giant-tortoises-released-on-santa-fe-island/ /2015/06/30/historic-journey-201-giant-tortoises-released-on-santa-fe-island/#respond Wed, 01 Jul 2015 01:40:55 +0000 /?p=1630 Galápagos National Park rangers deliver tortoises to their new home on Santa Fé Island.

Galápagos National Park

Galápagos National Park rangers deliver tortoises to their new home on Santa Fé Island.

At four in the morning of June 27, while most Galapagueños slept, a team of rangers and scientists of the Galápagos National Park loaded 201 young tortoises on the vessel Sierra Negra in Puerto Ayora on Santa Cruz Island and sailed on a historic journey. It took an hour and a half to get to the island of Santa Fé and what made the crossing significant is that it marked the first time tortoises have inhabited the island in 150 years.

“More than twenty-five park rangers transported the tortoises from the coast to the central zone of the island where they were released, approximately three kilometers from the coast,” said Danny Rueda, Director of Ecosystems of the Galápagos National Park.

This operation is part of an ambitious and creative effort by the Galápagos National Park, in collaboration with the organization Galápagos Conservancy to restore tortoise populations on islands where the iconic creatures have become extinct.

One of these islands is Santa Fé, also known as Barrington, a small island of just 24 square kilometers (9.3 square miles) of surface located in the center of the archipelago. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, buccaneers and whalers, seeking food for their long voyages, decimated the population of giant tortoises on Santa Fe and other islands.

Later, when fishermen introduced goats to the islands, the goats ate away the vegetation that sustained the surviving tortoises—the final blow leading to their extinction.

Current genetic analysis of bone fragments suggest that the Santa Fe tortoises, Chelonoidis sp, may be similar to those of Española  Island, Chelonoidis hoodensis.  That’s why the 201 Española tortoises are substituting for the original population.  The scientific name Chelonoidis hoodensis comes from the name “Hood” given to the island on old English navigational charts.

“The use of an analog species (the Española tortoise) that can replace the original extinct species (the Santa Fe tortoise) is a new approach for ecosystem restoration in Galapagos and can provide a model for the world,” said Dr. Linda Cayot, Science Advisor for Galapagos Conservancy.

The tortoises are between 4 and 10 years old and were bred in captivity at the Fausto Llerena breeding center on Santa Cruz Island.

In 1971 the Galapágos National Park eradicated goats and vegetation returned, helped by heavy rains during years when the El Niño phenomenon was active in the Pacific Ocean.  Currently there are 250,000 Santa Fe Opuntia cactus, mostly adults; and 6,500 land iguanas (Conolophus pallidus).

In a news release the Galápagos Conservancy said the purpose of the project is to establish ��a reproductive tortoise population to fill the historical role of ecosystem engineer on Santa Fé.” To keep track of the tortoises, 30 of them were fitted with radio telemetry transmitters so their positions on the island can be tracked.

Fenced-off areas were created on Santa Fé Island in 2014 where tortoises and iguanas won't be able to feed on the vegetation.

Galápagos Conservancy

Fenced-off areas were created on Santa Fé Island in 2014 where tortoises and iguanas won’t be able to feed on the vegetation.

Preparations for this reintroduction took several years. In 2014, a team from the Park staff and Galapagos Conservancy traveled to Santa Fe and fenced off areas where the tortoises and iguanas will not be able to consume the vegetation.  That way, scientists can compare the impact of native herbivores on the ecosystem in areas where they can and can’t feed on the local plants.

An important part of the Project, added Rueda, is the evaluation over time of ecosystem changes due to the presence of the tortoises, as well as the interaction between tortoises and land iguanas, especially for shared resources such as food.

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Remembering “Lonesome George” by Saving Other Galápagos Tortoises /2015/06/24/remembering-lonesome-george-by-saving-other-galapagos-tortoises/ /2015/06/24/remembering-lonesome-george-by-saving-other-galapagos-tortoises/#respond Thu, 25 Jun 2015 01:56:31 +0000 /?p=1619 Lonesome George (file photo)

Galápagos National Park

Lonesome George (file photo)

The Ministry of Environment of Ecuador and the Galápagos National Park announced in a press release that they have planned a special remembrance of Lonesome George, the last of the species of giant tortoise from Pinta Island. When Lonesome George died on June 24, 2012, he became the face of extinction for his species.

According to the statement, “the Galápagos National Park and the Ministry of Environment,  working with the organization Galapagos Conservancy, will reintroduce 205 giant tortoises to the island of Santa Fé” after the last tortoises there disappeared 150 years ago.

Some of the 205 tortoises ready to travel to Santa Fe Island

Dr. James Gibbs / Galápagos Conservancy

Some of the 205 tortoises ready to travel to Santa Fe Island

The news release said the operation will take place on Saturday June 27, 2015 and will be a symbolic tribute to the memory of Lonesome George. “In Ecuador, we tried very hard to preserve this species, but time was not on our side,”  said Lorena Tapia, Minister of Environment of Ecuador.

“Even after his death, Lonesome George is a symbol of the efforts invested by the country and the international scientific community to conserve endangered species,” said the statement of the Park and the Environment Ministry. On Santa Fé, scientists and park officials are employing a new tactic. Because the original Santa Fé tortoises are extinct, the new ones that will be introduced actually hail from Española Island.  The scientific name for their species is Chelonoidis hoodensis (after “Hood,” the name English navigators gave to Española).

According to the president of the Galápagos Conservancy, Johannah Barry, “Genetic analyses have confirmed that the Española tortoise is most closely related to the extinct species from Santa Fé Island.  Hence, Española tortoises will be used as a substitute species to resurrect a tortoise population on Santa Fé.”

She added that: “It may sound faintly like the archipelago’s answer to Jurassic Park, but it is a solid, scientific endeavor involving the excellent work of geneticists at Yale University, field work by Galápagos National Park personnel and many scientists over the years, and leadership by our own staff and adjunct scientists, to restore tortoise populations on several islands.”

Tortoises being weighed at the breeding center

Dr. James Gibbs / Galápagos Conservancy

Tortoises being weighed at the breeding center

The young tortoises that will be transported to Santa Fé were bred in captivity at the Galápagos National Park’s Fausto Llerena Breeding Center  on the island of Santa Cruz. The park reports that in preparation for their journey, the tortoises “went through a process of measuring, weighing, marking and placing identification chips to track their development in the wild. Of these, about 40 have a GPS that will provide data on routes, movements and activities of tortoises on the island. ”

As we reported in Galápagos Digital, Lonesome George’s body was sent to New York where he was embalmed at the laboratory of George Dante taxidermy. He was exhibited at the American Museum of Natural History in New York from September 19, 2014 to January 4, 2015. Since then the body has been under the expert care of Mr. Dante who, according to the park, recently reported that George is undergoing additional preservation procedures that will take 4 months to complete.

After that, according to the official statement, George “will be ready for the trip back home, the Fausto Llerena Center where he lived the last 40 years of his life.”

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RIP: “Speed” the Galápagos Tortoise /2015/06/23/rip-speed-the-galapagos-tortoise/ /2015/06/23/rip-speed-the-galapagos-tortoise/#respond Tue, 23 Jun 2015 15:22:14 +0000 /?p=1613 Speed, the Galápagos tortoise (file photo)

San Diego Zoo

Speed, the Galápagos tortoise (file photo)

We were saddened at last week’s news of the demise of the Galápagos tortoise “Speed,” who lived to 150 years, give or take a few.  The San Diego Zoo took him from the Cerro Azul volcano on Isabela Island in 1933 as part of an effort to preserve the tortoises there. During his time at the zoo, Speed was put into a breeding program that resulted in the births of 90 baby tortoises.

But time took its toll on the old boy.  The zoo’s primary caregiver of Galápagos tortoises for the last 2 1/2 years, Jonny Carlson, said that Speed was in so much pain that the decision was made to euthanize him.

“He had some severe arthritis, and it just came down to a quality of life question,” Carlson told the San Diego Union-Tribune newspaper on Friday. “We’ve been wrestling with that for a couple months now. (Euthanization) was what we decided on because there was no fixing the problem. It was a matter of easing his pain.”

The newspaper reported that before the decision was made to euthanize Speed, the San Diego Zoo staff had worked tirelessly to keep him alive, using methods like hydrotherapy, acupuncture, medications and physical therapy.

Thirteen Galápagos tortoises remain at the zoo in four breeding groups. In 1977, the zoo, as part of its partnership with the Galápagos National Park and the Charles Darwin Foundation, sent a giant male tortoise — Diego, an Española Island tortoise — to Santa Cruz Island for breeding. According to the zoo, he single-handedly fathered 1,700 tortoises, earning him the nickname “Super Diego.”


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Ballard Expedition Examines Galápagos Rift /2015/06/18/ballard-expedition-explores-galapagos-waters/ /2015/06/18/ballard-expedition-explores-galapagos-waters/#respond Thu, 18 Jun 2015 19:38:37 +0000 /?p=1598 Dr. Robert Ballard’s Exploration Vessel E/V Nautilus and its Corps of Exploration are currently looking into the depths of the Galápagos Marine Reserve and they’ve been sending back some fascinating video from thousands of feet below the ocean surface.  You can follow their live video stream on the Nautilus site via this link.  It’s part of their most ambitious expedition season yet, exploring sites ranging from the Gulf of Mexico to British Columbia through late September.   The Galápagos part of the expedition runs through July 5.

Explorer Robert Ballard


Explorer Robert Ballard

Of particular interest to Ballard’s group are the hydrothermal vents in the Galápagos Rift region. In 1977, scientists found evidence that life could be sustained from chemicals coming out of the Earth’s crust rather than from sunlight.  Some of those vents are at a depth of 8,000 feet. Chemosynthetic bacteria, drawing energy from seawater-rock interactions at the vent sites, make up the foundation of the food chain for a variety of organisms including clams, mussels, and tubeworms. Many of those rare creatures have now been photographed by Ballard’s cameras.

“The giant tube worms were off the charts,” Ballard said in an online chat.  “My first reaction was, ‘you’ve got to be kidding me.'”

Ballard, the Director of the Center for Ocean Exploration, in the Graduate School of Oceanography at the University of Rhode Island, is best known for discovering the wreck of the steamship Titanic in 1985, the German battleship Bismark in 1989 and the aircraft carrier USS Yorktown in 1998.

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