Galapagos Matters Spring/Summer 2017

Page 1



SUNFISH SECRETS Finch medicine




Cover On Fernandina island, Galapagos racer snakes have evolved to exploit the bonanza of hatchling marine iguanas. The snakes congregate at iguana nesting grounds in extraordinary numbers waiting for the young iguanas to appear. © Richard Wollocombe

4-5 6-7 8-10


16-17 Skinning tortoises by moonlight



With the publication of a new book on the California Academy of Sciences’ expedition to Galapagos in 19051906, Matthew James describes the fate of the only ever tortoise found on Fernandina.


The radiance of sunfish When studying whale sharks proved tricky, Alistair Dove and fellow marine biologists changed plans and travelled to Isabela to see if they could collect data on the enigmatic southern sunfish. With nine tagged, we are now getting the first ever glimpse into the secretive lives of these huge, disc-shaped fish.

18-19 Racers versus iguanas

For Galapagos fans, the stand-out sequence from Planet Earth II had to be the evolutionary tussle between racer snakes and newly hatched marine iguanas on Fernandina. Wildlife cameraman Richard Wollocombe describes the excitement of witnessing these dramatic events and what it took to film them.

11 UK News 12-13 Self-medicating finches


14-15 Project Updates

21-23 Merchandise Membership, Reviews, Events and

A chance observation of a warbler finch poking leaves between its feathers raised the intriguing question of whether these threatened land birds could have hit upon a natural method of repelling the invasive fly Philornis downsi. Arno Cimadom tells the story.

Global relevance In the last decade, there has been an explosion of interest in citizen science, encouraging non-specialists to get involved in and contribute to original research. Richard Kirby reveals and considers his experience of a project to monitor phytoplankton and the benefits of this approach.


Alistair Dove is a marine biologist and vicepresident of research and conservation at the Georgia Aquarium in Atlanta, home to four whale sharks housed in one of the largest aquatic exhibits in the world.



Arno Cimadom is a behavioural ecologist at the Department of Behavioural Biology, University of Vienna, Austria. He is currently studying the impact of invasive species and habitat destruction on the reproductive success of Darwin’s finches.

Kate Huyvaert is an associate professor in Fish, Wildlife and Conservation Biology at Colorado State University. Her research is in disease ecology and seabird conservation biology.

Matthew James is a professor of geology at Sonoma State University in northern California and the author of Collecting Evolution: The Galapagos Expedition that Vindicated Darwin. Over the last 25 years, he has worked on the paleontology, conservation and human history of Galapagos.

Richard Wollocombe is an award-winning cameraman specialising in terrestrial and aquatic natural history filmmaking. He is a resident of Galapagos and has spent 25 years exploring the Islands. His work has taken him around the world but Galapagos remains his favourite place on earth.


CHIEF EXECUTIVE by Sharon Johnson

© Akemi Yokoyama


he stunning footage from BBC Planet Earth II of the marine iguanas and Galapagos racers captured the public’s imagination and thrust the Galapagos Islands and their wildlife into the limelight last winter (pp. 18-19). Having recently returned from the Islands, I can appreciate why the audience felt so passionately about the sequence – not only for the life and death struggle, but also for the uniqueness of the wildlife and scenery.

We also have the series BBC Mission Galapagos with Liz Bonnin airing in the spring. It will be showcasing the Islands and the science happening behind the scenes, but we must not lose track of the fact that many of these species are at risk of extinction. I have been fortunate enough to get a glimpse of the documentary which spends as much time below the seas as it does on land, exploring the many mysteries that the Galapagos Marine Reserve still hides. The sunfish features in the documentary, but as you will see (pp. 8-10) we still know very little about their biology or how they use the Reserve. This is true for a surprising number of species in the Archipelago, many of which are endangered. Our 2017 spring appeal will focus on raising the funds needed to protect endangered species including the Galapagos giant tortoise and whale shark, which you can read about on p. 23. Thank you for your generosity for our

Floreana Mockingbird Appeal which has raised an incredible £25,000 to date.This will enable ongoing research to establish a stable population of the Floreana mockingbird (pp 14-15) and continuing restoration work will ensure the recovery of endangered species like the medium tree finch. We know island ecosystems can recover if introduced species are removed, but this has never been managed on such a large humaninhabited island before. A unique opportunity exists to demonstrate we can achieve this in Galapagos. Fiftyfive endemic species are threatened with extinction on Floreana due to out-of-control rat and feral cat populations. Working with Island Conservation, we are supporting new approaches to community engagement, which will mean Floreana is poised to become the world’s first large populated island to have its ecosystem restored.The methods used will also provide a

template for archipelagos elsewhere around the world, benefitting hundreds of other threatened species. This is just one part of our exciting plans for 2017. We are also expanding our education and sustainability work in the Islands. One new area of activity will be working to combat marine debris, which will feature in the next issue. We do hope you will continue to support us in our mission to conserve the Islands, which is only possible with your support, and the dedication of scientists and our partners in Galapagos. Thank you for your ongoing support and I hope you enjoy this latest issue of Galapagos Matters.

Sharon Johnson Chief Executive

Galapagos Matters is a copyright biannual publication produced for members of the Galapagos Conservation Trust. The information in this issue was ISSN 2050-6074 Galapagos Matters Printer: Bishops Printers obtained from various sources, all is printed on paper made from well Charles Darwin Suite, of which have extensive knowledge managed forests and controlled 28 Portland Place, London W1B 1LY of Galapagos, but neither GCT nor sources. 020 7399 7440 the contributors are responsible Editor: Henry Nicholls for the accuracy of the contents Chief Executive: Sharon Johnson or the opinions expressed herein. Communications and Marketing Officer: Clare Simm





WILD GALAPAGOS GCT member Lindsey Atkinson photographed this great blue heron Ardea herodias during a two-week trip to Galapagos in 2014. When the bird lunged for a fish near Punta Espinoza, Fernandina, Lindsey captured the action. In Galapagos, the great blue heron breeds throughout the year, nesting close to the shore, usually in mangroves. Hunting small fish in shallow water, it remains perfectly still until it strikes with lightning speed and precision. Do you have photos of Galapagos? Then enter them into our photography competition! See more details on page 22.






© Galapagos National Park


he first ever survey of giant tortoises on San Cristobal has revealed a healthy, thriving population on the road to recovery. As on all other islands in Galapagos, the San Cristobal tortoise was subject to exploitation by whalers and sailors, resulting in catastrophic population decline. It’s thought that a historical population of up to 25,000 tortoises was probably reduced to around 500 by the middle of the 20th century. In November



last year, a team of 70 people succeeded in marking almost 2,000 individuals during a two-week expedition to the island. Based on this success rate, it’s estimated that there are probably around 6,700 giant tortoises on San Cristobal, with a high proportion of females and juveniles. “The results of this research expedition provide great news for Ecuador and the world,” says Walter García, Ecuador’s Minister of the Environment. “The work

demonstrates that the conservation measures of the environmental authority, executed by park rangers during decades of hard work, have been effective for the management of this species.”As a bonus, the expedition also identified almost 70 specimens of Calandrinia galapagosa and over 1,000 Lecocarpus leptolobus, endemic plants found only on San Cristobal and both critically endangered according to the IUCN’s Red List of Threatened Species.

© Vanessa Green



fter giant tortoises, land iguanas are the second largest land-dwelling vertebrates in Galapagos and, like their cousins, they too are responsible for spreading seeds far and wide. By combing through iguana scats, researchers found thousands of seeds from over 30 different plant species, many of which were able to germinate, apparently undamaged by their journey through the gut. Whilst most seeds were from native plants, there were some from introduced species, raising the possibility that land iguanas could facilitate the movement of alien plants around relatively pristine islands like Fernandina. In the summer we are hoping to support a land iguana survey to assess their conservation status; we’ll update you in the next issue.



alapagos Verde 2050 is getting ready to move into its second phase. Since its beginning in 2014, the ambitious project to restore large parts of arid and highland areas with endemic plants has focused on planting seedlings in several key degraded sites on Baltra, Santa Cruz, South Plaza and Floreana. With the second phase, which will run from 2017 to 2027, restoration work will continue on Floreana, roll out to Espanola and move into abandoned farmland in the agricultural zone where invasive plants have taken hold. A third and final phase is planned to take the project up to 2050. Galapagos Verde is a multi-institutional and interdisciplinary project led by the Charles Darwin Foundation and the Galapagos National Park.



© Tim Saxe

onesome George the giant tortoise, the last individual of his species, has returned to Galapagos after an absence of almost five years. Following his unexpected death in 2012, the Galapagos National Park agreed to send him to a leading taxidermist in New York. After painstaking treatment, George went on show at New York’s American Museum of Natural History in 2014. However, he is now back in the Galapagos Islands, with his preserved remains the centerpiece of a new exhibition aimed at visitors to the Fausto Llerena Breeding Center at the GNP headquarters on Santa Cruz.


cuador has gone to the polls to begin the election for a new president, with incumbent Rafael Correa coming to the end of his third and final term in office as leader of the PAIS Alliance. In 2007, shortly after taking up his position as president, Correa issued an emergency decree that the conservation and management of Galapagos was a national priority. After a decade of relative political stability that has been beneficial for Galapagos, the first round of presidential elections, held in February, indicate that Correa will be succeeded by either Lenín Moreno of the PAIS Alliance or Guillermo Lasso of the Creando Oportunidades (CREO) party. It remains to be seen what direction the next president will take towards the Galapagos Islands.

© Maximillian Hirschfield




he critically endangered Galapagos petrel is nesting again at Los Gemelos on Santa Cruz after decades of absence from this site. In September last year, rangers from the Galapagos National Park surveyed established colonies in the Santa Cruz highlands and found chicks in at least 70% of nests. They placed over 1,000 rodent bait stations in the area to mitigate the impact that these invasive species have on petrel reproduction. This and the control of blackberry and guava have helped to restore much of this species’ habitat. It’s estimated there could be as many as 8,500 pairs across the Archipelago.



he Galapagos Bullhead Shark Project has launched a website ( to communicate its research into the secretive Galapagos bullhead shark. Any encounters with this shark, by anyone from schoolchildren to guides to fishermen can be reported through an online form, which should help build a better picture of the population size and distribution. These data combined with genetic information will be used to inform the management of the bullhead’s habitat. The project is run by scientists from the Galapagos Science Center, the University of San Francisco de Quito and James Cook University, Australia. It is funded by the National Marine Aquarium, Galapagos Conservation Trust and the Rufford Foundation.




by Alistair Dove

Three. Two. One. Go. Go. Go!” The divers plunge into the chilly green waters to the west of Isabela. Moments later they surface along with a southern sunfish, its huge circular body gleaming in mottled blotches of copper and silver.



The southern sunfish Mola ramsayi might not be as well known as the ocean sunfish M. mola. However it is just as, if not more, spectacular - its disc-shaped body reaching up to an incredible three metres in diameter and propelled along by the combined action of two towering fins, one above and one below. There is no tail to speak of, only a fleshy, flexible ridge that extends from one fin to the other. Its skin is thick and tough, embedded with sharp, sandpapery scales. It is wise to wear gloves when working with this species. I pull mine on and the work begins. One week earlier, the expedition had started with a rather different goal. I had come to Galapagos, along with colleagues from the Georgia Aquarium, the marine research and conservation

network MigraMar, the Marine Megafauna Foundation and Galapagos National Park, to work on whale sharks. We had hoped to confirm that the huge females frequenting Darwin’s Arch in the very north of the Archieplago between June and November are pregnant. The whale sharks were not cooperating so we cut short our efforts around Darwin and turned towards Isabela and Plan B: to study sunfish. While some of the team cradle the animal in the water, I work from the inflatable boat to attach tags and take tissue samples that will yield DNA for genetic analysis and allow us to check for plastic contamination, which is a growing problem in the open ocean. In a few minutes, we are finished and the animal swims off, finning strongly into the murky depths. We look on anxiously as it

The sunfish swims off, finning strongly into the murky depths.

Š Alex Hearn

A researcher approaches a sunfish with gloves on to avoid being harmed by its sharp, sandpaperlike scales.

Š Clare Prebble/MMF

takes several expensive instruments with it, but hope that over the next few months we will receive data on the movements of this individual and insights into the biology of a species that, frankly, we know next-to-nothing about. In just a few days, we fit nine southern sunfish with a variety of real-time satellite tags, archival satellite tags and acoustic tags. We also deploy acoustic receivers onto the sea floor, devices that will listen for coded ultrasound signals now being emitted by the tagged sunfish, registering their passing like cars at a motorway toll. From these data we should be able to get a feel for how the sunfish move around Isabela, the wider Galapagos Archipelago and beyond. As I write this, our animals are still at large, sending back packets of data whenever they spend more than a few




seconds at the surface. The early results suggest that southern sunfish may not roam as widely as we had imagined. After four months, our most reliable communicator is still hanging around northwestern Isabela, occasionally sweeping along the northern edge before heading right back to where we tagged it last October. Once Alex Hearn from the Universidad San Francisco de Quito and Jules Paredes from the Galapagos National Park recover the acoustic receivers later this year, we will have more data still, giving us a chance to map the way these peculiar fish are using these waters. The Galapagos National Park will be able to use this information to provide better protection for the sunfish. Knowing that they don’t roam far, for example, would allow Park staff to focus research and enforcement efforts on key locations. The southern sunfish may also illuminate the impact that climate change is having in these waters. As a bonus, there is something profoundly symbolic about this creature. It is truly remarkable that in 2017 we know so little about a species as large and charismatic as the southern sunfish. How much more do we still have to discover?

The researchers work together to attach tags and take tissue samples from a southern sunfish.


© Alex Hearn


t has been another successful year for our whale shark research. In 2016, along with the traditional satellite tags, we deployed miniature pop-up tags on to eight animals, devices that will record depth, temperature and average daily positions for several months before detaching to be recovered at the surface. With this information we hope to learn a lot more about the vertical behaviour of the whale shark, especially during the time they spend away from Darwin Island when they may be giving birth. In 2017, we hope to begin aerial surveys and tagging of whale sharks along mainland Ecuador and in southern Galapagos. These efforts should help us to complete their migratory loop. We will also be returning to Darwin Island in the summer, hoping to establish once and for all whether the females here are pregnant.




NEWS © Sophia Cooke


hen Bernard Cooke won the raffle at Galapagos Day last year, we were delighted, especially as there is a lovely story behind it. In 2015, Bernard’s daughter Sophia visited Galapagos and set up a project to understand the impacts of the invasive smooth-billed ani on native species. Sophia spent two field trips trialling novel methods of capturing ani, a task previously thought to be particularly difficult. She had great success during her second trip, but due to issues caused by El Niño in 2016, she needed one more trip before being able to validate and publish her findings. She was having trouble raising the funds for this final trip until her father won the raffle. She can now finalise and publish the design of the trap, and begin planning for a large-scale dietary analysis. The results from this will determine what effect, if any, the ani is having in Galapagos and inform decisions on its future.



CT Chairman Mark Collins gave two lectures to the East Anglian branch of the Royal Geographical Society in February 2017. His presentations provided some real insights into both the historical and contemporary importance of science in Galapagos. Mark started with Darwin’s journey to the Archipelago and its implications for today’s ecological thinking. He then focused on the work GCT is supporting on Floreana island, illustrating how many of the species Darwin studied are now critically endangered.



alapagos Day 2016 was another great success. Around 200 attendees listened to Dr Amy McLeod, Dr Glyn Young and Dr Richard Kirby talk about their scientific research in Galapagos and highlight the importance of conservation across the Archipelago. Students from Falmouth University’s Marine and Natural History Photography course also gave a presentation about their recent photography trip to Galapagos. We would like to say thank you to all of our members and speakers who attended the event and we look forward to seeing you again in autumn 2017.

© Sai Pathmanathan



aving excitedly written a fun, activity-packed resource on those most wondrous of creatures, marine iguanas, it was time to release one particular activity into the wild. That is, iguana raft building at Globe Primary School in Bethnal Green. In collaboration with Jen Jones from GCT, I ran a session for Year 5 on divergent evolution. Using craft materials the children worked in teams to build rafts for ancestral iguanas to cross water and colonise new islands. One group even did a little creative writing, putting themselves in the position of the ancestral iguanas. Find out more about Sai: Visit our Discovering Galapagos Evolution Zone for educational resources and activities:





by Arno Cimadom


was astonished and a bit jealous when Birgit Fessl, my colleague and leader of the land bird team at the Charles Darwin Research Station, told me what she’d just seen: a warbler finch tugging at the reddish tips of a leaf of the endemic Guayabillo tree and then threading the piece of vegetation through its feathers.


Guayabillo is also known as Galapagos guava and is found on five main islands in Galapagos. Arno Cimadom smears one arm with Guayabillo before exposing himself to mosquitos. © Arno Cimadom


I gave mosquitos in the field the chance to bite me. They almost exclusively went for the untreated limbs, a finding that we replicated in a further 16 volunteers and in further experiments in the lab back in Austria. Mosquitos, at least, seem to avoid anything coated in Guayabillo extract. So far, so good. But can Guayabillo also be used as protection against P. downsi? Together with our colleagues from the Philornis lab at the Charles Darwin Research Station, we collected larvae from infested nests and fed them with chicken blood in the lab. We found that those who had to suck the blood through a gauze treated with Guayabillo grew far more slowly than control larvae exposed to the juice of another plant or water only. Adult flies avoided Guayabillo too, when they were given the choice between a treated and untreated bait. These first results suggest that Darwin’s finches of several species may have hit upon a means of self-medication. When and how this behaviour emerged is unknown, but as it was discovered only recently it is possible that preening with Guayabillo is an evolved response to new introduced parasites like Philornis. It is a discovery that is both remarkable and significant. Owing to the unique, fragile nature of Galapagos, the use of strong insecticides to control an invasive insect like Philornis can be very problematic. However here is a native plant species with insectrepellent properties that the birds appear to have discovered themselves. If we can identify the active compounds in the Guayabillo leaves, we might be able to develop a natural repellent that could be used to counter the very real threat these parasites pose to the iconic group of Darwin’s finches.

© Will Pollard

In the days that followed, I kept my eyes peeled. And yes, a few days later I had the luck to observe a small tree finch ripping off a Guayabillo leaf, chewing it and then applying the mashed plant matter to its feathers. In the months and years that followed my colleagues and I observed something similar going on in several other species. We witnessed both small and medium ground finches doing likewise. Interestingly, all the birds seemed to be very particular for Guayabillo leaves, even though this tree only occurs at low densities in the highlands of Santa Cruz where we were working. This looked like highly deliberate behaviour. What could be going on? Elsewhere in the world, birds will occasionally go in for “active anting”, rubbing their feathers with ants and other invertebrates in an effort to combat parasites or quell infections. There are only a few reports of birds using plants to serve the same purpose, but it was an intriguing possibility. Darwin’s finches are famous for their ingenuity, but this behaviour represents the first known observation outside the foraging context. Perhaps they had found a way to protect themselves against the fly Philornis downsi, an invasive nest parasite that can easily eliminate a whole clutch of chicks. In some years chick mortality due to Philornis parasitism can be up to 95% and thus is currently considered one of the greatest threats to the Galapagos land birds. We decided to investigate. The first step was to find out if Guayabillo had any insect-repelling properties. It seemed like a good idea to use ourselves as guinea pigs. Just like the finches I picked some leaves, crushed them in my hands and rubbed them on one leg and one arm. Then

© Prof W. G. Hale

Several species of finch have been seen self-medicating in Galapagos, including the small ground finch.



espite a late breeding season, 2016 was the most successful year so far for head-starting mangrove finch chicks, with 15 fledglings being reared in captivity and then released back into the wild. This brings the total of released fledglings during the three-year project to 36, a huge boost to a population that consisted of fewer than 80 individuals before this intervention. Even more exciting is the fact that the first breeding behaviour in a head-started bird was seen last year. In September 2016, a captive-reared male that had been released in 2014 was observed singing – a key milestone for the project. This observation shows that not only are the captive-reared birds able to survive in their natural habitat, but that they are likely to form part of the mangrove finch breeding population, which is the ultimate goal of the head-starting programme. This show of breeding behaviour is positive sign for the species’ recovery, and with several birds now at breeding age, the team is hopeful that we will see established territories in the 2017 breeding season. Even if the individuals do not nest, this would be a massive step forward in the battle to save this extremely rare bird. Thanks to GCT supporters, 2016 was the second year that we were the principal funder for the project which is a bi-institutional project carried out by the Charles Darwin Foundation and Galapagos National Park in collaboration with San Diego Zoo Global and Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust. There was additional support from The Friends of Galapagos Switzerland (FOGO Suiza), Foundation Ensemble, The Leona M. and Harry B. Helmsley Charitable Trust, the British Embassy in Quito and several individual donors.

I had the luck to observe a small tree finch chewing a Guayabillo leaf and then applying the mashed plant matter to its feathers.






onitoring populations is crucial for making informed wildlife management decisions. Since 2010, you have helped us to support the Charles Darwin Foundation and the Galapagos National Park study of endangered seabirds in Galapagos, including the Galapagos penguin, the flightless cormorant and the waved albatross. As these birds rely on the ocean for hunting within specific ranges, the availability of their food supply is highly dependent on fluctuations in habitat and climate. This research is also vital to characterise onshore threats from invasive predators and disease and to inform protective measures. Thanks to the donations received through your support of the 2015 winter Penguin Appeal and from the ongoing support from our partners at The Deep aquarium, the team has been able to continue work throughout 2016. This has revealed that the El Niño event had a strong impact on reproduction of the three species, with fewer nests encountered than in previous years. Galapagos penguins appeared to be more widely distributed, perhaps because they were increasing their foraging range in response to the suboptimal conditions. There is good news though, with evidence that efforts to eradicate invasive predators from many of these areas have been successful. This is especially the case at the El Muneco site to the north of Isabela island, where seabirds are now breeding after many years of absence. However, there are still tracks of feral cats at several sites and this will likely be a priority for conservation management attention in the future. It was also observed that flightless cormorants were building nests out of unusual materials such as marine iguana and fish skeletons following the El Niño event. Cormorants continued to use commonly observed nesting materials such as algae and sadly also objects such as plastic, ropes, bottle caps and engine belts.

by Kate Huyvaert


he waved albatross Phoebastria irrorata is the world’s only tropical albatross and all but a few pairs use Espanola as a nesting ground from April to December. Males return to the colony first, soon to be followed by females and then the understated chaos of reunions and mating ensues. Females lay a single egg – about the size of a tennis ball – on the ground and the pair takes turns at incubation for a touch over two months. One parent tends the small chick for the first couple of weeks while the other forages in and around the Archipelago. As the chick grows larger, the parents make longer trips towards the South American coast, returning to the colony less often but with much larger meals for the hungry chick. The juvenile reaches full size by December when the comical moos of reuniting pairs are replaced by the equally whimsical flap of young wings practising flight. Once a newly hatched albatross has fledged and left Espanola in December, it will be four or five years before we see it again. Like other albatrosses, the waved albatross lives a long, slow-paced life with high annual survival. Forty years ago, survival from year to year was 96 to 99% but albatross populations tend to be sensitive to threats such as invasive species, pathogens, extreme weather events and interactions with fisheries and today’s year-on-year survival is 90 to 96%. Mortality in artisanal fisheries off the coasts of Peru and Ecuador is, in part, what led to the 2007 decision to list the waved albatross as critically endangered and our work today is shaped by these threats. Each year we go back in May to read the leg bands of breeders and youngsters returning for the first time and these data are used to estimate annual survival and reproductive effort. We have also been tracking changes in plastic ingestion and disease to understand as well as we can the full suite of challenges facing these magnificent birds.



© Prof W. G. Hale




rom November 2016 to January 2017, staff from the Galapagos National Park and researchers from Massey University, conducted the annual population estimates for the Floreana mockingbird and Floreana racer. Both species coexist on Champion and Gardnerby-Floreana and share the same habitat, Opuntia scrub. Besides population estimates, the team collected data on the density of lava lizards, a common prey item for Floreana racers. Similarly, the team measured the food availability (Opuntia flowers) for Floreana mockingbirds. With this information, the team hopes to model the minimum habitat requirements and food availability that will be necessary in the lowlands of Floreana island to establish populations of mockingbirds and racers in the upcoming years. Every year, the field team mentors a young Ecuadorian volunteer. This time the team was fortunate to have Mr Enzo Reyes. Enzo is a recently graduated biologist from the University of Guayaquil with ample experience in bird monitoring. He enjoyed the fieldwork so much that he is now considering enrolling in a Master of Science

program investigating the relationship between Floreana mockingbird social structure and habitat use. Other highlights of the most recent trip include the sighting of a group of seven males and one female Floreana racer mating, the first record of this behaviour for this species. In addition, the team confirmed the age of the two oldest Floreana mockingbirds currently on Champion islet, both ten years old.


e are very grateful to all of you who supported the Floreana Appeal to date. At the time of publication, we have raised £25,000! These funds will enable our project partners to start laying the groundwork for our ambitious three-year Floreana Native Species Reintroduction Programme. In addition to Luis’ work to reintroduce the Floreana mockingbird and Floreana racer, our partners at Island Conservation will continue their work with the community on Floreana who are key to ensuring that the project is a success. It is also important that there are effective biosecurity measures in place. During the eradication of rats, it will be crucial to contain livestock within fenced-off areas and construct temporary holding sites for vulnerable native species. The work that your money will support will contribute to restoring the first large populated island to its former glory, which will not only help vulnerable species and boost tourism, but will ultimately provide a template for use on islands elsewhere in the world. © Luis Ortiz-Catedral


ith a donation from The Tribes Foundation, GCT is supporting a project that will develop and build an interpretive trail for the use of students and visitors to Tomas de Berlanga school on Santa Cruz island. School children will design eight signposts highlighting historical, environmental and sustainability themes which they will use as an outdoor learning resource throughout their school year.



© California Academy of Sciences



by Matthew James


sure method to locate giant tortoises is to look for fresh droppings. The naturalist and collector Rollo Beck knew this only too well. When he came across a few fresh lumps of tortoise excrement on Fernandina (containing, he noticed, undigested cactus and cactus spines), he knew he was on the right track.



Beck was the internal dynamo of the schooner Academy expedition to Galapagos, a yearlong trip funded by the California Academy of Sciences in 1905 and 1906 to capture the Archipelago’s diversity in a way that had never been done before. Beck and seven other scientists returned to San Francisco in late November 1906 with some 78,000 specimens of birds, reptiles, plants, insects, molluscs, fossils and mammals. To some extent they brought Galapagos back to San Francisco. The specimens have been used time and again to vindicate Charles Darwin. Today’s conservation thinking would not permit such a large collection, but over 100 years ago there was no other option than to be “preserved” in a museum, rather than preserved in the living environment. Further towards the summit of Fernandina, and even more revealing than the droppings,

Beck took out his field knife and skinned the tortoise by moonlight.

unsolved mystery. More broadly, this single specimen embodies the work of the California Academy of Sciences expedition, a trip that set out to collect evolution in the form of specimens, especially tortoises before it was “too late”. These physical record and others vindicated Darwin’s thoughts on evolution and natural selection, ideas that have become central to the identity of Galapagos in the 21st century.

The one and only giant tortoise collected from Fernandina. © California Academy of Sciences

Could there still be tortoises on Fernandina?


ollo Beck clearly knew he was collecting the very first tortoise from Fernandina, but he may not have collected the last. Over the past 50 years, there have been several reliable sightings of what appear to be tortoise droppings on the island. Any remaining tortoises could have died out naturally or been killed by a lava flow emanating from the still-active caldera. However, given how little we know about this island, there is also the possibility that there are still tortoises out there on these remote, hostile slopes, just waiting to be discovered.

© Matthew James

Beck found a rounded rock covered in semen. It was roughly the size and shape of a small female tortoise, a surrogate mating partner that “had been used for the same purpose that rocks…have served ever since the whalers carried off all the female tortoises.” Alone at the summit of Fernandina, the largest pristine island in the world and one on which no human had ever lived, Beck was rewarded with a sweeping vista of an open, grassy plateau punctuated by tall cacti leading to the steep precipice into the volcanic caldera. He had collected in Galapagos three times before and knew that nobody had ever found a tortoise on this island. He was determined to succeed where others had failed. When Beck finally found the large, old and apparently frustrated male, the sun was setting. It was 4 April 1906. It had been another long, hot day in the field and he sat down to eat his dinner of hardtack, canned salmon and canned sardines. The tortoise ate too, taking big, purposeful and unhurried bites of brown Galapagos grass, unaware that it was to be his last meal. Beck took out his field knife and “skinned the tortoise by moonlight.” He worked steadily for five hours, beginning the process of transforming the old male from a living, breathing example of evolution into a one-of-a-kind museum specimen. Today, this tortoise – the one and only specimen ever found on Fernandina – stands sentinel-like in the herpetology department of the California Academy of Sciences, the oldest museum west of the Rocky Mountains. Affixed to one leg with a length of wire is a small metal tag, perhaps half an inch by two inches, on which is embossed the museum number 8101, Beck’s name, and the island the specimen came from, in this case “Narborough,” the older name for Fernandina. The tortoise’s current Latin name of Chelonoidis phantastica seems an appropriate name for a species whose existence is based on a single fantastic and phantasmagoric specimen. Along with the tortoise taxidermy, the California Academy of Sciences is home to a box of 8101’s bones. Some hundred years after Beck collected this tortoise, Gisella Caccone, a geneticist at Yale University in Connecticut, opened this box and succeeded in extracting genetic material from a sample. The result was a surprise. The mitochondrial DNA was most similar to that of the tortoises from Santa Cruz in the centre of the Archipelago rather than to those of nearby Isabela. Yet it was unique, a genetic signature that has not been recorded on any other island to date. Fearing a mistake, Caccone cut a sliver of skin and bone from the specimen itself and redid the analysis. The result was the same. It remains possible this tortoise somehow made its way to Fernandina with human assistance. However the collection of 8101, as tragic as it might seem from our perspective, raises the more intriguing possibility that this young island – thought to be only around 50,000 years old – may once have had its own species of tortoise. If it did, when and how the reptile reached its shores remains an



© Vanessa Green

RACERS VS IGUANAS by Richard Wollocombe


hy are Galapagos racers called racers? In 2015 and 2016, I spent six weeks on Fernandina’s pristine shoreline, filming a sequence that would answer this question. The sight of racer snakes speeding en masse after marine iguana hatchlings turned out to be one of the most memorable sequences in the BBC’s ground-breaking Planet Earth II series.



a few chances every day to film a hunt. It took around 400 hours of field time, across 36 days in two different years to film the sequence, which included shooting footage of lava lizards, sally lightfoot crabs, underwater shots of iguanas feeding and scenic elements needed to complete the central story. The edited footage lasts less than nine minutes in total. Following the broadcast of the first episode of Planet Earth II in which this appeared, the extraordinary number of online comments certainly illustrate how fascinated and terrified people are by a number of snakes hunting in

Galapagos racers are just one of many predators that hatchling marine iguanas will face in the first few months of their lives. © Richard Wollocombe

After baby marine iguanas hatch they normally lie just beneath the surface of the sand to absorb as much heat as they can before they reveal themselves to the world. It is assumed they do this to power their muscles to outrun predators. On Fernandina, this is particularly important, for on this island Galapagos racer snakes have evolved to exploit the bonanza of hatchling marine iguanas. The snakes congregate at iguana nesting grounds in extraordinary numbers waiting for the young iguanas to appear. These hatchlings have skittish instincts and rightly so. As soon as they poke their heads above ground, they are alert and nervous. They cautiously make their way towards the black coastline, seeking safety in numbers amongst the adult iguanas basking close to the sea and the algae on which they feed. However if the waiting snakes spot them, a frantic dash ensues. The racers move at lightening speed, as many as ten all slithering towards the fleeing iguana. This animal behaviour – one of the most startling and thrilling that I’ve had the privilege to witness – was extremely challenging to film. Often the iguanas would explode into a sprint pursued by a mass of snakes, only to disappear behind a boulder or other feature and we would lose the action. The iguana hatchlings are only about 12 cm long and keeping the small, very fast and erratic iguanas in focus was nervewracking especially when we would only have

the same location. A single snake hunting its prey is enough to transfix us by engaging our instinctive mammalian fear of snakes. A mass of them hunting is the stuff of nightmares. People were chilled to the bone but the hunt was made all the more poignant because their victims were so cute and innocent. So when one iguana miraculously escapes from the stranglehold of writhing snakes, the relief is tangible. All credit is due to the masterful skill of Elizabeth White, the producer, and Matt Meach, the editor, in teasing the tension throughout the sequence and allowing the darkest nightmare to dissolve into a fairytale ending. This remarkable escape was a glorious and uplifting moment, resonating with the audience and transforming the sequence into a sensation. If an iguana hatchling survives the group of hungry snakes, it will hide among the adults and the small fissures in the lava that lie close to the sea, scuttling out at low tide to feed on the exposed algae. It will face other threats

during these first few weeks of life, an easy picking for a frigatebird, a Galapagos hawk or a great blue heron. However it does not take too long for these hatchlings to grow large enough to avoid such predators. By this time, the racer snakes have long gone, disappearing inland in search of other prey. Interestingly, mass snake hunting has not been observed on other islands in Galapagos, only on Fernandina. This may have something to do with the fact that unlike most other islands in the Archipelago, Fernandina has not been tainted by introduced species. There are no rats, no cats, no pigs and no dogs. Perhaps, on other islands, these mammals have had such an impact on the densities of both racers and iguanas that this behaviour can no longer occur. It is a reminder of how important it is that there are still places like Fernandina, an island whose stark, raw, pristine state is otherworldly and humbling to a degree.

The racers move at lightening speed, as many as ten all slithering towards the fleeing iguana.

Š Richard Wollocombe




© Richard Kirby


n May last year, a group of passengers on board a vessel just off Isabela lowered a weighted, 30cm white disk attached to a 50m tape measure into the sea. They watched the disk descend, recording on a smartphone the depth at which it disappeared from sight; they had just participated in the global citizen science Secchi Disk study ( The white disk is known as a Secchi disk, the invention of 19th century Italian astronomer Angelo Secchi. The depth at which it is no longer visible is known as the Secchi Depth, a simple way to gauge the clarity of the seawater. Away from estuaries and coasts the major determinant of water clarity is the phytoplankton that live at the sunlit sea surface, so the passengers had just taken a measurement of the phytoplankton in the water column. Phytoplankton are the tiny microalgae that bring life to the sea, microorganisms that underpin the entire marine food chain. The abundance of the phytoplankton determines the abundance of the other life in the sea, from fish and crabs, to sharks and whales, to penguins and boobies. If you are snorkelling or diving in Galapagos you will know it is the plankton that is the major influence upon visibility or the ‘vis’. You may also know that

the ‘vis’ or clarity of the water alters during the year, reducing when the colder, nutrientrich waters of the polar Humboldt and the western Cromwell currents are at their strongest. It is at this time of the year that the Galapagos seas are at their most productive with the greatest abundance of marine life. In 2010 a group of Canadian scientists reported that the amount of phytoplankton in the world’s oceans had declined globally by 40% over the last 50 years due to climate change. They suggested that warming of the sea surface had reduced the upwelling of nutrients from deeper water. Other, more recent studies have also confirmed that the phytoplankton are changing in their abundance around the world as the sea surface warms. Since the phytoplankton are the foundations upon which marine biodiversity is built it is very important to understand how they are changing. However the ocean habitat of the phytoplankton is vast and there are not that many scientists to study them. This is where any seafarer can help by becoming a citizen scientist, taking part in the global Secchi Disk phytoplankton study and measuring the Secchi Depth. Which is exactly what occurred just off Isabela in 2016, when the first Secchi Depth of 12.8 m was collected from Galapagos and submitted to the global Citizen Science database using the Secchi app. Citizen science is often considered a recent phenomenon since the term was first used in 1989 to describe a small group of American citizens who collected rain samples

by Richard Kirby

to investigate acid rain. However, citizen science is really much older at an individual level since we have always been interested in recording the natural world to improve our understanding of how it changes. In fact, notes taken by gardeners in diaries who were keen to understand the weather and seasons dating as far back as classical times, or bird observations collected by amateur naturalists, are proving invaluable in the creation of long-term datasets to help us study longerterm changes in the natural world. Not only is citizen science an effective way to collect data, it also helps engage people of all ages with the natural world to give them a sense of responsibility and ownership. Since that first measurement on board the SV Beluga, passengers on Tip Top III operated by the Wittmer family have also become citizen scientists by taking part in the Secchi Disk phytoplankton study in Galapagos. Hopefully, over the coming years, many more Secchi Depths will be collected by visitors to the Islands to build up a longterm database of the phytoplankton from this unique place. Not only will the Secchi Depth data help us understand changes at the base of the marine food chain, but anyone who takes part will be able to say that they left an ocean legacy from their visit to Galapagos. The Secchi Disk study is funded 100% by sponsorship and donations. If you would like to support the study you can do so through The Secchi Disk Foundation charity via

Richard Kirby is a UK plankton scientist and the leader of the global citizen science Secchi Disk study. He is also the author of Ocean Drifters, a popular science book about phytoplankton and the secret world beneath the waves.




by Rob Chetwood


f it’s not already clear from reading this edition of Galapagos Matters, our members are central to our organisation. Without your support we would simply not be able to continue the conservation, education and sustainability projects that are vital to the future of Galapagos.


elcome to our new blog feature, where we will be delving into our members’ insights like never before! From travelling expeditions to wildlife encounters, we can’t wait to showcase some of your extraordinary accounts. To kick start this we wanted to reward our most longstanding supporters by inviting them to submit an outline for a blog idea. We were so impressed with the variety of responses that we decided to turn this into a regular feature. Unfortunately there could only be one frontrunner for this edition, but some of the other entries will be

shown on our website in the coming months, so please keep an eye out for them. Well done to Jo Clough whose creative account captured our imaginations. Here is a snippet of the blog; to see the rest please visit ‘The most humorous incident of a creature not being afraid of humans came when we encountered a diminutive sally lightfoot crab, whose territory we had inadvertently strayed into. Despite being badly outnumbered, as well as being probably one hundredth of our size, it still put up its most fearsome display.’ Jo Clough of Leigh, Lancashire member since 1998

© Discover Adventure Ltd



ave you ever thought about taking on a challenge? This year we are partnering with Discover Adventure to offer a wide range of challenge events both in the UK and abroad. They cater for most abilities and ages, with an element of adventure at the heart of each event; we figured this would appeal to our readership! So whether you want to walk the Jurassic coastline in Dorset, take a ten-day trek through the mountains of Bhutan, or cycle from the Andes to the Amazon there should be something for everyone. If challenges aren’t your thing but you know someone who is thinking about it, please do refer them. In order to show our dedication, a staff-led team will be traversing the three highest peaks in Wales in a 24-hour challenge this May Bank Holiday. Please keep an eye out on social media and our e-Newsletter for updates. You can support the team by donating online Why don’t you try yourself? Please visit our website or contact Rob Chetwood in the office for more details.


e need your help! Increasingly aware of our carbon footprint, we want to explore the option of a digital-only version of the magazine for those of you who prefer to consume information online. In order to express your interest visit magazine-survey to complete a short survey. If we receive enough requests we will make it permanent. This decision will not affect the availability of the print version of the magazine.

To find out more about these and other ways to help GCT then please contact us in the office, email or visit




LOVE OF SCIENCE A CURIOUS LIFE by Robert Tindle, Boolarong Press, 2016, Kindle edition £8.17 ISBN 9781925236873 Reviewed by Jen Jones



GALAPAGOS EXPEDITION THAT VINDICATED DARWIN by Matthew James, Oxford University Press, 2017, £22.99 ISBN 9780199354597 Reviewed by Jenny Vidler





ave the date! This year we’re returning to the Royal Geographical Society in London and are planning an exciting line-up which will include Liz Bonnin, who will be presenting the BBC documentary Mission Galapagos this spring. The evening will have an overall focus on the education and sustainability work that is occurring in the Islands. Look out for further details on who will be speaking and how to book in either our e-Newsletter or on our website.



ur 2017 Galapagos photography competition is now open for entries. If you’ve been to Galapagos or are planning on going this year don’t forget to enter your best shots to be in with a chance of winning! We have three fantastic judges this year; our president Monty Halls, and wildlife photographers Tui de Roy and Paul Sansome who will be judging the five different categories; Animal Portrait, Animal Behaviour, Landscape, Botanical and Man in the Archipelago. Think you have a winning image? Then visit our website to see the terms and conditions, and to upload your photographs. Good luck! © Jenny Howard


n expedition like no other, geologist and historian Matthew James tells the tale of the California Academy of Sciences’ 17-month journey to and around Galapagos in 1904. It was not plain sailing for the 11-man crew employed to collect specimens of all the invertebrates, reptiles, mammals and insects they could find. Following in the footsteps of Mark Twain just eight years before and Charles Darwin in 1835, the expedition lead by Rollo Beck involved encounters with beasts of previously undocumented sizes and with natives with a penchant for whisky. “The Galapagos might have been a collector’s paradise, but they were also witness to a complex human drama,” writes James. James flits between the natural history of the Islands, previous expeditions to Galapagos and the ship’s log. An excellent read on the last collection voyage to Galapagos, providing a view of the Archipelago’s wildlife from the alternative perspective of young scientist sailors with the mission to explore and collect the Islands’ riches.


© Akemi Yokoyama

ritten in a welcoming tone, this account of Professor Robert Tindle’s life is an entertaining read. Tindle guides us on his journey from being a child in the slums of Gateshead, northern England, to 1970’s Galapagos, to the labs of Australia and the UK where he made major breakthroughs in immunotherapy that would one day help to save his daughter’s life. This account of a fascinating and, indeed, curious life gives thought-provoking discussion on the interface between science and religion and tells of the joy of scientific discovery and making a real difference. The chapters regaling the rudimental yet rigorous science that Tindle and his wife Elizabeth undertook in Galapagos amongst the colonies of flightless cormorants and flamingos is truly immersive. This book will speak to the scientist in anyone and is a stark reminder that the twists and turns of life are unpredictable. Embrace and nurture your curiosity as you never know where it may take you.


© Prof W. G. Hale; Lisa Brown; Luis Ortiz-Catedral; Jonathan Green


he mission? To reduce the number of endangered species in Galapagos. With over 50 Galapagos species now listed as critically endangered on the IUCN Red List and a further 22 listed as endangered, we need to reduce the threats against them before it’s too late. Please support our mission and help us protect the species most at risk, across air, land and sea.

AIR: here are five critically endangered bird

© Prof W. G. Hale


species in Galapagos. The status of the medium tree-finch was updated from vulnerable to critically endangered in 2009 due to its restricted range and decline caused by the invasive fly Philornis downsi. It is now only found in the highlands of Floreana because of habitat loss, including the loss of its preferred nesting tree. With your support, our work on Floreana will reverse its fortunes.

LAND: our of the 10 surviving species of

© Vanessa Green


Galapagos giant tortoise are either endangered or critically endangered. To conserve them effectively, we need to know more about their life history and reduce the conflicts that they face with invasive species and habitat loss. Projects like the tortoise tracking that we support are crucial for these species’ survival.

SEA: n 2016, the status of the whale shark was

© Simon Pierce



The BBC’s Mission Galapagos with Liz Bonnin will be airing soon so keep an eye out for it! Many of the species featured are under threat, including the Galapagos giant tortoise, the tracking of which we support with your help! Support our mission today by sending in your donation via the form to the right, or donate online via our website uk/donate

updated from vulnerable to endangered due to its continued global decline. While great strides are being made in our knowledge of how whale sharks use the Archipelago, they still face threats outside the Islands. By working with fishing communities and authorities on mainland Ecuador, we are striving to ensure that they are protected outside of the Galapagos Marine Reserve.




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Seeing wildlife in its natural habitat is an inspiring and upliing experience. It is a privilege. Steppes wildlife group tours and holidays have three key goals:




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