Galapagos Islands, giant tortoise, extinction, Floreana, breeding

Galapagos Tortoise Species Back from Extinction

How do you bring an extinct species back to life? Use DNA testing to reveal it hidden in plain sight.

During a 2002 expedition to Wolf Volcano on Isabela Island, scientists took note of the saddleback tortoises living side-by-side with tortoises with dome-shaped shells. The results of DNA testing inspired the researchers to return to the field in 2008. Analysis of the more than 1,600 blood samples taken proved two species existed – and further testing showed that DNA of 80 of the saddlebacks matched that of museum samples of the long-extinct Floreana tortoise (Chelonoidis elephantopus, formerly Chelonoidis nigra).

In 2015, scientists undertook another expedition to Wolf Volcano to continue testing the tortoises, and to capture 32 specimens (13 males and 19 females) with likely high Floreana (and possibly Pinta) genetic material.

Extinction of the Floreana Giant Tortoise

When Charles Darwin visited Floreana Island in the Galapagos in 1835, he wrote in his field notes that the giant tortoises on that island were scarce. By 1846, according to a report by naturalist Berthold Seeman, this species of tortoise was extinct.

The extinction of the Floreana giant tortoise, along with three other species, was driven by the overhunting of this reptile by whalers who were active in the archipelago during the first half of the 19th century. The tortoises, which could be kept alive in ship holds for long periods of time, provided necessary fresh meat for crews.

But how did giant tortoises from Floreana Island end up on Isabela, more than 175 kilometers (110 miles) away as the waved albatross flies?

Scientists speculate that whalers and other mariners had dropped off some 40 Floreana tortoises at Banks Bay (Bahía Bancos) on the far northwest corner of Isabela Island, at the foot of Wolf Volcano. This bay was the last opportunity for sailors to lighten their loads before heading westward across the wide Pacific Ocean. Over the following two centuries, these gentle giants formed a colony, interbreeding with the volcano’s native species.

The Start of a New Galapagos Tortoise Breeding Program

Of the 32 giant tortoises captured during the 2015 expedition, about half proved to have high levels of Floreana genetic material. Unfortunately, traces of Pinta giant tortoise (Chelonoidis abingdonii) DNA did not appear. It seems that the species to which Lonesome George belonged may, indeed, be extinct.

The new breeding program, the Giant Tortoise Restoration Initiative (GTRI), is being conducted by the Galapagos National Park in collaboration with the Galapagos Conservancy at the Fausto Llerena Breeding Center on Santa Cruz Island.

Nine males and 14 females Floreana hybrid tortoise have been chosen for this program. Four breeding groups – composed of three females and two males each – will begin their journey in repopulating their ancestors’ home island.

In five years, the first hatchlings will be released on Floreana, to begin the process of repopulating that island with its own species of giant tortoise. Of course, never will the tortoises there be 100 percent pure Chelonoidis elephantopus, a fact Linda Cayot of the Galapagos Conservancy recognizes. “But we will have a tortoise population with many of the same genes as the original,” she stated. After 25 years, these tortoises will be of breeding age.

In the meantime, a project is underway on Floreana to restore the island’s ecosystem. This includes eliminating invasive flora and fauna – especially rats – that would keep the reintroduced tortoises from reproducing and thriving.

Details of this new breeding program were published in the September 13, 2017 issue of Nature’s “Scientific Reports.”

Galapagos National Park, along with the Charles Darwin Research Center and other institutions, has had great success in bringing back species from the brink of extinction. With only 15 individuals, the Española species of giant tortoise was revived with about 2,000 hatchlings being born and repatriated to that island. Another success story is that of the Baltra land iguana, whose population had been relocated to North Seymour Island in the 1930s due to threats of extinction by introduced species.

Visiting the Galapagos Tortoise Breeding Program

You’ll be able to see the stars of the Floreana tortoise breeding program in one of the corrals on the newly renovated Ruta de la Tortuga or Tortoise Route at the Fausto Llerena Breeding Center outside Puerto Ayora on Santa Cruz Island. The bilingual displays examine evolution in the Galapagos Islands, Charles Darwin, breeding giant tortoises in captivity and the environmental importance of giant tortoises. The last stop of the route is the Symbol of Hope Salon featuring Lonesome George, the last known Pinta Island tortoise.

The Ruta de la Tortuga is open daily 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. It is included on the itinerary of many Galapagos cruises.

 

With the anticipated success of the Floreana giant tortoise breeding program, in the future you may see these gentle giants once again on that island.

 

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Photo credit: Parque Nacional Galápagos

Volcanic eruption, Fernandina island, Galapagos, September 2017

Volcanic Eruptions: Galapagos Islands’ Natural Fireworks

Occasionally the Galapagos Islands remind us that it is a young volcanic archipelago. The mounts on Isabela and Fernandina erupt into short-term activity, giving visitors to the Galapagos a natural fireworks show.

Why the Galapagos Islands Have So Many Volcanoes

The Earth’s crust is made up of several dozen, slowly drifting plates. When one plate is forced beneath another – such as the Nazca Plate beneath the South American Plate – volcanoes like those in the Andes are formed.

Another way volcanoes are created is when a plate drifts over a hot spot, a place where the Earth’s molten innards burns through the crust above. As the plate moves over this stationary hot plume, it forms a string of volcanoes which grow into islands and become archipelagos, like the Hawai’ian Islands. Volcanoes on the older isles become extinct.

This is precisely how the Galapagos Islands are formed. They sit atop the Nazca Plate, which is drifting at a giant tortoise pace to the southeast. San Cristobal, the easternmost island, is approximately four million years old. Fernandina and Isabela, the westernmost main islands, are merely some 700,000 years old and thus still active.

Fernandina Island

On September 4th, Cumbre Volcano on Fernandina Island erupted for the first time in almost a decade. Two days earlier, a 4.6 earthquake between Fernandina and Isabela islands hinted that something was afoot. The quakes continued, growing more frequent, until on the afternoon of September 4th, the volcano erupted. The tour ship National Geographic Endeavour II happened to record that moment when Cumbre began emitting gas and steam. Lava is flowing from a fissure on Cumbre Volcano’s south-southwest side. Ecuador’s Geophysical Institute reports the volcanic activity is lessening. There are no human residents on Fernandina; however, wildlife is possibly threatened.

In modern times, Fernandina’s volcano has often been observed erupting. The activity occurs every few years, with notable flare-ups in 1988, 1991, and 1995. An eruption in 1968 caused the caldera to collapse, sending an ash cloud drifting to Isla Santa Cruz and beyond.

A gripping event was recorded in 1825 by Captain Benjamin Morrell. Right at the moment the island began spewing forth lava, his ship was becalmed in the Bolívar Channel between Fernandina and Isabela. Luckily, just in the nick of time, a slight breeze enabled him to sail to safety.

Isabela Island

Isabela is the Galapagos’ largest island and one of the most active geologically. It is composed of six volcanoes connected by lava flows. At the southwestern corner of the island is Cerro Azul, which last erupted in 2008. To the northeast is Sierra Negra (last eruption, 2005). Going northward is Alcedo (1993), Darwin (1813) and Wolf (2015). The “mouth” of this seahorse-shaped island is where the partially collapsed Volcán Ecuador is located (last eruption, 1150 CE).

Isabela’s activity has frequently been documented by pirates, whalers and scientific expeditions cruising through the Galapagos Islands. A fascinating account is told by scientist William Beebe in his 1926 book, The Arcturus Adventure.

You can check out Sierra Negra on a day tour from Puerto Villamil. At the volcano, which has one of the largest active craters in the world, old lava flows streak the lunar-like landscape.

Where Else You Might See Erupting Galapagos Islands

It is unlikely you’ll see islands in other parts of the Galapagos archipelago providing a fireworks show, though there is a remote possibility. Many of the eastern and central islands are millions of years older than the western ones, and their volcanoes long extinct.

According to the Smithsonian Institution’s Global Volcanism Program, it has been thousands of years since San Cristobal, Santa Cruz and Genovesa islands last saw volcanic activity. The islands further west tell a different story.

In recorded history, the last eruption on Floreana Island occurred in 1813, an event recorded by Captain David Porter of the USS Essex. Volcanic eruptions have occurred more recently on Santiago (1906), Pinta (1928) and Marchena (1991).

Effects of Volcanic Eruptions on Galapagos Wildlife

Although most of Galapagos’ volcanic eruptions in the last century have occurred on islands with no human population or far from towns and settlements, they still pose a danger to the archipelago’s unique wildlife. In the past, Galapagos fauna has faced a mixed bag of fortune.

With the May 2015 eruption of Volcán Wolf on Isabela Island, scientists were concerned the populations of giant tortoises and pink iguanas that inhabit the north and west slopes of the volcano might be endangered. Luckily, the ash and lava flowed to the east and southeast.

The local species of Fernandina giant tortoise was most likely decimated by volcanic eruption within the last 100 years. The effects of Cumbre Volcano’s 2017 activity on Fernandina wildlife will not be known until scientists can arrive there to survey the damage.

Effects of Volcanic Eruptions on Your Galapagos Cruise

The Galapagos Islands’ volcanoes are closely monitored by the national park, Ecuador’s Geophysical Institute and international agencies. Before an eruption, seismic (earthquake) activity increases, indicating that magma within the mount is moving.

Your itinerary may be affected by these periodic volcanic eruptions. If it includes a landing near the presently active volcano, that excursion may be cancelled due to safety concerns but your cruise will continue as normal. Punta Espinosa, on the northeast coast of Fernandina, is the only visitor site on that island. Some sites along Isabela’s coasts, like Black Turtle Point and Caleta Tagus at the foot of Volcán Darwin, are shadowed by volcanoes.

 

You can expect the unexpected while in the enchanting Galapagos Islands – and one of those things just may be a volcanic eruption, a mesmerizing natural fireworks display.

 

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Photo credit: via Twitter

Ecuador, Galapagos Islands, entry requirements, tourists, medical insurance

New Ecuador Entry Requirement

When packing for your Galapagos adventure, there is one more thing you’ll need to be sure to bring along: proof of medical insurance that will be valid in Ecuador.

Ecuador’s new immigration laws, which also affect tourists, require that all who come to this Andean country must show proof of medical insurance. The new regulations were passed by the National Assembly in February, and signed by Ecuador’s President Lenín Moreno at the beginning of August. On August 14, the Tourism Ministry announced the recent requirements.

According to the new law, all visitors must show proof of integral health insurance which covers doctor, accident and death during their stay in Ecuador and that will be valid in Ecuador.

Check your present medical insurance coverage to ensure you are covered overseas. But note that whatever medical insurance you have at home usually will NOT cover medical expenses, including medical evacuation, in a foreign country. Therefore, it will be necessary for you to purchase a travel insurance policy. With these, confirm that all activities that you plan to do, like scuba diving, are included.

Remember also that other new regulations require that visitors to the Galapagos Islands must have proof of cruise or hotel reservations for the duration of their stay in the archipelago.

For travelers from many countries, no visa is required to enter Ecuador for a stay of up to 90 days within a 365-day period. Citizens of UNASUR member nations (Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Guyana, Paraguay, Peru, Surinam, Uruguay and Venezuela) may stay 180 days in one year. Only those from Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Cuba, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Kenia, Nepal, Nigeria, Pakistan, Somalia and Senegal require a visa before arriving in Ecuador.

By making certain you have the proper documents, you will make your journey to Ecuador more pleasant and trouble-free.

 

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Photo credit: Vince Smith