Santa Cruz (click on map for a larger version)
Monday, 9/14, afternoon
We “panga’d” back from the ship’s anchorage in Academy Bay (named for an important 1905 – 1906 scientific expedition by the California Academy of Sciences and their boat, the Academy) to the pier in Puerto Ayora. Named after Isidro Ayora, president of Ecuador from 1926 – 1931, Puerto Ayora is the largest town in the archipelago, with more than 10,000 inhabitants. At the main street, we reconnoitered with Carlos and the small bus; we headed east along the road to the entrance of the Charles Darwin Research Station.
Celebrating its 50th anniversary in 2009, the international non-profit Fundación Charles Darwin (Charles Darwin Foundation; CDF) operates the Charles Darwin Research Station. Below are its mission and vision statements, from their Web site.
“Conservation and sustainable development can only be successful if they are based on sound economic and social understanding.”
Peter Kramer, President of the CDF
CDF’s mission is to provide knowledge and assistance through scientific research and complementary action to ensure the conservation of the environment and biodiversity in the Galápagos archipelago. Within this context, the vision of the CDF for 2016 is to be the world’s leading research institution dedicated to the conservation of the biological diversity and natural resources of Galápagos, and committed to building a sustainable and collaborative society to achieve this objective.
The Research Station conducts research and assists other researchers focusing on protecting the biodiversity of the Galápagos Islands; information gained is shared with the Parque Nacional Galápagos and the Ecuadorean government to help to protect the area. Successful breeding/repatriation programs for the Land Iguanas of Baltra, Santa Cruz, and Isabela—coupled with rigorous eradication programs of invasive species (see below)—have allowed these iguana populations to rebound. A tortoise repatriation program began in 1965; eggs are removed from nests in the wild to be incubated at the Station. Separated by age, the hatchling tortoises are reared in predator-proof enclosures until they are 2 – 3 years old. At that point, they are placed in larger pens that contain terrain similar to their home islands. By 4 – 6 years old, they have grown large enough that they aren’t likely to be eaten by predators; at this point, they are returned to their homelands.
After checking out the nursery pens, we stopped at Lonesome George’s area, although he was just barely visible, tucked back among some foliage. (Lonesome George’s likeness is the heart of the Research Station’s logo, above.) Found in Isla Pinta in 1971, Lonesome George is the last member of the Pinta saddleback (abingdoni)subspecies of giant tortoise; he’s believed to be about 70-100 years old—not even middle-aged for a giant tortoise. (From 1906 – 1971, this species was believed to be extinct—and then George was found!) He currently lives at the station and is involved in a hope-filled breeding program. NPR ran a story about Lonesome George in July, 2009. Searches have been conducted, hoping to find a Pinta tortoise among the various giant tortoises in captivity around the world. So far, no luck. At first matched with a species from Isabela, he showed no romantic interest in these females. But in 2008, they tried some females from what actually turned out to be a more closely related species from Española — aha! Solitario Jorge was much more interested and eggs were laid. But all those eggs were infertile. He mated again in 2009 and eggs have again been laid; as of the time we were there, it was too early to know if they’re fertile. (It takes about 4 months before researchers can know the fate of the eggs.) If even just a few hatch, researchers will then use all sorts of genetic engineering to get successive approximations back to the abingdoni species DNA. [A disappointing update—as of Dec., 2009, the Galapagos Conservancy reported that the first nest of eggs were found to be infertile. The 2nd nest is still in its incubation period; however, the eggs are getting lighter, which is an indication that no embryos are developing in them either.] Quite an undertaking, even though it’s a long shot. (We don’t get credit for the photo below, since we barely saw old LG. This photo was taken from Wikimedia Commons, a free media database. Many thanks to the photographer (putneymark) who donated it.)
Sad update: On June 24, 2012, Lonesome George was found dead in his corral at the Charles Darwin Research Station, at roughly age 100—a mere youngster, by tortoise standards. The Pinta subspecies of Galápagos Giant Tortoise (Chelonoidis nigra abingdoni) is now believed (again) to be extinct. A not-so-sad update: Lonesome George’s death appeared to close the book on his subspecies. However, a recently published paper reports that scientists have found 17 hybrid descendants of C. n. abingdoni at Volcán Wolf, on the northern tip of Isabela. Those who understand DNA WAY better than I do believe that purebred Pinta tortoises could exist in that area, since several of the hybrids have high levels of Pinta ancestry. Plans to return to Volcán Wolf, collect hybrid tortoises–and purebred ones, if they can be found–and begin a captive breeding program are underway. C. n. abingdoni was believed to be extinct once before, prior to the discovery of Lonesome George on Isla Pinta in the 1970s. It appears that this subspecies may have been pulled back from extinction once again. I wonder how many more chances the planet Earth will get… You can read more about this stunning discovery on the Galápagos Conservancy Web site.
The Research Station also displayed several compelling exhibits about the various eradication programs that have been and are being undertaken, targeting feral goats, rats, dogs, cats, donkeys, and pigs. These mammals had all accompanied early settlers; some, such as the rats, had simply snuck off grounded boats and some had been livestock or pets that were simply released to fend for themselves. And fend they did. They competed for food against native species that were desperately ill-equipped to hold their own against these aggressive invaders; in addition, many of the non-native species destroyed the nests and ate the eggs of the birds and reptiles. The Parque Nacional Galápagos (PNG) has organized hunting parties on various islands to eradicate the most destructive of the introduced species—feral goats, cats, dogs, and pigs.
From that point, we headed back toward the entrance on a nature trail. At the gift shop, we checked out the t-shirts and hats (and purchased t-shirts, of course!—one with adorable CDF logo on it).
Continued on p. 2; click below.