Monday, May 13, morning
We arrived at Academy Bay just off Puerto Ayora in the evening, well before bedtime—so no being awakened by the dropping of the anchor in the middle of the night. We’d spend this day in Puerto Ayora, not my favorite place to spend time in the archipelago. But today would be our last day of repeat stops from our first trip. Hurrah! And as it turned out, we had some fun experiences and learned some new things, thanks to Carolina’s expertise—so no real complaints.
Our first stop was the Charles Darwin Research Station (CDRS), the biological research station operated by the Fundación Charles Darwin, and the Fausto Llerana Tortoise Breeding Center. (Click on the map of Santa Cruz, above, and you can see CDRS just to the east of Puerto Ayora on the southern coast.) Fausto Llerana was the primary caretaker of Lonesome George, the last of the Pinta Giant Tortoises (Chelonoidis abingdoni) and an icon of the archipelago. (Note that the precise taxonomy of the Galápagos Giant Tortoise is a bit fluid, shall we say? Some think that all of the different tortoises found in the Galápagos are all subspecies of one overall species Chelonoidis nigra; others think that they are individual species. I’m using the scientific names of the species as used by the Fundación Charles Darwin, which considers them all separate species.) Sr. Llerana participated in the expedition that first found George on Isla Pinta in 1972, when it had been thought that the Pinta subspecies was extinct. Lonesome George was brought back to the CDRS breeding center; during his 40 years of residence there, numerous attempts were made to get George to mate and produce fertile eggs that would hatch in the breeding center. No such luck. Attempts at artificial insemination resulted in no better luck. Sadly, in June, 2012, Sr. Llerana found George dead in his corral—apparently of natural causes. It was estimated that George was about 100 years old—not all that old for a species that can live for longer than 150 years. You can read more about Lonesome George’s demise here. Below are the 2 signs at the breeding center telling Lonesome George’s story.
But all may not be lost for this subspecies. Scientists have found 17 hybrid descendants of C. 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. (This group of researchers also found a sizable number of hybrid tortoises with genes from the Floreana tortoises (C. nigra)—thought to be extinct since the mid-1800s.) The current theory is that sailors collected tortoises from these 2 subspecies from their natal islands to carry on their long journeys for fresh meat but for some reason decided they didn’t need them and released them on Isabela. Plans are underway to return to Volcán Wolf, collect hybrid tortoises—and purebred ones, if they can be found—and begin a captive breeding program for these 2 subspecies. You can read more about this stunning discovery on the Galápagos Conservancy Web site and here. Fingers crossed for both subspecies! (While we were at CDRS, Carolina spoke with one of the tortoise handlers. It appears that a clutch of eggs from a pair of the Floreana-type tortoises had just recently hatched. Apparently, it was news not to be spread widely at that time; so she kept her comments to us very short. I haven’t found any further information about that hatching, so I’m not quite sure what to make of it. But if that were true, it could be a glorious beginning to the return of an allegedly extinct species. Not often we get to experience that sort of wonder!)
Carolina led us through the various displays and provided lots of interesting information. (Good thing, because several of the self-instructive displays that we had seen on our last visit were closed for renovation.) Our first wildlife encounter was with a female lava lizard on the sidewalk (left). As I mentioned in the write-up of our visit to the highlands, you can tell she’s a female because of the red patch on her cheek. First stop—the various birth cohorts of the Giant Tortoises (photos above, left). They were cute, but they mostly just looked like any other tortoise or turtle to me. (I am not much of a herptile person.) Although I know the breeding centers in the archipelago are doing very important work, I much preferred seeing these glorious behemoths living free in the highlands. I did enjoy the “tortoise training ground, (below), where what looked like teen-aged tortoises were learning to navigate terrain much like what they’d find on their home island when they were released back there.
A mature male saddle-backed tortoise (Diego) was roaming around a large enclosure accompanied by several females. (Diego had originally been housed with other males, but he was too aggressive—so he got his own enclosure and several females for—shall we say—company.) Although not as famous as Lonesome George, Diego (left and below right) has an important back story too. He is a member of C. hoodensis—the tortoises found on Española. (The old English name for Española was Hood.) These tortoises have the longest necks and legs of any of the Giant Tortoises, in order to reach the vegetation that grows high off the ground. In the 1960s, this subspecies was in dire straits on Española. All remaining C. hoodensis living on Española (2 males and 12 females) were brought into the captive breeding program. Researchers also scoured the world to see if other members of this endangered subspecies could be found. In fact, 13 had probably been taken by sailors in the early 1900s, finding their way to the San Diego Zoo in the 1930s. One was still alive—Diego. The zoo returned him to CDRS in 1977 and he has been busy helping to repopulate his subspecies, producing hundreds of offspring so far! (It’s a dirty job, but someone has to do it.) Washington Tapia, the applied sciences chief of the National Park, stated that perhaps 40 – 45% of all of the hatchlings of this species born at the breeding center were fathered by Diego. These offspring have been returned to Española, now that the introduced and extremely invasive wild goats there have been eradicated—and researchers have even documented a next generation of descendants from this reintroduced generation. We actually got to witness (well, we heard more than we saw) Diego, um, at work. Not really the most elegant or sensual display, I must say. But when you weigh a couple hundred pounds and are encased in a nonmovable carapace, I guess grace and style are out of the question.
In researching this write-up, I came across this delightful snippet about a vain, aging Galápagos Giant Tortoise in The Onion. If you aren’t familiar with The Onion, know that this is written with the tongue firmly in cheek.
Continued on p. 2; click below.