How the Galapagos Islands Play an Important Role in Science
Charles Darwin was an English naturalist who made a name for himself by developing and publishing his theories on evolution. He established that all living things have a common ancestor and evolved to play unique roles in the environment. His 1859 book “On the Origin of Species” was followed by several more detailed publications of his work, which began in England but was amplified during his voyages to the Galapagos Islands. He visited the islands on the HMS Beagle, departing England on December 27, 1831. His voyage lasted for more than five years, during which he observed and collected specimens and investigated the geology of the islands. To honor his work and legacy, his foundation created the Charles Darwin Research Station in 1959, in association with the government of Ecuador. The Charles Darwin Research Station is located at Puerto Ayora, on Santa Cruz Island. The facility also has an administrative support office in Quito, Ecuador.
Monitoring Invasive Species
An important function of the Charles Darwin Research Station in Galapagos is monitoring invasive species. When visiting the facility, you may notice that many of the researchers and scientists are actually outdoors, collecting specimens and taking measurements. They are doing this in order to monitor the numbers of invasive species such as the Philornis downsi invasive fly and various ant species. Some of these species were accidentally brought to the islands by visitors. Invasive plant species such as guava, quinine and blackberry are considerably changing the ecology of the islands. Many of these plants were brought in by people living on the islands who intended to use them for food or medicine. Birds eat the seeds of the cultivated plants and then drop them in other places, resulting in the spread of non-native organisms. You might consider visiting the research station during one of their many collaborative public events. You could participate in counting and scouting for some of these invasive species.
Measuring the Sustainability of the Islands
The Charles Darwin Research Station in Galapagos is also responsible for monitoring the activity around the islands. In conjunction with the Galapagos National Park Service, the researchers monitor the activities of visitors in order to make sure that tours and explorers are leaving the islands in good condition. The islands have a 20 percent annual growth rate for economic activity, and the researchers want to ensure that all of this activity can take place while still preserving the islands for future generations. The educators at the Charles Darwin Research Station in Galapagos offer programs and lectures about the sustainability of the island activities. They have developed policies called Good Living for the residents of the Galapagos Islands as well as policies for the visitors. You will be given copies of these policies during your tour. For example, you’re not allowed to bring any seeds with you, nor can you collect any flowers, eggs, or feathers during your visit.
Conservation Programs of the Galapagos Islands’ Flora and Fauna
Conservation of the flora and fauna of the Galapagos Islands is one of the main activities conducted by the Charles Darwin Research Station. They care for wildlife that has been injured and help to rehabilitate them in hopes of returning them to the wild. You can see some of these animals during your tour. The research center also has a large library where you can learn more information about the tortoises, finches and other animals on the islands. If you are curious about Charles Darwin himself, the library offers many volumes about his life as well as his original publications. You can explore the indoor and outdoor exhibits of animals as well as the succession areas for the islands’ plants.
Marine Research Project Tours
The Charles Darwin Research Station conducts many marine research projects. During your visit, you can learn about the details of these projects. The researchers offer a glimpse at the life of the East Pacific green turtle, which nests in the archipelago. They also offer explanations of how the Galapagos penguin and the flightless cormorant are doing in their roles as the largest flightless birds on the islands. While inside of the research station, you will be able to see how the marine researchers chart the movement of sharks around the islands of Darwin and Wolf.
Facilities and Amenities of the Charles Darwin Research Station in Galapagos
The research station is fully functional for its resident scientists, but it also welcomes guests and has many areas geared toward people who have never visited the islands before. You can spend the entire morning or afternoon at the facility. The indoor spaces are air-conditioned, and there is a cafe where you can enjoy a cup of locally grown, organic Galapagos coffee. The formal tour takes place with a guide, but you are free to linger at the indoor or outdoor exhibits and take your time. There is a gift shop where you can purchase books about the Galapagos Islands and the animals and plants that live there. You can also purchase art and other souvenirs depicting some of the beautiful land iguanas and finches that live throughout the islands.
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The Galapagos tortoises are native to seven of the Galapagos Islands, a volcanic archipelago that is about 620 miles west of the mainland of Ecuador. The islands were named by Spanish explorers in the late 16th century. Because of the giant tortoises found there, they were named Insulae de los Galapagos, which means Islands of the Tortoises in Spanish. Learn about the Galapagos Islands tortoises, the most impressive creatures in the archipelago.
History of Galapagos Tortoises
The Galapagos tortoise is thought to be an ancestral relation to tortoises from mainland South America. There is DNA evidence that the closest living relative to the Galapagos tortoise is the Chaco tortoise that is native to Argentina and Paraguay. It is believed that the tortoises floated from the mainland to the volcanic islands over 5 million years ago. They were able to survive the 620-mile ocean journey because they are buoyant, can extend their necks up for air, and can live for months without fresh water or food.
Over time, the tortoises evolved to meet the needs of their new environment. They populated the other Galapagos Islands by traveling “stepping-stone style” from one to another.
Species of Galapagos Tortoises
Scientists have identified 15 different sub-species of the Galapagos tortoise, although there are only 10 species alive at this time. An 11th sub-species, now extinct, had one member nicknamed “Lonesome George” until he passed on in 2012. Of the 10 remaining species, five inhabit the largest island, Isabella, while there are six subspecies that are on separate, smaller islands. Many of the living subspecies are currently endangered or threatened species, but conservationists are working hard to increase their numbers.
Why are Galapagos Tortoises Endangered?
It is believed that when these giant tortoises were discovered in the 1600s, there were over 250,000 of them. While the lowest numbers were seen in the 1970s at about 3,000, there are currently approximately 20,000 Galapagos tortoises living in the islands. Conservation efforts have had great success with breeding programs to increase the populations.
It is believed that many of the tortoises were hunted by humans for meat and oil. Others may have died off when non-native animals such as pigs, goats, and rats were introduced to the islands. In the past 50 years, many subspecies were bred in captivity and released to their native habitats to repopulate those areas.
Learn about the Galapagos Islands Tortoises Size
Galapagos tortoises are quite large, and even their legs and feet are large and thick, resembling that of an elephant. Another important fact to note is that their front feet have five claws while those on the back have only four. Despite their size, the tortoises can pull all four of their feet and their heads inside of their shells for protection.
The actual measurements and weights of these tortoises can vary depending on individuals and subspecies. Some of the smaller tortoises live on the island of Pinzon. The largest of these smaller tortoises weighs in at about 168 pounds with a shell size of about 2 feet. Many of the tortoises on the other islands, however, are much larger. The largest recorded Galapagos tortoise weighed in at approximately 880 pounds, and its shell measured over 6 feet across.
The Shells of the Galapagos Tortoises
The shells, scientifically known as carapaces, are fused with the ribs and are a protective part of the tortoise’s make-up. The shells are dull brown in color and have characteristic patterns that remain the same throughout the tortoise’s life.
Two different shell types are common, depending mostly on where the tortoise lives. Some tortoises have saddleback shells, which are longer than they are wide and arch upwards at the front. When a tortoise brings its front legs and head inside of a saddleback shell, there is a gap, which denotes to scientists that these tortoises have few, if any, natural predators. Other tortoises have a domed shell that is totally concave in shape.
About the Galapagos Islands Tortoises Behaviors and Eating Habits
An important fact about the Galapagos Islands tortoises is that as cold-blooded reptiles, they like to warm up each morning before heading out in search of food. They will often lie in the sun for several hours. In the evening, when they are ready to sleep, they often lie in a shallow pit or in the close quarters of rock caves.
Giant tortoises are herbivores, eating many plants and fruits that are native to the islands they live on and spending a good part of their days foraging for food. As for water, they get most of this from the dew in the grasses and the moisture in the vegetation they eat. They can go for six months to a year without any food or water, living on the fat stored in their bodies.
Life Cycle of Galapagos Tortoises
Mating rituals require males to dominate over other males for the right to mate with a female. The actual process of domination and mating can be somewhat aggressive. Typically, tortoises mate from February to June, but it can occur at any time.
Several months later, the females search for a dry place to build a nest and lay their eggs. They can lay up to 16 eggs per nest. The temperature will determine the gender of the hatchlings. Eggs near the surface, incubated at a slightly warmer temperature, will yield mostly females, while the slightly cooler-incubated eggs, will take longer and will produce mostly males. After digging their way out of the sealed nest, the hatchlings emerge four to eight months later, weighing less than a pound. They stay in the warmer, dryer climates for the first 10-15 years of life, not reaching sexual maturity until possibly 40 years old. As hatchlings, they face much adversity, from encounters with the Galapagos hawks to the possibility of falling into cracked earth. However, those that survive live to be over 100 years old in the wild.
Read more about the Galapagos Islands tortoises here, or be enchanted by the Galapagos Islands
The Galapagos Islands would not have nearly so much to brag about if it were not for the Charles Darwin Foundation. The CDF has led conservation efforts since its founding in 1959 with the aim of providing scientific knowledge and support for the Galapagos Islands in an effort to protect the miraculous biodiversity that it sustains today.
The Charles Darwin Foundation and the projects it has implemented over the last five decades are thanks to the work of hundreds of dedicated educators, volunteers, scientists and support staff from every corner of the world. By far the most well known, and also successful of these is the Giant Tortoise Repatriation Program. By the time the project began in 1975, giant tortoise populations in the archipelago were in hugely distressing conditions. Pinzon and Española island populations were hit hard by centuries of senseless destruction and introduced animals. Neither island had successfully been able to reproduce for centuries, and there were a mere 200 and 14 adults, respectively. The CDF gathered as many tortoises and eggs as it could and initiated a breeding and rearing program. With over 550 tortoises repatriated to Pinzon and more than 1,700 to Española, the program has been declared a success, continuing to this day. The world-renowned Lonesome George was also protected by the CDF with support from the Galapagos National Park Directorate (GNPD). Lonesome George was the last member of the Pinta Island giant tortoise population and lived at the foundation’s facilities for over 40 years where he died in 2012, thus ending the line of his population
Nevertheless, the giant tortoise program was just one of many that the foundation has successfully carried out. The land iguana breeding and repatriation program implemented in 1976 has been hugely significant for the struggling land iguana populations, and Project Isabela, which was launched in 1997, has successfully restored populations on the northern section of Isabela Island, as well as Santiago and Pinta islands, while completely eradicating all feral goats from these locations. The advances made thanks to the CDF are becoming more effective each year, with technological advances and an ever-increasing knowledge base.
Charles Darwin Foundation and the community
Nevertheless, the work it has accomplished could not have been possible without vital support from the local and national government. The foundation has worked closely with the Ecuadorian people since its creation. The Charles Darwin Foundation together with the local Galapagos government launched its first educational conservation program in 1966 and also initiated the Galapagos Inspection and Quarantine Program with the Galapagos National Park Directorate in 2000, through which locals work to control the introduction of new organisms to the archipelago through boat inspections as well as fumigation and sanitation requirements. Furthermore, the CDF worked with both the local and international community to clean up the 150,000 gallons of diesel fuel that spilled during the tragic oil spill in 2000, a mere half-mile from shore.
More recently, the Charles Darwin Foundation worked with the Ecuadorian government to add an additional 18,000 ml2 to the marine reserve, significantly increasing the size of protected waters in the Galapagos, as well as the breeding grounds of the largest concentration of sharks in the world. This project was also supported by several other organizations, including the National Geographic Foundation.
As a result of these projects, 95% of the natural state of the Galapagos Archipelago has been preserved. This work has been celebrated by the scientific and international community in general, for which the foundation has received numerous awards, including the Sultan Qaboos Prize in 1999 from UNESCO, the Cosmos International Award from Japan in 2002 and the Distinguished Achievement Award from the Society for Conservation Biology. It was also awarded the BBVA Foundation Prize from Spain in 2004.
The Charles Darwin Foundation widely encourages all visitors to the islands, as well as its residents, to join the foundation in its efforts. Visitors are welcome to visit the Charles Darwin Research Station to learn more about present conservation efforts.
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The Galapagos Archipelago is celebrated worldwide for its unique plant and animal species; however, the miraculous marine life that surrounds these islands is often overlooked. The processes that have so enthralled the scientific community since the arrival of the H.S. Beagle are also clearly represented in those species that live below the ocean waves, not just in those above. Around 3,000 marine species call these waters home, of which over 20% are endemic to the Galapagos marine reserve, including around 400 are fish species alone. Just sticking your head below the ocean surface, an equally fantastic and stunning world can be found. Unfortunately, studies have found that rising temperatures and acidity levels in the ocean are threatening the marine biosphere, starting first and foremost with coral reefs.
Why is the Galapagos Marine Reserve so diverse?
The beauty and richness of the Galapagos Marine Reserve are foremost due to the archipelago’s location at the conjunction of at least three major ocean currents, joining warm northern waters with rich arctic waters and deep cold waters from the west. As a result, a unique array of life comes together resulting in an extraordinarily high level of endemism. Endemism is much rarer among marine life than terrestrial species, as marine species are more prone to long migrations and intermingling. The multitude of life is only strengthened by the diverse marine habitats located below the stunning turquoise waters, including vertical walls, coral reefs, rocky bottoms, sandy beaches, and mangrove forests.
After decades of warnings from the scientific community, the world is beginning to suffer the initial effects of climate change. Reports demonstrate that the global temperature has increased 0.7°C since pre-industrial times, the effect of which is being felt by marine species from the equatorial tropics to the deep poles. Rising ocean levels, water temperature, and water acidity all present potentially threating situations for our oceans.
Some of the most essential organisms affected by increasing ocean temperatures are plankton and algae which, although they may seem irrelevant, are the veritable foundation of the marine food chain and are hugely important to a healthy marine environment, especially coral. If ocean temperatures rise by just one degree Celsius for as little as four weeks, coral expels the algae they contain in response to heat stress through a process known as coral bleaching. Algae are the primary food producer for coral and provide up to 90 percent of the energy corals need to reproduce and grow. Without algae, coral slowly appears to become transparent, revealing its white skeleton. If water conditions do not return to normal, coral is not able to regain the algae and will literally starve. Coral bleaching has become dangerously widespread in recent years, and the Galapagos Islands are not an exception.
Galapagos coral and its global significance
The Galapagos Islands are not typically known for their coral reefs, and indeed it was not until the 1970’s that scientists realized the Galapagos Marine Reserve contained coral; nevertheless, they play a very important role in determining the potential effects of climate change on reefs around the world. The unusual current patterns present in the archipelago and its isolation from human activity makes it the perfect ‘living laboratory’ for studying these effects. The Living Oceans Foundation has been conducting extensive research in the archipelago with the support of the University of Miami in an effort to evaluate how coral in the Galapagos is able to recover from strong El Niño events, as well as the impact that ocean acidification may have on the coral.
The future of coral
During the El Niño events of 1982-83 and 1997-98, a large part of the coral in the Galapagos died due to extremely high water temperatures. Only one reef truly recovered, which is located by the northernmost island in the Galapagos, Darwin Island. The coral reefs that survived were studied and compared to those that did not in order to understand the conditions that made coral more susceptible. Unfortunately, the results do not bode well for the future of coral reefs; however, as some coral is more thermotolerant than others, there is still hope. Furthermore, the study determined that distinct Symbiodinium species (unicellular organisms) cause certain kinds of coral to respond differently to bleaching; therefore, if a coral is able to host multiple symbiont types, it will be better equipped to cope with warming waters. One reason the northern coral survived was due to lower levels of acidity in that area (as a result of differing ocean currents), determining that reefs in the Galapagos are unable to survive if the water has a pH of 8.0 or less. Furthermore, after carrying out several lab studies, it was determined that the coral that died had weaker skeletons as a result of increased levels of phosphate in the water due to nutrient-rich upwellings; the increase in nutrients caused the coral to grow faster, forming less robust skeletons. The study thus found that those corals in highly acidic waters and exposed to higher levels of nutrients would be least resistant to the effects of climate change.
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The Galapagos Islands are a direct result of their unique location on the planet. The climate and, consequently, life on the islands are directly influenced by the confluence of warm and cold ocean currents that meet in the archipelago. Charles Darwin himself noted that the unique climate of the Galapagos Islands “seems chiefly caused by the singularly low temperature of the surrounding water, brought here by the great southern polar current (Humboldt Current).” The Galapagos ocean studies indicate that thanks to this confluence the animals like the Galapagos penguin and marine iguana are able to survive on the equator.
Three major ocean currents flow through the Galapagos Archipelago: the Humboldt Current (or the Peru Coastal Current), the Cromwell Current (also known as the Pacific Equatorial Undercurrent); and the Panama Current. These are fed by several other small ocean currents, such as the South Equatorial Current.
The Humboldt Current is one of the primary ocean currents affecting the southern half of the Pacific Ocean. Originating in the waters of Antarctica, it travels north along the edge of South America bringing frigid Antarctic waters to the coast. In addition to this, the Southeast Trade Winds and the Earth’s rotation result in the largest upwelling system in the world. As the winds push away the current’s surface waters, the cold, nutrient-rich waters rush upwards into the Humboldt Current, leaving in its wake the world’s most productive marine ecosystem. Once the Humboldt reaches the equator, it is pushed west where it flows into the South Equatorial Current and throughout the Galapagos. These nutrient-rich waters attract enormous quantities of phytoplankton and algae, forming the basis of the food chain in the Galapagos. It is for this reason that the dry season is known to be good for observing a diverse amount of marine life, although the waters are less clear.
The Cromwell Current, like the Humboldt, is a cold current, falling to just 13°C at its core; however, it originates in the Western Pacific Ocean and its low temperature is due to the fact that it is a subsurface current, moving 300 feet beneath the ocean surface. Upon reaching the Galapagos Platform, this deep current is pushed upwards, spreading throughout the western part of the archipelago and bringing deep, nutrient-rich waters to the shores of the islands. It is an enormous current, measuring 250 miles wide and 3,500 miles long, and therefore represents another extremely important source of nutrients for the islands. This current is responsible for the wide variety of marine life that can be found around the western and central islands, such as bull sharks, king angelfish, Mola Mola, red-lipped batfish and seahorses. Furthermore, the Galapagos penguin is largely dependent on this current for its diet and to avoid overheating.
However, these cool currents not only provide the islands with nutrients but greatly impact the climate itself; in fact, the dry season is essentially dependent on the presence of the Humboldt Current. With the arrival of the Humboldt Current, the temperature of the air is inversed and while air temperature typically decreases with elevation, the cold waters instead cause the air closer to the ground to be cooler than the air above. This effect is known as a temperature inversion. The warmer inversion layer contains a high concentration of moisture droplets that rise from the ocean. However, in some parts of the islands, this layer is obstructed by the highlands and so the moisture condenses. It is for this reason that the highlands are extremely lush, while the lowlands are bone dry. This effect is also responsible for the garua mist that can be seen in the islands from May to December.
Come December when the Northeast Trade winds lose their strength, the presence of the Humboldt in the Galapagos is significantly reduced and is essentially replaced by the Panama Current, which brings warm waters from Central America. According to the Galapagos ocean studies, this current warms water temperatures to about 27°C (in comparison to around 20°C during the dry season), causing the inversion layer to dissipate. As a result, the climate of the Galapagos becomes your more typical equatorial archipelago, with a more tropical, wet climate. However, because the rains come in short, sharp showers, the season is generally characterized by sunny days and blue skies. Furthermore, the waters are significantly clearer due to lower numbers of plankton and algae, making for good snorkeling and scuba diving conditions. Take advantage of our well-designed programs in Galapagos and don’t miss the opportunity to swim under the different currents of the ocean.
Because the currents do not flow past all of the individual islands in the Galapagos Archipelago, the water around each one varies significantly, which affects individual island ecosystems and climates. Consequently, the salinity, temperature, and amount of marine life in the Galapagos ocean differ based on the predominant current flowing past the islands at any given moment.