Ecuador and Galapagos News

Six Tortoises with Floreana Tortoise Ancestry Hatch from New Captive Breeding Program

On the morning of Thursday, November 30, the first eggs of tortoises with partial ancestry of Chelonoidis niger — the tortoise species from Floreana island — began to hatch at the Fausto Llerena Tortoise Center on Santa Cruz Island.

The captive breeding program for Floreana tortoises began in March as part of the Giant Tortoise Restoration Initiative (GTRI), jointly developed by the Galapagos National Park Directorate and Galapagos Conservancy. Since nesting began in the summer, 124 eggs have been collected and placed in incubators.

The program began with 20 breeding adults (12 females and 8 males), most of them transported from Wolf Volcano on the northern end of Isabela Island in November 2015. The offspring from the four breeding groups established this past March, after the genetics of the individual tortoises had been determined, will eventually repopulate Floreana with giant tortoises with partial ancestry of the species of that island — which went extinct approximately 150 years ago.

Park ranger Christian Sevilla, who is responsible for the Conservation and Restoration of Island Ecosystems, reported that egg collection began in mid-July. After weighing and measuring the eggs, they were placed in incubators where they remained for four months until the hatching began. Two-thirds of the eggs were placed in the incubator that maintains a temperature of 85.1° F (29.5° C), which allows for the development of females, and one-third of the eggs went to the incubator with a temperature of 82.4° F (28° C), which produces males — as the sex of giant tortoises is determined by incubation temperature.

These results mark the beginning of what will be a long-term process for the ecological restoration of Floreana Island, as giant tortoises were the only large herbivores and constitute an ecosystem engineer, vital to the island and its native flora and fauna.

Floreana Island

HISTORY

Floreana Island has, arguably, the most interesting human history of all of the Galapagos Islands. It is the site of the first “post office”, established in 1793 by whalers, and it was the home to the first Galapagos resident — a bold Irishman named Patrick Watkins who lived there from 1807-1809.

Floreana was the first island to be colonized by Ecuadorians in 1832. It was a penal colony that didn’t last long because of the lack of fresh water. A fish canning plant was established there by Norwegian immigrants in 1924; it lasted only a couple of years. A few years later, Friedrich Ritter, a German doctor, arrived with his female companion Dore Strauch, who suffered from multiple sclerosis. A doctor of holistic medicine, Ritter removed all of his teeth and took with him stainless-steel dentures to avoid any dental complications. Together, they set up a very successful garden and lived off the land.

A pregnant Margret Wittmer arrived in 1932, with her husband Heinz and her step-son Harry. They built a house and also established an agricultural lifestyle before giving birth to their son Rolf, the first person to be born in Galapagos.

Floreana is most well-known for being the site of several mysterious disappearances in the 1930s—the one receiving the most attention being that of a supposed Austrian baroness, who had arrived shortly after the Wittmers with her three servants.

Visitor Sites

Cormorant Point

This site offers two contrasting beaches: the first is a green sand beach, made green by the presence of olivine crystals, and the second is Flour Beach, made of fine, pulverized coral. The main highlight at this visitor’s site is the flamingo lagoon, where visitors can watch Galapagos Flamingoes wade through brackish water, sifting through the mud for shrimp. Pintail ducks, stilts, Large-billed Flycatchers, several species of finch, and many other shorebirds can also be seen here. Visitors can take a short walk over a hill to Flour Beach where Green Sea Turtles nest and several species of rays glide through the shallow shoreline waters. Cormorant Point has a greater diversity of plants than most other areas, including some endemic to the Point and surrounding areas.

Post Office Bay

This is one of the few visitor sites in Galapagos where human history is the main focus. A group of whalers placed a wooden barrel here in 1793 and called it a post office. Traveling seamen would leave addressed letters in the barrel and hope that the next seamen to come along might be headed in the direction of their letters’ destinations. Today, visitors leave their own postcards and sift through the current pile of cards—if they find one that they can hand-deliver, they take it with them. This area was also the site of a failed colonization effort by Norwegians in 1926. A short walk from the Post Office Barrel leads to a lava tube, which visitors enter by descending a ladder. The trail inside the dark lava tube extends for several hundred yards (bring a flashlight!).

Highlands – Cerro Alieri and Asilo de la Paz

Visitors who disembark in Puerto Velasco Ibarra can travel to the highlands by vehicle to visit two additional sites. The first, Cerro Alieri, is approximately a 15-minute ride from port. This site is of most interest to those who enjoy the plants of Galapagos. Over 48 different species have been identified here, 56% of which are native and 33% endemic. In addition, this is the site of a major conservation program for a critically endangered plant, Linum cratericola. It was believed extinct until it was reencountered by scientists and park wardens in 1997.

The second site, Asilo de la Paz, is a 45-minute ride from town. It is primarily an historical site where visitors can view the cave of the pirates and the fresh water spring that is the main source of water for the population. Both are located at the base of Asilo de la Paz, a 450-m high cone. A nearby corral contains the various giant tortoises that were originally owned by residents of Floreana.

Marine Sites

Devil’s Crown

Devil’s Crown is a volcanic crater that has been eroded away by the waves, with a few rocky spikes protruding above the water in a semicircular pattern. Inside the crown, snorkelers find an underwater oasis of coral reefs and the marine species that are attracted to them, such as playful sea lions, colorful King Angel Fish, Balloon Fish, hawkfish, Yellowtail grunts, Tiger Snake Eels, White-tipped Sharks, Eagle Rays, amberjacks, wrasses, Hammerhead Sharks, and sea turtles. The rocky remains of the volcano create a haven for seabirds such as boobies, pelicans, and frigatebirds. Red-billed Tropicbirds nest in the crevices. The water is a bit rough and the current is strong.

Strong swimmers can swim through a tube on the western side (approximately 4-5 m down) and come out on the other side.

Enderby, Champion, Watson, and Gardner Islets, and The Bottle

Four islets to the east and southeast of Floreana provide good opportunities for viewing sea turtles, sea lions, and a high diversity of fishes. A large quantity of sharks can be observed at Enderby Islet. Diversity of fishes is high. Dinghy rides around Gardner Islet provide the visitor with views of interesting rock formations and large caves.

Extinct Floreana Tortoise Species is being Resurrected in the Galapagos Islands

The Galapagos National Park Directorate (GNPD) in collaboration with Galapagos Conservancy (GC), as part of the Giant Tortoise Restoration Initiative (GTRI), has initiated a breeding program to bring back the extinct Floreana tortoise (Chelonoidis niger, recently called C. elephantopus). This program is based on a decade of exploration and genetic analysis of saddleback tortoises found on Wolf Volcano, the northernmost volcano of Isabela Island.

A GTRI expedition to Wolf Volcano in November 2015, coordinated by the GNPD and GC, was carried out to locate and sample as many saddleback tortoises as possible, and to transfer a subset of those tortoises to the Fausto Llerena Tortoise Center on Santa Cruz Island. The search was aimed at identifying tortoises with ancestry from both Floreana and Pinta Islands, two species of saddleback tortoises that went extinct on their home islands.

Genetic analysis of 150 saddleback tortoises (144 from Wolf Volcano and six already in captivity) identified 127 with varying levels of ancestry from the Floreana tortoise. During the expedition, 32 tortoises were transported from Wolf to the Tortoise Center; of these, 19 were found to have Floreana ancestry. Unfortunately, no tortoises with Pinta tortoise ancestry were identified. A group of researchers led by investigators from Yale University reported these results in the journal Scientific Reports – Nature on September 13, 2017.

Based on preliminary results provided by Yale University researchers to the GTRI, four breeding groups of tortoises, each with three females and two males, were established in March 2017. In approximately five years, offspring from these breeding groups will begin to be released on Floreana Island.

The Floreana tortoise went extinct on its home island approximately 150 years ago due to exploitation by whalers and other mariners for food and hunting by the first settlers in the 18th and 19th centuries. Whether to lighten their load for the journey home or to make additional room for whale oil, mariners dropped a large number of tortoises from other islands at Banks Bay, at the base of Wolf Volcano. Throughout the last 200 years, these tortoises have bred on the volcano, providing a treasure trove of genes from several Galapagos tortoise species, some long extinct on their home islands.

The restoration of a tortoise population on Floreana Island with high genetic similarity to the island’s original tortoise is part of a larger island restoration program, which includes the elimination of introduced species (rodents and cats), and the return of other species that disappeared from the island (the native snake and the Floreana mockingbird, among other possibilities).

Walter Bustos, director the Galapagos National Park, stated, “Finding these tortoises and starting this long-term breeding program is an important component of the GNPD’s vision for Galapagos — restoring island ecosystems and ensuring long-term ecological and evolutionary processes.”

Scientists discover new coral species in Galapagos waters

Discovery of new species raises hopes that coral reefs may be more resilient to rising sea temperatures than previously thought

Scientists have discovered three new coral species - and one that was thought to be extinct - in an extensive survey of reefs around the Galapagos Islands, raising hopes that reefs may be more resilient to rising sea temperatures than previously thought.

Honeycomb coral (Gardineroseris planulata) had apparently been wiped out in in 1997-98 by the last big El Niño event. This natural periodic event affects weather globally and another is expected this year. But the study around the relatively unexplored areas of the coasts of Wolf and Darwin islands to the north-west of the main archipelago turned up several separate colonies.

Warmer sea temperatures caused by climate change and periodic El Niño events have caused large areas of coral to be wiped out in so-called "bleaching" events. Many scientists, as reported in the Guardian last week, fear that concentrations of CO2 in the atmosphere are already high enough to ensure a mass extinction of coral in the coming decades.

Professor Terry Dawson of Southampton University carried out the marine survey along with scientists from the University of Miami, covering an area that had not been studied extensively by marine biologists since the 1970s. The three new coral species are from the genera Hydrozoanthus, Parazoanthus and Antipathozoanthus. They also found a fourth possible new species and other corals that were thought not to inhabit the waters around the Galapagos.

Coral reefs are formed by deposits of calcium carbonate left by successive generations of tiny polyps which feed off plankton. They also receive nutrients from symbiotic algae known as zooxanthellae which also give coral their bright glowing colours. As temperatures rise, the algae dies or is ejected by the polyps, which leads to coral bleaching. In 1982–83 an El Niño event killed off around 95% of the coral in the Galapagos and caused severe disruption to the marine ecosystem there. In 1997–98 ocean warming caused a second bout of bleaching.

Dawson, who published his team's findings in the peer-reviewed journal Galapagos Research last month, said that it appeared the algae might be adapting to warmer ocean temperatures. Sea temperatures in the Galapagos vary between 23C and 29C in normal years, but can rise to 30C in El Niño years.

"Our study might suggest that species are more resilient than we thought. Nature is quite capable of looking after itself," he said. "Humans have such short timescales in looking at things. A lot of coral dies off after an El Niño event. But we don't give species enough time to do what it needs to do. We worry about rapid climate change and its effects but some species can adapt to climate change quite quickly too."

Dawson plans to return to the Galapagos after finding evidence of a migratory corridor from the Ecuadorian archipelago, up to Panama and Costa Rica, for whale sharks (the world's largest fish), hammerhead sharks and a number of other marine animals.

Andrew Baker, assistant professor at the Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science in Miami who led the research into the so-called algal symbionts, said he had found some evidence to suggest thermal tolerance since he started collecting data in 1998.

"Many people describe the Galapagos as nature's laboratory and that is true of its reefs too. We can look at the reef in the Galapagos and use it as a model of the system to see what reefs around the world might look like in 30-50 years," said Baker.

New Marine Sanctuary

The government of Ecuador has announced the creation of a new marine sanctuary around the islands of Darwin and Wolf in Galapagos that will offer protection to the world’s greatest concentration of sharks. The new sanctuary includes 15,000 square miles within the existing Galapagos Marine Reserve (GMR), wherein industrial fishing has been banned since 1998 but smaller fishing operations had been allowed. With the creation of this new sanctuary, several areas within the GMR will now be designated as “no-take” zones, meaning fishing of any kind is off-limits.

The government says that such additional protection is essential, as the habitat has come under increased pressure due to climate change and illegal shark fin poachers. From an economic perspective, a 2015 report found that sharks also have an immense value to tourism that greatly outweighs their value to the fishing industry. Tourists travel from all over the world to visit the Islands and dive to see the sharks, of which more than 34 different species can be found in these waters.

This new designation is the result of a dialogue initiated in 2014 that included input from more than 600 participants across various sectors in Galapagos, including the local fishing industry. The consensus leading to the designation of the new reserve means that 32% of the waters around Galapagos will now be protected from fishing activities.

Whale Sharks are one of the many shark species that will receive extra protection as a result of the new marine sanctuary in the Galapagos Marine Reserve.

The splendor of La Compania Church of Quito

The Church of The Compania of Jesus in Quito has been catalogued by UNESCO among the hundred most important World Heritage Site Monuments in the world. After an integral restoration, which took 12 years at a cost of 4.5 million dollars, this magnificent temple was reopened to the public the second week of December, and can now be viewed in its entire splendor.

The building of this Colonial jewel started in 1605 and was finished in 1650. The restoration was both structural and artistic, in its 4500 square meters. Its interior, entirely gilded, shines like a jewel and its paintings, sculptures, altars, cupola and pulpit have been carefully illuminated so that all details can be appreciated.

There are 44 paintings and 56 sculptures of the School of Art of Quito. Among the most important paintings are those of the 16 Prophets by Nicolas Gorivar in the central columns and the large ones depicting the Final Judgment and Hell at each side of the entrance.

The church is a magnificent example of the extraordinary artistic ability of the Ecuadorian artisans; with profusely carved altars covered with gold leaf, and the sculptures by Legarda of the Holy Trinity in the main altar and Saint Ignacio and Saint Francis in the side altars. The Compania of Jesus is the best sample of the American Baroque, one of the richest and most extraordinary temples of South America.

Darwin’s finches highlight the unity of all life

When Charles Darwin visited the Galapagos Islands in October 1835, he and his ship-mates on board HMS Beagle collected specimens of birds, including finches and mockingbirds, from various islands of the archipelago.

At the time, Darwin took little interest in the quaint finches, making only a one-word mention of them in his diary. As painstakingly shown by Frank Sulloway and more recently by John Van Whye, it wasn’t until two years later that the finches sparked Darwin’s interest.

By then he had received feedback from the leading taxonomist of the time, John Gould, that the samples comprised 14 distinct species, none of which had been previously described! Gould also noted that their “principal peculiarity consisted in the bill [i.e. beak] presenting several distinct modifications of form”.

So intrigued was Darwin by this variation in size and shape of beaks that in the second (1845) edition of Journal of Researches he included illustrations of the distinctive variation between species in the size and shape of their beaks. He added a comment that:

“Seeing this gradation and diversity of structure in one small, intimately related group of birds, one might really fancy that from an original paucity of birds in this archipelago, one species had been taken and modified for different ends”.

Wildlife as Unique as The Islands Themselves

All of the islands in the Galápagos are unique, differing in landscape, plant life, and animals. Most islands have species and foliage that are exclusive to that particular island and not found anywhere else on earth. Animals in the Galápagos do not fear humans, which at first is hard to wrap your head around. But with few predators on the islands, the animals live in leisure.

They are fascinating creatures, living in perfect harmony, and are ever-evolving and making use of what each island offers. For example, on Isabela you’ll see sea lions napping on (yes, literally on!) marine iguanas, both of them living alongside crabs, cormorants, Galápagos penguins and blue footed boobies.

San Cristóbal, meanwhile, features thundering mountains built up by years of volcanic ash on one side of the island, and the most picture-perfect, sea lion-clad beaches on the opposite side. There are islands like Floreana, whose waters are so crystal clear that you can see sharks, sea turtles and rays swimming in the bay from atop the Baroness’s lookout, and later snorkel with playful groups of sea lions at Post Office Bay.

The enchanted isles are just that, a safe haven for all those who live and visit the Galápagos. While I may have been amiss thinking that I had landed on Mars, the Galápagos does feel like a fantasy land, but not another planet exactly—more like Eden. They are like no other place on earth, and I hope it remains this way forever.

81 tortoises hatch at the Isabela Tortoise Center

From the archive, 3 October 1838: Darwin’s miniature primeval monsters

According to the Galapagos National Park Directorate, 81 giant tortoises have hatched since November from the 2016 nesting season at the Arnaldo Tupiza Giant Tortoise Center on Isabela Island. The tortoise hatchlings are from two species: Chelonoidis guntheriandChelonoidis vicina — from the two southern volcanoes of Isabela Island, Sierra Negra and Cerro Azul.

Galapagos giant tortoises nest between June and December each year. These two species lay between 8 and 16 eggs per nest. The incubation period lasts from 90 to 120 days. Newly-hatched tortoises are transferred to a dark box that replicates the few weeks to a month that the hatchlings remain in their underground nest in the wild, during which time any remaining yolk sac is completely absorbed, before digging an exit hole and emerging. After 30 days in the dark box, the young tortoises are transferred to outdoor corrals, where they are regularly monitored.

Tortoises spend approximately five years at the Breeding Center, after which they are ready to be returned to their natural habitat. This gives them a jump-start, as the highest mortality of tortoises in the wild is in their first few years. The Isabela Center currently has 702 tortoises, including 65 reproductive adults. Thanks to this program managed by the Park at their three tortoise centers (Santa Cruz, Isabela, and San Cristóbal), nearly 7,000 tortoises have been repatriated to their island of origin across the Archipelago.

Darwin’s miniature primeval monsters

From the archive, 3 October 1838: Darwin’s miniature primeval monsters

Marine iguanas found by Darwin on the Galapagos Islands confirm the existence of sea-dwelling dinosaurs

The following passage from Lyell’s Elements of Geology may startle many - an account of miniature primeval monsters yet existing in

“Some bright little isles of their own, In a blue summer ocean far off and alone.”

The author has been describing the gigantic creatures whose fossils attest their existence. “For the last twenty years’ anatomists have agreed that these extinct saurians must have inhabited the sea, although no living reptile was known. They argued, that, as there are now chelonians, like the tortoise, living in fresh water, and others, as the turtle, frequenting the ocean, so they may have been formerly some saurians proper to salt, others to fresh water. The recent discovery, however, of a maritime saurian has now rendered it unnecessary to speculate on such possibilities.

“This creature was found in the Galapagos Islands, during the visit of H. M. S. Beagle to that archipelago in 1835; and its habits were then observed by Mr. Darwin. The islands alluded to are situated under the equator, nearly six hundred miles on the westward of the coast of South America. They are volcanic, some of them being three thousand or four thousand feet high; and one of them, Albemarle Island, seventy-five miles long. The climate is mild, very little rain falls, and, in the whole archipelago, there is only one rill of fresh water that reaches the coast. The soil is for the most part dry and harsh, and the vegetation scanty.

“The birds, reptiles, plants, and insects, are, with very few exceptions, of species found nowhere else in the world, although all partake in their general form of an American character. Of the Mammalia, says Mr. Darwin, one species alone appears to be indigenous - a large and peculiar kind of mouse; but the great number of lizards, tortoises, and snakes is so great, that it may be called a land of reptiles. The variety, indeed, of species is small; but the individuals of each are in wonderful abundance. There is a turtle, a large tortoise (Testudo indicus), four lizards, and about the same number of snakes, but no frogs or toads.

“Two of the lizards belong to the family Iguanidae of Bell, and to a peculiar genus (Amblyrhynchus) established by that naturalist, and so named for their obtusely truncated head and short snout. Of these lizards, one is terrestrial in its habits, and burrows in the ground, swarming everywhere on the land - having a round tail and a mouth somewhat resembling in form that of the tortoise; the other is aquatic, and has its tail flattened laterally for swimming.

“This marine saurian, says Mr. Darwin, ‘is extremely common on all the islands throughout the archipelago. It lives exclusively on the rocky sea-beaches, and I never saw one even ten yards in-shore. The usual length is about a yard, but there are some even four feet long. It is of a dirty black color; sluggish in its movements on the land, but, when in the water, it swims with perfect ease and quickness, by a serpentine movement of its body and flattened tail, the legs during this time being motionless, and closely collapsed on its sides. Their limbs and strong claws are admirably adapted for crawling over the rugged and fissured masses of lava which everywhere form the coast. In such situations a group of six or seven of these hideous reptiles may oftentimes be seen on the black rocks, a few feet above the surf, basking in the sun with outstretched legs.”

How To Enter Ecuador

Entry/Exit Requirements for U.S. Citizens

If you are a U.S. citizen wishing to enter Ecuador, you must present a U.S. passport with at least six months remaining validity. Ecuadorian immigration officials also sometimes request evidence of return or onward travel, such as an airline ticket.

Under Ecuadorian law, U.S. citizens traveling for business or tourism on a tourist passport can enter Ecuador for up to 90 days per calendar year without a visa. Extensions for up to another 90 days can be requested through the provincial migration offices.

If you are planning a visit longer than 90 days, you must obtain a visa in advance of your arrival.

Body of tortoise 'Lonesome George' returned to Galapagos Islands

The embalmed body of the giant tortoise known as Lonesome George—the last known member of a species that was wiped out with his death in 2012—returned home to the Ecuadoran Galapagos Islands.

The body arrived in Puerto Ayora, the capital of the archipelago's Santa Cruz Island, on an Ecuadoran military plane after undergoing taxidermy work at New York's American Museum of Natural History, the Galapagos National Park said.

The giant tortoise—thought to be around a century old when he died in June 2012—was the last known member of the subspecies Geochelone nigra abingdoni.

He failed to reproduce despite a decades long conservation effort that earned him the moniker "Lonesome George."

His body will go on display at the park starting February 23, after having starred in an exhibition at the New York museum from September 2014-January 2015.

The Pacific island chain is famous for its unique flora and fauna studied by Charles Darwin as he developed his theory of evolution.

Of the 15 species of giant tortoise known to have originated in the Galapagos, three, including George's, have gone extinct—victims of plundering 18th-century pirates who damaged the islands' fragile ecosystem.

Scientists identify new Galapagos giant tortoise species

A team of Ecuadoran and international scientists said on Wednesday they have identified a new giant tortoise species on the Galapagos Islands.

There are only a few hundred members of the new species, Ecuador's environment ministry said in a statement.

Experts had long believed that the two giant tortoise populations on the Santa Cruz island were of the same species, but genetic tests have shown that those living on the eastern side of the island are different, the statement read.

The researchers, led by Gisella Caccone from Yale University, baptized the new species "Chelonoidis donfaustoi," in honor of Fausto Llerena, the caretaker of Lonesome George, a male Pinta Island tortoise and the last known survivor of his species.

"We estimate that there are 250 or 300 creatures of this species," Ecuadoran scientist Washington Tapia, who participated in the research, told AFP.

Research began in 2002 when two scientists thought that "due to the formation of the shell, these tortoises should belong to a different species."

Then, Tapia said, scientists analyzed genetic samples taken from the animals.

"In 2005 the preliminary results already suggested that we were dealing with a different species," Tapia said.

The shell is indeed different from other tortoises, but "the main difference is at the genetic level," he said.

The head of the Galapagos National Park, Alejandra Ordonez, said that research on the new species continues "to determine their exact distribution on the island, their nesting areas, and potential threats."

With this find, experts now believe that 15 species of tortoise lived on the islands, including four that are extinct.

In 1979 the Natural Reserve became UNESCO's first World Heritage Site.

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