Galapagos Living

March 13, 2012 § 1 Comment

“Living Galapagos: The impact of man in the Galapagos Islands” is a student-authored multimedia website intended to become the primary source for Galapagos multimedia, containing a mix of science and human interest content and presented to multiple audiences worldwide for education, awareness and entertainment.

Based off the 2009 JOMC project, the new site will have annual editions, presenting a mix of science and human interest content in an engaging way for viewers in the U.S., Ecuador and worldwide. It will also provide bilingual educational resources.

The annual class will learn about the islands and then travel there to produce stories with documentary video, animated information graphics, data visualization, 3-D modeling immersive media text and more. The project will have a searchable database of content, showing change on the islands over time.

“Living Galapagos” will be produced by JOMC with support from centers and institutes at UNC and University San Francisco de Quito (USFQ,) including the Center for Galapagos Studies, RENCI, the Water Institute, the Center for Global Initiatives, The Research Institute, the Institute for the Environment, and the Galapagos Institute of Arts and Sciences.



Last Minute Dive Discount on the Deep Blue to Wolf and Darwin

February 16, 2012 § Leave a comment

Great last minute dive special on the Deep Blue March 19 – 26, 2012 on $2999 per person – $1000 off the low season rate


PM: Arrival to San Cristobal – lunch and check out dive at Isla Lobos

AM: 2 Dives Punta Carrion
PM: Santa Cruz Highlands

AM: 2 Dives Darwin
PM: 1 Dive Darwin Wolf

AM: 2 Dives Darwin
PM: 1 Dive Darwin

AM: 2 Dives Wolf
PM: 1 Dive Wolf

AM: 2 Dives Wolf
PM: 1 Dive Wolf

AM: 2 Dives Cousins
PM: Charles Darwin Research Station

AM: Interpretation Center & departure from San Cristobal

Space is limited

Floreana Tortoise Back from Extinction

February 6, 2012 § 1 Comment

galapagos tortoises

From Clifton Wang The Yale Daily News

After finding the descendants of a species of giant tortoises believed extinct from the Galapagos Islands for 150 years, Yale researchers are hoping to save the species.

In an expedition to Isabela Island led by Adalgisa Caccone GRD ’86, senior research scientist in ecology and evolutionary biology, the researchers found 84 tortoises whose genes show that one of their parents is a member of the supposedly extinct species, C. elephantopus. Published Jan. 9 in the journal “Current Biology,” the subsequent report stated that at least 38 purebred individuals of that species are still alive, and Caccone said she hopes to return to the Galapagos to find them.

“We can bring back a species from near extinction,” said Caccone. “If we can find these individuals in a larger expedition, we can return the species to its [original state] and reestablish the ecological equilibrium.”

Thirty of the turtle descendants were younger than 15 years old, and since giant tortoises often live over 100 years, this data suggests some parents are still alive. Carefully breeding the hybrids may also allow scientists to revive the C. elephantopus species even if the purebreds cannot be found, Caccone added.

The study claimed to be the first to rediscover a supposedly extinct species by analyzing the DNA of its offspring, though Caccone said in an interview with the News that her team simply applied standard analytical techniques.

“We had access to a large database that included the genetic fingerprints of [diverse giant tortoise] species, including extinct data,” Caccone said. “It was a huge effort, and a lot of undergraduates helped us with the project [to analyze all the samples].”

The team accumulated blood samples from over 1,600 tortoises, around 20 percent of the total tortoise population on Isabela Island, and compared the DNA to a genetic database of tortoise species. They found close correlations to the extinct species, identifying 84 direct descendants.

When Charles Darwin explored the islands in 1835, he found fifteen species of giant tortoises. Since only eleven species remain in the Galapagos today, Caccone said it is important to halt this rapid extinction. The differentiation Darwin saw between similar species on different islands, such as finches, was crucial in the development of his theory of evolution.

The giant tortoise is the only grazing herbivore native to the Galapagos, and plays an important ecological role, Caccone said, by helping to keep vegetative growth in check. On some islands where tortoise populations have dwindled, invasive plants and overgrowth have become a problem, she said.

On Floreana, the “extinct” species’ native island, the ecosystem is out of equilibrium. Caccone speculated that the tortoise was likely transported to Isabela aboard a ship as food, and then left on the island. Meanwhile the population on Floreana was wiped out due to hunting by whalers, pirates and local workers during the 19th Century.

University of British Columbia biology Professor Michael Russello, who contributed to the study, said he looks forward to a future expedition to the Galapagos that will allow conservationists to establish a breeding program and restore the species to Floreana.

“The return of tortoises to Floreana would [help] to restore the native flora and fauna of the island,” Russello said.

George Amato GRD ’94, director of the Sackler Institute for Comparative Genomics at the American Museum of Natural History, called the study “exciting” and “very significant.” He added that he is optimistic about the likelihood of finding the parents and hopeful about seeing the research translate into measurable conservation initiatives.

Even if purebred members of C. elephantopus cannot be found, Russello and Amato said the 84 offspring found may cumulatively have enough genetic variation to design a breeding program that would revive the species.

Ths project could provide a case study of how to restore extinct species from their close descendants.

“Success with this one species will give hope and a practical example for future conservation efforts, maintaining public interest in conservation that is essential for [receiving] funding and [influencing] political or community organizations,” said Brittney Kajdacsi ’11, a lab assistant to Caccone.

The giant tortoise is among the largest reptiles and longest-living animals on Earth, thought to have arrived on the Galapagos Islands from Ecuador about 1 million years ago.

For more on this topic read our Blog The Evolution of Extinction

2012 Marks Big Changes to Airlines in Ecuador

February 6, 2012 § Leave a comment

From El Commerical

2012 is shaping up as a transition year for the national aviation industry in Ecuador, after the rule change since last January.

The starting point was the elimination of air fuel subsidy.  Companies started to pay the real value of fuel, which now fluctuates with the price of a barrel of crude.  Airlines were previously paying $ 1.24 per gallon now must pay around $ 3.04.  Prior to January, Ecuador was subsidizing 60% of actual value of fuel.
The first effect of this decision was the rising price of widespread airfare on all routes, even those which kept the fuel subsidy. Increases were recorded between 15% and 40%, with greatest impact on flights to and from the Galapagos Islands.
Higher prices and screening of a fall in passenger demand forced a reduction of costs in the airline LAN, which decided to cut jobs.
On 25 Jan. 60 workers were laid-off, since the structure of the company was over sized for the new market reality.  That same day also announced the reduction of frequencies on routes Quito-Guayaquil and Quito-Cuenca.
The decision to maintain a subsidy of 40% only at airports managed by the State, was a direct payment to the state company TAME, which is the only flying at Loja, Lago Agrio (Sucumbios), Esmeraldas, Santa Rosa (Machala ) and Tulcán (Carchi), airports managed by the Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA).
TAME announced an increase of $ 6 via these routes, because in any case had to pay more for fuel.

But that decision was cast down by the government.  The President, who said that the poor do not fly in an airplane, ordered the public company reducing prices.  The argument was that to promote the use of state-owned airports need lower prices, which affect not TAME  because they have to recoup investments in three new aircraft, which were paid with public funds.
The company complied with the order and the price of passage on the route Quito-Santa Rosa, for example, fell by USD $34.4.
State aid for public companies, however, causes distortions in the market.
Guillermo Bernal, president of the National Airline Association (Adena), said TAME has to subsist on efficiency. “You should not expect the State to subsidize the losses at the end of the year.  So there is no competition.
And not to lose market share, companies are adjusting their business model, which may include a change in the airline fleet, says Bernal.
The Executive Order eliminated the air fuel subsidy lifted the airline demands had access to that benefit.  Among them, having a modern fleet, ie the year of manufacture of the aircraft is later than 1990.
To comply with these regulations, according to Bernal, companies invested about USD 1200 million. But as no such incentive, companies may see in older aircraft one way to reduce costs.  In addition, the previous Decree stipulated that labor should be a national company for the benefit of the subsidy.  It is no longer required the hiring of crew and national pilot, which opens the possibility of further layoffs.
The settings become a priority in a scenario of lower passenger demand.  Travel agents say the sale of tickets for corporate executives has remained so far, but some of the people who travel for tourism have stopped.

To reverse this trend, airlines have launched promotions for two weeks, though less attractive than in the past.   In 2011 being advertised tickets to and from Guayaquil and Cuenca for $ 48. Ahora la oferta es de USD 66. Now the offer is $ 66.
In recent weeks, following the fuel price increase, there was uncertainty for businesses.  The question was repeated in the field: what will companies do to absorb the costs and regain profitability levels without affecting the volume of traffic?
That led to adjustments.  Was transferred fuel cost to the user.  Some companies have reduced staff, others have rearranged their frequencies and fares.  This through the ‘Revenue Management’, a computer system to manage the sale of space on the plane.
The international comparative rate before and after removal of the subsidy has barely moved.  This shows that before local airlines, selling tickets outside, were making more, but had subsidized fuel.  Now the price is similar and unsubsidized.
In Ecuador there is no comprehensive aviation policy. What you need is laws that are made outside of policy. Hence, establishing agreements, agreements, airlines are allowed revenue. For example, when setting the fuel subsidy was said that one idea was to improve the national airline fleet. Now go away.  This must be done gradually so that the impact is not strong on the user because the companies continue their same income levels and the user is who ends up footing the bill.
Two decisions of the national government
The grant will mean the Treasury $ 92 million. The State covers USD 1.80 per gallon.  Airlines canceled until December 2011, USD 1.24.  Since the elimination of subsidies, the airlines are charged USD 3.04.

In the binational meeting between Colombia and Ecuador, the aeronautical authorities discussed the possibility that the state airline TAME enter immediately to operate routes such as Caracas, Bogota and Quito.

To encourage the flow of passengers, the governments of Ecuador and Colombia decided that flights between the two countries are considered domestic.  The authorities expect that the user could save $ 100.

Charles Darwin Collection Found After 165 Years

January 20, 2012 § Leave a comment

From CBS News

It is a story of a scientific rediscovery. It’s a tale that includes with the father of evolution and his forgetful friend, as well as an once-in-a-lifetime find by a British researcher.

CBS News correspondent Mark Phillips reports that it’s the gate to a discovery by one of the world’s great scientists, that’s been lost for a long time.

Howard Falcon-Lang spends a lot of time in a warehouse of the British Geological Survey, where he does research. He says there are always “a few surprises.”

Howard was walking along one row when he spotted an old wooden cabinet hidden in a forgotten corner.

“Well, as any curious person would do, I just pulled open the door without breaking it, and found a series of drawers containing hundreds of rock samples,” Falcon-Lang says.

Normal enough stuff, until he took one out.

“I held it up to the light and tried to make out the words on the slide and there was the signature: C. Darwin, Esquire,” Falcon-Lang says, adding he could “hardly believe it. My heart was pounding all around my body.”

They were actual samples collected by the Charles Darwin during his five-year voyage in the 1830s on HMS Beagle, where his observations of wildlife and fossils, particularly on the Galapagos Islands off South America, lead to the development of his theory of evolution that shocked the world.

Most of the evidence Darwin used has been well documented, but the samples Howard Falcon-Lang accidentally found had been lost because Darwin entrusted them to a fellow scientist, J.D. Hooker, perhaps the original absent-minded professor.

Hooker committed the cardinal sin of failing to number his fossils, and as a consequence this collection has just been stuck in drawers for 165 years.

There are more that 10 million rock samples in this warehouse packed in boxes and stacked on shelves, all of them cataloged, except for some that slipped through the cracks – some of the most important ever found.

They’re now found, and being studied, again.

Baltra Land Iguanas

January 2, 2012 § Leave a comment

Land Iguana at the Baltra Airport

The story of the Baltra Land Iguanas is one that illustrates the effect both good and bad humans have had on the Galapagos wildlife population over the years.

Up until the early part of the 20th century Baltra was considered “Iguana Headquarters”.  There were hundreds of land iguanas living on the island of Baltra.  Located near the center of the Galapagos Islands just north of Santa Cruz Island, Baltra is a small and relatively flat island with little vegetation other than the prickly pear cactus, a staple in the land iguana diet.

In the early 1930’s the Hancock-Pacific Galapagos Expedition made several voyages to the Galapagos.  Funded by Allan Hancock a renaissance man of the time. Hancock was considered a sea captain, oilman, explorer, developer, banker, aviator, scientist, businessman, farmer, railroad engineer, musician and philanthropist.  More over Hancock was a man of great wealth and connections.  For his expeditions to the Galapagos Hancock put together a group of experts including Waldo Schmitt (of the Smithsonian Institution) who would also accompany FDR during his 1938 fishing trip to Galapagos.

Waldo Schmitt with a Baltra Land Iguana c 1934

During their voyages the Hancock Expedition collected and cataloged a number of new species of wildlife from the Galapagos.  These species were subsequently brought back to the United States and donated to some of the country’s finest institutions including the Smithsonian Museum, the California Academy of Sciences, the San Diego Zoological Gardens, and the Steinhart Aquarium.

In January 1934 the Hancock Expedition visited Baltra Island.  While there the expedition collected approximately 15 land iguanas to be transported back for the San Diego Zoo.  During the time on the island, several scientists noticed that many of the land iguanas seemed to be suffering from starvation.

Two days later the Expedition visited North Seymour.  North Seymour and Baltra (South Seymour) are located relatively close together and the conditions on both islands are similar. However the expedition members noted North Seymour had more vegetation and therefore they felt it was a more favorable environment for the iguanas.  Not seeing any reason why North Seymour did not have its own population of land iguanas, the group decided to help save the starving iguanas.

The Hancock Galapagos Expedition transporting Baltra Iguanas to North Seymour

They returned to Baltra to capture additional iguanas and relocated them to North Seymour.  Normally this would be considered a disastrous event as land iguanas were not native to North Seymour and thus became an introduced species to the island.  As with any introduced species it has the potential to change the natural habitat and affect the flora and fauna naturally found on the island.  Over time the actions of the Hancock Expedition would prove to be quite fortunate.

By the end of the 1930’s hostilities grew all over the world and World War II would begin.  In 1943 a military base was established in Baltra. Shortly after the end of the war land iguanas became extinct on that island.  The reason for the extinction has been speculated for many years.  Early history books and many in Galapagos have blamed the military personnel stationed on Baltra for killing the iguanas for sport.  That these same military people through deliberate acts would led to the extinction of the Baltra Iguanas.

According to John Peck who was stationed with the Navy on Baltra during WWII “We could have free range of the Navy side and we could explore the area, but could not to molest the wildlife”.

Records show there were orders that came down from the military according to Wetmore’s memorandum of December 9, 1942 “you take appropriate action to prevent any unnecessary molestation of the wildlife in the Galapagos Archipelago and to prohibit the introduction of domestic animals that prey on the native fauna”

It seems highly unlikely that a group of young men under direct orders not to harm the native wildlife would be shooting the iguanas for fun.

Taking this into consideration leaves a mystery as to why would an island, which was considered “Iguana Headquarters” in the early 1930’s see the Iguana become extinct in a period of 20 years.

At a reunion of the 29th Bombardment Squadron in 1989 a small survey was taken regarding the iguanas.  “Do you have any first or second hand accounts of hunting iguanas or eating them?” The respondents unanimous stated “NO”.

John Peck describes, “We had a pet iguanas called IT as the sex was unknown.  It would sleep on the table in the medical laboratory, the medical techs would feed it vegetables greens i.e. lettuce and carrot tops.  IT was very gentle and enjoyed all the care given to the animal.  We would take IT to other places on the base and many of the personnel would pet and feed IT.” 

US Military Personell with Baltra Land Iguana

It seems that from what John Peck has stated and the survey of the 29th Bombardment Squadron that the military personnel were not killing iguanas.  As a group they seemed genuinely found of the iguanas and made many of the iguanas into pets.

The theory that the military personnel were responsible for the decline of the Baltra iguana population through a deliberate act seems unlikely.  By doing some research of the events of the events over these years there seems a more likely scenario for what actually occurred.

As we mentioned in an earlier blog the first military personnel were sent to Baltra less than a week after the attack on Pearl Harbor.  Construction of the base was in effect in March 1943.  Military documents from the SeaBees (the construction battalion who built navy bases all over the world) show it was Ecuadorian contractors who began the construction of the Baltra Base in the early portion of 1943.  These contractors used local sand and loose soil in the construction of the concrete they used to pour the foundations of buildings, the dock and airport.  When the SeaBee’s arrived in Baltra in October of 1943 to complete the job and imported all materials needed to finish the construction and used no native materials in their building of the base.

Early military correspondence regarding the base includes a report from Wetmore in 1942. “We have report of native laborers engaged in various work on the islands killing iguanas for their skins.  This was stop by one of the officers but may begin again at any time”

While the native labors seem to have been deliberately killing land iguanas for their skins it was the Ecuadorian Contractors unintentional acts that proved far more costly to the iguanas.

In the 2989 survey of the 29th squadron members were asked “Do you have any recollection of the iguana population when you arrived?  When you left? While you where there did the population increase/decrease/remain stable?  Did you see any young iguanas?”

All of the respondents stated they remember iguanas when they arrived, while they were there, and when they left.  However none remembered ever seeing any young iguanas.  Why suddenly on an island with a healthy iguana population would suddenly there be no baby iguanas?

Iguanas lay their eggs in sand or loose soils, the same materials that the local contractors excavated to build the new base.  In using the local sands and loose soils the early contractors would have upset the iguana nesting sites and in affect caused the population of young iguanas to decline.

When combining the decline in new iguanas with other factor from the time the reason for extinction of the Baltra Iguanas seems quite clear. For much of the 1940’s the US military occupied Baltra.  During this time iguanas and goats were both left to have free range of the island.

The earlier instruction to rid the islands of introduced domestic animals seemed to reach the Galapagos as not to bother any of the animals as evident from a memorandum from Harmon in 1946

“The large number of native goats, protected by Executive Order, make a continuous practice of upsetting garbage and trash cans.  They are a great annoyance and menace to sanction.  Initiate request… for authority to round them up and transport them either to Little Seymour (Seymour North) or to Santa Cruz”

Feral goats during WWII on Baltra

The US Military left Baltra in 1948 and five years later in 1953 land iguanas were extinct on Baltra.  Why did the Baltra Land Iguanas become extinct?

It was not because the military personnel were not shooting the iguanas for sport or eating the iguanas.

The reason for the extinction is early contractors upset the nesting grounds and no new iguanas were born.  The number of plants available as food for the iguanas was scarce at the time of the Hancock Expedition in the 1930’s and when the population of goats was allowed to grow the competition for food may have put further stain on the scarce food supply.  When competing for food between goats and iguanas the goats always win.

Lastly as we know from the land iguanas on South Plaza, iguanas can relate people to food and remember this correlation.  On Plazas early passengers would bring oranges ashore, quickly the iguanas related visitor to an easy supply.  The lazy iguanas began hopping into the laps of visitors begging for food. John Heck told us that the military personnel would feed the iguanas lettuce, carrot tops and other produce causing the iguanas to become accustom to people and relating people to an easy food sources.

As mentioned above the Wetmore memorandum of 1942 native laborers were killing iguanas for the skins.  At the time the military left the island the iguanas found on Baltra would have been far easier to capture as they now related people to food so anyone wanting to capture an iguana would find it an easy job.

A combination of these factors would account for what happened to the iguanas.  The iguanas disappeared from Baltra as a consequence of the coming into contact with humans.  It was ignorance of the consequences of their actions by the people who came into contact with the iguanas led to their deaths rather than any deliberate malicious act.

Land Iguana eating a prickly pear cactus pad on Baltra

All of this would be a terribly sad story of a species that is now extinct if it hadn’t been for the decision made by the Hancock-Galapagos Pacific Expedition in January 1934.  By moving iguanas to North Seymour on this voyage and the proceeding voyage the members of the Hancock Expedition consequently saved the Baltra Land Iguanas from extinction.  In the 1980’s the Galapagos National Park captured iguanas on North Seymour and brought them to the Charles Darwin Research Station where they were bred.  In the 1990’s these land iguanas were reintroduced to Baltra the island where they originated.  Today while there are no longer goats on Baltra, there is still a military base, an airport and a healthy population of land iguanas.

Building of Ecological Airport in Galapagos to Begin

December 21, 2011 § 1 Comment

Corporate America (CA), manager of 49 airports in the world, this morning received authorization from the Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) to build the first airport in the world ecological in the Galapagos Islands.This was announced by the director for Latin America, CA, Ezequiel Barrenechea, during a visit to Guayaquil.Permission was given 8 months after the Government signed an agreement to lift this work, between the Authority and the Corporation America.

“This means that you can perform the civil works. We hope to start with the closing of the land from next Monday, “said Barrenechea.

The concession was awarded more than two years, but the construction had to wait until the contract conditions attaching to the standards defined by the new Constitution (2008). Initially, it should be ready this year, but now the work must be completed by the end of 2012.

The airport will work with renewable energy, the roof will consist of solar panels, solar collectors will heat water and generate electricity, light-colored pavement will reduce the heating effect and will have LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design).

An investment of approximately 24 million dollars will be used to construct the new Baltra Airport.

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