Darwin's islands in tourist trap

Thu, Jan 26, 2012, 00:00

IT SEEMS appropriate that staff at the Charles Darwin Research Station in the Galapagos should share their offices with the local wildlife. These are, after all, the animals that helped to shape Darwin’s thinking about natural selection, and this station is at the heart of research to support conservation on the islands.

So we are sitting in the centre’s courtyard with grants’ manager Freda Chapman, shaded from the equatorial heat, and wandering in and out of the offices is a little Lava Lizard, just one of hundreds of species found only on these islands.

The station is part of the Charles Darwin Foundation, an NGO that runs a multi-disciplinary research programme, working with international scientists who contribute specialist expertise. The foundation’s research ranges from genetic analyses of Giant Tortoises, to the environmental impact of the growing numbers of taxis in the main town.

Under an agreement with Ecuador’s government, the foundation’s research supports the Galapagos National Park Service in its management and policy development. For example, the park’s successful Giant Tortoise-breeding programme was begun by foundation researchers. And when one large cruise ship visited Galapagos waters in 2006-07, the foundation’s research helped to show this single port-of-call introduced several new insect species. As a result, there’s now a moratorium on large cruise ships.

The ultimate aim, for the foundation and the national park service, is to conserve the unique ecosystems in a sustainable way, by protecting endangered species, controlling and eliminating introduced species, and raising awareness among residents and visitors.

There are 18 islands in the Galapagos (four inhabited), plus 107 rocky islets, spread over 200km of the Pacific Ocean (about one-tenth the size of Ireland). The national park, a Unesco World Heritage Site, covers 97 per cent of the archipelago. Located 1,000km west of Ecuador, the islands lie at the crossroads of four ocean currents, including an antarctic current that makes the waters rich and abundant.

The archipelago is volcanic, new land constantly forming over a “hot spot”. The youngest, western islands have several active volcanoes, but the eastern “elderly” islands are now inactive. So each island has a unique set of conditions, and this diversity is what allowed so many new species to evolve here.

The native species descended from plants and animals brought here millions of years ago by wind, birds or currents. However, the concern today is to limit the arrival of new species.

The problem now is the speed at which new species arrive, with the huge increase in ship and air traffic. For example, there are 500 native plant species on the Galapagos, but only 150 are found here. These are swamped by 800 introduced species, mostly ornamental plants for gardens. Hence, the foundation is promoting “native gardens”: with a nursery for native plants, training for gardeners, and encouraging pride in local species.

New, invasive species are tackled by the foundation, the park service and other agencies in various ways, such as quarantine, trapping, and pesticides. It’s a constant battle, but there have been some successes, notably eliminating 150,000 goats from the islands of Isabela and Santiago.

Freda Chapman describes how this entailed hunting goats from helicopters, and using sterile “Judas” females to attract males. Five years later, the islands are rid of this pest, vegetation is regenerating and, Chapman jokes, “goat is no longer on the menu”. Eliminating black rats at some locations has nearly doubled the number of mangrove finch nests that successfully fledge chicks, a major success for the Galapagos’s most endangered bird.

Before rat poison can be used on any island, the research station’s scientists must ensure the pellets won’t affect native species. Tests showed that ground-feeding birds don’t like blue food, so blue pellets were made, and local hawks that feed on rat remains were temporarily taken captive while the toxin was used. In areas where unique reptiles occur, such as Giant Tortoises and Lava Lizards, the eradication programme had to be postponed for two years while scientists investigated how the poison affected the reptiles.

Perhaps the greatest challenge is dealing with that most invasive species, the human, whether visitor or resident. The booming tourist industry would be an economic success story elsewhere, but here it could trigger an ecological disaster.

The Galapagos was once a remote destination for those willing to make what Chapman calls “an arduous pilgrimage”. Now the islands are on the tourist map, with 140,000 visitors a year (this journalist among them), though one-third of visitors are Ecuadorian. It makes the Galapagos Ecuador’s wealthiest province. Immigration has brought the population from 10,000 residents in 1990, to nearly 30,000.

Previously, tourism was relatively sustainable: tourists slept on boats and the number of boats was controlled; and while diesel, and most food and water supplies are imported, the impact was minimised.

Now, hotel-based tourism in the towns is attracting more visitors. This business brings in less money, yet needs more staff, plus services such as taxis and high-speed ferries for day-trips. It could mark the start of mass tourism, and the islands are now at a crossroads. Hence much research now is into the social, economic and environmental impact of tourism, and studying various management and policy initiatives, such as the switch from using damaging anchors to new reef-friendly mooring buoys at popular visitor sites.

But for this science journalist, one of the most impressive aspects is that the Charles Darwin Foundation does all its research with a relatively minuscule budget of $3.7 million (€2.8m). It’s a tribute to the 75 staff – 71 per cent are local residents – and the committed team of volunteers and international collaborators. An impressive achievement.

Survival threat The blood-sucking fly that eats bird brains

CHARLES DARWIN would surely have marvelled at how natural selection could produce a parasitic fly whose larvae feed on young birds, though he might despair at the damage it is causing.

Philornis downsi is a bloodsucking parasite accidentally introduced to the Galapagos nearly 50 years ago. The adult flies feed on fruit, but the larvae feed on young birds: starting in their brains, nostrils and other tissues, and then living in the nest material like ticks, biting and feeding on the chicks.

The fly is now widespread and threatens the survival of several rare species found only on the islands, including the floreana mockingbird, and two of “Darwin’s finches”: the mangrove finch and the medium tree finch. The mangrove finch is the Galapagos’s most endangered bird: there are just 100 left, reduced to two patches of mangrove on one island.

In a bad year, most nests in an area will be infected with the flies, and up to 75 per cent of chicks can die, with many others damaged. Usually, the only way to tell if a nest is infected is to open and destroy it.

It’s a vivid example of what can happen when a new species arrives on the islands, and finding a way to control this parasite is now a priority.

The Charles Darwin Federation research, led by Dr Birgit Fessl, is focusing on the fly’s life-cycle, to study what factors affect its growth, whether sterile flies could be reared and released into the wild to help control fly numbers, and to see if a pheromone can be developed for use in a fly trap.

Some of the federation research is with the State University of New York, an example of how the the federation attracts expertise for specific projects. But for the finches of the Galapagos, this research is a race against time – and a harsh example of the survival of the fittest.

* You can help: Check out the GNPS website galapagospark.org. Read the CDRS research reports at darwinfoundation.org. Consider volunteering at the research station, or collaborating on research. Visit sustainably, on a SMART-certified boat-based trip.


Mary Mulvihill is a science writer and broadcaster. Her next book, The Ingenious Irish and How They Changed the World, will be published this spring