Slow recovery of Galápagos tortoises

This is a video of two male Galápagos tortoises on the island of Santa Cruz.

From Science News:

Tortoise Genes and Island Beings

Giant Galápagos reptiles on slow road to recovery

Bryn Nelson

Not far from where the Galápagos Islands’ most famous loner spends his days, tourists disembark by the inflatable boatload at a modern dock. A path takes them past marine iguanas sneezing brine from their salt-caked nostrils and striated herons roosting in the red mangroves to the Charles Darwin Research Station in Puerto Ayora on Santa Cruz Island. Within the station, another walkway leads to a natural enclosure sheltering a misanthropic Galápagos tortoise named Lonesome George.

The confirmed bachelor has been a potent icon of conservation ever since he was spotted on remote Pinta Island in 1971 and captured the next year by a group of goat hunters. Now in his 60s, 70s, or beyond—no one really knows—George may have lived more than half his life in exile. He is quite likely the world’s last pure-bred Pinta tortoise, one of the dozen or so closely related species that still lumber around the Galápagos, an archipelago of 19 islands and dozens of islets about 600 miles west of mainland Ecuador.

Last April, however, the surprise discovery that Lonesome George has a genetic cousin on another island cast doubt, in a hopeful way, on George’s one-of-a-kind status. The revelation is just one illustration of how genetics and conservation biology are intermingling to rewrite an oversize reptile’s evolutionary past and to reshape plans to safeguard the remaining tortoise species well into the future.

Revival signs

Estimates of how many giant tortoises remain in the Galápagos vary widely, from less than 10,000 to more than 30,000. Nearly everyone agrees that their prospects are improving, however. “If you look at tortoises today compared to 50 years ago, they are so far ahead of where they used to be,” says Linda Cayot, Lonesome George’s former keeper and a scientific adviser to the Falls Church, Va.-based Galápagos Conservancy.

But tortoise conservation may be a rare bright spot in the struggle to protect the fragile Galápagos ecosystem. The archipelago is so revered for its unique marine and terrestrial life that it was the first World Heritage Site chosen by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). In late June, the organization’s World Heritage Committee added the caveat “in danger” to the designation to draw attention to mounting threats, including a surge in tourism and rising immigration from Ecuador’s mainland. Increased flights and boat traffic have contributed to a 60 percent escalation in introduced species since 2001.

In April, before the UNESCO announcement, Ecuador’s President Rafael Correa acknowledged these concerns by declaring the islands’ ecosystem a national priority for conservation efforts.

Fabled bachelor Lonesome George may finally be a father: here. And here.

4 thoughts on “Slow recovery of Galápagos tortoises

  1. Ecuador president promotes renewable wind energy in Galapagos Islands

    QUITO, Ecuador (AP) — Ecuador’s President Rafael Correa toured a new wind-energy park in the Galapagos Islands on Monday, promoting an initiative to break the pristine archipelago’s dependence on diesel fuel for electricity.

    The three new 800-kilowatt wind turbines will cut diesel fuel imports to the islands by half and mitigate the risk of oil spills in the fragile ecosystem, project manager Jim Tolin said by telephone.

    In January 2001, a diesel tanker struck a reef off the coast of the Galapagos’ eastern San Cristobal island, dumping thousands of gallons of oil into the area and threatening plant and animal species on the islands.

    While favorable winds and ocean currents helped to avert an ecological disaster, the oil spill galvanized international support to break the Galapagos’ dependence on fossil fuels.

    “We’re going to fight to conserve the level of conservation of the ecosystems and biodiversity,” Correa said, according to a statement from the presidential palace.

    The wind turbines, which cost $10.8 million, were built on Galapagos’ San Cristobal island by a partnership of power companies from the United States, Canada, France, Italy, Germany, Japan and Russia.

    Ecuador, together with the United Nations Development Program, plans to eliminate fossil fuels from the energy supply used by the 30,000 residents of the Galapagos’ five inhabited islands, developing a combination of wind, solar and biofuel projects, Tolin told the AP.

    The Galapagos Islands, about 620 miles off Ecuador’s Pacific coast, are home to unique plant and animal species that inspired Charles Darwin’s ideas on evolution.


    Associated Press writer Andrew Whalen in Lima, Peru, contributed to this report.

    AP-ES-02-18-08 1810EST


  2. Galapagos bachelor tortoise struggles to be a dad

    By Alonso Soto – Tue Nov 11, 1:18 pm ET

    QUITO (Reuters) – After stunning conservationists by mating for the first time in decades, a giant tortoise from the Galapagos islands called Lonesome George, who is the last of his kind, still may not become a dad.

    George, a 90-year-old conservation marvel and one of the world’s rarest creatures, mated this year with two females, but 80 percent of the eggs they laid appear infertile.

    The females belong to a different subspecies of giant tortoise.

    A Pinta Island tortoise, George had showed little interest in sex during 36 years in captivity. His new-found libido has raised hopes he could save his subspecies from extinction

    Ecuadorean scientists are studying the eggs and have not ruled out that George could be sterile.

    “We are puzzled. We will leave the eggs in the incubators and try to find answers,” said Washington Tapia, a park official in change of George’s reproduction programme. “It’s too early to say if George is infertile, only genetic research could tell us that.”

    However, hopes is not lost. Scientists said 20 percent of the remaining eggs could still produce offspring.

    George’s keepers placed his eggs in incubators decorated with religious images in hopes of a miracle.

    Scientists are also searching for distant relatives in a nearby island, hoping to find another male for mating.

    Variations in tortoises from different islands were among the features of the Galapagos that helped Charles Darwin formulate his theory of evolution in the 19th century.

    Since then, tortoises have been hunted by pirates and sailors for their meat and their habitat has been eaten away by goats introduced onto the islands. George was the last tortoise found on Pinta in 1971.

    Ecuador has declared the islands at risk and the United Nations says efforts to protect them should continue. Some 20,000 giant tortoises still live on the islands.

    After trying almost everything from artificial insemination to having George watch younger males mate, his keepers had nearly lost hope. At 90 years old George is in his sexual prime and his low libido even raised tabloid-like rumours the 198 pounds (90 kilograms) creature preferred other males.

    (Reporting by Alonso Soto; editing by Alan Elsner and Frank Jack Daniel)


  3. Galapagos scientists mount cameras on tortoises

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    QUITO, Ecuador – Scientists in the Galapagos Islands have installed cameras on the shells of giant tortoises in a study that could shed light on how they live, mate and migrate.

    Galapagos National Park official Washington Tapia says the research project includes two tortoises in captivity and a third in the wild.

    Tapia says scientists hope to learn about tortoises’ nocturnal behaviour, reproductive cycles and seasonal migration.

    He says the three-week study may be expanded if it yields useful information.

    The National Geographic Society, the Charles Darwin Foundation and Germany’s Max Planck Institute are participating.

    The endangered giant Galapagos tortoise is the world’s largest living tortoise.

    May 15, 2009


  4. Pingback: Galapagos volcano eruption | Dear Kitty. Some blog

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