Galapagos volcano calms, pink iguanas safe


This is a David Attenborough video on Galapagos pink iguanas.

From AFP news agency:

May 26, 2015

Galapagos volcano calms, pink iguanas out of danger

A volcano in the Galapagos Islands whose fiery eruption raised fears for the world’s only population of pink iguanas has calmed, sparing the unique critters from danger, officials said Tuesday.

Wolf volcano is still showing signs of activity but has died down since a tour boat to the area found it breathing tongues of fire, puffing smoke and spilling bright orange streams of lava Monday, said officials at the Galapagos National Park and Ecuador’s Geophysics Institute.

“We haven’t had any more explosions like yesterday’s, which suggests a decrease in activity. However, there are still lava flows, which is normal in these cases,” said Alexandra Alvarado of the Geophysics Institute.

The island, Isabela, is home to the only known pink land iguanas in the world. The species, Conolophus marthae, lives at the foot of the volcano and is listed as critically endangered, with a population of only about 500.

The area, which is uninhabited by humans, is also home to members of a rare species of giant tortoise, Chelonoidis becki.

But the animals live on the northwest side of the volcano, opposite the , and appear to have been spared from harm, a park official said.

“We will likely carry out more flights over the area, but the are safe, and the tortoises, because the lava is flowing down the opposite side,” the official said.

Wolf volcano had last erupted in 1982.

It is one of five volcanoes on Isabela island, the largest in the Galapagos.

The Pacific archipelago, which sits about 1,000 kilometers (600 miles) off the coast of Ecuador, was made famous by Charles Darwin‘s studies of its breathtaking biodiversity, which was crucial in his development of the theory of evolution by natural selection.

UNESCO, which has declared the Galapagos a World Heritage Site, has warned the islands’ environment is in danger from increased tourism and the introduction of invasive species.

The pink iguanas, which were discovered in 1986, were established as a separate species in 2009 after an analysis of their genetic makeup determined they were distinct from their cousins, the Galapagos land iguanas.

Explore further: Fears for pink iguanas as Galapagos volcano erupts

Thankfully, the animals now appear to be in the clear, along with their neighbours, yellow iguanas and giant tortoises. The volcano is still erupting, but it has calmed down and the lava streams are flowing away from where the animals live: here.

Eight to 16 million years ago, highly explosive volcanism occurred in the area of today’s Galapagos Islands. This is shown for the first time by analyses of core samples obtained by the Integrated Ocean Drilling Program in the eastern Pacific Ocean: here.

Galápagos volcano erupts, pink iguana threatened?


This 2012 video is called Sir David Attenborough Reveals The Pink Iguana on Galapagos 3D.

From daily The Guardian in Britain:

Galápagos Islands volcanic eruption could threaten pink iguana species

The Wolf volcano, located at the highest point of the islands that inspired Charles Darwin, has erupted for the first time in more than 30 years

Tuesday 26 May 2015 03.27 BST

A volcano perched atop one of Ecuador’s Galápagos Islands erupted in the early hours of Monday, the local authorities said, potentially threatening a unique species of pink iguanas.

The roughly 1.7km (1.1 mile) high Wolf volcano is located on Isabela Island, home to a rich variety of flora and fauna typical of the archipelago that helped inspire Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution following his 1835 visit.

“The Wolf volcano is not located near a populated area. There is not risk for the human population. This is the only population of pink iguanas in the world,” Galápagos national park said in a posting on Twitter.

The park posted pictures showing lava pouring down the sides of the Wolf volcano, the Galápagos’ highest point, while a dark plume estimated to be 10km (6.4 miles) high, billowed overhead.

Wolf had been inactive for 33 years, according to the park.

The lava is flowing down the volcano’s southern face while the iguanas, officially an endangered species, inhabit the opposite side, the Environment Ministry said, adding it expected the animals to escape harm.

The flow is likely to reach the sea, however, where it could harm marine life, the Geophysics Institute said separately. While populated areas of the island are safe from the eruption, the institute said some of the ash cloud could descend upon them.

In April, unusual seismic activity was also reported at the Sierra volcano on the same Isabela Island, the archipelago’s biggest, where yellow iguanas and giant turtles also live.

The eruption in Ecuador comes on the heels of eruptions in Chile, another South American country located on the so-called Pacific ring of fire.

Galapagos tortoises freed on island where they had become extinct


This video is called World’s BIGGEST TORTOISE! The Giant Galapagos Tortoise, 5 fascinating facts.

From daijyworld.com:

207 giant turtles to be released in the Galapagos

Quito (Ecuador), May 23 (IANS): Administrators at Ecuador’s Galapagos National Park said 207 giant turtles will be released next month on the island of Santa Fe, where the native tortoises died out more than 150 years ago.

The turtles to be set loose on June 5 by the park directors and the Galapagos Conservancy group belong to the species Chelonoidis hoodensis, Spanish news agency Efe reported from the South American nation.

Native to the Galapagos island of Espanola, the Chelonoidis [hoodensis] is morphologically and genetically similar to the original Santa Fe turtle.

The aim of the initiative is to establish “a breeding population that fulfills a function in the ecosystem”, park management said.

“Once the turtles are introduced, a key part of this project is to assess changes in the ecosystem resulting from the presence of these chelonians, and to evaluate the interaction between the turtles and the island’s land iguanas, particularly in the use of shared resources like food,” Danny Rueda, Galapagos ecosystems director, said.

The turtles to be released on Santa Fe range in age from four to 10 and have been raised in captivity.

Around 40 of the turtles will be equipped with a GPS device that will relay data on their movements and activities.

Pirates and whalers depleted the population of turtles in the archipalago, leaving only 15 individuals that allowed park management and the Charles Darwin Foundation to start a breeding programme.

The eradication in 1971 of the goats that had been introduced to the islands contributed greatly to the recovery of the ecosystem.

The Galapagos Islands, located about 1,000 km west of the coast of continental Ecuador, were declared a World Natural Heritage Site in 1978.

Galapagos tortoises eat invasive plants


This 2014 video is called Galapagos Islands RARE ANIMALS – Giant Tortoise.

From Washington University in St. Louis, USA today:

Endangered tortoises thrive on invasive plants

3 hours ago

Most research on the role of introduced species of plants and animals stresses their negative ecological impacts. But are all introduced species bad actors?

In one fascinating case the answer might be no. The iconic giant tortoises of the Galapagos Islands are thriving on a diet heavy on non-native plants. In fact, the tortoises seem to prefer these plants to native ones.

Introduced plants began to increase in abundance on the Galapagos Islands in the 1930s as native highland vegetation was cleared for agriculture, and the rate of introductions has been increasing ever since.

The giant tortoises, for their part, seem headed in the opposite direction. Until the late Pleistocene epoch, they were found on all the continents except Antarctica. Today they survive in only two locations: the Aldabra Atoll in the Indian Ocean, and the Galapagos Archipelago in the eastern Pacific Ocean. In the Galapagos, all of the remaining subspecies are considered vulnerable or endangered.

But now in a surprising turn of events, field research in the Galapagos shows that introduced plants make up roughly half the diet of two subspecies of endangered tortoise. What’s more, these plants seem to benefit the tortoises nutritionally, helping them stay fit and feisty.

The research, published in the March issue of Biotropica, was conducted by Stephen Blake, PhD, an honorary research scientist at Washington University in St. Louis and Fredy Cabrera of the Charles Darwin Foundation in the Galapagos.

“Biodiversity conservation is a huge problem confronting managers on the Galapagos Islands, “Blake said. “Eradicating the more than 750 species of invasive plants is all but impossible, and even control is difficult. Fortunately, tortoise conservation seems to be compatible with the presence of some introduced species.”

Counting bites and bouts

The study was done on the island of Santa Cruz, an extinct volcano that is home to two species of giant tortoise, but also to the largest human population in the Galapagos. Farmers have converted most of the highland moist zones to agriculture and at least 86 percent of the highlands and other moist zones are now degraded by either agriculture or invasive species.

In earlier work, Blake had fitted adult tortoises on Santa Cruz with GPS tags and discovered that they migrate seasonally between the arid lowlands, which “green up” with vegetation only in the wet season, to the meadows of the highlands, which remain lush year-round.

“This struck us as pretty odd, ” he said, “since a large Galapagos tortoise can survive for a year without eating and drinking. This is why sailors would collect the tortoises to serve as a source of fresh meat aboard ship.”

“Why would a 500-pound animal that can fast for a year and that carries a heavy shell haul itself up and down a volcano in search of food?,” Blake said. ” Couldn’t it just wait out the dry season until better times came with the rains?”

The answer, of course, depends on the tortoise’s energy balance. But the only detailed study of tortoise foraging the scientists were aware of had been completed in 1980, “largely before the explosion of introduced and invasive species hit the Galapagos,” Blake said.

Over a period of four years, the scientists followed tortoises in the field and, during 10-minute “focal observations” recorded every bite the tortoises took, the plant species and which part they ate. As an additional measure of the fruits the tortoises were eating, the scientists also counted and identified seeds (sometimes more than 1,000) in tortoise dung piles.

Counts of bites and bouts (defined as all feeding on a given species during the focal observations) showed that tortoises actually spent more time browsing on introduced species than on native ones.

“We weren’t really that surprised,” Blake said. “Consider it from a tortoise’s point of view. The native guava, for example, produces small fruits containing large seeds and a small amount of relatively bitter pulp in a thick skin. The introduced guava is large and contains abundant sweet pulp in a thin, pliable skin.”

The team, which included Sharon Deem, a wildlife veterinarian and epidemiologist at the St. Louis Zoo, also assessed the tortoises’ health and nutritional status, weighing them by suspending them from a spring balance and taking blood samples.

All of the indicators the scientists studied suggest that introduced species in the diet have either a neutral or positive effect on the physical condition of the tortoises. Introduced species may even help tortoises to improve their condition during the dry season.

Since a return to “pristine” conditions is unlikely on the Galapagos, it is heartening to learn that this may not be all bad news for the islands’ charismatic megaherbivores.

Galapagos finches and Charles Darwin


This video says about itself:

Galapagos Finch Evolution — HHMI BioInteractive Video

26 August 2014

The Galápagos finches remain one of our world’s greatest examples of adaptive radiation. Watch as evolutionary biologists Rosemary and Peter Grant detail their 40-year project to painstakingly document the evolution of these famous finches. Their pioneering studies have revealed clues as to how 13 distinct finch species arose from a single ancestral population that migrated to the islands 2 million to 3 million years ago.

Use this video as a supplementary resource for lesson plans centered on teaching evolution. The video expertly illustrates the effects of natural selection on Galápagos finch populations.

Free classroom resources supporting this short film can be found here.

By Frank Nicholas, The Conversation:

April 3, 2015

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 , 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.

Unfortunately for Darwin, the closer he examined the available evidence on Galapagos finches, the more confusing the picture became. This was partly because the specimens available to him were not sufficiently labelled as to their island of collection.

Presumably, it was his doubt about the available evidence that resulted in Darwin making no mention of Galapagos finches in any edition of Origin of Species.

Why, then, do people now label them as “Darwin’s finches”, and why are these finches now regarded as a classical textbook example of his theory of evolution by natural selection?

Paragons of evolution

Despite not mentioning Galapagos finches, Darwin did make much use of evidence from other Galapagos species (especially mockingbirds) in Origin of Species.

As the influence of Origin of Species spread, so too did the evolutionary fame of the Galapagos Islands. Increasingly, other biologists were drawn into resolving the questions about finches that Darwin had left unanswered.

By the end of the 19th century, Galapagos finches were among the most studied of all birds. By the mid-20th century, there was abundant evidence that Galapagos finches had evolved to fill the range of ecological niches available in the archipelago – a classic example of evolution by adaptive radiation.

Beak size and shape were key attributes in determining adaptation to the different types of food available. In the second half of the 20th century, classic research by Princeton University’s Peter and Rosemary Grant provided evidence of quite strong natural selection on beak size and shape.

Under the hood

New light has also been shed on the evolution of Darwin’s finches in a paper recently published in Nature. In this latest research, the entire genomes of 120 individual birds from all Galapagos species plus two closely related species from other genera were sequenced.

The work was done by a team led by Swedish geneticist Leif Andersson, with major input from Peter and Rosemary Grant, who are still leading experts on the finches.

Comparison of sequence data enabled them to construct a comprehensive evolutionary tree based on variation across the entire finch genome. This has resulted in a revised taxonomy, increasing the number of species to 18.

The most striking feature of the genome-based tree is the evidence for matings between different populations, resulting in the occasional joining of two branches of the tree. This evidence of “horizontal” gene flow is consistent with field data on matings of finches gathered by the Grants.

A comparison of whole-genome sequence between two closely related groups of finches with contrasting beak shape (blunt versus pointed) identified at least 15 regions of chromosomes where the groups differ substantially in sequence.

Unity of life

The most striking difference between the two groups was observed in a chromosomal region containing a regulatory gene called ALX1. This gene encodes a peptide that switches other genes on and off by binding to their regulatory sequences.

Like other such genes, ALX1 is crucially involved in embryonic development. Indeed, mutations in ALX1 in humans and mice give rise to abnormal development of the head and face.

It is an extraordinary illustration of the underlying unity of all life on Earth that Leif Andersson and his colleagues have shown that the ALX1 gene also has a major effect on beak shape in finches, and that this gene has been subject to natural selection during the evolution of the Galapagos finches.

If Darwin were alive today, he would be astounded at the power of genomics tools such as those used in generating the results described in this paper. He would also be delighted to see such strong evidence not only in support of evolution but also in support of one of its major forces, .

The evolution of birds on the Galapagos Islands, the cradle of Darwin’s theory of evolution, is a two-speed process. Most bird species are still diversifying, while the famous Darwin’s finches have already reached an equilibrium, in which new species can only appear when an existing one becomes extinct. This finding expands the classical theory on island evolution put forward in the 1960s: here.

Rare tortoise babies born on Galapagos island


This video says about itself:

5 March 2015

Baby tortoises were born on the Island of Pinzon, something that likely hasn’t happened since 1880. CNN’s Natalie Allen has this story.

From Associated Press:

Scientists cheered by birth of Galapagos tortoises in wild

Posted: Mar 14, 2015 5:33 AM Updated: Mar 17, 2015 8:36 AM

By GONZALO SOLANO

QUITO, Ecuador – For the first time in a century, babies of the endangered Pinzon giant tortoise have been born in the wild in the Galapagos islands, scientists said.

An expedition in 1970 found only 19 adult tortoises on the archipelago’s Pinzon island, averaging 70 years old, so scientists removed them to start a captive breeding program on Santa Cruz island. The program produced juveniles that were transplanted back to the island, which is the only place the species is found.

Danny Rueda, who is in charge of conservation and restoration of ecosystems in the Galapagos, told The Associated Press that in December six infant Pinzons were found to have been born on the island.

He said there are now 650 juvenile and adult tortoises on Pinzon.

Rueda said the reintroduction of the tortoise was helped by the 2012 campaign to eradicate rats that infested Pinzon and other islands in the archipelago after being introduced long ago by passing ships. The rats prevented the reproduction by tortoises and other species.

“Finding the six baby tortoises tells us that the process of eradicating rats succeeded,” he said.

“We have begun to see that the ecosystem has begun to restore itself” on Pinzon, Rueda added. “It is a process that takes a long time. But the first step is the birth of tortoises in their natural habitat, which a century ago did not happen.”

The Galapagos, an Ecuadorean territory in the Pacific about 1,000 kilometers (620 miles) from the mainland, was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1978 because of its unique land and marine animals and vegetation. That flora and fauna helped inspire Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution.

See also here.

Birdwatching in Ecuador, Galapagos islands


This video says about itself:

21 March 2011

A selection of clips from a birding trip in Northwest Ecuador— the Andes Introtour with Tropical Birding (tropicalbirding.com), guided by Andres Vasquez. Taken with a Canon 7D and 400mm f/5.6L lens.

From the Montana Standard in the USA:

Birding Ecuador, Galapagos Islands

March 08, 2015 12:15 am

Birding in Montana is a lot of fun, but when you have 371 of the 428 species, you don’t often find a new one. Last year I did not get a single new life bird in Montana. My life list sat at 1,466 in 2014, and my goal to see one quarter of the world’s birds or 2,588 species remained stagnant.

The best place to find the most birds is along the Equator in both South America and Africa. I have birded South Africa, Kenya, and Belize in Central America, so it was time to bird South America. My wife, Laura, and I and birding friends from Helena chose Ecuador as it is fairly close, safe, and the currency is the U.S. dollar.

The potential birds to see in Ecuador are nearly unlimited with 1,576 species recorded there. In comparison, the lower 48 states have 920 species, and Ecuador is the size of Nevada. We chose to bird the northwest quarter of Ecuador as that area has a high concentration of different species in a relatively small area. We estimated that we had the possibility of seeing around 600 species, but realistically in 14 days of birding we knew we would not see that many. We were extremely pleased that we were able to see 376 species of which 312 were life birds. That is the largest number of life birds I have ever recorded in a single trip. South Africa netted 275 life birds, Kenya 216, and Belize 99.

We flew into the capital city of Quito which lies in a valley of the Andean mountains at 6,500 feet. Quito is a modern city of three million inhabitants. Ecuador has a population of 15 million, with 70 percent of the population living along the west coast of the country in more hospitable climates. The Andean Mountains are much cooler and wetter than the coast.

LAS GRALARIAS RESERVE

From Quito we traveled to the West Andean Mountains and stayed at Las Gralarias Reserve. The reserve is named after the genus of the Giant Antpitta, a bird first photographed there about 20 years ago. The 1,063-acre reserve was purchased by an American, Jane Lyons, in 1999. Lyons and her nonprofit organization restored and reclaimed the area and it is now host to no less than 266 bird species in 44 families. Of these species 30 are endemic (found only at that location) and 13 are considered to be at risk.

At Las Gralarias we were provided with housing, meals, English-speaking Ecuadorian guides and transportation for 11 days. Each day we would bird from around 6 am to 6 pm, then eat dinner, go to bed and rest for the next day’s adventure. We crossed the Equator at least twice daily. Las Gralarias is at 8,500 feet in the Cloud Forest, and days were cool, (in the 60s) wet, and foggy. Nights were cold as none of the buildings has heat, but blankets on the beds made the difference. Annual rainfall in this region is 150 inches, and some years have accumulated as much as 400 inches. It is known as one of the wettest areas on the earth. Thus we birded with raingear and rubber boots. The small town of Mindo, just below Las Gralarias Reserve in the valley, is known as the birding capital of the world. Paintings of birds are everywhere on buildings, brick walls, and football stadiums.

BIRDING BY ELEVATION

Rather than bird different habitats as you do in Montana, such as grasslands, riparian, and coniferous forest, you bird by elevation. Each 1,000-foot change in elevation brings a new diversity of birds to observe. While in the Western Andean Mountains we birded from 4,000 to 15,000 feet finding different birds at each elevation.

There are 131 species of hummingbirds in Ecuador and they are everywhere. We found 44 species, which were most of the species in the area that we birded. Tanagers are another large family of birds in Ecuador. In Montana we have recorded three species of tanagers. Ecuador has 148 species and we found 53 species. We also spent two days in the Eastern Andean Mountains rounding out our birding of the northwest portion of the country.

In the east, we spent more time at higher elevations near a volcanic mountain that was covered with snow above 20,000 feet. We birded the steep grasslands to 17,000 feet. One of the highlights of the trip was finding the Rufous-breasted Seed-snipe, a grouse type bird, at 17,000 feet in high winds, with the rain coming vertically across the stunted and cushion plant terrain of this elevation. Finding the Seed-snipe was one of the wettest and coldest birding experiences I have had in a foreign country.

Rare and hard-to-find birds that we observed and photographed included: Andean Condor, Aplomado Falcon, Andean Lapwing, Cock-of-the-Rock, Rufescent Screech-owl, Oilbird, Choco Trogon, Giant Antpitta, Long-wattled Umbrellabird, Scarlet-rumped Cacique and Slaty Finch. Photographs of several of these are included with this article.

GALAPAGOS ISLANDS

We next flew to the Galapagos Islands and stayed for our last five days of birding. Politically, the islands are part of Ecuador, but are separated by 800 miles of the Pacific Ocean. The flora and fauna are unique. Islands never have large numbers of bird species, but many species are endemic and Galapagos is no exception. A chain of 12 volcanic and intrusive lava flow islands comprise the Galapagos. Many of the islands are unhabituated, and only three have roads. Ninety-five percent of the islands are within the national park system and are highly regulated to prevent nonnative species from invading and endangering the natural flora and fauna.

We flew to Baltra Island from Quito via the port city of Quayaquil. Baltra consists of desert cactuses and an airport. Four planes a day come and go, exchanging 800 visitors daily. From the airport you are transported by bus to the edge of the tiny island. Here, you transfer to a ferry going to the main island of Santa Cruz, which has three small communities. The largest city is Puerto Ayora on the opposite end of the island some 22 miles from the ferry landing.

In all, Galapagos has a population of 14,000 of which the majority work either in the tourist or fishing industries. We stayed in Puerto Ayora in a six-room hotel that served breakfast. On Santa Cruz there are around 70 bird species with the total species count for all of the islands at 149.

However, only 60 bird species are year-round residents. The rest are migrants, and most of those are shorebirds. Here we birded, using local naturalist guides, pelagic boat trips, and on our own. We were able to find 61 species of which 24 are endemic to the Galapagos Islands.

Land and aquatic lizards and tortoises are another unique feature of the Galapagos. Often we would see two- to three-foot lizards crawling along the sand as we birded. In the wetter highlands, we would encounter what first looked like large rocks, only they would get up and move. These tortoises were three to four feet across the shell and between 100 to 150 years old.

FAMOUS FOR FINCHES

Galapagos is famous for the 14 species of finches upon which Darwin based his theory of evolution, with his 1835 voyage. We were fortunate enough to find all nine finch species that are on Santa Cruz Island. Other endemics that were life birds were Swallow-tailed gull, the only nocturnally feeding gull in the world, Lava Gull, and Galapagos Dove, Mockingbird, and Flycatcher.

A bonus to the birding on the Galapagos Islands was the fresh seafood in the open air restaurants at reasonable prices.

In all, we observed 430 birds of which 337 were life birds. I also added nine bird families to my list. I now have seen 153 of the 254 bird families in the world or 65 percent. In terms of cost, we spent less than $35 a bird, which is reasonable and well worth the time and effort. We pushed hard for three weeks to find 430 species, but we had to rest up for a week after we got back. We have a personal slogan for our retirement years, “When the nest is empty go birding,” and that we did. I know many of my readers enjoy watching birds and I hope you are able to experience birding in a foreign country; it truly is a memorable experience.

Now, I’m studying the birds of Australia for my next big trip. Australia’s has 780 species, of which I have only seen 121. If I’m fortunate I should be able to add another 350 to my life list and be a lot closer to my goal of 25 percent of the world’s birds. Who knows? Maybe I’ll be fortunate and even get to 26 percent!

Galápagos birds expand their eating habits. A new ecological concept called “interaction release” explains how certain island birds developed a taste for flowers: here.