May 27

Everyone remembers their first encounter with a whale shark, just as we all remember that first kiss, but experience has taught me that each encounter is in some manner just as unique as the first time.

When I first began diving the northern islands of Wolf and Darwin in the late 1980´s, we really had no idea of the species that we were going to find. Already Darwin´s Arch had begun to get the reputation as being the best dive site in Galapagos. Within days of my arrival to these distant shores I heard rumours of schooling hammerheads, Galapagos sharks and the strangely named ¨Pez Gato¨ or ¨catfish¨ as the fishermen referred to whale sharks. I later learned that the white spots on a whale shark where likened to those of the jaguar. Perhaps some of the fishermen had spent some of their formative years in the Ecuadorian Amazon jungle!

1 Whale Shark with Creole fish - Jonathan Green

Whale shark with creole fish © Jonathan Green

As time progressed we became aware that the whale sharks were aggregating on a seasonal basis, much more frequent during the cold garua season between June and November. The larger animals were thought to be males, although as with many shark species the female whale sharks are larger on average than males. It was only when we began actively checking for male claspers that it became apparent that most of the sightings were actually of females.

By the beginning of the new millennia I was already convinced that most of those whale sharks that passed by Darwin were not only adult females, but that they were also pregnant! Their distended abdomens appear to confirm this, but how could we get solid scientific evidence? It’s not so easy when they average over 10 m in length and weigh upwards of 20 tons. Researchers working with other large pelagic sharks such as tigers and great whites are able to capture the animal and carry out certain medical procedures in a controlled environment, much as we do with humans. The shark is winched onto the deck and immobilised and although there are strict time limitations, blood samples may be taken and an ultrasound test carried out.

1 Whale Shark - Jonahtan Green

Whale shark © Jonathan Green

This is simply not possible given the size and nature of the whale shark, so how do we propose to do this? Certainly a challenge as this has never been tried before. Blood samples have been taken from captive whale sharks, but never ¨on the fly¨. Picture a diver with no means of propulsion but his fins and leg muscles, chasing down an animal the size of a single decker bus with a 4 knot current in a thousand feet of water! Sound exciting?

Next season we hope to have members from the Georgia Aquarium join us in the field to attempt taking a blood sample from a whale shark in the wild, for the very first time. They already have extensive data of the blood chemistry of captive juvenile female whale sharks that are not pregnant. By comparing the blood chemistry of a female in the wild that we are 90% certain is pregnant, we may be able to determine how close to birthing she is. We also hope to try the worlds first underwater ultrasound using a waterproof prototype unit that is self contained and can record video and still images. Perhaps this will give us an indication of the stage of development of the embryos, as well as numbers of pups. Each encounter with a whale shark provides us with more information.

Alan Purton

Whale shark © Alan Purton

Developing new techniques in order to answer some of the many questions that still remain about their natural history has always held great appeal, for it is that voyage of discovery and the resulting data that may help protect whale sharks in the future, wherever in the world they roam.

If you would like to learn more about the project in Galapagos and how you can get involved, visit whalesharkappeal.co.uk.

Apr 25

As we approached the end of the rocky shore the Galapagos penguins were awaiting our arrival in their elegant black tailcoats. It had been four months since our last trip and we were all excited to be back with the birds. Some approached us cautiously, others jumped into the water, but most appeared quite indifferent to our presence.

Galapagos penguin 2

Galapagos penguin

We were all on board the Queen Mabel for this seven day field trip. The team consisted of staff from both the Charles Darwin Foundation and the Galapagos National Park and, having departed from Puerto Ayora on the island of Santa Cruz the previous evening, we arrived into Caleta Iguana on the southern coast of Isabela on the morning of July 16.

Searching along the rugged lava coastline we came across nests with eggs, chicks and adults. This was a great sign and reflected the fact that the conditions this year had been good for the penguins, the water remaining cool enough to provide an abundance of food. This is not always the case. During El Niño years the water temperatures can rise by several degrees, resulting in the penguins primary food source, sardines, moving away from the area to find cooler waters.

Galapagos penguin  Alex Hearn

Galapagos penguin © Alex Hearn

In the afternoon we drove around to the Marielas Islands off the west coast of Isabela which is home to the largest population of Galapagos penguins. At this site we went about catching individuals so that we could record size and weight, attach ID tags, and collect samples for genetic analysis. We tagged a total of 78 penguins during the trip, 37 of which we had recorded in previous trips. Using this mark-recapture technique allows us to make population size estimates and track trends which are backed up by an annual census that is carried out every September.

Flightless comorant Gordon Chambers

Flightless comorants © Gordon Chambers

Flightless cormorants were next on the agenda. We visited three colonies around Punta Espinoza on Fernandina where we carried out similar catch and release sampling to the penguins. Forty-eight cormorants were caught in total, only 9 of which had not been previously recorded. This was a surprisingly low percentage of new individuals and could signify that the population size is decreasing, knowledge of which highlights the importance of carrying out such regular surveys.

Flightless Cormorants & Research

Gustavo Jiminez investigating a flightless cormorant nest © Pete Oxford

Our last job was to collect the data recorded by special meteorological loggers which help us to understand the micro-climates in some areas. Once this was complete, the team returned home but will be back in December to carry out the final survey of the year.

Since last year the Galapagos Conservation Trust has been running a Galapagos Penguin Appeal in order to be able to provide continued financial support to this essential monitoring project. For more information, please visit www.penguinappeal.org.

Apr 24

Amongst the black lava rocks that line the wave-lashed edges of the Galapagos Islands, the world’s only sea-going lizard can be found.  Amblyrhynchus cristatus, the marine iguana, is a remarkable and well-known endemic reptile of the Galapagos Archipelago.  Though widespread and highly abundant on certain islands, small, declining and genetically distinct populations on other islands are causing concern for conservationists.  One population in particular, found at the very tip of the easternmost island of San Cristobal has garnered attention not only for its critically small size, but also for being highly distinctive in genetic terms.  This ‘Punta Pitt population’, named after its location, is so genetically distinct that we are investigating whether it deserves recognition as a new species or sub-species.

image 3

A marine iguana at Isla Lobos, San Cristobal Island. Larger males, like this one, swim and dive to forage on sub-tidal algae, whereas smaller individuals graze along the intertidal zone

 Since 2012 we have travelled to San Cristobal each year to collect information and new samples that will teach us more about Punta Pitt iguanas.  Before we started, iguanas on San Cristobal were known from only two colonies which seem not to interbreed with one another.  We began in 2012 by sailing around the island and sampling iguanas wherever we encountered them.  We found and sampled many new colonies, all on the west coast.  The entire eastern side of the island, wild and wave-battered, sadly eluded us.

Processing samples in the field at La Galapaguera, where Punta Pitt type iguanas are found

Processing samples in the field at La Galapaguera, where Punta Pitt type iguanas are found

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Weighing a young iguana at Islotte Pitt

In 2013 we returned to San Cristobal, this time to take a closer look at Punta Pitt and investigate the threat posed by feral cats, known to eat marine iguana hatchlings.  We camped at a remote beach for seven weeks.  During this time we fitted four feral cats with GPS-enabled radio collars and followed their movements.  We also collected measurements, samples and photographs of marine iguanas in order to investigate both physical and genetic differences between iguanas on the island.  Though we were only three people at the camp, we were certainly not lonely; the resident mocking birds, as curious as they are comical, watched our every move.  Constant vigilance was needed to prevent the legion of local hermit crabs from stealing all manner of things, and most evenings provided a cascade of newly hatched green turtles on the dunes, making their way down to the sea.

The resident mocking bird, who assumed ownership of all our things at camp (especially any unguarded porridge)

The resident mocking bird, who assumed ownership of all our things at camp (especially any unguarded porridge)

Frigate birds oversee the dish washing at camp

Frigate birds oversee the dish washing at camp

IMG_0188

The finches give our packing boxes a close inspection

Galapagos_April_2013 159

Newly hatched green turtles begin their journey down the dunes to the sea at Salinas beach

We are now in the midst of the final field-season of my PhD.  This season will be shorter, and we intend to find a way to sample the East coast.  This will involve searching for safe landing sites with an experienced fisherman, and a lot of walking along lava rocks.  If we are successful, we will have surveyed and sampled almost the whole island.  Back in Germany, we are working hard to analyse the morphological and genetic data that will tell us whether or not Punta Pitt iguanas are a new species.  In any case, the information we have gathered here in San Cristobal will be a valuable contribution to assessing the conservation status of marine iguanas on this island, where their population is the smallest of any of the Galapagos Islands.

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Punta Pitt type iguanas on the headland at Playa Cafe, the white cross is a temporary mark which indicates a sampled iguana

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Amy MacLeod is in the final year of her PhD at the Technische Universität Braunschweig in Germany. You can contact her by email at ms.amymacleod@gmail.com

Apr 17

Located in the Pacific Ocean, 600 miles off the coast of Ecuador, the volcanic Galapagos Islands are a living laboratory of evolution and a template for conservation for the rest of the world. Consisting of 14 large islands and 120 smaller islets and rocks, and surrounded by the 53,000 square miles of the Galapagos Marine Reserve (a World Heritage Site in its own right), this isolated environment is home to many unique species which vary from island to island. Charles Darwin’s appreciation of this distinctive quality has given Galapagos a special place in history and the development of modern science.

Galapagos Islands Map

Galapagos Islands map

Since Darwin’s time, travellers and settlers have disturbed the Islands’ ecological balance. In some cases, natural habitats and endemic species have been decimated and invasive plants and animals have become established, yet Galapagos remains one of the best-conserved tropical oceanic archipelagos in the world.

1. Bay with Pinacle Rock

Bay with Pinacle Rock, Galapagos © Phyl King

The Galapagos Conservation Trust (GCT) is the only UK charity to work exclusively towards a sustainable future for the Galapagos Islands. Supporting projects in the fields of science, education and culture since 1995, we have been working in programme areas including habitat restoration, invasive species management, sustainable development and education both locally in Galapagos and internationally.

1. Giant Tortoises

Galapagos giant tortoises © Alex Hearn

In the UK, we raise awareness of conservation matters in Galapagos through our network of committed supporters and the media. This year we are set to launch Discovering Galapagos - a brand new bilingual educational resource for use in the UK and Ecuador through which school children, our future conservation ambassadors, will use Galapagos as a template to learn about global conservation issues.

1. Marine Iguana

Galapagos marine iguana © Vanessa Green

Over the next few weeks, we are excited to be sharing with you via our friends at ARKive some of the cutting-edge conservation projects that we are supporting right now in the Islands.

For more information:

GCT Email: gct@gct.org
Website: www.savegalapagos.org
Discovering Galapagos website: www.discoveringgalapagos.org.uk
GCT Blog: http://galapagosblog.org/
GCT Facebook: www.facebook.com/pages/Galapagos-Conservation-Trust/33337561833
GCT Twitter: @galapagossip

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