Apr 29

Wildlife photographer Robin Moore is an award-winning photographer, author and conservationist who recently visited the Goat Islands in Jamaica after hearing about plans to convert the area into a shipment port. Over the next few days we will be posting the story of his visit and detailing his campaign to prevent the loss of this vital habitat and the species found within it.

As I find shade in a small field station in the Hellshire Hills of Jamaica, a leather-brown lizard with bluish thighs lumbers towards me through forest sprouting from jagged limestone. Its tail scatters red dust as it moves in rhythm with a large flap of scaly skin that swings like a metronome underneath its thick jaws. It stops two bodies length from my feet, tilts its head to inspect me with blood-red eyes and, deciding that I probably don’t pose a threat, collapses onto its stomach to take a well-deserved rest. As we sit in silence, I feel privileged to be in the presence of such a beautiful and iconic creature.

The Critically Endangered Jamaican iguana, Cyclura collie, was described as the “rarest lizard in the world” after its rediscovery in 1990. It has become a flagship for conservation in the West Indies and the subject of an international recovery program.

The Critically Endangered Jamaican iguana, Cyclura collie, was described as the “rarest lizard in the world” after its rediscovery in 1990. It has become a flagship for conservation in the West Indies and the subject of an international recovery program

The Jamaican iguana, Cyclura collei, is a Critically Endangered species that has achieved iconic status through a story of chance, perseverance, collaboration and resurgence. At the start of the 20th century the lizard – the largest native land animal in Jamaica – was thought to survive only on Goat Islands, two small islets close to the Hellshire Hills just south of Kingston. After this population disappeared in 1948, the iguana was believed to be extinct. And then, in 1990, a hog hunter chanced upon an iguana in the limestone forests of Hellshire Hills, triggering exploration that revealed around 50 of the “rarest lizards in the world”.

A view from the Hellshire Hills of the Portland Bight Protected Area, containing one of the largest dry limestone forests in the Caribbean and the largest intact mangrove forest in the country, over to Goat Islands.

A view from the Hellshire Hills of the Portland Bight Protected Area, containing one of the largest dry limestone forests in the Caribbean and the largest intact mangrove forest in the country, over to Goat Islands

The iguana promptly became a flagship for conservation in the West Indies and the focus of an international recovery program, and inspired the formation of the IUCN SSC Iguana Specialist Group. A consortium of twelve zoos, spearheaded by the Fort Worth Zoo in Texas, built a facility at Hope Zoo in Kingston to rear eggs and hatchlings brought from the wild. This process of “headstarting” involves rearing hatchling iguanas in the safety of a cage to release them back into the wild once they are big enough to ward off predators – a technique that has worked. Since 1991, the number of recorded nesting females and annual hatchlings has increased over six-fold, with at least 200 individuals in the wild today. The recovery of the Jamaican iguana is, according to the IUCN, “considered one of the greatest success stories in conservation science”.

Jamaican iguana

Young Jamaican iguanas are raised in a facility in Kingston to see them through the most vulnerable months before being released back into the wild – a process known as “headstarting”

Find out more about the Save Goat Islands campaign

Find out more about the Jamaican iguana on ARKive

Find out more about the American crocodile on ARKive

Discover more Jamaican species on ARKive

Find out more about Robin Moore and his photography

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.

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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

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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 23

It’s a well-known fact that Britain is a nation of animal lovers and is particularly obsessed with its wildlife. However, there is one group which often gets overlooked – our piscatorial friends the freshwater fish. Currently there are 54 species of freshwater fish swimming around the United Kingdom, including species like the mullet and flounder which, despite just visiting the estuarine parts of rivers, can be found surprisingly far up from the sea! Non-native species such as the wels catfish, which resembles a giant tadpole, and the topmouth gudgeon are also present in the UK. Despite the UK not suffering from the presence of non-native species as much as other countries such as Spain, the tiny topmouth gudgeon does still cause big problems by outcompeting native fish and spreading disease.

The topmouth gudgeon has been described as Europe’s most invasive fish species

In recent years, the number of native European eels has declined by around 95%. However, 2013 was recorded as one of the best elver runs in recent years, with millions making their way up the Severn. Whilst many may think that floods are not good for fish, flooding helps the European eels get into ponds and lakes where they can grow before returning to the Sargasso Sea with the next floods.

European eel image

The European eel is very long-lived, potentially reaching an impressive 85 years old

There are many other native freshwater fish species which are less well known to the general public and even wildlife enthusiasts (I bet most birders in the UK have never heard of a spined loach or allis shad, for example). One such species is the Arctic charr, a cousin of the trout, which lives in deep glacial lakes mostly in the Lake District and Scottish Lochs. The Arctic charr can also be found in Iceland where it reaches much larger sizes of up to 20lb and, unlike the British populations, goes out to sea like a salmon.

Male and female Arctic charr

So next time you’re walking by your local canal or river, take a look and see what you can spot -  you’ll be surprised by the wealth of fish life beneath the waterline in British waterways.

Video showing 28 species filmed by me: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mjAIUKfYtHA

Jack Perks Photography – Underwater & Wildlife Photographer

Website – http://www.jackperksphotography.com and http://www.btwlfishproject.com/
Twitter – @JackPerksPhoto

Apr 18

Earlier in 2014, sixteen tiny eggs were collected from two small pockets of mangrove forest on the western side of Isabela in the Galapagos Archipelago. These eggs, each the size of the nail on your little finger, belong to one of the rarest and most range restricted birds in the world: the mangrove finch (Camarhynchus heliobates). This small, brown, unassuming bird is one of the famous Darwin’s finches and is today the rarest endemic bird in Galapagos. There are less than 100 mangrove finches alive today and last year there were only 14 breeding pairs. But why are they so critically endangered?

Mangrove Finch © Michael Dvorak

Mangrove Finch © Michael Dvorak

Until recently, one of the main threats to mangrove finches was introduced rats. As generalist carnivores, rats would seek out and feed on the eggs and chicks of finches during the breeding season. Fortunately, rats are now being controlled at the breeding sites but now a much smaller invasive species poses an even larger threat.

Philornis downsi is a species of fly native to Trinidad and Brazil. It was introduced to Galapagos in the 1960s and has now spread to 14 islands within the Archipelago. The adults of this fly are harmless, feeding almost exclusively on nectar, but in their larval stage they are blood-sucking parasites. Female flies lay their eggs in the nests of small breeding land birds. Blind, naked and weak, the mangrove finch hatchlings are an easy target for the fly larvae which feed on their blood, very often resulting in the death of the chick. In 2013, 37% of chicks were killed this way – a massive hit to such a tiny population.

Philornis downsi larvae © A. Muth

Philornis downsi larvae © A. Muth

So why are the scientists removing eggs? In an effort to ensure that the mangrove finch does not become the first bird to go extinct in Galapagos since before Darwin’s time, scientists from the Charles Darwin Foundation and San Diego Zoo are, with support from the Galapagos National Park, taking action. During the mangrove finch breeding season, females lay up to five clutches of eggs but the first few rarely survive. By taking this first clutch, hatching and raising the chicks in captivity, then releasing them back into the wild when they are old enough, the project should result in more individuals being added to the population each year.

Chick being hand fed © Juan Carlos Avila

Chick being hand fed © Juan Carlos Avila

By raising the chicks in captivity, they will have avoided the nest-bound parasites and will have been given a ‘head-start’ in life. 2014 was the first time ‘head-starting’ has been trialled on mangrove finches and it is proving a great success. The sixteen eggs have hatched and the mangrove finch chicks are being released back into the mangroves right now. The future of the mangrove finch is starting to look a little brighter.

2. Remaining mangrove finch habitat 2 - (c)Francesca Cunninghame

Remaining mangrove finch habitat © Francesca Cunninghame

For more information on the project and to keep up to date with progress, please visit www.mangrovefinchappeal.org

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