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Which endemic species face extinction in the Galapagos?

March 26, 2024
topic:Mass Extinction
tags:#Galapagos, #endangered species, #Ecuador, #biodiversity, #conservation
located:Ecuador
by:Nour Ghantous
Off the coast of Ecuador, the Galapagos Islands are battling invasive species and worsening climate events that threaten the Islands' unique biodiversity, including many species that are not found anywhere else in the world.

Born of volcanic activity and set at the confluence of three ocean currents, the Galapagos Islands became the crucible of Charles Darwin's groundbreaking theory of natural selection in 1835. Today, they remain a living museum, showcasing the unique biodiversity that arises from isolation and evolutionary drive​​.

The islands boast an extraordinary array of creatures, many of which cannot be found anywhere else on the planet. Approximately 80 per cent of the land birds, 97 per cent of the reptiles and land mammals and more than 30 per cent of the plants in the Galapagos are endemic, thriving in a marine reserve rich in biodiversity due to the meeting of nutrient-rich soil and ocean currents​​. 

The archipelago's blend of endemic and endangered species offers unparalleled insights into ecosystem fragility and interconnectivity. In response to the growing threats, recent conservation efforts and robust community engagement highlight the global imperative to protect these islands. 

Endemic and Endangered in the Galapagos

Galapagos Penguins

The Galapagos Penguin is the only penguin species found north of the equator and in the Galapagos. An emblem of resilience, it is currently threatened by pollution, bycatch and climate change. 

Introduced species, such as dogs, carry diseases that can also spread to the penguins, and cats pose a threat as predators.

Furthermore, past strong El Niño events have caused mortalities of up to 77 per cent, with dramatic declines in prey species and reduced breeding success.

With only around 1,200 remaining, their survival is precarious, demanding urgent conservation efforts to mitigate the effects of climate change on marine ecosystems​​.

Dr Dee Boersma's 2010 initiative, funded by the Galapagos Conservancy, involved hand-chiselling 120 sheltered nesting sites in volcanic rock.

After the 2016 El Niño event, Doctor Boersma's team counted just one juvenile penguin among over 300 adults, with adults in algae-ridden feathers showing signs of malnutrition. Yet by 2017-2018, juvenile penguins accounted for 60 per cent of all penguins observed, all in healthy condition.

They found that 25 per cent of all observed penguin breeding on the islands now occurs in these man-made nests. 

Flightless Cormorants

The Flightless Cormorant, also known as the Galapagos Cormorant, is the only one of 29 species of Cormorant that can't fly. Natural selection led to the species no longer having functional wings as they had very few land predators. Yet they are now left at a disadvantage as the threat of fishing has left them endangered. Fishing depletes the cormorants' food supply and poses a direct danger, as many birds get caught in nets and fishing gear.

Just a thousand breeding pairs remain on Earth, partly due to fishing threats and El Nino, which they are particularly vulnerable to due to their limited range - found only on two islands.

Galapagos Tortoises

The 13 species of giant Galapagos tortoise are famous for their massive size. Though they are known to live to 175 years old, they aren't so lucky nowadays. 

Tortoise numbers in the Galapagos have declined from over 250,000 in the 16th century to a low of around 15,000 today. This decline was caused by the subspecies' overexploitation for meat and oil, habitat clearance for agriculture and the introduction of non-native animals to the islands, such as rats, goats and pigs.

At least two species of giant tortoise, including the Pinta tortoise, are believed to have become extinct. The last known survivor of this species, Lonesome George, passed away in June 2012.

The giant tortoise education programme, a partnership between the Galapagos Conservation Trust and the Charles Darwin Foundation, has engaged approximately 25 per cent of the local youth in field-based educational experiences. It teaches them about tortoise conservation and inspires them to join conservation efforts.

Marine Iguanas

The marine iguana is the only lizard in the world that can live and forage at sea. Unique to the islands, marine iguanas are another species facing environmental challenges. They are hunted by human-introduced dogs and cats and are susceptible to El Nino, which has wiped out up to 90 per cent of the species.

Protecting their coastal habitats is critical for their survival, as they are vulnerable to the impacts of sea-level rise and pollution.

The iguanas are listed as endangered on the IUCN Red List. They rely on symbiotic bacteria to help them digest the algae they eat. Without these bacteria, they can starve to death even with stomachs full of suitable food.

In 2001, an oil tanker ran aground near San Cristóbal island, causing an ecological disaster. The leaked oil spread to neighbouring islands and washed up around the Marine Iguana colonies. In Santa Fe, over 60 per cent of iguanas in one colony died from exposure to this oil; their internal bacteria died, and they starved. 

The threat of marine pollution is ongoing, and recent studies are investigating the potential impact of marine microplastics on the fragile Marine Iguana.

Mangrove Finches

The mangrove finch is one of Darwin's 17 species and one of the rarest birds in the world. With only around 100 individuals alive today, it is the most endangered bird in the archipelago.

The species is facing extinction due to habitat loss, which is made worse by climate change. Additionally, invasive species like predatorial black rats and a parasitic fly, Philornis downsi, have further contributed to their decline. The fly's larvae feed on the blood of nestlings, frequently causing their death.

Habitat restoration and captive breeding programmes, namely the Mangrove Finch Project run by the Charles Darwin Foundation (CDF) and supported by the Galapagos Conservation Trust, have prevented their extinction.

Local and International Efforts

Through innovative educational programmes, the youth of the Galapagos Islands are becoming active participants in conservation.

For instance, local students have had hands-on experiences with marine life, such as tagging and studying juvenile sharks, fostering a deep understanding and respect for their natural surroundings​​.

In a monumental effort dubbed the Galapagos Initiative, the Galapagos Conservancy has been pivotal in recent conservation milestones. The Conservancy supports over 100 conservation initiatives focusing on environmental preservation and promoting sustainable practices among the local communities, emphasising the importance of integrating conservation with community development​​. 

Through collaborations with the Galapagos National Park Directorate, they conducted ten expeditions across Isabela, Española, Santa Fe, and Fernandina Islands in the first half of 2023. These initiatives, aimed at understanding and protecting iconic species such as the Galapagos tortoises, have made significant strides towards conservation goals.

One expedition completed a census of tortoise populations covering 90 per cent of the southern volcanoes of Isabela, which is critical for their ongoing conservation and management. 

In March last year, another expedition on Española Island released 86 juvenile tortoises of the Chelonoidis hoodensis species. These individuals, born in captivity, were reintroduced into their natural habitat to strengthen existing populations and increase genetic diversity. Giant tortoises on Española are crucial as they influence the structure of plant communities, which support species like albatrosses that require open areas for takeoff and landing. 

The Galapagos Conservation Trust has outlined a strategic vision for 2023-2025, focusing on island restoration and ocean protection. Their efforts include removing invasive species, reducing human impacts and fostering community engagement to ensure sustainable development alongside nature preservation. 

Another project involves restoring Floreana Island, including eradicating invasive rats and cats and reintroducing 12 locally extinct species.

The Glasgow COP26 summit in 2021 introduced new protective measures for the Galapagos and surrounding marine areas. These initiatives recognise the need for interconnected marine reserves and highlight the archipelago's global ecological significance, setting a precedent for international cooperation in conservation​​.

In the same year, Leonardo DiCaprio backed a coalition of conservation organisations to pool USD 43 million to restore the Galapagos ecosystems in a massive collaborative effort, in a commitment that underscores the global community's role in preserving the Galapagos' irreplaceable natural heritage.

Image by Simon Berger.

Article written by:
6CD29B1A-B356-4274-B875-1585B2211EEE
Nour Ghantous
Associate Editor
Ecuador
Embed from Getty Images
Born of volcanic activity and set at the confluence of three ocean currents, these islands became the crucible of Charles Darwin's groundbreaking theory of natural selection in 1835.
Embed from Getty Images
The Galapagos Penguin is the only penguin species found north of the equator and in the Galapagos. An emblem of resilience, it is currently threatened by pollution, bycatch and climate change.
Embed from Getty Images
The Flightless Cormorant. Just a thousand breeding pairs remain on Earth, partly due to fishing threats and El Nino, which they are particularly vulnerable to due to their limited range.
Embed from Getty Images
The 13 species of giant Galapagos tortoise are famous for their massive size. Though they are known to live to 175 years old, they aren't so lucky nowadays.
Embed from Getty Images
The marine iguana is the only lizard in the world that can live and forage at sea.
Embed from Getty Images
The mangrove finch is one of Darwin's 17 species and one of the rarest birds in the world. With only around 100 individuals alive today, it is the most endangered bird in the archipelago.
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