Monday, November 22, 2010

Application done...finally

I just finished what has turned out to be a 2-month process of writing a 6-page application for an NSF graduate research fellowship. I have never spent so much time on so few pages! But I think what I was able to produce in the end is something that I can be proud of, no matter what the outcome. The fellowships are very competitive, but very rewarding if you get one (3 years of full funding!). I spent a lot of time going back and forth over what I wanted to propose...at first I wanted to focus on theoretical movement ecology, but I made the decision (the right one I think) to propose a project based on my longtime interest of how plants and animals interact to create communities. While on Pinta, I became very interested in the interaction between the tortoises and the giant cacti, and I want to see if the non-native tortoises create a seed dispersal pattern that is similar to that created by Pinta tortoises in the past. Using the current cactus distribution pattern on Pinta and on islands that have extant native tortoises, I hope to be able to determine how much the loss of tortoises on Pinta has disturbed the seed dispersal and cactus distribution patterns, and then model how long it will take for the introduced tortoises to restore those patterns.

Anyway, I felt quite happy and relieved to have it all done with this morning, but now I'm actually feeling a bit of a loss. The writing process for this application was quite difficult (it's actually harder to cram everything into fewer pages than to be allowed to expand on every detail), but I really enjoyed thinking about these ideas so intensely. I have to assume that I won't get the fellowship, and if I don't, I probably won't be able to pursue the research that I proposed. I suppose it's a good sign that I'm still so interested in the questions that surround Pinta that I don't want to stop thinking about them!

-Elizabeth, Syracuse

Monday, November 8, 2010

Soiree and such

About a week ago James and I went down to New York City to attend a sort of fundraiser event held by the Galapagos Conservancy. A very different environment for me: dressing up and going to a penthouse apartment on Park Avenue and rubbing elbows with the upper echelons of society. James and I were a little out of our element, but I think we performed well, and it was good to see that other side of the coin of doing international conservation work.

A story on Project Pinta was printed today in the Syracuse Post Standard. You can read it here.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Animation!

Go to this site to watch a very cool animation of the tortoises moving across Pinta!

I just think it's so cool to see them moving in relation to one another - much better than just a bunch of points on a screen. I especially like watching Wilman move down to the Southeast and then Wacho following him. I remember when Ben and I observed the two of them together in the same beautiful cactus grove.

-Elizabeth, Syracuse

Monday, October 4, 2010

Update on Mario, Javier, and Freddy

Here's an update on the 3 tortoises that have satellite tags on them - Mario, Javier, and Freddy. This first image shows their total track since the introduction (the black point). Mario is in yellow, Javier in pink, Freddy in blue.



------------------------------------------------------------------------------------
Now here's just the segment of the track for where they've been going for the past couple of months (August 9 - October 4).



You can see that Freddy seems to have settled down up in the higher elevations, while Mario and Javier continue to wander. I suppose this could mean that most of the rest of the tortoises are still wandering, too. No way to know until I go back, though!

-Elizabeth, Syracuse

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Hello world

My friend is starting a scientific blog of his own, and his questions about the "blogosphere" prompted me to actually look at all of the different options that blogger provides. I found this stats thing that will tell you where the ip addresses are that have been viewing the blog. Most of the views are from the US and Ecuador (makes sense), but there are also quite a few from such far-flung places as Austria, Russia, India, and Indonesia, just to name a few! This probably comes as no surprise to people who are fully committed to the digital age, but to me it is amazing that people on the other side of the planet have read about what we're doing on a tiny island in the Pacific. I have to admit, it's pretty cool. Thanks for reading everyone!

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Reminiscing...

I have recently given a couple of talks here at ESF about our time spent on Pinta, and I will give another talk at the Rosamund Gifford Zoo in a couple of weeks. Usually I'm very nervous about talking in front of a large group of people - the qualities that make one enjoy spending time on an uninhabited island are not necessarily the qualities that make one good at public speaking. But when I'm talking about Pinta and the tortoises, after an initial moment of nervousness, I'm completely in my element. It's even fun! Of course, it helps that I have such an interesting and charismatic subject.

Anyway, I thought I'd (finally) post some pictures that bring back fond memories.


An inquisitive Galapagos Flycatcher...
------------------------------------------------------------------------------------




Wilman exploring the lava field as a concerned Ben looks on.
------------------------------------------------------------------------------------




Our favorite chick (and protective parent).
------------------------------------------------------------------------------------




Pancho y Pancha.
------------------------------------------------------------------------------------




Wildlife photography is easy in the Galapagos!
------------------------------------------------------------------------------------




Mmm...peaches.
------------------------------------------------------------------------------------




Garrison was such a dedicated cactus pad counter.
------------------------------------------------------------------------------------




Don't miss those male seal lions too much...
------------------------------------------------------------------------------------




I miss the tortoises the most (this is Pedro).

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Some preliminary results

Here are some preliminary results that I wrote up for a grant proposal that James and I submitted to the Galapagos Conservancy. We hope to go back to Pinta next summer to check on the tortoises and the changes in the plant community. With Matt Buff, web guru, we made a cool animation of the tortoises moving over the landscape - look for that soon on the Galapagos Conservancy website.

Tortoises dispersed quickly over the island, eventually covering over 815 hectares (minimum convex polygon area), or about 23% of the vegetated area of Pinta, within the first two months after introduction. Males covered more ground than females with the average maximum displacement from the introduction point over a two month period being 1173 110 meters for males versus 517 114 meters for females. Most of the tortoises do not seem to have settled into a “home range;” they are still making extended movements over short periods of time. In short, they are still exploring the island. This is consistent with other tortoise introduction efforts during which the tortoises did not settle into consistent home ranges until several months had passed after the introduction (Tuberville et al. 2005, Field et al. 2007).

Despite their exploratory behavior, the tortoises do appear to be making habitat choices, especially on an island-wide scale. The most striking example of this is the difference in habitat preference between tortoises with domed carapaces and tortoises with saddle-backed carapaces. Several of the tortoises have made more-or-less linear forays up the elevation gradient towards the peak of the island. The only tortoises that have exhibited this behavior and surpassed 450 meters of elevation have a domed carapace. This result is intuitive as the domed phenotype is more typically associated with higher elevations and habitats dominated by ferns, Zanthoxylem, and Chiococca. The saddle-backed tortoises typically did not exceed an elevation of 450 meters, which elevation corresponds to the limit of the cactus elevation gradient.

The release process appeared to involve no trauma to the tortoises; they appeared to display normal behavior almost immediately after the introduction. We spent 76 hours observing tortoise behavior. Tortoises spent, on average, 25% of the day feeding, which is comparable to other tortoise time activity budgets (Nagy and Medica 1986, Lagarde et al. 2008). We observed tortoises feeding on 28 plant species, but the most preferred species were Opuntia cactus, grasses, and forbs like Lantana and Justicia. Tortoises associated strongly with the cactus in their habitat within the first two weeks after introduction, being more likely to be within 2 meters of a cactus than a random point in the vicinity (x2 = 9.64, df = 1, p = 0.0019). Tortoises fed on fallen adult cactus pads, and also pushed down juvenile cactus to eat the trunks. A few individuals who found recently dead, large, adult cacti did not move from the cactus for weeks, feeding on all of the fallen pads.

While most of the cactus in the introduction area were not fruiting, a few tortoises that moved to the western “saddle” area of the island found fruiting cactus in abundance. We found cactus seeds in these tortoises’ feces, and found seeds of other species in 35% of the fecal samples that we dissected. This suggests the restoration of tortoise-associated seed dispersal phenomenon on Pinta. The tortoises created disturbance in the habitat by making trails as they travelled across the landscape and large swaths of matted down vegetation when they settled into a feeding area. We also observed other normal behaviors like bed-making and mating attempts, suggesting that the tortoises are adapting to their new environment.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Back to the desk

While I've been doing lots of computer work since returning to the US about a week ago, today was the first day that I tried to spend the entire day in my office, sitting at my desk, staring at computer screens... One of the strangest and, I think, most difficult aspects of being a field biologist is that you have to lead this double life: part-time rugged adventurer, part-time intellectual desk jockey. The transitions (field to desk, desk to field) often feel like a moderate case of whiplash with a concussion on top of it. Your body and psyche are forced to move in a completely different direction, and you feel dazed and unsure of yourself. It takes a little time to dig in.

Needless to say, I felt a bit antsy in the office today, but I am excited about working with all of the data we collected. Movement ecology is heading in many interesting directions these days, and I hope to contribute.

-Elizabeth, Syracuse, NY

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Movements

A few images to give an idea of where the tortoises were going. The blue outline on the map of Pinta shows the extent of all the tortoise movements on Pinta during the time that we were there. That´s only 2 months and they´ve covered a huge area so far. The green area is where we conducted vegetation and cactus sampling. The red dot is the spot where all of the tortoises were introduced - about half of the tortoises stayed near that point (mostly within the green rectangle) and about half went out to far flung places.


Here are movement patterns of a few of the tortoises that I´ve mentioned. Each dot represents an hourly location starting from the introduction point (red dot). Klever, the tortoise who we had a hard time finding and then had to cut his logger off in the end, has the yellow dots that move straight up towards the top of the island. Wilman, who spent some time in the lava field, is in purple. Milton, who I put up a picture of trying to mount another tortoise, is in green. Johannah, a female who has stayed near the introduction point like most of the other females, is in red overlapping with Milton.




Sunday, July 25, 2010

After


The computers here in Puerto Ayora tend to stretch out the pictures, so I will wait to post more pictures with another computer, but I thought it important to post this ¨after¨ picture of the crew (courtesy of Francisco). Smiling faces all around, and you can hardly tell how battered our bodies are. Just looking at it fills me with nostalgia and longing. Half the crew (Francisco and Ben) left the Galapagos this morning, which was a very sad moment for me. Many complicated emotions involved when you have had such an intense experience with a small group of people and gone through so many trials together.
Elizabeth, Santa Cruz

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Return to civilization

After an interesting day-long boat ride back from Pinta (thrilling for some: tropicbirds, albatross, jumping sting rays!; agony for others: sea sickness, and cold, wet winds), we are back in the Galapagos brand of civilization. As a person who can easily experience culture shock, this was a shock I should have been prepared for, but wasn´t. All the noise, the people, the smells and lights - my brain did not like it at all and at moments I felt paralyzed. On the positive side, it is good to see some friendly faces, and Ecuadorian 3.5% beer has never tasted so good. Now for some time on Santa Cruz to get used to reality again before returning to the U.S., and also to begin the process of understanding all of the hard-won data that we collected on Pinta. As Pinta faded away from us yesterday, I thought of the tortoises, alone at last.

I´ll update with pictures soon...the modem has been glitchy and did not allow it for a while.

-Elizabeth, Santa Cruz

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Goodbye Pinta!

Modem on the fritz, one last telegraph from Pinta. Leave tomorrow, two months have gone so fast. Sad to leave the animals and freedom, but civilization has its appeal too. It will be strange to see the island fade into the distance. Goodbye Pinta!

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Good news, bad news

The good news is that we were able to successfully download the information from all of the loggers that were damaged (the screws covering the download port had been rammed off, and the ports were clogged with debris). With much careful attention with a needle and in one case even taking a knife to the connecting cable, we were able to make the connection on the 5 damaged loggers. The bad news is that although we have managed to get the data from 19 of the 20 tortoises with loggers, Floreana (the last logger tortoise) has gone missing! Last we heard from her a couple of weeks ago, she was moving quickly to the northeast. Now there is silence from her, even from our best listening places – the peak and the line of calderas to the east of the peak. We’re able to hear just about everybody from the peak, which leads us to believe that something might have happened to her logger. Or she’s hiding in a crevasse somewhere. Time is running out and we may not find her…

-Elizabeth, Pinta

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Free Klever

Yesterday Francisco and I hunted down Klever to free him from his logger. The logger radio had been giving a triple beep signal, which means that the battery is dying! It’s supposed to last almost three years, and it’s been only 2 months…I hope this one was just a dud and the rest will keep working. Klever has moved around the peak now to the northeast. It took us most of the day to get to him and then almost an hour to cut the logger off, resulting in a broken leatherman and a traumatic experience for all parties. I think a hacksaw will be required for the future. But we got it off, along with his temperature datalogger, and now he is truly a free tortoise. It was kind of strange watching him walk away into the thick of the forest, knowing that I would never see him again.

-Elizabeth, Pinta

Tortoise Love

Here is one of the roving mate-searchers that I mentioned in the previous post…attempting a perpendicular mount.



Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Tortoise movements

We’re in our final round of downloading the tortoise GPS loggers. Some of the tortoises, including Klever mentioned previously, are proving difficult to get because of their distance up the peak. Fabricio has now claimed the title of highest elevation tortoise at 580 m! The trek combined with the rain makes it so that we are only able to get to and download one logger a day… Just four left. We are seeing some patterns in a few of the tortoises movements. A few of the large males are making large circling patterns and returning to the introduction point. What are they searching for and why do they return? A couple of them are apparently looking for mates as they will mount anything in sight. Javier, one of the biggest tortoises with a satellite transmitter, has been hanging out near the introduction point for a few days after a jaunt to the north. He lies about most conspicuously in the area where we prepare ourselves for our work. We can’t tell if he is saying goodbye or asking us to take him with us.

With one week left, we are pushing the limits of our field gear…everyone’s boots are falling apart in various ways. Either the leather is ripping or the soles are flopping off or just wearing through. All the rain and wetness doesn’t help, I’m sure. Our shoe glue has been expended, now we must trust to duct tape!

A short-eared owl has been gracing us with its presence at camp. They aren’t residents on Pinta, and we’re not even sure if they’re common visitors. What does he eat here? Maybe the ten-inch centipedes…

Sunday, July 11, 2010

"Why man live in box?

After nearly 2 months of living outside, I can't say that I'm looking forward to returning to walls and infrastructure. I only miss a few things from civilization - my ankles miss sidewalks, my knees miss toilets, and my stomach misses sandwiches. The rest of me, though, loves the island - my lungs love the fresh air, my heart loves the hiking, my eyes love the vistas, my ears love the waves crashing on the coast and the silence of the slope, and my brain loves the freedom and tranquility of it all. Ah, Pinta.

We have had some success rigging up a system where we can leave the solar panels out in the rain in the morning, so that they can collect the sun in the afternoon when we are still in the field. Power crisis averted? We'll see.

The hawks are becoming ever more vigilant as their chick grows. I swear they would slam right into my head if I didn't duck. There's something thrilling about this wild animal recklessly attacking...maybe that's just my perspective.

-Elizabeth, Pinta

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Season changes

We have now fully entered the garua season here on Pinta, which is supposedly the cool, dry season, although we’ve had more rain in the past few days than in the rest of our time here. All the plants are drying up now, it seems like fall in a strange way. The clouds and rain threaten our whole operation – we rely on power from our solar panels for everything we do, including finding tortoises, mapping cacti, downloading logger data, and writing in the blog! The sun is shining right now, though, and hopefully it continues so that we can finish all of our work successfully. We have less than 2 weeks left on Pinta! I feel a heaviness in my heart when I think of that, as I have grown to love this place. I will try to write as often as the sun shines!

-Elizabeth, Pinta

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Scenes from Pinta

Tortoise and cactus



Finding tortoises using telemetry



Seed dispersal in action




A typical evening


Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Full Moon

A couple of nights ago there was a beautiful, brilliant full moon. So bright you could almost read by it, but couldn’t sleep with it in your eyes. Maybe the tortoises noticed it, too, as we observed some strange behavior the day after the full moon. Initially after the introduction, when the tortoises were in close proximity to each other, the males were mounting the females and other males all the time. But after the first couple of days, they all went their separate ways and we haven’t seen any of them interacting in any way since. That is, until the full moon day. That day Francisco and Ben saw two groups of tortoises displaying mating behavior. In one group, a male was going after two females at the same time! The females were having none of it. It’s strange to see this behavior all of a sudden. Maybe they are getting used to their surroundings now and are getting down to business…although it’s hard to say what that is given that they’re sterilized.

In other news, we have moved past the stage of fighting like dogs over who gets to lick the pots clean after dinner (this privilege goes to who cleans the dishes), now we are fighting over who gets to drink the water the pasta was cooked in and the canned corn and pea juice. Haven’t yet moved on to the bean juice, but maybe we’ll get there.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Galapagos Hawks

There is a Galapagos Hawk nest right next to the trail that we walk on from our camp to where the tortoises are. We’ve been keeping an eye on it since we got here. There are 3 males and a female that are always in the vicinity of it. Or we presume that sex ratio, since the hawks are polyandrous. A few days ago, the chick finally emerged: a big white fluffy ball. Quite cute. The adults have become very protective ever since and have let us know that our passing by is not appreciated. I think we’ve all been dive bombed by an adult and felt their wings brush our heads. They also like to hover about 5 feet over us with their shadow directly above us as we walk, which is a little creepy. I hope that chick grows up fast.

-Elizabeth, Pinta

Monday, June 21, 2010

Return to Communication

The Park sent a boat today to resupply us with food and water, and they also sent a new modem that has been on a long journey to get to us. So the days of blogging in telegraph form are over. I kind of liked it, though. It made me condense what I wanted to say into nice little packages – now I’ll be able to be more expansive which could be a good or bad thing. Good for communication, bad for sucking up precious energy, which is in limited supply on Pinta.

The food resupply was badly needed. It is much harder than I thought it would be to plan for food for 4 people for 2.5 months. Especially when those people are very hungry from working so hard. And we have been working hard. The data is piling up, though, which satisfies a different kind of hunger. We are at the halfway point of our stay here, and we’ve accomplished a lot, but there is still so much to do. More on the data collection progress later…

-Elizabeth, Pinta

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Wanderers

While the tortoises who stay in one area make for better data, I feel more connected to the wanderers. They lead us to new and unexpected places on the island. Wilman spent a few days in the barren lava fields, leading some to worry for his safety. But he was just exploring and has returned to the land of the living.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Lava tube

Fernando and Garrison found a huge lava tube which we plan to explore. An intact goat skeleton at entrance. One of few reminders of goat presence, everything else is covered in plants. But the tortoises are working on this, creating a maze of trails through the thick vegetation.

Team Pinta

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Espanola trip synopsis

Just back now from the 10-day-long Espanola expedition, which was by all accounts a grueling experience but a great success. “We” were 24 Galapagos National Park Service park guards, that is, 7 groups of three plus a roving group of three more plus me. All groups worked independently out of 4 base camps. We were greatly aided by a fiberglass launch provided by the Park Service that was on call each day for to move groups to different entry points of the island as needed, secure extra provisions as needed, and provide a backup in case a safety issue arose. Groups were guided into the interior of the island by the hand-held GPS units, which had pre-determined locations of plots where vegetation was measured and counts were made of tortoises, albatross, and cactus. Movement of each group was recorded with the GPS units’ tracking function so we know where everyone actually went.

Suffice it to say that we now know a tremendous amount about the interior of the island and the south central coast where few if any have visited in recent decades. The park guard crews were amazing, covering some of the toughest terrain there is in Galapagos in terms of thorny, dense vegetation, under extreme conditions of heat most days (the garua season has not yet completely arrived). The crews that spent the entire time in the interior camp away from the coast deserve much credit – they completed the work without the opportunity to bathe and did so on limited food and water rations. Two porters were vital in supplying them with food and water on two trips per day. Here we all are at the interior campsite (parts of various groups converging for a shared lunch) under the venerable "caco" tree prior to heading to the southern coast:

I am now staring at a massive pile of datasheets the contents of which will take 2 weeks to enter into the computer and probably another 2 to make sense of but here are some highlights:

  • Our new method of estimating tortoise densities via counts of plots worked well in terms of logistics…we had some handy little gadgets known as Haglof DME’s that measure distance through dense vegetation with ultrasound and hence without the stress and difficulty of threading a meter tape back and forth to determine which individuals were in versus out. With these “DME’s” were able quickly complete counts on fixed radius plots. In terms of tortoises, we were impressed by the number of “natives” of many size, from palm-sized to very large. These animals are unmarked and have different shell growth patterns. There are the offspring of the repatriated animals, thus representing a “closing of the loop” via reproduction of the repatriates. They were a large number in our sample, which is a very good indication of a self-sustaining population. It was especially interesting to see the natives amongst the original repatriates…I came across an old friend – Number 12 – a massive tortoise that was likely among the initial small tortoises released back in the 1970’s. Once the data are entered we will be not only estimating current population size but also survival rates and past population sized to determine what has transpired with the tortoise population on Espanola in recent decades and what future options for its management might be.
  • Park guards recorded extensive data on the arboreal cactus through the island, including regeneration on plots and adults wherever they were found. The cacti are rare by any measure but perhaps not as rare as they have been characterized. We look forward to plotting their distribution, estimating their population size, as well as looking at levels of cactus regeneration in areas with and without tortoises.
  • We counted well over a thousand of albatross on plots and adjacent areas – there is a large population yet nesting in interior zones were they had thought to have been extinguished by incursion of woody vegetation following goat eradication. There is also a substantial population nesting on the margin of the central south coast in the area of Punta Albatros. It will take a month or more to estimate distribution and population size with any definitiveness but suffice it to say we were all impressed by the numbers of albatross yet nesting throughout the interior of Espanola. Clearly some albatross experience difficulties with the vegetation – we have photos of a dead albatross hanging and pinioned by branches and also freed a bird that had crashed into and become entrapped in dense woody vegetation for what must have been several weeks given the status of its plumage and the amount of guano. But whether the regrowth of woody vegetation limits population growth is a more complex question best approached through long-term monitoring. Through our studies we will at least be able to determine the relationship between distribution and abundance of albatross and amount of woody vegetation in an area.
  • We dug at great effort 2 pits and sampled material from different depths to look at carbon isotope ratios back in the lab. Woody plants and grasses have different carbon signatures which are integrated into the soil horizon. What was the vegetation originally on Espanola? Mostly open and grass dominated or mostly woody like the present? What is "natural" for the island? Measuring carbon ratios at different depths of soil should tell us much about history of occurrence of woody plants versus grass on the island. On the practical side, let’s just say that digging a 1.5 m pit on Espanola even in the softest of material is a sweaty day-long proposition! We did this with a shovel and cursed all day for lack of a sledge hammer and spike to help break up the compacted material. One pit we dug in a low area that collects much water during the wet season and el Nino years…this was a remarkable area insofar as it was still very green with luxuriant sedge growth despite the rest of the island already having shifted to the dry season. The bird populations were stunning in this area – seemingly every dove and finch in the island was in this area taking advantage of the last of the green vegetation, sedge seeds and invertebrates. It’s also been a good year for the massive centipedes that call Espanola Island home – they were in great abundance.

It will take some time to make sense of the information the Park Guards worked so hard to collect but suffice it to say there are many insights lurking within the data about tortoise-albatross-cactus-woody plant interactions that we will be ferreting out in the months to come. Internet bandwidth here on Santa Cruz is limited but in the next day or two we will post some images for you from this remarkable expedition. For the meantime below is a quick mosaic of the images from this trip (all taken by Isabela park guard extraordinaire Pedro Ramon, who is the one leaning against the cactus tree below).

On a personal level despite working in Galapagos for 29 years over 31 trips I was absolutely giddy about the possibility of seeing the unvisited-in-decades southern coastline of Espanola. The previous day we trekked up to the central camp at el Caco (so-named after the magnificent "caco" or Erythrina tree that towers over this tortoise release site) and set up my tent on the rocks. Despite the uneven ground it was a joy to lie on my back that night upon the backbone of Espanola Island under a waning moon and with the Southern Cross brilliant overhead with little audible except the occasional breeze flapping the tent fly, the "gwak" of a night heron stalking the massive centipedes that rove about at night, the occasional cry of an albatross pair adjusting themselves somewhere out in the darkness, and, far off, the muffled roar of the surging sea pounding the cliffs of the southern Espanola coast. The source of that roar would be our destination the next day. We got up at 4 AM and headed out in the darkness for the south coast, Park Guard Manuel Masaquiza leading the way. He had already secured an nice route over the top of the island which lead to some extensive areas of open lands populated by albatross that then lead us 3/4 of the way down the southern slope of the island. Pretty easy walking. But nearer to the coast the vegetation got extremely dense. We hacked a trail through the dense muyuyo (Cordia), more often stooping than standing, and at times went on all fours for a couple of hours. It got stuffy and exceedingly hot and humid in the lee side of the coast as we approached it. My pack was constantly hanging me up on newly cut branches that served as effective coat hooks, and tore a hole in the top of my hat that lead to a rather odd patch of sunburn on my thinning pate by the end of the day. We encountered hundreds of albatross even in the densest of vegetation, each one a gem to observe. The most remarkable experience was actually coming to the coast, pushing through the dense vegetation and thick hot air, to literally emerge over the course of a few meters at the top of a 90 m vertical cliff with a steady cold wind blowing off the expanse of rolling sea below with a multitude seabirds of veering past. The contrast was stunning. Here is a view of what we emerged onto -- the southern central coast of Espanola:

We rested a bit and then began our marine bird count, quickly arriving at Punta Albatros, which was fittingly covered in albatross, including this large group, some of which were nesting but others lingering prior to take-off, which involved dropping head first off the edge off the cliff followed by a spreading of wings:

After trekking along the coast for 3 km counting all seabirds, we hacked our way back up through the coastal thicket and eventually picked up an earlier trail made by the guards. You never really know when you are on a trail in Galapagos but you quickly know when you are off one! It was a long hard day but a rewarding one.

- James Gibbs, Santa Cruz Island

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Pinta crew logistics update

Occasional radio contact and satellite phone messages indicate all is well with the crew on Pinta...they are working hard, securing lots of information and enjoying themselves. On June 22 the Park is sending a launch loaded with fresh water, supplementary food and the much-sought satellite modem. With the modem you should be able to hear from the Pinta crew directly, more frequently and get detailed reports from the field....so bear with us for in 10 more days. Thank you.

James Gibbs, Santa Cruz

Tortoise 317679 "bolts" upslope...

Just now checking the satellite-tagged tortoises after 10 days in the field ... very surprised to see Tortoise 317679 (yellow line below), who had been sedentary since release, "bolting" over 300 m in a single day (the day before yesterday) and another 100 m the next (up to yesterday). Who knows what the motivation is (possibly another tortoise? ...it will be interesting to overlay the tracks of each tortoise at the end of the season). The tortoise is behaving most hare-like! A distance of 300 m (or about yards) might not seem like much but for a massive "cold-blooded" reptile it's quite a feat. The other two satellite-tagged tortoises seem to have settled into their respective ranges ...
















- James, Santa Cruz Island

Thursday, June 10, 2010

GPS issues

Problems arise...we have been downloading the GPS loggers and a few of them have been damaged by the tortoises so we can't get the data. They are still collecting data but we are unable to access! Frustrating. The data we do have look quite interesting, though. Spirals of movement.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Lava lizards

Lava lizards have become our camp companions, though I think they just like us because of all the flies we swat off of ourselves.

Team Pinta

Friday, June 4, 2010

Tortoise movement

The tortoises seem to be associating with the arboreal cactus, one out of every three are within 2 meters of a cactus compared to only one of 14 random points! Amazing that these previously captive animals so quickly revert to normal behavior.

Team Pinta

Monday, May 31, 2010

Project Espanola (in partial support of Project Pinta)

After months of preparation and a full day of training today here on Isla Santa Cruz, tomorrow morning at 5 AM yet another Galapagos Conservancy-sponsored expedition departs for Espanola. This one involves 24 Galapagos National Park guards covering the island searching for tortoises, albatross, and cactus for 10 days. It's pretty rough country. Espanola lost virtually all of its tortoises at one point, with the 15 remaining kept in captivity for the last 40 or so years where they have produced over 2,000 offspring that have been released back to the island. In the meantime goats, which were destroying the island's terrestrial ecosystems, have been eradicated. Lacking goats and tortoises, however, the woody vegetation has taken off, such that much of the island is a nearly impenetrable thicket. This may be a serious issue for the waved albatross, the world's only tropical albatross, that essentially only nests on Espanola. We are trying to discover how many albatross still nest in the interior areas and how are coping with the increase in woody vegetation. We are also surveying the giant arboreal cacti, which have not recovered well since the goats were removed for reasons not obvious. But a major focus is simply to get a precise estimate of how many tortoises are alive among the 2000+ that have been released. What does any of this have to do with Project Pinta? The Espanola tortoises are very closely related genetically to the Pinta tortoise. By determining how many tortoises are currently on Espanola the Galapagos National Park can consider that information in deliberations about what reproductive tortoises to eventually put on Pinta. Espanola tortoises might be a good option but only if relocating some of them to Pinta does not harm the re-establishing Espanola population. Basically we just need a good population estimate for Espanola - that will clarify the situation a great deal and whether translocating Espanola tortoises is even an option. So tomorrow we depart with maps and GPS to work in 7 teams of three to scour the island. We will surely learn a great deal and will share some of what was learned when we return in 11 days...

- James Gibbs, Isla Santa Cruz

Latest movements of the "Big Three"

The three large tortoises equipped with satellite tags have been reporting daily since release. The tags seem to be working beautifully. These are the animals that report directly via satellite so we can watch them move over the internet. The other 36 tortoises, like Klever, can only be found by Elizabeth et al. stumping around the brush tracking them with telemetry equipment. Below are traces of the locations reported from liberation site to the location today a week and a half later. The first image is the movements of the three from their release site overlain upon Google Earth imagery. The next image is of the same movements but placed upon 40 m contour lines. Some of the tortoises have made some dramatic daily moves of 100 m or move, then spend days at the same point. One tortoise went 300 m upslope and then returned downslope, apparently relocating to the very same spot several days later. These animals are settling into their new habitat, no doubt adjusting to a great abundance of new types of food (I suspect some of stops after days of roaming are "downtimes" for facilitating digestion). We will revisit these movements after 10 days when we get back from Espanola (more on that shortly) and see what these tortoises have been up to...

- James Gibbs, Santa Cruz Island


Sunday, May 30, 2010

Found!

We found him! After a hard day of work for all, crashing through walls of shrubs, Ben and Garrison found Klever at 550m elevation. Francisco and Elizabeth also found Bolivar 2 kilometers from the drop point! We hiked off-trail for 11 hours yesterday, today we rest.

Team Pinta

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Klever the elusive tortoise

The tortoises are roaming far and wide. We have been able to find them all so far, except one: Klever. He has been missing since the first day! But we will find him. This weekend we will make a trip to the top of Pinta to try to get his signal.

Team Pinta

Monday, May 24, 2010

Life Everywhere

The island seems to be teeming with life. Inquisitive finches, flycatchers, and doves are constantly flying up to our faces and even landing on our heads! Today Ben spotted a Galapagos Rail, a species that hasn't been reported on Pinta in decades! More to discover, the tortoises lead the way.

Team Pinta

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Images from the release


Greetings,

Here is a sampling of the many images collected during the Pinta tortoise release. This post is intended mainly to share some "visuals" from this experience as posts have been heavy on text. Most of these images were taken by Francisco Laso who as you can see has proven most talented with his camera. So, here goes....

this is a pre-trip photo of Elizabeth and her crew (l to r Ben, Garrison, Elizabeth, and Francisco).
















...here`s the crew buying food in Proinsular for the upcoming two months...















...weighing tortoises prior to tag attachment and health screening (Joe Flanagan and James Gibbs lifting, Bolivar Guerrero readings the scales (some were up to 90 kg!)...



















...Washington Tapia of the Galapagos National Park Service passing out PNG hats prior to the press event announcing the release....












...the first of 39 tortoises being transferred onto the beach on Pinta after the overnight trip from Santa Cruz Island...












...once on the beach the tortoises were trussed, suspended and gingerly carried up the lower slopes ...








...several kilometers later on the upper slopes...












...and a group photo of all the guardaparques who did the hard work of lugging the tortoises to their final destination in the interior of Pinta Island...













...free at last....

We were all quite surprised at how quickly the tortoises began feeding (mere seconds after release) and even trying to mate with one another (despite being sterilized). Also the immediate impact on the habitat was stunning, as a result primarily of flattening of vegetation but also foraging. Moreover, finches and lava lizards quickly recruited to the disturbed areas. The process of tortoise-driven ecological engineering has begun, profoundly albeit in a small but expanding area.

We are tracking the three tortoises with satellite tags in real time and will share their movements with you shortly.

We are also working on transferring the replacement satellite modem to the field crew so you can hear from them more directly...

Cheers to all,

James Gibbs
-Santa Cruz

Thursday, May 20, 2010

THERE ARE TORTOISES ON PINTA!!!!!

There are now 39 tortoises roaming the slopes of Pinta!! I can’t stop smiling and want to shout it to the world. We traveled north on Sunday night on the Sierra Negra (Park boat) to arrive at dawn on Monday. The Ecuadorian Minister of the Environment and the Director of the Galapagos National Park came to celebrate the first arrival of a tortoise on Pinta since 1972. After the historic arrival of the first tortoises, the work began.

Twenty-four park rangers did the heavy work of moving the tortoises up the more than 3 km to their new home – a rather lush forested area, with palo santo and Pisonia trees, a few tall Opuntia cactus, and lots of forbs and grasses. Arriving at the end of the wet season, the tortoises have plenty of food to choose from.
The park wardens divided themselves into 11 teams of 2. Each team of two had approximately 350 m of sometimes very rocky trail. A team on the beach tied the tortoise in an upright position – hanging from a quinine pole (good use of an introduced species on Santa Cruz). Each pole had a foam pad tied on each end to protect the shoulders of the park rangers. The first pair of park rangers carried the tortoise up their stretch of trail, then handed it off to the next pair - often the hand-off was completed from shoulder to shoulder and on up the trail the tortoise went to the next pair of rangers. The eleventh pair carried it to its new home and released it.

At the release spot, the SUNY students were waiting to note down which tortoise had arrived, check the radio telemetry signal, and begin to learn the area the tortoises would inhabit.

Watching the tortoises upon arrival was thrilling. The moment they hit the ground, they were ready for action. They immediately began moving off through the vegetation, knocking down whatever stood in their path, finding juicy plants to forage on, and exploring their new world. Doves and lava lizards began using the pathways smashed down by the movements of the tortoises, and the third day, Joe Flanagan filmed a Galapagos dove landing on the back of a tortoise. All seemed right with the world.

The park rangers moved 15 tortoises up on Monday, another 15 on Tuesday, and the final 9 on Wednesday. Their work was fast and efficient. On the third day, most of them followed the final tortoise up to the release point to celebrate their labors and to see the tortoises in the natural world – a major change after having lived in captivity all of their lives, then in the hold of the ship for a few days, carried up the trail dangling from a pole, and finally to freedom.

Pinta has tortoises! It’s been 38 years since these giants walked there. Now they will help restore it to a more balanced state. Congratulations to the Galapagos National Park and all others involved in this massive effort.

Linda Cayot
Galapagos Conservancy

Arrival!

We have arrived on Pinta! Through an extraordinary effort by 25 park guards, the tortoises were carried 4km up the island to their new home. They are already moving and eating happily, so it seems. Now we are alone and can get to work getting to know them!

-Elizabeth and crew, Pinta Island, Galapagos

Note: Due to the failure of the satellite modem, blog updates will be communicated via text message from the satellite phone. Sadly, entries will thus be less frequent and more concise!

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Final details...

After months of preparation we are now all waiting for the implementation phase to begin...which will be tomorrow at 3 PM when the 39 tortoises will be loaded on the Galapagos National Park's Sierra Negra, a large and fast work ship. The park guards who will do the actual work of the release will follow next at 6 PM, as will the science support team. Together we will all plow through the night aboard the Sierra Negra, first through the waters around Santa Cruz Island, then thread our way past Santiago Island and finally take a beeline to Pinta Island, where we will arrive at dawn, have a quick breakfast and start the process of unloading tortoises, ferrying them to shore, and cutting the trail up to the release area. The guardaparques will carry the tortoises. The plan at present is 4 guards per tortoise, with 4 other following in reserve to provide some relief. Some of the tortoises are in the 90 kg range - not so easy to carry on a litter over broken lava, through thick brush, and in intense heat. All the science crew's food, water and gear must be moved to shore and camp assembled. It will be a busy 3 days, and maybe 4 if more time is needed, to get all the work done.

Stay posted!

- James Gibbs, Santa Cruz Island

Friday, May 14, 2010

Last minute images from past week...


Depending on their size and carapace shape, the tortoises have been fitted with either a satellite tracker, a data logger (with satellite and VHF capabilities) or a VHF tag. The LARGE tortoise below is sporting a satellite tracker)






Additionally, since tortoises are reptiles and temperature is an important factor for where they decide to go, we have attached to all tortoises an "iButton" which is a small device that records the temperature of the tortoise through time. On the photo below the vhf tag on one of the tortoises and the ibuttons are visible on top of their shells)





Part of the preparation of the tortoises involved a health assessment, which involved measuring them, weighing them, taking a blood sample, and giving them a de-wormer. Below, Joe and James liffting a tortoise to weigh it. Many are in the 90kg range.





Finally, this is the "Before" shot from the entire Pinta Team. From left to right, Ben, Garrison, Elizabeth, and me (Francisco). We will stay behind on Pinta to monitor turtle movements and their effect on vegetation for two and a half month.


Now we must go meet the ministrer of the environment and say hello to the cameras. Wish us luck!!!

Francisco, Santa Cruz, Galapagos

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Quarantine tomorrow

So, it is the final night before we put all of our belongings into quarantine - everything that we own except for the clothes we´re wearing except for (maybe) a toothbrush. Park staff will then go through our things to make sure we won´t be transporting any invasive species. Two days of being smelly and then we get on the boat and we´re off to Pinta on Sunday night!

We´ve had many successes and a couple of problems in the past few days. On Monday and Tuesday we were able to outfit all of the tortoises with their movement monitoring devices and give them their final deworming. Now they are in special corrals, patiently waiting for their freedom. They are such beautiful, gentle animals, and I can´t wait to see them in their natural habitat, eating cactus and plowing down vegetation. Today we bought all of our food for 2 months, which went rather smoothly after all the lists and preparations we made.

Our main problem right now is that our satellite modem is still not working - although I´ve tried everything I can think of to make it work. This is a severe bummer, but it seems that we will still be able to rent a satellite phone from CDF and send text messages to post on the blog. The messages are limited to 160 characters, so we will have to practice our haiku-style writing. I will try:

Today I watched the tortoises fight over a giant leaf in their corral. I wondered if they would continue to stick together on Pinta or if they couldn´t wait to get away from each other.

Darn, that´s 182 characters. We´ll have to practice, but I think we will be able to convey some good anecdotes in a few text messages.

The other exciting news about town is that the Today Show film crew will likely be coming down for the release on Monday or Tuesday! Combined with the presence of the Minister of the Environment, this is turning out to be quite the event. I´ll tell the tortoises to be extra charismatic for the cameras, but I don´t think they´ll have to try too hard.

-Elizabeth, Santa Cruz, Galapagos

A long time coming

Hello tortoise enthusiasts,

We are getting closer and closer to seeing the first Galapagos giant tortoises step foot onto Pinta Island since Lonesome George left in 1972! This exciting step forward for conservation and the restoration of Pinta has been discussed, debated, and studied pretty much since that time.

Linda Cayot here. I first came to Galapagos in 1981 to study giant tortoises for my PhD - from Syracuse University (great to have another woman from the adjacent SUNY campus in Syracuse continuing on with tortoise work into the 21st century). Reviewing my journals from 1981 just before heading to Galapagos last week, I discovered that on my second day in Galapagos in March 1981, in a meeting with Bob Reynolds, the herpetologist of the Charles Darwin Research Station, we discussed the need to get tortoises back on Pinta. That was 29 years ago!!

Then in 1988, at the International Herpetology Workshop in Galapagos - it seemed like every work group ended up discussing what to do with Lonesome George and whether or not to put tortoises back on Pinta.

Over the past several years a group of us have been working toward this goal - so many people - Ole Hamann (Danish botanist who has worked on Pinta for decades), the folk of Project Isabela (Felipe Cruz, Karl Campbell, and others), Wacho Tapia of the Park, and on and on. A dream of many and a massive effort by even more.

When the Isabela Project was winding down at the start of this decade and a goat-free Pinta was a reality, the need for tortoises increased. They are the habitat engineers of Galapagos and important to the ecosystem in many ways - seed dispersal and in some cases germination, trampling and opening areas, and their constant eating of most species of forbs, grasses and shrubs. But ongoing genetics studies have not yet answered the question regarding which tortoises would be best for repopulating the island through release and reproduction.

In the meantime, Felipe Cruz suggested we sterilize the hybrid tortoises at the Tortoise Center and put them on Pinta to perform the role of the first habitat engineers post goat-eradication. Then we all got to work - Washington Tapia (Wacho) at the National Park, Joe Flanagan at Houston Zoo, me at Galapagos Conservancy, and James Gibbs at SUNY-ESF. Last fall, a group of veterinarians came down to sterilize the tortoises (Dr. Steve Divers of U of Georgia and Dr. Sam Rivera of Zoo Atlanta - along with Joe and some others). James started figuring out the monitoring part and Elizabeth joined in to do her Masters. Galapagos Conservancy participated in planning and to ensure critical funding and here we are.

May 2010 - I have been working to help achieve this goal for many years and next Monday it will be a reality. A dream come true. I can't wait.

Linda Cayot
Science Advisor
Galapagos Conservancy

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Hit the ground running...at tortoise speed!

Hello world!

This is Francisco with a quick visual update of our activities since we arrived. We finally met face to face with everyone involved, including the 39 tortoises that will be re-populating Pinta. The tortoises are currently kept at the Charles Darwin Research Station and they are bigger than we expected! Their ages range from 15 - 100 yrs old, on average 40 yrs old.




For the past weeks they have been fed a special diet of stems and leaves (to avoid transporting Santa Cruz seeds to Pinta) and this week we will be on a special diet too (not stems and leaves, but nothing with viable seeds!)















As soon as we got here we started testing/programming the equipment. In the picture on above you see Garrison testing his telemetry skills. Elizabeth hid one of the VHF (Very High Frequency) tags in the bushes so we could try to find it. Its a bit like playing "Marco Polo", only that instead of a human voice you have a beep that gets louder as you get close to the device.

Our satellite/VHF tags that we will attach to the turtles to follow their movements seem to work fine. The picture on the right shows (from left to right) Garrison, Joe, James, Elizabeth, and Ben debating where to best place the satellite tags without harming the turtles or affecting their behavior.

Everything is running smoothly, except for the satellite modem that we planned to take with us to Pinta. For some inexplicable reason, it is not working in Galapagos (it did work in NY when Elizabeth tested it) ... I hope for our sake (and for the sake of the blog) that we are able to fix it...

That is it for now, wish us luck for tomorrow, when we will try to actually attach the tags to the tortoises! I expect it might be slightly challenging to keep these reptilian bulldozers from moving until we have finished our task...

-Francisco, Santa Cruz, Galapagos

Friday, May 7, 2010

Arrival!

We have arrived on Santa Cruz safe and sound! My heart skipped a beat with the first sight of an arboreal cactus as we were landing on Baltra, and I was dazzled by the blueness of the water on the ferry to Santa Cruz. Finally here. It is as beautiful as I thought it would be, and not nearly as hot!

Amazingly, we had no problem getting through customs with our 12 pieces of luggage, and all of the equipment seems to have arrived without damage. The whole crew is together now, and we saw the tortoises today (they seem like part of the crew, too). Ben, Garrison, and I had actually seen them yesterday when we were looking at the other tortoises at the CDRS, but we didn't realize that they were the ones. They were much livelier than the other larger tortoises, and one looked curiously at us for a long time - an instant connection. They are a lot bigger than I thought they'd be, which is good for the restoration aspect of the project (bigger tortoises have more impact), but maybe not so good for the porters who have to carry them up to the good habitat in the middle of the island!

We have begun scouting out the supermarkets for the food that we will buy early next week, and it looks like we will be able to get everything we need, if not everything we want. On Monday we will begin the process of attaching the transmitters and loggers to the tortoises. We will be leaving for Pinta on Sunday night of next week, which means we have to get everything ready by Thursday morning for quarantine.

I will post again soon with pictures. Now I am tired, and would like to gaze at the brilliant array of stars a bit before hitting the hay.

-Elizabeth, Puerto Ayora, Santa Cruz, Galapagos

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

And we're off!

James and I leave in about an hour from Syracuse. My boyfriend, Kevin, will kindly drive us to NYC where we will meet up with Ben at the airport. We'll probably have 11 checked bags between the 3 of us...which will be fun. We'll fly to Guayaquil and meet up with Garrison, then the four of us will fly to Baltra in the late morning tomorrow. From there, it's a confusing series of busses and boats until we get to Puerto Ayora on Santa Cruz. Francisco, Linda, and Joe will meet us there the next day - they're flying from Quito.

I'm so nervous, anxious, and already a bit exhausted, but the overwhelming feeling is of excitement. Soon I will be in the place that has occupied my thoughts for the last several months. Farewell Syracuse!

-Elizabeth, Syracuse NY

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Sigh of relief

Tomorrow we leave! I think, I hope, we have everything that we needed. All of the crucial equipment arrived just in time. All of the gps loggers, transmitters, satellite modem, solar panel, first aid kit - all of the really important stuff - made it within the last couple of days. And then there were a couple of scares when things didn't work right on the first try… It's been nerve-wracking to say the least. But I think we have all of our ducks in a row now! Everything is working, and now it's just the intricacies of packing… I think we'll have enough space for everything, but the weight is the problem. We're taking about 40 pounds of epoxy (for attaching the loggers) and all the electronics are heavy. The airline we're flying on, AeroGal, has pretty stringent weight requirements (20 kg or 44 pounds max per bag), so it will take a lot of shifting around to get the right weights. I hope to avoid huge overweight charges. Then it's just the trick of getting everything through customs… I don't think the sleepless nights will be done until we get to Pinta!

-Elizabeth, Syracuse NY

Monday, April 26, 2010

Preparation

T minus 8 days. We leave for the Galapagos on May 6th. Once there we will spend 2 weeks on Santa Cruz working with the Galapagos National Park (PNG) getting ready for the trip to Pinta. PNG has put years of effort into this - it is really their project, we're just helping with the monitoring of the tortoise release. PNG has worked together with the Charles Darwin Foundation (CDF) to select the tortoises that will be released and prepare them for their journey to Pinta (which is more of a process than you might expect!).

Thirty-nine tortoises have been selected to go to Pinta and are now housed by PNG on Santa Cruz. When we arrive, we'll be attaching different types of movement monitoring devices (satellite transmitters, GPS loggers, and VHF radios) to them. It was a long process deciding what devices to use, but we think we have the right combination now to balance good data collection, remote monitoring, costs, and ease of attachment. It seems like every equipment purchase we've had to make has been a compromise like this, and we've bought a lot of equipment. From laptops to GPS units to tents to plant ID books, it seems like I get a new package of stuff and put in a new order form everyday. And the stuff is piling up! It will be interesting to see how we get it all down...

While on Santa Cruz, we'll also need to buy all of our food, water, and kitchen necessities for Garrison, Francisco, Ben, and me to survive on Pinta for 2.5 months. We'll be dropped off on Pinta with the tortoises in mid-May, and we won't see another boat again for the whole time, so we'd better be well stocked! That's about 650 pounds of food, and over 2000 liters of water (Pinta doesn't have a reliable source of fresh water on it). We'll be eating lots of rice, beans, canned meats and vegetables - anything that is non-perishable and is available on Santa Cruz. I have it all planned out so we'll have the right balance of energy, protein, and nutrients (I hope!).

It's been a lot of preparation, and will be a lot more, but it will be worth it to not only participate in this historic event (the return of tortoises to Pinta), but to be released along with them...to be isolated in the wilderness with them, to be far away from the lights and noises of the civilized world. An experience that few people are afforded in this modern era.

-Elizabeth, Syracuse NY

Saturday, April 24, 2010

The story of Pinta

The northernmost of the main islands of the Galapagos, Isla Pinta is isolated from civilization, but it bears scars from the hand of man nonetheless. Like most of the islands in the archipelago, in the 17th through 19th centuries Pinta was visited by pirates and whalers seeking fresh protein with a long shelf life. On Pinta they found a unique saddlebacked giant tortoise (Geochelone abingdoni) that they kept alive on their ships until they needed meat. Eventually they decimated the population, and now only one Pinta giant tortoise lives today in captivity - Lonesome George. The loss of such a large herbivore likely had severe ecological effects, but it is impossible to know conclusively as the population was effectively gone over 100 years ago.

We do know that the introduction of feral goats to the island drastically altered the ecosystem. Three goats were introduced to Pinta in the 1950s, and in just 15 years, the population had grown to 20,000 individuals. The goats decimated the plant community, and so the Galapagos National Park instituted a goat eradication program in the 1970s. By 2003, the goats were gone, and the plant community began to recover…in a strange way. With no large herbivore (neither tortoise nor goat), plants regrew rapidly to densities not seen on Pinta before. And because the goats had changed the make-up of the soil, woody shrubs regrew the fastest of all. Where before the plant community was in danger of being eaten to nothing, now it is at risk of losing species to the crowding of shrubs.

The Galapagos National Park wishes to avert that risk by reintroducing a group of giant tortoises to act as "ecological engineers". Through herbivory, seed dispersal, and the sheer force of their strong legs and heavy shells, it is conjectured that the tortoises can reshape the ecosystem into something that more closely resembles the community from a few hundred years ago. Can the tortoises do that? That's what we aim to find out!

Signing out - Elizabeth, Syracuse NY

Prologue

It is now 11 days until we leave for the Galapagos to enter the story of Isla Pinta's restoration. This story is many years in the making, and I (Elizabeth Hunter) am but a minor player in the saga, fresh on the scene. I am a graduate student at SUNY-ESF, and I have been given an incredible opportunity to study the reintroduction of giant tortoises to Pinta. This is thanks to generous funding from the Galapagos Conservancy, the experience and wisdom of my advisor Dr. James Gibbs, and a bit of luck on my part!

This blog will chronicle the field activities of a team of researchers as we prepare for and conduct this study. There will be posts from me, James Gibbs, Joe Flanagan (veterinarian at the Houston Zoo), and the crew of first-rate field technicians - Francisco Laso, Garrison Loope, and Ben Risk. I expect that our experiences of this trip will all be slightly different, and I hope that this blog provides many insights into what will undoubtedly be an incredible, unforgettable journey.