Monday, April 26, 2010


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 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


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.