Scientist Has “Field Day” in Galápagos Islands
Renowned geneticist Dr. Oliver Ryder was recently invited to an international workshop on the Galápagos Islands to plan the next 10 years of Galápagos tortoise conservation efforts. He is the director of genetics at the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research and Kleberg Chair, as well as a creative problem solver with a deep capacity to understand the big conservation picture.
This workshop utilized the expertise of people around the world in many different fields including ecology, biology, horticulture, herpetology, physiology, genetics, and wildlife diseases, among others. Dr. Ryder was particularly pleased that the people who would be managing the areas and implementing the ideas, like park guards and local ecologists, were full participants.
Participants were divided into teams and each addressed issues facing the delicate ecosystems of different islands like invasive plant species (guava and blackberries), health and recruitment of wildlife populations, the elimination of nonnative species like goats and rats, and the containment of farm animals to protect native species.
“The San Diego Zoo has a long history of contributing to Galápagos tortoise conservation,” said Dr. Ryder. “This workshop was another great opportunity to provide thoughtful ideas and suggestions to the Galápagos authorities to guide conservation strategies into the next decade.”
The Galápagos Islands were formed millions of years ago from volcanoes erupting out of the sea. Plant and animal species colonized the islands, evolving independently, something Charles Darwin noted when observing the variation in finch beak shapes between the islands, which gave rise to The Origin of Species, a volume that reshaped how we think about evolution and the natural world.
Whalers, pirates, and sailors mucked things up ecologically by moving tortoises from one island to another for easier access to them, and taking the animals for meat. This meant that animals that had evolved in tandem with particular plants were uprooted, which threw many island ecosystems out of balance and muddied the genetic waters of some tortoise species.
Fortunately, technology has evolved to be able to unravel the tangled tendrils of DNA, underscoring the importance of genetics studies. Last June, Lonesome George, the last of his subspecies of giant tortoise passed away at the Charles Darwin Research Station. He was 100 years old, middle-aged for a giant tortoise. Scientists were able to collect tissue samples from him. His is a cautionary tale, as humans relentlessly exploited that species of tortoise to extinction. Which brings us back to the Galápagos tortoise workshop. There are many complex issues that need to be tackled to ensure the rich, endemic species of these must-see islands survives the next century.
Taking day trips by boat to different islands was fascinating for Dr. Ryder. “Sometimes we were greeted on the dock by sea lions that sniffed at our pant legs like dogs,” he said. He described meeting a Galápagan fellow who had a full shoulder tattoo of Charles Darwin, demonstrating the local pride people feel about their island home. After days of serious brain storming and problem solving, Dr. Ryder’s group finished up their ambitious agenda a day early, so a park ranger offered to take them out in the field to track a radio collared Galápagos tortoise.
“We were in the highlands of Santa Cruz,” explained Dr. Ryder. “It was grassy with huge cracks in the lava rock terrain below the covering vegetation, so we were trying not to fall. The radio clicked out the presence of a tortoise with a transmitter and we spotted five tortoises before we found the one with the transmitter. We all stood in appreciation watching them, fire ants crawling up our legs, finches flying around…it was a really great day in the field.”
Karyl Carmignani, Staff Writer, San Diego Zoo Global.