Silent invaders in the Galapagos Marine Reserve! A story of how we study them, through the COVID-19 pandemic…

Introduced species represent the most important driver of biodiversity loss for oceanic islands (Brook, Sodhi and Bradshaw, 2008). Indeed, invasive species are the main threat for the ecological integrity of the unique marine and terrestrial ecosystems of the Galapagos (DPNG, 2014). We, the Marine Invasive Species Programme led by Dr Inti Keith, carry out research on marine invasive species, for their prevention, detection and management in the Galapagos Marine Reserve (GMR). We mainly focus on the fouling (encrusting) community on artificial habitats (like harbours). These artificial habitats serve as a model system, as these are hotspots for biological invasions worldwide, mainly due to marine traffic (Ruiz et al., 2009). So, as part of our usual activities, in January 2020 we started monitoring benthic invertebrates (organisms that live on the ocean floor and have no backbone) in one of the most heavily used harbours of the Galapagos: Seymour Port on Baltra Island. Our aim was to passively collect benthic invertebrates present on this study site to detect marine invasive species, allowing a rapid response to possible marine invasions in the GMR.

Sitio de estudio: Puerto Seymour, Isla Baltra. Foto por: Patricia Isabela Tapia, FCD.
Study site: Seymour Port, Baltra Island. Photo by: Patricia Isabela Tapia, CDF.

Week 0

It’s a sunny and beautiful morning in the Galapagos. We are ready to depart from Puerto Ayora, Santa Cruz Island to Baltra Island, for some fieldwork. We are about to deploy 32 PVC (polyvinyl chloride) settlement plates, hanging them from the dock at Seymour Port, one meter underwater and parallel to the seafloor. In this way, we pretend to mimic floating docks, and observe what species adhere and grow on them.

Una parte del equipo de investogación del Programa de Especies Invasoras Marinas en Puerto Seymour, Isla Baltra. De izquierda a derecha: Rosita Calderón, William Bensted-Smith y Patricia Isabela Tapia. Foto por: Archivo FCD.
Part of the Marine Invasive Species Programme research team at Seymour Port, Baltra Island. From left to right: Rosita Calderón, William Bensted-Smith and Patricia Isabela Tapia. CDF Photo Archive.

It seems like another day in our job. Though for me, it is a day with the extraordinary opportunity to be part of world-class scientific research in the first Natural World Heritage Site ever declared by the UNESCO, the cradle of Darwin's thinking on biological evolution, and the place I have the privilege to call home.

Rosita Calderón y Patricia Isabela Tapia ensamblando placas de asentamiento para su instalación (una parte de las placas están encerradas en jaulas para evitar depredación). Foto por: Andrea Gura, FCD.
Rosita Calderón and Patricia Isabela Tapia assembling settlement plates for deployment (a portion of plates are enclosed in cages to avoid predation). Photo by Andrea Gura, CDF.

We successfully deployed the 32 settlement plates, the treatments consisted of: controls (plates attached to bricks only), half cages (assembled plates with top cage only) and full cages (assembled plates with full cage). We planned to leave our plates there for 12 weeks and return every two weeks to monitor them, taking photographs, recording the presence of any animal and plant on them as well as oceanographic data at the study site. Little did we know that the world was about to stop and that we all had to hide from an invisible enemy: COVID-19.

Week 2

I don’t know what exactly we are going to encounter. To be honest, this job has been a learning journey. I am not a marine biologist, I am a general biologist, so fieldwork in the ocean as opposed to my mostly-terrestrial experience, is still a bit challenging, but I absolutely love sharing “the office” with sea lions, sharks, colourful fish and many other smaller forms of life that have always been there, but that we usually ignore: the fascinating sessile organisms (encrusted to a substrate and cannot move about freely).

A: Gaviotines (Anous stolidus) pescando en nuestro sitio de estudio. B: Lobo marino (Zalophus wollebaeki), descansando en una panga frente a nosotros, mientras monitoreamos nuestras placas. Estas aves son una subespecie endémica y el lobo marino una especie endémica. Fotos por: Patricia Isabela Tapia, FCD.
A:: Brown noddies (Anous stolidus) fishing in our study site. B: Sea lion (Zalophus wollebaeki), resting on a boat in front of us, while we monitor our plates. These birds are an endemic subspecies and the sea lion an endemic species. Photos by Patricia Isabela Tapia, CDF.

Unlike charismatic species like sea lions and marine birds, sessile organisms are much less popular. Perhaps their smaller size and inability to move make them less attractive? I believe these are captivating creatures and that they make the ocean even more interesting and full of life, we just have to pay more attention. Maybe in the photographs of following weeks you will see what I mean.

Placa número 30 después de dos semanas de instalación (dentro de una jaula completa, evitando depredación). Animales como briozoos (“animales musgo”, pequeños invertebrados acuáticos que generalmente forman colonias), ascidias (chorros de mar, invertebrados marinos inmóviles), poliquetos (gusanos marinos) y cangrejos bebés son visibles. Foto por: Patricia Isabela Tapia, FCD.
Plate number 30 after two weeks of deployment (inside a full cage). Animals like bryozoans (“moss animals”, tiny aquatic invertebrates usually forming colonies), ascidians (sea squirts, sac-like marine invertebrates), polychaetes (bristle worms) and baby crabs are visible. Photo by Patricia Isabela Tapia, CDF.

Observing the presence of living organisms already attached to our plates after only two weeks, not only is exciting but it also provides information on their life cycles! The only thing I am thinking now is: I can’t wait to see how these plates look like on week 12.

Week 4

It’s a sunny day, the water temperature of the sea is above 26°C, thus staying in the water for several hours is indeed enjoyable. As soon as we arrive to our study site, we see that our plates are much fuller of life!

A: Patricia Isabela Tapia midiendo la salinidad del agua, temperatura y oxígeno disuelto. B: Rosita Calderón (izquierda) y William Bensted-Smith (derecha) recuperando jaula con una placa. C: Abriendo jaula para monitorear una placa. D: Placa número 20 (jaula completa) después de cuatro semanas de instalación. Fotos por: William Bensted-Smith, Rosita Calderón y Patricia Isabela Tapia, FCD.
A: Patricia Isabela Tapia measuring water salinity, temperature and dissolved oxygen. B: Rosita Calderón (left) and William Bensted-Smith (right) retrieving a cage with a plate. C: Opening a cage to monitor plate. D: Plate number 20 (full cage) after four weeks of deployment. Photos by William Bensted-Smith, Rosita Calderón and Patricia Isabela Tapia, CDF.

Plate 20 (full cage) shows visible growth of many animals (yes, what you are observing on these plates are animals!), particularly the white colonial sea squirt (Didemnum perlucidum) dominating the plate. This is an invasive species in Galapagos and is considered a marine pest on many other places (Carlton, Keith and Ruiz, 2019; Lambert, 2019).

Placa número 7 (control) después de cuatro semanas de instalación. Foto por: Patricia Isabela Tapia, FCD.
Plate number 7 (control) after four weeks of deployment. Photo by Patricia Isabela Tapia, CDF.

Plate 7 (control) shows less animal-plant presence, probably due to predation in the absence of a cage. Other controls and half cages on occasions even present clear predation traces.

Week 6

Its March 12, just a day after the World Health Organization declared the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak a global pandemic. Just a few days before reporting our first COVID-19 cases in the Galapagos, we are able to travel to Seymour Port, Baltra Island and monitor our plates for the last time.

Placa número 2 (jaula completa) después de seis semanas de instalación. Foto por: William Bensted-Smith, FCD.
Plate number 2 (full cage) after six weeks of deployment. Photo by William Bensted-Smith, CDF.

After six weeks of deployment, plate 2 (full cage) shows visible progressive growth of sessile organisms. The presence of the following animals stands out: the invasive ascidians Didemnum perlucidum (white colonial sea squirt), Botrylloides niger (orange colonial sea squirt) and the invasive bryozoan Bugula neritina (purplish-brown bushy “moss animal”).  A similar pattern has been observed in most of our plates in full cages, which is concerning due to the highly invasive behaviour that these three species present in the Galapagos and worldwide. In fact, these are within the most notable introduced biofouling species currently present in the Galapagos (Carlton, Keith and Ruiz, 2019), which without doubt has important implications for conservation and management decision-making in the GMR.

Placas número 19 (media jaula) y 26 (control) después de seis semanas de instalación. Fotos por: William Bensted-Smith, FCD.
Plates number 19 (half cage) and 26 (control) after six weeks of deployment. Photos by William Bensted-Smith, CDF.

The visual difference in plant and animal growth on plates 19 (half cage) and 26 (control) compared to full cage plates is evident, which again is most likely explained by predation. Plates 19 and 26 just like many other half cages and controls show traces of predation, which are likely left by fish. We have observed small and big fish eating organisms living on the dock’s lateral and lower surfaces, some even feeding with most of their bodies outside of the water to reach such organisms.

Nobody thought that the world would suddenly have to stop for so long. Unexpectedly, we had to hide from a novel virus and leave our experiment halfway… I hope that the new world we are building during this crisis is less indifferent to the suffering of others, including nature. I hope we can all make better choices and change our lifestyles to more sustainable ones, so that one day, we don’t have to worry about some silent invaders taking over our seas or any species being taken out from their home ranges. Let’s survive this pandemic, healing ourselves and the planet. This might be our last chance to make things right.

I am afraid we didn’t make it to week 12 of our experiment. Our plates have been hanging from the dock at Seymour Port for 47 weeks now. However, we will use all samples to learn more about biofouling species in the GMR and next year we will be ready to repeat our experiment, one more time.

Dos de nuestras placas después de haber estado 40 semanas colgando en Puerto Seymour, Baltra. Fotos por: Patty Isabela Tapia, FCD.
Two of our plates after 40 weeks hanging at Seymour Port, Baltra. Photos by: Patty Isabela Tapia, CDF.
William Bensted-Smith (izquierda) y Rosita Calderón (derecha) del Programa de Especies Invasoras Marinas. Foto por: Patricia Isabela Tapia, FCD.
William Bensted-Smith (left) and Rosita Calderón (right) from the Marine Invasive Species Programme. Photo by Patricia Isabela Tapia, CDF.

This programme is possible thanks to the generous support of our donors:  Gordon and Betty Moore FoundationGalapagos Conservancy, Lindblad Expeditions-National Geographic Fund, Galapagos Conservation Trust, Paul M. Angell Foundation and Ecoventura (current donors). You can read more about our work here. If you would like to contribute to the work of the Charles Darwin Foundation for the conservation and sustainability of the Galapagos Islands, please DONATE and/or share our work with your friends and family!

References

  • Brook, B. W., Sodhi, N. S. and Bradshaw, C. J. A. (2008) ‘Synergies among extinction drivers under global change’, Trends in Ecology and Evolution, 23, pp. 453–460. doi: 10.1016/j.tree.2008.03.011.
  • Carlton, J. T., Keith, I. and Ruiz, G. M. (2019) ‘Assessing marine bioinvasions in the Galápagos Islands : implications for conservation biology and marine protected areas’, Aquatic Invasions, 14(1), pp. 1–20.
  • DPNG (2014) Plan de manejo de las áreas protegidas de Galápagos para el buen vivir. Edited by A. Izurieta et al. Puerto Ayora, Galápagos, Ecuador: Imprenta Mariscal. doi: 10.1590/S0004-282X2003000500014.
  • Lambert, G. (2019) ‘Fouling ascidians (Chordata : Ascidiacea) of the Galápagos : Santa Cruz and Baltra Islands’, Aquatic Invasions, 14(1), pp. 132–149.
  • Ruiz, G. M. et al. (2009) ‘Habitat distribution and heterogeneity in marine invasion dynamics: the importance of hard substrate and artificial structure’, in Wahl, M. (ed.) Marine Hard Bottom Communities, Ecological Studies (Analysis and Synthesis). Berlin, Heidelberg: Springer, pp. 321–332. doi: 10.1007/b76710_23.

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