Wolf volcano began erupting in the early morning hours of January 7, starting at 00h20 EST (January 6, 23h20 local time). The volcano is located in the north of Isabela Island, approximately 100 km from human populations. Its ecosystem it is home to the pink iguana 𝘊𝘰𝘯𝘰𝘭𝘰𝘱𝘩𝘶𝘴 𝘮𝘢𝘳𝘵𝘩𝘢𝘦, a species endemic not only to Galapagos, but also to Wolf Volcano.

The Galapagos National Park Directorate announced that the smoke and ash plumes reached between 1900 and 3800 meters (6200 and 12400 feet). At the moment, populated areas are not at risk.

Prof. Dr. Dennis Geist, member of the General Assembly of the Charles Darwin Foundation, former professor of volcanology at the University of Idaho and currently a Program Director for the U.S. National Science Foundation, says: "There are eruptions every few years at Wolf. The whole volcano is built of lavas like this, since the origin of the pink iguanas. So, it's a natural process and the eruptions are really part of the iguana's natural ecosystem." Dennis has conducted fieldwork in Galapagos since 1982 to understand the origins of magmas, eruptive processes and geological controls on biodiversity.

“This eruption is near the location of the two previous eruptions, so the ground is barren. The eruption will burn some vegetation, but then the lava will become covered in vegetation on its own after a few decades." Dennis adds.

Aerial shot of the eruption. Photo: Wilson Cabrera, GNPD.
Aerial shot of the eruption. Photo: Wilson Cabrera, GNPD.

The volcano has a height of 1710 m asl (5620 ft), and is the highest of the islands' volcanoes. The volcano's previous activity occurred in 2015. Two years later, in 2017, the Charles Darwin Foundation assisted in the preparation of a mission to study the lava flows. The mission involved the Geophysical Institute of the National Polytechnic School with scientists from Cambridge University and a ranger from the Galapagos National Park. More information here https://www.igepn.edu.ec/islas-galapagos/tag/Wolf.

What do we know about the Pink Iguana?

According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature, the pink iguana is critically endangered. Among the main problems that threaten the existence of this species is its extremely restricted distribution on an active volcano, a population dominated by adults and no recorded juveniles, the presence of introduced predators such as cats and rats, among others (Galapagos Atlas, 2018).

"It is very likely that the iguanas have been interacting with the eruptions throughout their existence. Pink iguanas even seem to like the scoria and ash from the 1981 eruption as nesting habitat." Dennis points out.

Last August, following an expedition the Galapagos National Park counted 211 individuals of pink land iguanas.

40m2 Fog Catcher system. Photo: Ernesto Bustamante Velarde, CDF.

At the end of October 2021, marked one year since the first fog catcher systems of the “Harvesting Water” Project were installed. The purpose of this initiative was to increase the amount of available fresh water, by means of encouraging sustainable livestock and agriculture on the island. In this way it contributes to the production of healthy food and the reduction of dependence on food from Santa Cruz and mainland Ecuador.
These systems have been installed in different parts of the world. In Latin America it is common to find them in Chile, Peru and Colombia. In Ecuador these have been also implemented in the provinces of Loja, Chimborazo and Pichincha (Gov. Pichincha, 2015).
The Fog Catchers consist of a 40 to 50m2 frame structure that supports a “rachel” or “polisombra 65/35” mesh. As the mist passes through the mesh, it condenses into water droplets that fall into a 6” diameter PVC pipe. This collecting tube ends in a 200-liter collecting tank that stores and distributes the collected water.

“The fog catchers are a very important tool to promote livestock and agricultural production in Isabela. These systems give us the opportunity to continue working on obtaining and managing water which is vital for the agricultural production in our island”. Eng. Romni Rodríguez, Agricultural Technician of the Ministry of Agriculture in Isabela.

At “Harvesting Water” we installed three 40m2 fog catchers in different locations in the highlands of Isabela. For this purpose, twelve sample tests were carried out at different locations that met the appropriate terrain features for the installation of fog trap systems according to the “FogQuest Fog Water Collection Manual” (2017 Edition). These characteristics include; an altitude higher than 400 meters above sea level, moderate gentle slopes, clear areas, and constant light or moderate wind.

In each of these locations, mini fog catchers or prototype fog catchers were installed, which are a 1/40 scale replica of the fog catcher systems. This means, they have a 1m2 frame. These prototypes were placed for an average time of two weeks, in order to be able to know the mist water collection potential at each location. The sampling tests were carried out between December 2019 and July 2020. The three places that had the best results and that met the selection criteria established by the project were selected.

Installation of 1m2 Fog Catcher prototypes for sampling potential sites for the installation of 40m2 fog catcher systems. Photo: Juan Manuel García, CDF.
Installation of 1m2 Fog Catcher prototypes for sampling potential sites for the installation of 40m2 fog catcher systems. Photo: Juan Manuel García, CDF.

The first fog catcher was installed in October 2020, at the control site of the the Galapagos National Park Directorate (GNPD) in the “El Cura” sector. The collected water is used by the park rangers engaged in the control and tourist facilities of the Sierra Negra volcano. In the same month, a second fog catcher was installed in the “Raquelita” farm owned by Mr. Juan Tupiza in the “Los Mellizos” sector. The third one was installed in March 2021 at the “La Florida” farm owned by Mr. Carlos Jaramillo in the “El Cura” sector. Both livestock farms are using the collected water for their cattle and to start agricultural activities.

As part of the commitments made by the beneficiaries with the project, they must carry out daily monitoring of the amount of water collected by their 40m2 fog catchers. For this, the data collection is conducted every day on 1m2 prototype Fog Catchers installed next to the large systems. The collected water of these mini Fog Catcher is transported and deposited in a 20-liter gallon. This allows to estimate up to 800 liters / day due to the water collected by the 1m2 mini fog traps is being multiplied by 40 - to estimate the amount collected by the 40m2 systems.

“We are using the collected water for our cows and we are also clearing a field to start planting corn, green and banana. The water helps me with the cattle, I have greatly reduced the need to bring water with tankers” Mr. Juan Tupiza, beneficiary of the project.

From left to right: Javier and Carlos Jaramillo. Fog catcher installed at the “La Florida” farm in “El Cura” sector. Photo: Ernesto Bustamante Velarde, CDF
From left to right: Javier and Carlos Jaramillo. Fog catcher installed at the “La Florida” farm in “El Cura” sector. Photo: Ernesto Bustamante Velarde, CDF

The first year of monitoring shows that the highest average amount of water per moth collected were in the peak months of the “wet” season (Garua season), that is, between July and September. The least average amount of water collected per month were April and May, which are months of transition from the "dry" to the "wet" season. The daily average water collected in the 3 systems installed was 178 liters/day - 5,340 liters/month. Also, the systems with higher altitudes are those with better results. In June 2021, the highest average water collection was obtained with 663.33 liters/day - 16,583 liters/month in the fog catcher located at the control site of the GNPD (highest locality with 899 meters above sea level). In April 2021, the lowest average was obtained with 31.74 liters/day - 952 liters/month in the fog catcher on the “La Florida” farm of the Jaramillo family (lowest locality with 636 meters above sea level).

The results allow us to observe trends in the behavior of the mist and in the amount of water collected in the selected farms. In general, a significant potential for mist water collection in certain areas of the upper part of Isabela has been demonstrated. Therefore, Fog Catcher systems are a real option in Isabela, should be explored on other islands as a technology - simple to implement, easy to maintain, cost effective and friendly to the environment that can contribute to the strengthening of agricultural production in the islands.

“Sustainable initiatives are welcome in the conservation of the Galapagos ecosystems and in particular if they are adjusted to the management of protected areas, as is the case of the location of fog catchers at the El Cura control site in the Sierra Negra Volcano. Has helped us to improve our capacity to collect water to be used in our facilities. These systems should continue to be implemented in agricultural areas to help their beneficiaries in their productive activities”. Head of the Environmental Education and Social Participation Area of the Isabela Technical Unit of the DPNG.

Panoramic view of the Fog Catcher installed in the DPNG control booth at the entrance to the Sierra Negra Volcano. Photo: Carla Zambrano Palacios, CDF.
Panoramic view of the Fog Catcher installed in the DPNG control booth at the entrance to the Sierra Negra Volcano. Photo: Carla Zambrano Palacios, CDF.
Scientists discover novel viruses in Galapagos giant tortoises

Press Release: Scientists from the Charles Darwin Foundation (CDF), the Saint Louis Zoo Institute for Conservation Medicine (ICM), the Research Center for Animal Health (INIA-CISA), the Complutense University, and the European University of Madrid, together with technicians from the Galapagos National Park Directorate (GNPD) describe, for the first time, four novel viruses in giant tortoises from the Galapagos Islands.

This research determined that several species of giant tortoises living on different islands carry herpesviruses and adenoviruses, two viruses well-known for causing disease in turtles and tortoises around the world. These results were verified in a process that is similar to the Covid test we humans have become increasingly familiar with, but for tortoises, we collect a swab sample from the eyes, mouth, and the cloaca for PCR (molecular) analyses.

Scientists tested a total of 454 tortoises and assessed up to four infectious disease-causing agents that threaten turtles and tortoises around the world (herpesvirus, adenovirus, mycoplasma, and ranavirus); two of these (adenovirus and herpesvirus) were deemed positive in Galapagos tortoises.

"Infectious diseases have been reported as causes of mortality in turtles and tortoises globally, but previous to our study there was no information about the infectious diseases that may affect giant tortoises in Galapagos” explains Dr. Ainoa Nieto Claudín, first author of this work, Ph.D. candidate and researcher at the CDF and ICM.

Interestingly, not all tortoise species tested in this study carried viruses. For example, in Española island that is not inhabited by humans, no viruses were detected, whereas in Santa Cruz both adenovirus and herpesvirus were detected in the species more closely related to human activities.

“Giant tortoises act as sentinels of ecosystem health and the discovery of four viruses highlights the need for in-depth studies of infectious agents in the Galapagos wildlife”, adds Dr. Nieto Claudín.

Another research study recently conducted by the same group described how human activities in Galapagos are driving the transmission of antibiotic resistance in giant tortoises.

Dr. Sharon Deem, Director of the ICM and senior author of the paper comments: “In the era of Covid-19 it has become increasingly evident of the value for conducting health assessments of endemic wildlife species to detect novel and emerging diseases that may threat animal and human health alike.”

Dr. Fernando Esperón, co-author of the paper and professor at the European University of Madrid explains:

“More than 70% of the diseases that threaten human health are also shared with domestic and wild animals. By attending animal health and testing them for potential diseases we are also taking care of potential human health threats.”

But discovering new viruses is not necessarily a negative thing. These are most likely endemic viruses that have evolved with their hosts -the giant tortoises- for hundreds of years.

“Endemic pathogens that have evolved with a particular species do not usually cause harm or diseases to those species unless the virus jumps to another species, or if the animal harboring the virus suffers from other stressors that may compromise their immune system,” explains Dr. Deem.

Future viral screening of other tortoise species is crucial to determine if these viruses play a role in tortoise fitness, morbidity, and survival, and whether some tortoise species might be “virus-free” and therefore more susceptible to diseases if they get in contact with infected animals.

This information will allow researchers to provide proper recommendations to the Galapagos National Park Directorate and other institutions to improve the management and reintroduction plans for these unique species, which would include strategies to avoid the movement of potential pathogens across islands and populations not previously exposed to these viruses.

This research was published in the journal of Transboundary and Emerging Diseases, which can be accessed through this link.

Press release.- For the second year running the Charles Darwin Foundation (CDF) and the Galapagos National Park Directorate (GNPD) report that new individuals of the Little Vermilion Flycatcher have added to the critically endangered population on Santa Cruz Island. This is due to an ambitious experimental management program to reduce the impacts of invasive species on this emblematic bird.

The Little Vermilion Flycatcher Pyrocephalus nanus, classified as Vulnerable by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), has already vanished from Floreana island and is very rare on other large islands such as Santiago and Santa Cruz. On Santa Cruz island, numbers have decreased dramatically over the last few decades, and scientists estimate that a maximum of 30 pairs remain. Most of these are found in the area of Mina de Granillo Rojo, a Scalesia forest overrun by invasive blackberry (Rubus niveus) and other introduced plant species.

The greatest threat to the Little Vermilion Flycatcher is the avian vampire fly, Philornis downsi. However, nest treatments to remove fly larvae did not always ensure fledgling success or address the problem of nest abandonment. This suggested that there were other factors affecting this species. Based on observations of foraging behavior, scientists hypothesized that birds were not getting enough high-energy prey to feed chicks. After experimental manipulation of their immediate surrounding habitat scientists determined that the dense stands of invasive blackberry were preventing parent birds from foraging on the ground for their preferred food, such as caterpillars and spiders. In 2018, CDF and University of Vienna, together with the GNPD, started a 3-year holistic management program that involved restoration of the Scalesia forest through blackberry removal, rodent control, and injection of a low-impact insecticide into the base of nests to reduce the number of Avian Vampire Fly larvae. This experimental management plan has proven highly effective, and the population of Little Vermillion flycatcher on Santa Cruz island has increased steadily.

David Anchundia, a PhD candidate working on this project, indicated that “In 2020, these interventions resulted in at least six fledglings joining the population – we could not visit the remaining nests because of lockdown restrictions due to the COVID-19 pandemic. This year, eight birds fledged from the nests, the largest number since we started monitoring in 2017. This is good news, as each new fledgling gives us hope that we can keep this extremely small population alive.”

Importantly, these studies have shown that an integrated management approach, that includes habitat restoration, is needed to ensure nesting success. Without this holistic approach, nests are abandoned typically at a very early stage of incubation. In the six one-hectare experimental plots where invasive blackberry is being removed, scientists are now also seeing natural recovery of several endemic and native plant species including the threatened giant daisy tree, Scalesia pedunculata, Galapagos cafetillo (Psychotria rufipes) and tree ferns. As such, management actions are also benefiting the restoration of the Scalesia forest, one of the most threatened habitats in the archipelago.

Local workers and Galapagos National Park rangers removing resprouts of blackberry from one of the experimentally managed plots. In the background, a wall of blackberry indicates the limit of the plot. Photo credit: David Anchundia, Charles Darwin Foundation.
Local workers and Galapagos National Park rangers removing resprouts of blackberry from one of the experimentally managed plots. In the background, a wall of blackberry indicates the limit of the plot. Photo credit: David Anchundia, CDF.

"These results are encouraging so we plan to expand the intervention area, which will contribute to increase the size of the population of this bird in the next season for the Little Vermilion Flycatcher to regain its spaces on the island of Santa Cruz." Comments Danny Rueda, Director of the Galapagos National Park.

This work is funded by the Galapagos Invasive Species Fund (FEIG), Galapagos Conservation Trust, Galapagos Conservancy, Swiss Friends of Galapagos, Lindblad Expeditions-National Geographic Fund, Oak Foundation, COmON, Kris Norvig, and Galapagos Evolution.

David Anchundia is currently a fellow of the Russell E. Train Education for Nature Program, World Wildlife Fund, and is undertaking his PhD at the University of Vienna.

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