The Galapagos martin is an endangered endemic bird. This individual and its nest were observed on the 30th of April 2017.

The Galapagos martin (Progne modesta) is an endemic species, which means it is only found on the archipelago. Due to its low numbers, it is categorized as an endangered species by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN). However, very little is known about its biology and natural history, including information about threats to its conservation.

It is a priority for the Charles Darwin Foundation (CDF) and the Galapagos National Park Directorate (GNPD) to determine if this bird is affected by the invasive fly, Philornis downsi, one of the biggest threats to landbirds of the archipelago. Currently, the fly is threatening 18 species of endemic landbirds and one native bird, since its larvae feed on the blood of chicks and can cause their death.

The Philornis downsi fly at the CDRS lab.
The Philornis downsi fly at the CDRS lab. Photo by: Sam Rowley / CDF.

Spotting martin nests, however, isn’t easy due to the fact that it nests in cliffs near the sea. Since some these locations are tourist sites, in 2014 naturalist guides were asked to look for and report nests. In March of 2017 various guides reported having seen a nest with chicks in Tagus Cove (west of Isabela Island). The next month, ornithologists of the Charles Darwin Research Station (CDRS) went to the area to check the sighting. They found two nests under construction and one nest with an egg incubating. This year, scientists returned to this location and with the help of the crew on a GNPD ship, they collected the inactive nest to analyze it.

Presence of Philornis downsi in the nest.
Presence of Philornis downsi in the nest. Photo by: David Anchundia / CDF.

Ornithologists found 13 pupae of Philornis downsi in this martin’s nest, which is alarming. As explained by researcher David Anchundia,

“It’s not only worrisome that the fly parasitizes this bird, but also surprising that the fly is able to find nests and survive in extreme conditions, such as those of a crack in a cliff by the sea.”

Cliff and cave where the nest was found, a few meters from the sea.
Cliff and cave where the nest was found, a few meters from the sea. Photo by: David Anchundia / CDF.

The CDF, in collaboration with the GNPD, plan to inspect more Galapagos martin nests to evaluate the impact of Philornis downsi. Reports by guides will be vital to keep researching. Also, we are planning to determine if Philornis downsi parasitizes other birds in this habitat.

Brown noddy terns (Anous stolidus galapagensis) nesting with an egg, four meters from the collected nest.
Brown noddy terns (Anous stolidus galapagensis) nesting with an egg, four meters from the collected nest. Photo by: David Anchundia / CDF.

This urgent work depends entirely on the support of our followers. With your donation, our team will find out more information about the impact of Philornis downsi on Galapagos landbirds and find mechanisms to protect them.

A Galapagos martin hunting.
A Galapagos martin hunting. Photo by: David Anchundia / CDF.
Jennifer Mallison (Southampton University), Bernhard Riegl (Nova Southeastern University), Inti Keith (FCD), Ken Collins (Southampton University), Wilson Iñiguez (FCD), Sascha Steiner (Institute for Tropical Marine Ecology).

A team of expert scientists embarked on the M/V Queen Mabel this April to Darwin and Wolf to conduct surveys and asses the current state of the coral reefs of the northern part of the archipelago and continue the research on marine invasive species in the Galapagos Marine Reserve (GMR).

The Marine Invasive project is led by Dr Inti Keith from the Charles Darwin Foundation in collaboration with the Galapagos National Park Directorate (GNPD), the Galapagos Biosecurity Agency (ABG), The Ecuadorian Navy and their Oceanographic department (INOCAR). Scientists from the Charles Darwin Foundation (CDF), University of Southampton, Nova Southeastern University and the Institute for Tropical Marine Ecology got together to study the green algae Caulerpa sp. that is growing on the coral reefs and evaluate the general health of the reefs at Darwin and Wolf.

The team deployed several 50m transects along the seabed and conducted several activities:

  1. Percentage cover of Caulerpa sp. using quadrants along the transects
  2. Biodiversity census (fish, macroinvertebrates and sessile organisms)
  3. Temperature, currents, wave action and visibility parameters were taken
  4. Changed temperature loggers form the previous expedition
  5. Created 3D models of the reef in order to measure growth
Caulerpa sp. growth on the coral reef at Darwin.
Caulerpa sp. growth on the coral reef at Darwin. Photo by: Inti Keith.

The preliminary results from this expedition show that the coral reefs in Darwin and Wolf are in good condition and several recruits were observed. However important parts of the reef in Darwin have been affected by the growth of Caulerpa sp. which appears to be competing with the native sessile communities. The team observed small corals (Porites lobata and, frequently, Tubastrea coccinea) to be totally overgrown by Caulerpa. Porites lobata recruits, when overgrown, tended to lose all colour and could therefore be expected to die. Tubastrea coccinea showed no visible reaction to being overgrown, probably due to the azooxanthellate and therefore unaffected by shading.

The team did not observe an increase in mortality of medium and large sized corals in comparison to the previous monitoring periods. Overall, the health of the larger coral size classes was excellent, and also many recruits were observed in several areas of the reef. Thus, it appears that the life-dynamics of stony corals at Darwin has not yet been negatively affected by either Caulerpa sp. or other stress-factors, such as high temperatures.

Some instances of slight bleaching were observed, but these did not correlate to unusually high temperatures (which were not observed) and were patchy and isolated in distribution. Similar to the previous expedition, the team found several patched of Caulerpa sp. growing on the coral reef at Wolf. However, there was no evidence of Caulerpa overgrowing corals in Wolf; what was noticeable was the competition with other algae species present on the reef, so it is important to maintain a close watch on the reef system of Wolf.

Additionally, photogrammetry was conducted on several reef systems in order to create 3D models of the system and its surroundings in order to be able to measure the growth of Caulerpa over a period of time. This methodology can also be used to measure coral growth, bleaching and diseases over time. The data from the photogrammetry will be processed and 3D models created which will allow the team to analyse the results in order to proceed with this methodology in the near future.

This project has been made possible thanks to the support of our generous donors: Galapagos Conservancy, the Leona M. and Harry B. Helmsley Charitable Trust, Lindblad Expeditions - National Geographic Fund, and Dr. Ken Collins and Ms. Jenny Mallinson. 

This is one of the Charles Darwin Foundation’s many projects in Galapagos and we depend entirely on the generosity of our supporters. Please donate today to support our work with marine invasive species.

SERC and CDF join forces for science and conservation.

We are very pleased to announce a new partnership between The Charles Darwin Foundation for the Galapagos Islands and the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center. A Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) was signed on January 9th, 2018, which has the goal of conducting collaborative research to understand and sustain coastal marine ecosystems. Since both nonprofits have a long history of scientific research to improve management strategies and conserve the environment, this new MOU will be mutually beneficial and will have greater impact for the preservation of unique archipelagos like the Galapagos Islands.

The Smithsonian has over 500 scientists who work across a range of different scientific disciplines to advance knowledge about the biological diversity and sustainability of coastal ecosystems. Meanwhile, the Charles Darwin Foundation is the only nonprofit organization in Galapagos with an on-site research station, committed team of local and international scientists and nearly 60 years of experience as official advisor to the Government of Ecuador for the conservation of the archipelago.

The SERC and CDF teams met to establish this partnership.
The SERC and CDF teams met to establish this partnership. Photo by: CDF Archive.

Oceans are vital for humanity. However, they remain greatly understudied, and there is a pressing need to standardize data on changing nearshore ecosystems. This new MOU will support basic research, foster international collaboration and interdisciplinary initiatives, and promote professional training of the next generation of conservationists. These factors will promote resilience to change of Galapagos’ marine ecosystems and create best practices for the conservation and management of the archipelago.

Biological invasions by non-native species are accelerating worldwide and are particularly damaging to island ecosystems. Unfortunately, these threats are not fully understood and research is imperative to reveal which species are present, how they change over time, and how effective management strategies are. Inti Keith, Senior Scientific Investigator at the Charles Darwin Foundation, stated that,

"Increased tourism and flow of goods and people by ships are exerting pressure on Galapagos. Marine invasive species are arriving on the hulls of ships, in ballast water and also due to oceanographic currents, so we need improve our understanding of these threats in order to conserve the archipelago."

A joint effort from the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center and the Charles Darwin Foundation will help fill this knowledge gap and enhance collaboration among scientists, scholars, researchers, and students, serving to inform management and policy and also help educate future generations.

Anson H. Hines, Ph.D., Director, Smithsonian Environmental Research Center said,

“Our partnership with the Charles Darwin Foundation promotes world-class scientific research and crucial stewardship of the Galapagos Islands and mainland Ecuador. The scientific history and strategic location of these sites make them critical resources for tracking marine ecosystems and biodiversity. We will share the products of this strong collaboration to help measure responses to change across our growing network of coastal sites around the globe.”

Meeting to sign the MOU, which will provide a collaborative effort for the conservation of Galapagos.
Meeting to sign the MOU, which will provide a collaborative effort for the conservation of Galapagos. Photo by: CDF Archive.

More specifically, the MOU intends to promote opportunities for multidisciplinary and long-term environmental monitoring and research of Galapagos’ coastal ecosystems and mainland Ecuador in order to:

  1. Increase scientific understanding of the biodiversity, composition, structure, dynamics, and ecological function of coastal ecosystems;
  2. Improve knowledge about the key drivers, both natural and human, of ecosystem structure and dynamics;
  3. Understand the causes and consequences of environmental and coastal ecosystem change; and
  4. Help restore and improve these communities where possible.

“This research couldn’t be more pressing than now, in a world of constant change. By advancing synthesis, interpretation, and ready access of data, there will be greater understanding, improved management strategies, and increased environmental awareness,”

said the Charles Darwin Foundation’s Executive Director, Dr. Arturo Izurieta.

Finally, this MOU will involve collaboration between agencies, new resources, enhanced facilities and infrastructure, collaboration between research staff, training for university students, and greater flow of information (through seminars, meetings, and workshops). There are high expectations of all that will be achieved through this innovative partnership.

Media inquiries: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. (Kristen Minogue, SERC); This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. (CDRS)

Dr. Pelayo Salinas de León with the DOVs underwater camera system at Darwin’s Arch.

Written in collaboration with: Pelayo Salinas de León.

Since 2013, the Charles Darwin Research Station’s shark team, in collaboration with the Galapagos National Park Directorate, have conducted three annual trips to Darwin and Wolf to study sharks: one during the warm season, another during the cold season and another during the transition season. The aim of this study is to determine the impact of the El Niño / La Niña cycles and the effect of the total protection from fishing provided by the Marine Sanctuary established in 2016 on the main species of sharks and predatory fish.

Silky sharks and a Galapagos shark around the camera system of stereo-BRUVs.
Silky sharks and a Galapagos shark around the camera system of stereo-BRUVs. Photo by: Thomas Peschak / National Geographic.

Two underwater camera systems are used by our scientists:

  • Stereo-BRUVs (Baited Remote Underwater Video Surveys), which are remote cameras mounted on a triangular metal structure, to which a canister with bait is attached so that the odor attracts sharks.
  • Stereo-DOVs (Diver-Operated Video Surveys), which are also cameras don’t have a bait canister, and are carried by a scuba diving scientist.

Both methodologies consist of two cameras placed in the lower corners of a steel base with a distance of 70 cm between them, and at a converging angle of 6 cm. The cameras film in high definition and allow scientist to record different species of sharks and fish. Because they record in stereo (as in 3D), by using a specialized software called Event Measure, scientists can measure the length of animals very precisely. This is vital to understand the distribution of juvenile and adult sharks in the archipelago, as well as their diversity and relative abundance. The cameras are calibrated in a pool before each field trip to ensure their accuracy.

Deploying a stereo-BRUVs at Darwin Island.
Deploying a stereo-BRUVs at Darwin Island. Photo by: Pelayo Salinas de León / CDF.

There are two types of BRUVs: A bottom BRUVs that is placed at a depth of 25 meters (close to the seabed) and the mid-water BRUVs, which is placed in the middle of the water column, about 15 meters from the seabed. On one of the rope ends, a weight is attached to keep the cameras in position. A set of buoys are attached on top of the triangle that holds the cameras to keep it at the desired depth. An additional two buoys are attached to the other end of the rope on the surface, to be able to locate and recover the cameras after an hour and a half of filming.

Schematic representation of the differences between pelagic and benthic BRUVs.
Schematic representation of the differences between pelagic and benthic BRUVs. Infographic by: Daniel Unda / CDF.

Contrary to what most people think, sharks are usually very shy, and when scuba divers are in the water, many species simply do not come into sight. However, these species can be recorded by using remote cameras with bait and without divers. When the bait is in a closed container, sharks can smell but not eat, so their behavior is not altered. In a recent study published in the Marine Ecology Progress Series international journal by scientists from CDF, Massey University in New Zealand, and Curtin University in Australia, the results from 629 stereo-BRUVs conducted in the Galapagos Marine Reserve were presented. A total of 877 sharks were recorded from 10 different species, most prominently including hammerheads, black tip and Galapagos sharks. Some species that were frequently recorded by the BRUVs, such as the tiger shark or hound shark, are very rarely seen by scuba divers in the Galapagos. The data obtained in Galapagos will also contribute to the Global Fin Print project, which aims to conduct the first global shark census using BRUVs.

 The eight most common shark species in the BRUVs: a) Bignose shark, b) Silky shark, c) Galapagos shark, d) Black tip shark, e) Tiger shark, f) Scalloped hammerhead shark, g) White tip shark, h) Galapagos bullhead shark, i) White-margin fin smooth-houndshark, j) Spotted houndshark.
The eight most common shark species in the BRUVs: a) Bignose shark, b) Silky shark, c) Galapagos shark, d) Black tip shark, e) Tiger shark, f) Scalloped hammerhead shark, g) White tip shark, h) Galapagos bullhead shark, i) White-margin fin smooth-houndshark, j) Spotted houndshark. Figure from Acuña-Marrero et al. 2018.

On the other hand, when conducting surveys with DOVs, a scientist carries the stereo-camera system while scuba diving. Scientists film a linear transect following the depth contour of the seabed at a depth of 20 m. A second diver carries a surface GPS located on a plastic buoy to record a track of the area covered. Swimming at a constant speed, scientists cover an approximate distance of 500 meters.

Schematic representation of a survey using DOVs.
Schematic representation of a survey using DOVs. Infographic by: Daniel Unda / CDF.

After returning from the field, the GPS data is downloaded to quantify the distance covered and videos are analyzed using the Event Measure software. Using this software, recorded species can be identified, the total number of individuals are counted and their length is estimated precisely. Unlike the BRUVs, videos filmed with DOVs allow us to estimate and standardize the area covered in order to estimate sharks and fish biomass per unit area (kilograms per square meter), which is the standard global unit used for coastal species. In 2016, Charles Darwin Foundation and National Geographic Pristine Seas scientists used two years of DOVs data to determine that Darwin and Wolf islands have the largest global shark biomass

Scientist David Acuña, carrying out a DOVs transect at Wolf Island.
Scientist David Acuña, carrying out a DOVs transect at Wolf Island. Photo by: Pelayo Salinas de León / CDF.

The use of the stereo-video methodology requires much more time to obtain results, but compared to the traditional underwater visual censuses (UVC), that have a very high error rate, the percentage error in length measurements is less than 5%. This makes the BRUVs and DOVs methodologies not only complementary, but very efficient to study sharks and other fish in the archipelago.

This project is carried out in collaboration with the Galapagos National Park Directorate, Massey University in New Zealand and Curtin University in Australia. It is possible thanks to the support of Save Our Seas Foundation, Helmsley Charitable Trust, National Geographic Pristine Seas, and several other individual donors.

This is one of the Charles Darwin Foundation’s many projects in Galapagos and we depend entirely on the generosity of our supporters. Please donate today.

The “Charles Darwin Foundation for the Galapagos Islands”, in French “Fondation Charles Darwin pour les îles Galapagos”, Association International sans but lucratif (“AISBL”), has its registered office located at Drève du Pieuré 19, 1160 Brussels, and is registered under the trade registry of Brussels under the number 0409.359.103.

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