The invasive Philornis downsi fly.

On February 15, members of two multi-country working groups attended a workshop hosted by the Charles Darwin Foundation (CDF) and the Galapagos National Park Directorate (GNPD) to share updates on research to conserve Darwin’s finches and other Galapagos landbirds and protect them from their number one enemy, the parasitic fly Philornis downsi. Researchers and collaborators working on the Philornis project now span 21 institutions from nine countries, highlighting the international efforts to control this invasive fly. Introduced to the Galapagos Islands about 60 years ago, this fly has become the principal threat to the survival of 20 native and endemic landbird species. The larvae of this fly parasitize and suck the blood of chicks, often causing all nestlings to die.

Larvae of the Philornis downsi fly, being studied at the Charles Darwin Research Station (CDRS).
Larvae of the Philornis downsi fly, being studied at the Charles Darwin Research Station (CDRS). Photo by: David Anchundia / CDF.

Birgit Fessl, coordinator of the Galapagos Landbird Conservation Plan, believes that the ongoing bird counts on all islands will allow CDF and GNPD to get an idea of the current status of bird populations. She explained:

“The insectivorous birds (Warbler Finch, Vermilion Flycatcher, Large Tree Finch) and island endemics (Mangrove Finch and Medium Tree Finch) are the most threatened by Philornis downsi at the moment.”

Gustavo Jiménez-Uzcátegui (CDF veterinarian) highlighted that landbirds in Galapagos are not only threatened by this fly, but also by climate change, human interactions, introduced species (especially cats and rats), pathogens and parasites, and contamination.

Large ground finch, one of the many bird species threatened by Philornis.
Large ground finch, one of the many bird species threatened by Philornis. Photo by: Sam Rowley / CDF.

While researchers work hard to find control methods for Philornis downsi, Francesca Cunninghame (CDF), GNPD and collaborators at San Diego Zoo Global and Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust have been working to protect the most vulnerable bird in the Galapagos, the critically endangered Mangrove Finch, of which there are less than 20 breeding pairs left worldwide. By bringing eggs into captivity and protecting chicks from attack from Philornis downsi, they have managed to increase the number of juvenile mangrove finches by over 50%.

Mangrove finches bred at the Research Station before being released into the wild.
Mangrove finches bred at the Research Station before being released into the wild. Photo by: Liza Díaz Lalova / CDF.

Last year they also tested a ‘short-stop method’ to control Philornis downsi in nests which has been developed by scientists at the University of Vienna. This method involves injecting a low toxicity insecticide into the base of the nests where larvae hang out when they are not feeding on chicks. This method has been successful in reducing parasite density in the nests of several finch species. However, “insecticides aren’t viable in the long run and can only be used in small areas and reachable nests. We need to find a long-term solution,” stated researcher Sabine Tebbich from the University of Vienna.

Flies in the lab are difficult to keep alive, since their diet consists of blood from animal hosts.
Flies in the lab are difficult to keep alive, since their diet consists of blood from animal hosts. Photo by: Emile Patry / CDF.

It is a race against time to find a long-term control method that will ensure the recovery of Galapagos landbird populations. “The big nut to crack is to find a way to breed the fly in the lab so that we have a continuous supply of flies for our studies. Once this has been accomplished, we will be able make significant and fast progress in finding a viable long-term control method,” claimed Charlotte Causton, Coordinator of the Philornis Strategic Research Plan.

Paola Lahuatte, Junior Scientist, working hard in the lab to find a way to breed the fly.
Paola Lahuatte, Junior Scientist, working hard in the lab to find a way to breed the fly. Photo by: Liza Díaz Lalova / CDF.

The complexity of this research is mind-boggling. Although CDF researchers and collaborators are making huge strides in understanding the fly’s entire lifecycle, many mysteries still remain, the biggest being why flies won’t breed in the lab even though they are found in all kinds of habitats. Factors such as temperature, humidity, sunlight, and diet must all be taken into account.

Boaz Yuval and colleagues at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem are working on describing the bacterial community of the gut of Philornis downsi flies because it is possible that larvae reared in the laboratory are missing bacteria that are crucial to development. Meanwhile, Stephen Teale and Alejandro Mieles at SUNY-ESF are investigating the role that pheromones play in mating. By understanding the compounds in pheromones, it might be possible to improve mating success in the lab as well as use these attractants in traps to target Philornis in highly invaded areas such as the mangrove forests of the Mangrove Finch on Isabela Island.

One possible long-term solution for controlling Philornis downsi is biological control, involving the importation of a natural enemy that selectively targets the fly. Luckily, George Heimpel (University of Minnesota) and colleagues seem to be on the right track, as both fieldwork and lab tests suggest that a parasitic wasp named Conura annulifera only parasitizes Philornis flies. If studies continue to show this, the next step will be to request approval to introduce the wasp to the quarantine facility at the Charles Darwin Research Station to conduct tests to ensure it won’t negatively affect Galapagos insects.

Conura anullifera wasp, a potential biological control for Philornis downsi.
Conura anullifera wasp, a potential biological control for Philornis downsi. Photo by: Dave Hansen / University of Minnesota.

The Galapagos National Park Directorate (GNPD) plays a fundamental role in this bi-institutional project. As many researchers stated, without the management of invasive species like blackberry, bird habitat destruction would be much worse. Christian Sevilla elaborated on the GNPD’s role:

“The Galapagos National Park supports administrative matters and the implementation of possible control methods to combat Philornis in vulnerable areas.”

Workshops like the one held at the Charles Darwin Research Station are highly informative and great places for researchers from all over the world to discuss ways to conserve Galapagos biodiversity. Enzo Reyes, a PhD student at Massey University, highlighted the importance of speaking to other collaborators at workshops and of getting greater funding for studying the Philornis fly and landbirds in general. Participants have signed a declaration with a large group of partners to highlight the importance of this research.

This is one of the Charles Darwin Foundation’s many projects in Galapagos and we depend entirely on the generosity of our supporters. If you would like to help us find a solution to the invasive fly and save Galapagos landbirds, please donate now.

Sharp-beaked Finch on Pinta Island.

Scientific knowledge about Galapagos land birds is imperative for their survival.

How many land birds are there in Galapagos and where are they found? In which ways does the parasitic Philornis downsi fly affect the archipelago’s bird populations and what can we do to save them? Twenty years after my arrival in 1995, these questions continue to motivate me. Clearly, if we don’t know how many birds there are, and at what rate we’re losing them, we won’t be able to conserve Galapagos land birds.

When I first arrived, it soon became apparent that surprisingly little was known about how many birds were found on each island. Despite extensive studies on the breeding biology and evolution of Darwin’s finches and other birds, no one had actually counted the birds!  Unfortunately, as we attempt to determine their population size we are losing the birds at an alarming rate due to parasitism of an invasive fly.

Philornis downsi, an invasive fly.
Philornis downsi, an invasive fly. Photo: Sam Rowley.

In the 1960s, a parasitic fly species, Philornis downsi, was accidentally introduced to Galapagos and, without anyone noticing, it became established. Although it looks like an innocent common fly, this species has blood-sucking larvae that parasitize small land birds, and is affecting 18 native or endemic species in Galapagos. One of the priorities of the Galapagos Landbird Conservation Program, a bi-institutional program with the Galapagos National Park Directorate, is to find a method to protect birds from these deadly parasites.

It is a battle against time to find control methods for the fly, while also learning how many birds are out there. We use the “point count method” for estimating the density of birds, which involves recording all singing birds that you hear in a 5-minute interval and estimating their distance from the listener. In order to do this, we had to learn the different song types and dialects of Galapagos birds. However, even after learning them, identifications are still challenging, especially when birds are far away, or when a bird song varies according to the island it is on. Whenever we go to the field, we spend our first day testing our bird identification skills!

Heading up to Alcedo Volcano to monitor birds.
Heading up to Alcedo Volcano to monitor birds. Photo: CDF Archive.

Now, for the first time, we have baseline data for all passerine species and most other landbirds from San Cristóbal, Floreana, Santa Cruz, the highlands of Santiago, and Sierra Negra volcano on Isabela, as well as some of the smaller islands. Our goal over the next few years is to carry out surveys in the remaining islands of the archipelago.

Monitoring team heading off to San Cristobal. From left David Anchundia, Christian Shultze, Birgit Fessl, Erwin Nemeth, Michael Dvorak, Beate Wendelin, Novalino Gaona.
Monitoring team heading off to San Cristobal. From left David Anchundia, Christian Shultze, Birgit Fessl, Erwin Nemeth, Michael Dvorak, Beate Wendelin, Novalino Gaona. Photo: CDF Archive.

Scientific research that we conduct has led the IUCN to upgrade the threat status for three bird species of Santa Cruz Island. It is also essential for determining the rate at which bird populations decline and what can be done to prevent population decline. This is one of the many scientific research projects conducted by the Charles Darwin Foundation, and is completely dependent on the generosity of our supporters. Please donate today to save the birds.

The Charles Darwin Research Station's Women.

Today we pay homage to all the women who work for science and conservation in Galapagos. All departments, including Science, Administration and Executive Management, depend on an incredible team of women who work for the conservation of these fragile islands. They are a clear example of women who have demonstrated being capable of professional success in a world that continues to struggle against gender inequality.

Did you know that according to the UNESCO Institute for Statistics, less than 30% of world’s researchers are women? At the Charles Darwin Research Station, almost 70% of our scientists are women.

For International Women’s Day, we would like to highlight their importance and also emphasize the struggles that women face when they wish to work in science. In the following videos, four women give advice to those who would like to work in science and conservation.

 

Patricia Tapia helping classify seeds for Galapagos Verde 2050.

The scholarships at the Charles Darwin Foundation help train talented students from Galapagos.

Patricia Isabela Tapia, a 20-year-old Galapagos youth, is currently following her passion and studying abroad. After participating in a challenging selection process that gives scholarships to two students from Galapagos each year, she received a partial scholarship from the Charles Darwin Foundation for her Bachelor’s degree in Biology at the University of Newcastle (England) and a scholarship from the Dutch COmON Foundation for both Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees.

Patricia was the best student of her class in secondary school and received the highest marks for the Ecuadorian baccalaureate at the Unidad Educativa Nacional Galápagos. She also obtained a diploma from the International Baccalaureate with the highest scores in Galapagos. Currently, she finds herself in her fourth semester in England and during her summer vacations she travels to Galapagos to volunteer at the Charles Darwin Research Station (CDRS).

Ever since she was a child, her goal and dream was to study at a British University. Since then, every decision she took revolved around that dream, which sometimes seemed too utopic and optimistic. However, today, she is living her dream and has already established bigger goals that she is certain she will fulfill. It is true that everything you dream of is achievable:

“It is important to focus on the things we are passionate about in order to reach our dreams. It’s not like when we were kids and believed by wishing something it will magically occur. It’s a bit more complicated that. Goals can be reached only by working hard every day, having perseverance and not allowing any obstacle stop us. It’s important to ignore anybody who thinks you’re not capable. We must also constantly give ourselves greater goals. Additionally, it’s important that we help others as we advance, because life is about that: sharing and having empathy for others. But mainly it’s about loving what we do,” stated Patricia Tapia.

Her experience at the Charles Darwin Research Station is helping her discover which area in Biology she is most passionate about, but at the moment she wants to focus on ecology and conservation, even though she still has time to decide.

Patricia volunteering at the Charles Darwin Research Station in the summer of 2017.
Patricia volunteering at the Charles Darwin Research Station in the summer of 2017. Photo by: Patricia Jaramillo.

Last summer she helped scientist Inti Keith with her marine invasive species project. She went into the field and followed various transects to take data points and photos of invasive algae of the Caulerpa genus. This information will be used to compare with data in the hot season and identify changes in behavior during different seasons. In addition to helping with data analysis, during the Open House at the Research Station, she gave presentations about the project to inform the community about cutting-edge science. “I loved being able to explain to the community what we do at the Research Station and what I could be doing in the future,” Patricia explained.

Patricia Tapia presenting information about marine invasive species at the Open House in 2017.
Patricia Tapia presenting information about marine invasive species at the Open House in 2017. Photo: CDF Archive.

Patricia also worked for the ambitious Galapagos Verde 2050 ecological restoration project, which has planted more than 7,500 plants with water saving technology. At GV2050, Patricia was involved in the classification of seeds extracted from the excrement of land iguanas from Plaza Sur. She will probably write her thesis based on the data that she will collect next summer when she returns to Galapagos to volunteer with CDRS again. At the moment she is interested in focusing her thesis on the diet of Chelonoidis donfaustoi, a recently identified species of giant tortoise from Santa Cruz Island.

Patricia at the Open House of the CDRS in 2017.
Patricia at the Open House of the CDRS in 2017. Photo by: Sergio Zamora.

Patricia’s second passion is dance. In addition to her academic studies she is part of the society of dance at the University of Newcastle. Additionally, beginning in her first year at university, she has been part of the dance teams that represents them at student competitions around the UK.

Patricia participating at a dance competition in Edinburgh, Scotland, where she was representing her university.
Patricia participating at a dance competition in Edinburgh, Scotland, where she was representing her university. Photo by: Newcastle University Dance Society.
Patricia Tapia with the water saving technology of Galapagos Verde 2050.
Patricia Tapia with the water saving technology of Galapagos Verde 2050. Photo by: Patricia Jaramillo.

Patricia feels very grateful for the opportunity to study abroad and getting to know a new culture that “represents the individuality of every person” and where there is great acceptance of foreigners. She misses the joy of Latinos, Ecuadorian food, her mother tongue, sunny weather, island lifestyle, her friends and her family’s affection. Although it has been difficult for her, she is aware of how lucky she is and sees this as an opportunity for growth and gaining academic, social and cultural knowledge.

Patricia wishes to return to Galapagos to contribute to the conservation of the archipelago. Although she is very grateful for the quality of education she receives in England, she doesn’t wish to stay because she feels a great responsibility and love for her home, the Enchanted Islands.

“What inspired me was to be born and grow up in Galapagos, where I was surrounded by nature and very connected to it. My parents have showed me to love the place I live and that’s what I felt inspired me….one of the various reasons I decided to go so far from home was so that I could gain preparation and obtain the necessary tools to return to the place I was born and give back a little of what that paradise gave me and which I hope to protect” – Patricia Tapia

Patricia Tapia at the University of Newcastle.
Patricia Tapia at the University of Newcastle. Photo by: Gautham Suresh.

The Charles Darwin Foundation’s scholarship program is an essential part of its mission because the training of local people will assure a sustainable future for the islands. This project, like all of the others at CDF, is financed entirely by 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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