Catherine Rigsby, Chancellor of Yachay Tech, and Arturo Izurieta, Executive Director of CDF, sign the agreement.

On September 15, Catherine Rigsby, Chancellor of Yachay Tech, Paul Baker, Dean of the School of Geological Sciences and Engineering, Edwin Cadena, a teacher at the same school, and Arturo Izurieta, Executive Director of the Charles Darwin Foundation for the Galapagos islands, met in the facilities of the research Station in Puerto Ayora to sign a framework agreement to promote education and research for the conservation of biodiversity, geological research of Galapagos and the creation of Ph.D programs.

Currently, the two institutions are starting the construction of specific agreements, which they will work on over the next 5 years. One of these agreements, in collaboration with the Archaeological Museum of Argentina and Germany, aims to conduct research on the giant tortoises of the Galapagos. How the proteins in their bones grow and differentiate, and why they live so long are among the features to investigate. The added value of this research lies in the analysis at the molecular level, with Edwin Cadena at the head as the expert.

Another contribution of Yachay Tech in this agreement is to provide oversight for research standards in Galapagos. Also, in the future, to establish specific agreements related to the training of students and the use of facilities for research on the islands. Additionally, Cadena ensures that more projects will be forthcoming related to geology, especially studies in volcanology, biodiversity and oceanic geology.

Arturo Izurieta said the investigation conducted under this framework agreement would reflect the capacity and scientific quality of Ecuador that generates impacts at local, national and international levels.           

Arturo Izurieta Valery, Ph.D

Dr. Arturo Izurieta Valery is the Executive Director of the Charles Darwin Foundation for the Galapagos Islands (CDF). Dr. Izurieta has experience in science, management of protected areas and local issues. He worked for more than 30 years in strategic projects and conservation in Ecuador, Australia, Malaysia and Central America. In his management of the Directorate of the CDF, Dr. Izurieta works in the strategic planning of the institution and strengthening collaborative bonds between national and international researchers to support science projects for conservation and sustainability in the Galapagos Islands.

Paul Baker, Ph.D.

Dr. Baker holds a PhD in Geology from the Scripps Institute of Oceanography in California. He is currently the Dean of the School of Geological Sciences and Engineering at Yachay Tech. He has experience in analyzing climate and paleoclimate, global environmental change, Geochemistry and Oceanography. He is also Professor of Earth and Ocean Sciences at Duke University. He is Chairman of the newly created Andean chapter of the Sustainable Development Solutions Network (part of the United Nations’ global SDSN initiative). Paul is also a member of both the Committee for Research and Exploration of the National Geographic Society, and the Board of the Charles Darwin Foundation.

Edwin Cadena, Ph.D.

Edwin is a geologist-palaeontologist with a solid foundation in discovering new fossil species. He also has considerable experience in the phylogeny and molecular paleontology of turtles. He completed his studies at the Industrial University of Santander, in Colombia, his masters at the University of Florida, and his PhD at North Carolina State University, both in the United States. He also was awarded a postdoctoral fellowship at the Alexander Von Humboldt Foundation in Germany. He joined the faculty of Yachay Tech in October 2015.

Giant Tortoise and Vermilion Flycatcher at Alcedo Volcano, Isabela Island.

Results of a phylogenetic study that used samples of the vermillion flycatcher from the museum collection of the California Academy of Sciences were published on the 24th of May 2016 in the journal “Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution”.

The study was led by investigator Ore Carmi of the California Academy of Sciences and states that the two subspecies of vermillion flycatcher found in the Galapagos are two true species. The species Pyrocephalus nanus is found on almost all the islands of the archipelago and Pyrocephalus dubius was only reported on San Cristobal.

The scientists that worked on this study based their research on samples collected in 1905 and 1906 during the California Academy of Sciences Expedition to Galapagos. The samples collected and studied are stored at the Museum of the California Academy of Sciences. With this evidence the scientists are going to make an official request for a name change of the two subspecies to the American Ornithologists Union for North and South America.

The researchers state that Pyrocephalus dubius was reported for the last time in 1987 and that it may be extinct. They suggest that this could be the first landbird extinction reported in the Galapagos Islands in modern times.

Since 2013, the Charles Darwin Foundation (CDF) and the Galapagos National Park Directorate (GNPD) have been working with collaborating ornithologists on a program to conserve the small landbirds of the Galapagos Islands.

The objectives of the program are to evaluate the status of landbirds, to study their ecology, and to develop mechanisms for their protection. Included in these studies is the registration and regular monitoring of populations of the vermillion flycatcher in the archipelago. Recent reports show a decline or an absence of birds on some islands. Interviews conducted on San Cristobal suggest that the vermillion flycatcher has been seen more recently than 1987; it is not known whether it is extinct or extremely rare. Island-wide surveys are needed to determine its status. It has not been seen on Floreana and on Santa Cruz Island the vermillion flycatcher is in a critical state with approximately 50-60 individuals.

To understand their reproductive biology and the factors that are influencing in population declines the vermillion flycatcher is being studied on Isabela and Santa Cruz by CDF and ornithologists from the University of Vienna. Threats could include the invasive parasitic fly Philornis downsi, cats, introduced rats and the reduction of habitat (humid forests) by invasive plants. Also, in conjunction with the University of Missouri, scientists are analyzing if a parasite or a disease could be affecting bird populations.

CDF researcher David Anchundia and GNPD park rangers travelled to Wolf and Alcedo volcanoes on Isabela Island, finding apparently healthy vermillion flycatcher populations in these two areas.

Scientists, together with technicians of the GNPD, are continuing efforts to understand the status of these small landbirds in order to develop methods that will lead to an increase in population numbers of this symbolic bird of the Galapagos Islands.

Additional related information

Article about the Galapagos Vermillion Flycatcher’s by Godfrey Merlen

Philornis downsi Fly

'Galápagos Islands face first-ever bird extinction' in California Academy of Sciences

A new 25-year deal is signed.

A 25-year cooperation deal was signed in Quito on Friday, July 29, 2016 and a symbolic ceremony took place in Galapagos on the 11th of August of the same year, between the Ecuadorian Government and the Charles Darwin Foundation that will strengthen crucial scientific research and conservation efforts in the Galapagos Archipelago.

The agreement, signed in Santa Cruz Island located in the Galapagos archipelago, will secure the work undertaken by the Foundation through the globally renowned Charles Darwin Research Station.

Under the deal the Charles Darwin Foundation, founded in 1959, and its Reasearch Station inaugurated in 1964, will deepen its work that specializes into better understanding and preserving the unique flora and fauna found in the archipelago and the surrounding seas.

The scientific research will focus on areas such as global warming, the impact of human activity on the islands, the innovation of sustainable systems, and biodiversity.

The deal to extend the work undertaken by the Charles Darwin Foundation is part of the emphasis given to academic research by the Ecuadorian government as it seeks to move away from primary export economy to a more high tech, high skill knowledge based economy.

The signing of the agreement was attended by the Ecuadorian Foreign Minister, Guillaume Long; the Secretary of Higher Education, Science, Technology and Innovation, Rene Ramirez; and the Director of the Charles Darwin Foundation, Arturo Izurieta as well as the UNESCO representative in Ecuador, Jorge Ellis.

Ecuador's Foreign Minister, Guillaume Long said, "I am delighted that we are able to strengthen this strategic alliance between the Ecuadorian government, and the Charles Darwin Foundation with this 25 year deal. Agreeing a major new chapter in the Charles Darwin Foundation's work in Ecuador, underlines the commitment of our country to conservation. In recent years, we have more than doubled the amount of territory under environmental conservation. We have also doubled the marine area under conservation or benefitting from environmental management.  It also highlights our commitment to using science and knowledge to create a greener modern economy that tackles social injustices and puts less pressure on the planet. Science is essential for ensuring conservation. But conservation also plays an important role in facilitating new areas of scientific research”.

The scientific research activities that will be done at the Station will be carried out in collaboration with Ecuadorian higher education and research institutions, as well as with a range of internationally recognized universities and research institutions.

The Secretary of Higher Education and Science Rene Ramirez congratulated the scientific activities of the Foundation and paid tribute to its contributions as a research institute. He described the deal as “an example of how we are using sciences as part of a new development strategy for the country based on bio-knowledge, to break with the economy of finite resources.”

One of the terms of the Agreement establishes that the State will have access to all the knowledge and information generated from research developed in the Station.

The Director of the Charles Darwin Foundation, Arturo Izurieta, said, "It is an honor to be part of the historic moment of this Agreement. Science is like music, universal and we are focusing on the generation of excellent science for the conservation of the natural resources of this World Heritage Site and also promoting the Plan of Good Living for the population of the Galapagos archipelago”.

Jorge Ellis, the representative of UNESCO in Ecuador was a guest witness at the signing and said the deal represented “25 years more of scientific cooperation - a science without borders -but also of environmental education focusing on the Galapagos but benefiting the wider world”.

Paola Lahuatte examining samples in the lab.

Paola Lahuatte, currently a junior researcher at the Charles Darwin Research Station, first arrived here in May 2013 as a volunteer. After a few months she was offered a scholarship to develop a method for breeding Philornis downsi under laboratory conditions for her undergraduate thesis project at the Central University of Ecuador. Philornis downsi is an introduced and highly invasive parasitic fly that is seriously affecting survivorship of nestlings of Galapagos landbirds. The larva of the fly attack the defenseless chicks, often causing death.

The opportunity to work to save a species and at the same time generate innovative methods in the field of entomology (study of insects) is what motivated Paola to continue working with this challenging project. The work suffered many setbacks, and requires infinite amounts of patience and long hours of looking into microscopes. Paola’s creativity and perseverance enabled her to get closer to meeting the challenge of developing a simple method for rearing the fly using the limited resources available in Galapagos.

Collecting and classifying samples from nests.
Collecting and classifying samples from nests. Photo by: Liza Díaz Lalova/CDF.

From the start of her career with the Charles Darwin Foundation, Paola has achieved results that make her an example for other young Ecuadorians. Paola is passionate about the work she is doing and enjoys keeping busy in the lab and working alongside national and international scientists.

The Galapagos research of Paola and her coauthors has come to the attention of an international audience following the publication of a paper in the Journal of Insect Science.

She also was recently interviewed about her work by The Washington Post.

We recently interviewed Paola about the work that she is doing.

What did your job involve when you first joined the team at the Charles Darwin Research Station?

During the first few months I worked on various research projects, including studies on the reproductive biology and the feeding habits of adult P. downsi and the evaluation of control methods to protect nests of endangered birds. I also worked on a study of the population dynamics of adult flies in the field. This involved working in the arid, humid, and agricultural zones of Santa Cruz island.

What were the first achievements of your research?

When I read about the first attempts by CDF researchers to breed the fly in 2008 I realized that even though the conditions in which the researchers worked were very basic, they were still able to figure out the life cycle of P. downsi and learn about some of the factors that are essential to keeping flies in captivity such as the vulnerability of newly emerged larvae to external conditions, the greater resistance of large larvae etc. This gave me some ideas about the techniques that we could try. This, plus some new equipment that was acquired shortly after my arrival, enabled me to make significant progress on developing a rearing method.

I think that my first achievement was to gain the support and confidence of my mentors in the project, Drs. Charlotte Causton and Piedad Lincango, who I worked with to develop the rearing techniques. This culminated in the first method for rearing a parasitic fly of bird nestlings in laboratory conditions, which I presented to members of the international working group of Philornis downsi in a workshop in 2015.

Have you had any training opportunities?

My supervisors Drs. Charlotte Causton and Piedad Lincango have been my teachers over the years that I have worked at CDF. I was also fortunate enough to spend 6 months working with our collaborator George Heimpel at the University of Minnesota after I graduated. More recently, we have been able to count on technical input and training from experts from COPEG (Commission of Panama and the United States for the Eradication and Prevention of the Screwworm Fly) of Panama, who have years of experience working with raising large quantities of sterile screwworm flies which are released weekly to prevent the screwworm from entering Central America.

What have been the main results of the research so far?

We have successfully developed a method for rearing larvae of this blood-feeding fly in captivity. This is a great achievement, given that researchers of these types of ectoparastic flies in other parts of the world have struggled to raise the flies without the presence of live birds. Raising flies with artificial methods, ie without a living host, is essential to understand the biology of these types of flies and also to evaluate potential control techniques such as biological control using natural enemies and the sterile insect technique which involves releasing large numbers of sterile males into the wild to mate with females.

In recent months we have been able to improve the survival rate of larvae using very simple techniques, which has made us very happy!

What do you plan to work on next?

Our next step is to figure out what adults need to mate in captivity and lay eggs. Once we have this identified we will have managed to get flies to complete their entire cycle of life in captivity. We also plan to research methods for increasing fly production in the lab so that we have access to flies year round and can supply flies to our international collaborators who are helping us find ways to control this fly.

Additional Information on the Philornis downsi Project

The “Charles Darwin Foundation for the Galapagos Islands”, in French “Fondation Charles Darwin pour les îles Galapagos”, Association International sans but lucratif, 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, (the “AISBL”).

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