A Galapagos penguin profile during the last monitoring in 2016.

Very docile and gentle, Galapagos penguins are unique. They are not only one of the smallest penguin species in the world, but also they are also the only penguin that lives in the equatorial line with a tropical climate. They feed near the coast and their diet is mainly composed of fish and crustaceans. They are excellent divers as they dive to find prey at deeper levels. They have been recorded feeding at 50 meters deep.

But all this diving fun may be coming to an end, because the heating of the ocean is forcing the penguins to swim further and further in search of food. And along these longer journeys they become prey of bigger predators lurking in the open waters.

This is happening due to global climate change and it is one of the main threats to the penguin’s survival.

Galapagos penguin posing during the last monitoring developed by the Charles Darwin Foundation (CDF) and the Galapagos National Park Directorate (GNPD) in 2016.
Galapagos penguin posing during the last monitoring developed by the Charles Darwin Foundation (CDF) and the Galapagos National Park Directorate (GNPD) in 2016. Photo by: Daniela Vilema.

The future for the Galapagos penguin looks bleak

The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) recently assessed the species as “Endangered” (close to extinction) ¹, because its population has been reduced to one of the smallest ever recorded.

Galapagos penguin released after being tagged by scientists from the CDF and the GNPD.
Galapagos penguin released after being tagged by scientists from the CDF and the GNPD. Photo by: Daniela Vilema.

The Charles Darwin Foundation (CDF), a scientific research institution based on the Galapagos Islands, has contributed to catalogue other threats, such as “introduced species preying eggs and chicks. The list of introduced predators includes cats, rats and others. Pathogens and diseases carried by mosquitos and flies are also a concern.

Galapagos penguin ready to get back into the water; the red lines in its chest were drawn with a red marker to avoid its recapture.
Galapagos penguin ready to get back into the water; the red lines in its chest were drawn with a red marker to avoid its recapture. Photo by: Daniela Vilema.

Besides these existential threats, penguins are not prolific breeders; they typically lay 2 to 3 eggs that hatch after 35 to 42 days, and it depends of the quantity of the food.

There is a silver lining to our penguin story. Since 2010, Charles Darwin Foundation together with Galapagos National Park Directorate has been monitoring and cataloguing individuals and nests, to obtain information such as survival, reproduction, threats, among others.

The leader of this project, Gustavo Jimenez-Uzcátegui mentioned that improved observation records and data sets are the baseline to develop a long term management plan to guarantee the survival of the Galapagos penguin.

Penguins in the sunset at the west of the Galapagos after a tagging day.
Penguins in the sunset at the west of the Galapagos after a tagging day. Photo by: Daniela Vilema.

You can also help!  Please donate today.

  1. International Union for Conservation of Nature, Red List of Threatened Species, accessed March 14, 2014, http://www.iucnredlist.org. IUCN Red List information for specific penguin species can be obtained by entering the scientific name in the search field "Enter Red List search term(s)."
Introduced tree frog (Scinax quinquefasciatus)

The Galapagos Islands include a large biodiversity of vertebrates including mammals, reptiles, birds and fish. However, as far as amphibians are concerned, the only one found on the islands is the Fowler’s Snouted Treefrog (Scinax quinquefasciatus), which is an introduced species. Its biology, ecology, distribution and impact on the islands is still little known, so the Charles Darwin Foundation (CDF) in collaboration with the ESPOL Politechnic University, Rancho Manzanillo and the Galapagos National Park Directorate will conduct a research on the distribution and diet of this frog on Santa Cruz Island.

Introduced frog research team (ESPOL, CDF and Rancho Manzanillo)
Introduced frog research team (ESPOL, CDF and Rancho Manzanillo).  Photo by: CDF.

The frog has a wide distribution in the agricultural zone and one of the places with many frogs is Rancho Manzanillo, located in the highlands of this island. This is why the ranch owners contacted the CDF to conduct the respective study by providing facilities in the ranch for the scientists. This research will evaluate the distribution of the frog in the agricultural area, urban area and areas of the Galapagos National Park, and determine the diet of frogs to get an idea of its impact on native and endemic invertebrates.

Dr. Raffael Ernst (FCD) preserving frog specimens collected in different areas of the agricultural area
Dr. Raffael Ernst (FCD) preserving frog specimens collected in different areas of the agricultural area.  Photo by: CDF.

As part of this project, María del Mar Moretta, ESPOL's thesis student, is investigating the species of invertebrates found in the stomachs to understand the impact that frogs have on animal communities. She is also conducting a predation experiment at the ranch, placing beetle larvae along with the frog tadpoles to see if the larvae eat the tadpoles.

Dr. Raffael Ernst (FCD, left) explaining the process of preparing frogs to Maria del Mar and Dr. Rafael Bermúdez (ESPOL)
Dr. Raffael Ernst (FCD, left) explaining the process of preparing frogs to Maria del Mar and Dr. Rafael Bermúdez (ESPOL).  Photo by: CDF.

It should be emphasized that since there is no study of this frog on Santa Cruz Island, it is a research project, not a control of this introduced species. The results will be disseminated after the scientists finish their research.

Vermillion flycatcher nest on Alcedo volcano.

Galapagos landbirds welcome seven new species! Two former sub-species of the Vermilion Flycatcher are considered proper species, the Large Cactus Finch was split into the Genovesa Cactus Finch and the Española Ground Finch, and the Sharp-beaked Ground Finch was split into three species! However, those unique birds are in danger: five of these “new” species and nine others are classified as “threatened” by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN); populations are declining and several island populations have become extirpated.

Sharp-beaked Ground Finch in Santigo Island.
Sharp-beaked Ground Finch in Santigo Island. Photo by: David Anchundia.

The Landbird Conservation Project of the Charles Darwin Foundation (CDF) and the Galapagos National Park Directorate (GNPD) are currently collecting baseline data to clarify the conservation status of landbirds and develop management actions. This work is in collaboration with ornithologists from BirdLife Austria and University of Vienna and also counts on the support of ESPOL Polytechnic University, Universidad San Francisco de Quito (USFQ), other visiting scientists and many highly enthusiastic volunteers from Ecuador and other parts of the world.

For the first time we have baseline data for landbirds from San Cristóbal, Floreana, Santa Cruz, the highlands of Santiago, Marchena, Pinta, Santa Fe and volcanoes Sierra Negra and Alcedo on Isabela. Here are the highlights of the monitoring work so far and more detailed information can be found in a soon to be published article in Galapagos Report.

CDF Staff and volunteers of the landbird Project.
CDF Staff and volunteers of the landbird Project. Photo by: Beate Wendelin.

On Santa Cruz, the only island where some long-term landbird monitoring has been carried out, six of nine surveyed species had seriously declined: Vegetarian Finch, Green Warbler Finch, Yellow Warbler, Vermilion Flycatcher, Large Tree Finch and Woodpecker Finch – the latter two upgraded to “endangered: due to these findings. Sadly, we have to add two more species to these findings. The Small Tree Finch, seemingly stable between 1997 and 2008, is now decreasing in the highlands. In addition, the Galapagos Dove was found to be rare not only in Santa Cruz but in all inhabited islands and was hardly seen on Alcedo. A Galapaguena thesis student with the support of the Ministry of Agriculture, Cattle, Aquaculture and Fisheries (MAGAP), is currently investigating if the agricultural zone could be a refuge for this nowadays rare endemic bird species. Luckily, doves are still abundant on Santiago and other uninhabited islands where cats are absent; such as Pinta, Marchena and Santa Fe.

Galapagos Dove (<em>Zenaida galapagoensis</em>) in Bellavista.
Galapagos Dove (Zenaida galapagoensis) in Bellavista. Photo by: Michael Dvorak.

The Vermilion Flycatcher is as well doing poorly on other islands: it is missing from Floreana and San Cristóbal (last sighting in 2008), and is rare on Santiago and Alcedo. Though seems to be faring better on the flanks of Sierra Negra. We are currently testing techniques to control one of its threats, bloodsucking larvae of the introduced fly Philornis downsi. We are also investigating which factors best help this bright endemic bird to successfully reproduce.

On a positive side, the population of the endangered San Cristóbal mockingbird is several times larger than estimated in 2005. Similarly, population estimate of the Floreana island endemic, Medium Tree Finch, is considerably higher than previous estimates with an estimated 4000 pairs.

Galapagos martin nest photographed in march, 2017 in Tagus.
Galapagos martin nest photographed in March, 2017 in Tagus. Photo by: Nicolas Andrade.

How can you help?

We would like to increase the participation of residents, tourists and naturalist guides in our monitoring. A program has already been initiated with some tour operators to get site-specific data for birds with important knowledge gaps such as the Galapagos Martin. Together with the company “Birds in the Hands”, we have developed a free Galapagos Bird App that provides pictures and information to help in bird identification. We are especially interested in sightings of doves, Vermilions and Smooth-billed ani, but any bird sightings can either reported through eBird or directly to us with an email to This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. The BirdsEye Galápagos app is free and can be downloaded from iOS or Android.

The project is supported by Friends of Galapagos Switzerland, Friends of Galapagos New Zealand, The Leona. M and Harry B. Helmsley Charitable Trust and Galapagos Conservancy.

Godzilla Marine iguana (Amblyrhynchus cristatus godzilla), new subspecies present in the north of San Cristobal Island.

The Galapagos Marine Iguana is one of the key endemic species that is distributed throughout the archipelago. Recently, a team of European and Latin American scientists led by Dr. Sebastian Steinfartz of the Braunschweig Technical University in Germany studied the diversity of the Galapagos marine iguana (Amblyrhynchus cristatus), presenting an interesting update on this species.

The scientists performed genetic and morphological studies, through which 11 subspecies of marine iguanas could be differentiated, of which, five were recently described.

"It was amazing that most of the populations on the different islands had significant differences in morphology and coloring compared to their neighbors on other islands" said Dr. Aurelien Miralles of the Museum of Natural History in Paris, France, who performed most of the analysis.

The five new subspecies are: A. c. hayampi subspec. nov. (Marchena), A. c. jeffreysi subsp. nov. (Wolf and Darwin), A. c. cristatus, A. c. godzilla subsp. nov. (San Cristóbal-Punta Pitt), A. c. trillmichi subsp. nov. (Santa Fé) and A. c. wikelskii subsp. nov. (Santiago); and the six subspecies already known are the following: Amblyrhynchus cristatus cristatus (Isabela and Fernandina), A. c. nanus (Genovesa), A. c. venustissimus (Española), A. c. hassi (Santa Cruz), A. c. mertensi (San Cristóbal) and A. c. sielmanni (Pinta); And totalling 11 subespecies.

Distribution of subspecies according to the classification of Eibl-Eibesfeldt (1962; left) and the newly proposed taxonomy (right).
Distribution of subspecies according to the classification of Eibl-Eibesfeldt (1962; left) and the newly proposed taxonomy (right). Map by: A. Miralles.

The largest subspecies is over one meter in length, is located in the north of San Cristobal Island and was named Godzilla Marine Iguana (Amblyrhynchus cristatus godzilla).

As Sebastian Steinfartz explains: "This subspecies has a particular coloration and impressive stature, which really remembers Godzilla, the fictional saurian monster created in 1954 by T. Tanaka”.

Marine iguanas are a vulnerable species according to International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) criteria, for threats such as predation by feral animals (cats, rats and dogs) and human interaction, mainly in urban centers. However, climate change is another threat for this species, because when the El Niño Phenomenon arrive to the islands, this has a direct effect on these saurians, mainly due to the decrease in food.

The marine iguana is protected by the laws of the Republic of Ecuador. Currently, scientists work to understand their ecology, biology and threats, to inform technical recommendations to the Galapagos National Park Directorate (GNPD), which will allow their long-term conservation.

Reference:

Miralles Aurélien, MacLeod Amy, Rodríguez Ariel, Ibáñez Alejandro, Jiménez-Uzcategui Gustavo, Quezada Galo, Vences Miguel, Steinfartz Sebastián. Shedding light on the Imps of Darkness: An integrative taxonomic revision of the Galapagos marine Iguanas (genus Amblyrhynchus). Zoological Journal of the Linnean Society, 2017, XX, 1–33.  DOI: 10.1093/zoolinnean/zlx007

For more information:

Godzilla of the Galápagos and other speciation stories.

Dr Aurélien Miralles, ISYEB, UMR7205 MNHN-CNRS-UPMC-EPHE, Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle, Département Systématique et Evolution, CP30, 25 rue Cuvier 75005 Paris, France. Email: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Dr Sebastian Steinfartz, Technical University of Braunschweig, Division of Evolutionary Biology, Zoological Institute, Mendelssohnstr. 4, 38106 Braunschweig, Germany. Email: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

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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