Fausto Llerena and Lonesome George at the Breeding Center where he remained for 40 years.

This February 23rd, the Government of Ecuador through the Ministry of the Environment brings back from the Museum of Natural History of New York, the embalmed body of the giant tortoise native of Pinta Island, Lonesome George, who was one of the most famous reptiles in the world for having been the last surviving individual of the species Chelonoidis abingdoni. George lived at the Charles Darwin Research Station (CDRS) on Santa Cruz Island for four decades. The Lonesome, as he was affectionately called, received food in the morning from his caretaker, Fausto Llerena, who took care of him since his arrival at CDRS in 1972. The Breeding Center where he will be exhibited now have the name of this park ranger and is managed by the Galapagos National Park Directorate.

"George was a member of my family, I honored him this way because, of the many tortoises there were, he was the closest and dearest by everybody" Fausto Llerena said after having cared for George for so many years.

There are 15 species of tortoises in the archipelago, which have a shape and size perfectly adapted to the place where they live. George had a saddle-type shell that allowed him to raise his neck to reach leaves of tall bushes to feed. The chelonian, named because of the name of its species, probably lived more than 100 years, according to our senior researcher, Dr. Gustavo Jiménez.

Lonesome George showing his long neck and saddle-type shell.
Lonesome George showing his long neck and saddle-type shell. Photo by: CDF Library Archives.

According to early records, two centuries ago there were thousands of turtles on the islands; no one knew the archipelago until 1535, when the ship carrying the Bishop Tomas de Berlanga to Peru found a safe place in the still unknown Galapagos Islands. As there were no freezers or refrigerators where the sailors could put fresh meat, turtles became their ideal food source. [Tortoises can go for long periods of time without eating and drinking water as their body accumulates water and fats, becoming a source of fresh food for sailors]. The cook cut a part of the living tortoise, kept the rest and so continued with the rest of the tortoises. During the 1800s, 96 boats took more than 13000 turtles in a period of 37 years, many of them put on display on mainland piers such as Guayaquil. With the entry of introduced species such as rats, cats, dogs, pigs, donkeys, goats and livestock, they even put the terrestrial turtles in greater danger because these animals fed on the plants that the turtles ate, feed on their eggs or offspring, and trample upon their nests that are in the ground.

Historical record of one of the tortoises captured in the Galapagos Islands by one of the boats that was passing through the archipelago.
Historical record of one of the tortoises captured in the Galapagos Islands by one of the boats that was passing through the archipelago. Photo by: CDF Library Archives.

In 1971, scientists visited the Pinta Island and the only giant tortoise found on the whole island was George. The scientists even offered at that time a reward of 10 000 dollars to anyone who could find a female of this species but unfortunately they were not successful. In 1972 a new expedition was organized to Pinta and George was taken to the Breeding Center currently named "Fausto Llerena", where he lived the rest of his life. Upon arrival, George remained alone in a corral to be taken after that to another corral with two females of the species Chelonoidis becki, the species genetically most similar to the species of the Lonesome, but he never had much interest in them. Several attempts were made so that George could reproduce, even tried to do artificial insemination in case one day a female of the same species is found, but nothing saved this chelonian from extinction.

Lonesome George feeding at the Breeding Center.
Lonesome George feeding at the Breeding Center. Photo by: CDF Library Archives.

Lonesome George became an emblematic species for the archipelago and the world. He died in June 2012 from natural causes and after his death, he was taken to New York where he was embalmed and then he remained on exhibition in the New York Museum of Natural History until September 2014. Four years after his death, George returns to the place where he spent his last years of life and will be exhibited as the central part of the new interpretive path of the Galapagos National Park Directorate called "The Route of the Tortoise". Lonesome George is a clear example of the effects that human impact has caused in several species, but it also represents the effort of science to protect those that remain.

"Lonesome George was and will always be an emblem for the Galapagos Islands. The work done by the Charles Darwin Research Station was key during the years that the tortoise remained in our facilities and we firmly believe that our scientific work will allow us to continue being an example of conservation for the world ", were the words of Dr. Arturo Izurieta, Executive Director of the CDF.

Submersible in the depths of the Galapagos Islands during one of the seamounts expedition.

Written in collaboration with Etienne Rastoin.

The coastal waters of the Galapagos archipelago have been of scientific interest for the last 30 years, however, the depths of the Marine Reserve have remained little explored and studied. That is why in 2016, the Galapagos Islands became the scene of a very exciting and important research project. This is the "Seamounts of the Galapagos Marine Reserve (GMR)" Project that the Charles Darwin Foundation carries out in partnership with the Galapagos National Park Directorate and has managed to capture international attention for the expeditions that have taken place and for the possible new species that have been found.

Biological communities found in the depths during one of the expeditions.
Biological communities found in the depths during one of the expeditions. Photo by: OET/CDF.

It is estimated that there are about 350 seamounts only on the Galapagos platform. Because they have never been exploited with industrial fishing gear, they are in an almost pristine state. These small oases of life in the immensity of the open ocean present a high level of endemism and play an important role in maintaining the resilience and adaptability of the global marine environment. The undersea mountains also attract large species, generating economic value in the experiential fishing trade and represent an important resource for local fisheries.

This interesting study has a period of three years and its main objectives lie in establishing a baseline of marine biodiversity found during expeditions and determining the value of seamounts in terms of ecosystem services. This will allow the establishment of the best measures of protection to maintain the excellent state of conservation of these sites, besides showing Galapagos as a model of protection of the deep seas. We are making new discoveries and in this year we will continue with the studies of these deep communities.

The Summit of several explored seamounts presented very diverse biological communities.
The Summit of several explored seamounts presented very diverse biological communities. Photo by: OET/CDF.
One interesting fact to note was the observation of numerous wrappings of striated eggs in several stages of development found close to a very active black fumarole (Fig. 3). This indicates that this site has been used by these animals to deposit their eggs for several years and possible hypotheses that may be very relevant at the scientific level are now being analyzed. The animal world does not stop amazing us!
Wrappings of eggs of a deep water stripe on a rigid basalt pillow only meters away from a black fumarole.
Wrappings of eggs of a deep water stripe on a rigid basalt pillow only meters away from a black fumarole. Photo by: OET / CDF.

The CDF is currently supported by an extensive network of international experts to complete the taxonomic description and genetic analysis of a large number of samples. Upon completion of the identification, the specimens collected will become part of the marine collections that the CDF holds on behalf of the Ecuadorian Government.

It is a project with great potential that could position the Galapagos as a pioneer site in the study of these ecosystems. For example, many of the species discovered in the abysses represent an invaluable source of chemical components that could be used in the pharmaceutical industry. This means that perhaps the cure of some diseases facing humanity could come from the bottom of the oceans. As the phrase says, "You cannot protect what you do not know"; so studying and protecting these ecosystems can bring great benefits to science and enhance the reputation of Galapagos.

White Gorgonia, a coral species of the Primnoidae family found in the shallow volcanic cones approximately 600 meters deep with the submarine Hercules of the cruise NA064.
White Gorgonia coral, a species of the Primnoidae family found in the shallow volcanic cones approximately 600 meters deep with the submarine Hercules of the cruise NA064. Photo by: OET / CDF.

This project is supported by the following donors and partners: Ocean Exploration Trust, BBC Ocean, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI), Helmsley Charitable Trust, Pristine Seas (National Geographic), St Mary’s College, Universidad de los Andes, Ocean Exploration Trust, University of Rhode Island, Southampton University, University of Hawaii, Manchester University, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, VideoRay and the Escuela Politécnica del Litoral de Ecuador (ESPOL).

For more information please contact: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Flamingos observed in the Laguna de Punta Cormorán on Floreana Island.

Written in collaboration with Daniela Vilema.

For the first time in the islands two individuals of the species Chilean Flamingo (Phoenicopterus chilensis) were registered in the Galapagos Islands, on October 17 and 29, 2015 by Tui De Roy, and on July 14, 2016 by Luis Die Dejean. These were recorded in the Laguna de Punta Cormoran, Isla Floreana. It is thought that they were possibly the same individuals observed.

Chilean (or Australian) flamingos nest in Chile, Argentina, Bolivia, Peru, Uruguay and Paraguay, but has also been recorded in southern Brazil, the Malvinas Islands and Ecuador. It lives in areas of lagoons, estuaries or mouths of rivers. Unlike the Galapagos flamingo (Phoenicopterus ruber glyphorhynchus), the individuals of this species are taller, have a pale coloration, the color of the beak is different and the color of the tarsal joint is dark. This species is in the “Minor Concern” category on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List. In the Bird list for the Galapagos Islands, it has been included in the category of "Wanderer", which means that it is a species that is recorded rarely or occasionally in Galapagos, that have arrived at the islands on their own and that they do not come to reproduce.

Dr. Gustavo Jimenez of the CDF identified the species and its confirmation was given thanks to the “Altoandino Flamingos Conservation Group” in its form in English - (Arango F., Derlindati E., Ortiz, E., Rocha O.), who have worked for many years with it in several countries.

Children of the Muizenberg School in a sand sculpture competition during the Marine Awareness Camp.

During the last year I worked on the education component of the project "The Galapagos Marine Reserve: A Model of Sustainable Coexistence between Humans and Sharks" with the support of the Save Our Seas Foundation (SOSF) and Lindblad-National Geographic. I mention this to tell you where this experience begins. SOSF has a Shark Education Center in Cape Town, which in turn has very important educational material for those who work on marine issues, especially focused on education. Throughout this year, we carried out the "Protect the Fins and the Ocean Wins" campaign on the Galapagos Islands and in August we had the presence of Michael Scholl, SOSF's Chief Executive Officer, who offered me the opportunity to travel to South Africa to exchange experiences and learn from the work that the education center team performs.

South Africa, a great opportunity for anyone working in the field of conservation! Since I arrived at the Center I was delighted with the place and of course with the people I met. Upon entering the place you can feel the ocean from very close through the decoration. There is a mini aquarium with fish, starfish, anemones and sea urchins that can be touched and others that can only be observed. The walls are blue and turquoise with painted fish and sharks. In addition, they present information, figures and material to play with that facilitates learning for those who visit the place. There is a telephone with different numbers and a representative South African species for each one, through which you can call any of these animals and you can hear different voices with the most relevant information about them. To complement this material, there are two interactive games. The first allows you to feel like a shark by seeing through a 3D viewer while you try to hunt a fish using the senses, you can even smell your prey, very interesting! The second game allows you to manage a boat with which you must find sharks and when you do it, you can get information, photos and videos of different species.

Paul, educator of the centre, explaining the children of the holiday club how one of the interactive games that teaches the public about the senses of the sharks works.
Paul, educator of the centre, explaining the children of the holiday club how one of the interactive games that teaches the public about the senses of the sharks works. Photo by: Daniela Vilema / FCD.

This is the center in which I spent three weeks, but during this time I also got involved in the activities they had planned. I met members of the center's education team and the SOSF communication team. All of them wonderful people from whom I learned many things and who have been very kind since I arrived. The next day of my arrival we snorkeled with the "Marine Explorers", a group of children with whom they have worked throughout the school year. At this activity we saw kelp forests, an octopus and other small animals. The next week we went snorkeling elsewhere and we were able to observe penguins and other seabirds. During the second week I went to a summer camp organized by the education team with students between 8 and 13 years of Muizenberg school. A group of very active children! Among the activities we had a hike to observe seabirds, a night walk, we visited the oldest lighthouse in South Africa, the children cooked potjiekos (stew cooked in a steel pan) which was very delicious by the way; games and competitions were developed on the beach and every day there were different presentations. Among these, a talk about birds, another about sharks and marine species, and also I had the opportunity to make a presentation about the Galapagos Islands and the campaign on sharks that we developed during 2016. The children were delighted with the species that we can find in the Galapagos, some even mentioned that someday they want to volunteer in the archipelago!

Children playing
Children playing "Feeding frenzy", a game that explains the problem of plastic and its effect on different marine species. Photo by: Daniela Vilema / FCD.

These kinds of exercises in the field allow us to strengthen the link between people and the sea through fun. Sometimes we think that by living in a place close to the sea, we have an implied close relationship that makes us want to take care of what surrounds us, however, we can still find people who do not know how to swim or who have not been in contact with marine species in their natural habitat. This is key because it is difficult for us to want to take care of something that we do not know just because they tell us that is what we should do. While, if we motivate people, whether they are children, young people or adults to swim, snorkel, dive, surf or do any other activity at sea, we will realize the life that exists in it and the importance of taking care of it. We did two coastal cleanings that I found very interesting because the children could see the amount of plastic that comes to the shores and made an analysis of how this garbage could reach the sea and how this can affect the animals.

Marine Explorers performing coastal cleaning and rocky shore exploration at False Bay, Cape Town.
Marine Explorers performing coastal cleaning and rocky shore exploration at False Bay, Cape Town. Photo by: Daniela Vilema / FCD.

Of course the realities that are lived in the two places are very different. Cape Town is a large city, with a lot of history and a population of more than 3 million inhabitants, but it has beautiful natural places to work with children. Galapagos, for its part, is a small place with a more accessible public to work with. In addition to being a site surrounded by sharks, sea birds, rays, iguanas and more animals both marine and terrestrial. We also have the advantage of being surrounded by the Pacific Ocean, whose temperature gives us the facility and access to observe closely a large number of species in different areas. In the archipelago we have all the natural tools to work in environmental education so that the learned contents will help to strengthen this component and be able to continue to involve the community in the different projects we carry out.

Students from the Muizenberg School, the Shark Education Centre Team and Daniela Vilema from the CDF during the Marine Awareness Camp.
Students from the Muizenberg School, the Shark Education Centre Team and Daniela Vilema from the CDF during the Marine Awareness Camp. Photo by: SOSF / FCD.

 

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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