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

Educational material campaign with Galapagos schools.

“Galapagos needs sharks, sharks need Galapagos”. This is the main focus of the environmental education workshops that have been developed for 5th, 6th and 7th graders in all the schools of Santa Cruz and that will soon be disseminated on the islands of Floreana, San Cristobal and Isabela as part of the “Protect the Fins and the Ocean Wins” campaign that the Charles Darwin Foundation (CDF) has been developing in the last month.

Guillo The Hammerhead Shark and kids.
Guillo The Hammerhead Shark and kids. Photo by: Liza Díaz Lalova/CDF.

“What comes to your mind when I say the word ’shark’?”, we ask the students before every workshop. We receive positive answers, such as: “animals that clean the oceans!” or, “tourists come to see them!”, but we also encounter answers such as “they are dangerous!” or ”they eat people!”. The latter responses don’t surprise us, given the bad publicity sharks have received over time in movies or from sensationalist news in the media. That’s why we are working to change this negative perception, providing children with information about sharks, from their anatomy to their touristic value - so they can appreciate sharks.

Kids from schools in Galapagos with educational material.
Kids from schools in Galapagos with educational material. Photo by: Beatriz Mariño/CDF.

Dynamism, engagement and creativity are the main pillars of our workshops. What are sharks? What is their role in the ecosystem? Are sharks worth more dead or alive? Are humans part of their diet? We ask these type of questions to evaluate the students’ initial perceptions and shark knowledge. Then, we answer their questions and provide explanations with various supporting materials that will leave lasting impressions in the children’s minds, such as a shark anatomy model the children can assemble; a marine ecosystem panel to better demonstrate the role of sharks; and an immersive experience with virtual reality glasses that allows the children to observe the majestic swim of whale sharks and the Galapagos underwater life as virtual divers.

Environmental education workshops in schools.
Environmental education workshops in schools. Photo by: Liza Díaz Lalova/CDF.

Our diverse educational materials ensure we capture the children’s curiosity, through one method or another. Among our educational materials are animated videos featuring special shark characters, each one focused on a specific topic: Guillo the hammerhead explains shark anatomy and shark vulnerability; Ron talks about the current global situation of sharks; Vanessa the tiger shark talks about the important role sharks play in the ocean; and Ramona the whale shark discusses the importance of marine protected areas.

<em>Valeska</em> and <em>Queen Mabel</em> with crew ready to snorkel.
Valeska and Queen Mabel with crew ready to snorkel. Photo by: Liza Díaz Lalova/CDF.

In addition, to motivate interest in research and promote the creative spirit of kids, we held a story and drawing contest focused on sharks and the Galapagos. The winners had the opportunity to go on a snorkeling fieldtrip with the CDF marine team as well as famous international free divers who visited the island for the Galapagos Evolution Event organized by the Ecuadorian Ministry of Tourism, Red Mangrove Hotel, Cressi and GoPro. Among them, Ocean Ramsey, Pierre-Yves Cousteau, Estrella Navarro, Leo Morales and Guillaume Nery.

CDF team, Galapagos Evolution, and students watching white tip sharks.
CDF team, Galapagos Evolution, and students watching white tip sharks. Photo by: Liza Díaz Lalova/CDF.

On the morning of Saturday August 6th, we travelled with the children, CDF staff and international free divers to a small Bay at Punta Carrion, located at the northeast of Santa Cruz in the Itabaca Channel hoping to find sharks. “I had never seen a shark in real life, I hope to see them today!” one of the winning children exclaimed enthusiastically. We went on two boats, Queen Mabel and Valeska, whose captains very kindly allowed us to use to carry out our activity. We all entered the water and we saw several animals, among them, white tip sharks swimming and resting in caves. We returned to Puerto Ayora and in the afternoon the group participated in an event CDF organized for the local community in which our ambassadors spoke about their relationship with the ocean and sharks. They shared their personal experiences demonstrating that a sustainable coexistence between humans and sharks is actually possible taking Galapagos as an example after their experience in the archipelago.

Kids sharing stories in San Francisco Park with Galapagos Evolution, CDF team and community.
Kids sharing stories in San Francisco Park with Galapagos Evolution, CDF team and community. Photo by: Liza Díaz Lalova/CDF.

“This has been a very gratifying experience for us to see the children are interested in participating in the contest; we received more than 250 stories from which 14 were the selected winners who enjoyed the field trip and were awarded with a diploma in the community event. Additionally, to see the joy of children when they saw a shark is priceless, we fulfilled our goal and we hope to continue doing this kind of activities regularly”.

Daniela Vilema and Beatriz Mariño with children after shark workshop.
Daniela Vilema and Beatriz Mariño with children after shark workshop. Photo by: Liza Díaz Lalova/CDF.

In addition to the mentioned events, CDF held a festival to celebrate “Shark Week”, providing different educational and outreach activities for the local community.

Other activities during shark week in San Francisco Park.
Other activities during shark week in San Francisco Park. Photo by: Liza Díaz Lalova/CDF.

“To protect reality, we need to know it”, and that’s why the generation of knowledge is so important as well as its dissemination, because only by this way we will protect our environment from the justified understanding of their vulnerability.

More information

“Protect the Fins” campaign

Galapagos Evolution

Charles Darwin Research Station facilities in 1970.

We remember the first Director of the Charles Darwin Research Station, a Swiss ornithologist who sadly passed away last month at the age of 84.

Léveque supervised and planned the initial work for the construction of the Research Station in Puerto Ayora. He started the first herbarium and he began noticing the importance of the conservation of the giant tortoises in Santa Cruz. The first eradication of efforts to control the goat population started with Leveque in South Plaza Island.

His legacy remains in Galapagos to this day. Raymond Léveque worked with Victor Van Straelen and Peter Scott to launch the construction Project of the Research Station. His efforts were focused on reaching national and international agreements for the growth and the promotion of the relevance of the research conducted in Galapagos in the 1960’s.

Thanks to dedicated researchers like Raymond Léveque, we have been working in science for conservation in Galapagos for nearly 60 years.

Léveque was a pioneer in a place with very limited resources; an unexplored location in the middle of the Pacific Ocean that is today one of the bases of scientific leaders in Ecuador and the world.

The Galapagos Verde 2050 team.

During May and June our team of scientists and volunteers, along with the collaboration of the Galapagos National Park Directorate, continued the initial phase in the process of ecological restoration of South Plaza through the recuperation of the cacti population (Opuntia echios var. echios). This species not only shapes the ecosystem of the island but is the main food source for terrestrial iguanas, whose population is very abundant in South Plaza.

Baby cacti hand grown to restore South Plaza populations.
Baby cacti hand-grown to restore South Plaza populations. Photo by: Liza Díaz Lalova/CDF.

During these two months 430 seedlings were planted in three sites where historical evidence showed that they were once populated by cacti. Due to the extreme arid conditions of the island, one part of the seedlings were planted using the Groasis technology to save water and another part under natural conditions for control.

Getting supplies at the dock on South Plaza Island.
Getting supplies at the dock on South Plaza Island. Photo by: Liza Díaz Lalova/CDF.

Even though the planting process took only a couple of weeks, we needed more than a year and a half of arduous work to arrive to this crucial moment in the island restoration.

South Plaza Island on restoration process .
South Plaza Island on restoration process. Photo by: Liza Díaz Lalova/CDF.

Our work included several phases, mainly: the recuperation of seeds from ripe fruits and iguana droppings, germination, care, a rigorous quarantine, transportation to the island, and finally sowing and protection with nets until the plants will be old and big enough to avoid being preyed by iguanas and birds.

Maintaining water levels is key during monitoring.
Maintaining water levels is key during monitoring. Photo by: Liza Díaz Lalova/CDF.

Our work continues, and our challenge is to recuperate the ecological integrity of the island and its capacity to generate services to human beings such as the aesthetics of the landscape and its unique biodiversity.

The Project Galapagos Verde 2050 is implemented by the Charles Darwin Foundation and the Galapagos National Park Directorate with the support of various strategic partners like the Autonomous Decentralized Government of Floreana, the Ecological Airport of Galapagos, the Agency of Regulation Biosecurity Control and Quarantine of Galapagos (ABG), the Navy of Ecuador and the Ecuadorean Air Force (in Baltra). Financially this project is possible thanks to the support of the COmON Foundation, The Leona M. and Harry B. Helmsley Charitable Trust and BESS Forest Club.

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.

© 2018 Charles Darwin Foundation. All rights reserved.