Environment
6:00 am
Wed July 25, 2012

UNC Working to Save Native Species in Galapagos

The Galapagos is a chain of 13 large islands about six hundred miles from the coast of Ecuador. It was there, in 1835, that the British scientist Charles Darwin began thinking about how animals change over time. Since then, scientists have called the Galapagos a living laboratory,  a place to study evolution and natural selection. Now, with 180,000 tourists visiting each year, experts say the living lab is in danger, and University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill scientists are stepping up to help.

Sandy Hausman:  In the age of jet travel and giant luxury cruise ships, it’s no surprise to find crowds of visitors coming to the what Ecuadorians call the Enchanted Islands. Here, they’ll see animals found nowhere else on Earth. Galapagos sea lions play with tourists at the beach and penguins normally found in much colder places – live side by side with tropical flamingoes. Bird watchers check their list of must see species – the original Darwin finch, the blue footed booby, and frigate birds with their bright red pouches. Scientists also love this place, and in 2007, the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill was invited to help set up a research center here. Professor Steve Walsh says UNC administrators were happy to help save a World Heritage site.

Steve Walsh:  They were searching to find high visibility global locations where the Carolina vision, the Carolina imprint could benefit not only our campus and our students through our training but also other vital parts of the world.

Now co-director of the Galapagos Academic Institute, he works with dozens of UNC students and faculty members looking for ways to save rare species from extinction. Take Galapagos penguins for example. They depend on cold currents that bring fish close to the surface, but every few years, a warm current – known as El Nino -- drives many fish away.

Carlos Valle:  They move to other areas or they go deeper, and that means there’s not going to be enough food for marine birds in general.

Carlos Valle is in adjunct professor at UNC and an expert on sea birds. In 1983, he says, El Nino cut the population of Galapagos penguins from about 4,000 to 1,700, and they have yet to recover.

 Galapagos sea lions also suffer through El Nino events, which are becoming more common because of climate change. During the last strong El Nino, their numbers were cut in half, and nearly all the pups died. Today, something else is going wrong for the sea lions. The population hovers around 20,000 – and during the last breeding season, which so no El Nino, about 80 pups died.  Tissue samples were sent to laboratories in the U.S. and Canada. So far, they have not tested positive for any particular disease, but UNC Adjunct Professor Judith Denkinger, an expert on marine mammals, has a theory.

Judith Denkinger:  We suspect that it’s human caused or pet caused, because dogs for example can transit distemper virus to sea lions and seals, and there has been other examples, for example the North Sea where 40,000 seals died because of a distemper virus outbreak.

Denkinger also worries that the sea lions’ immune systems may be compromised by toxins like DDT or by their proximity to lively, noisy humans.

Denkinger:  Sea lions actually get stressed by the presence of people, because they change their natural behavior, and then they lose resting time, and when they don’t rest on land, they lose energy to find food.

Some get caught in fishermen’s nets. Others are wounded by propellers or hooks, and a few are killed outright by fishermen who don’t want to compete with them.  Denkinger says it’s too soon to tell whether the die-off of sea lion pups was a one-time event or a problem likely to recur, but she’s watching, testing and hoping for the best.

The giant Galapagos tortoise is also threatened  by imported animals like goats. They’ve escaped from farms, multiplied and are now living wild on the islands devouring the grass that sustains tortoises. Feral dogs, cats and rats eat tortoise eggs and babies, while donkeys stomp on the nests

Song birds are also in trouble attacked by diseases and parasites that might have arrived on boats bringing food for tourists and 25,000 permanent residents. Professor Walsh says the islands have lost their protective isolation.

Walsh:  Over the last ten or so years there’s been about six cargo ships that are in perpetual motion between the mainland of Ecuador and the Galapagos, bringing everything from batteries to potato chips to T-shirts, and whatever coastal Carolina would need, coastal Galapagos needs as well.

But Walsh sees signs of hope. The government of Ecuador has imposed new restrictions to keep unwanted insects and viruses out, and the country’s made excellent progress in getting rid of feral goats. Breeding programs are rebuilding the population of giant tortoises, and scientists are creating models that could be used elsewhere to help eradicate invasive species and protect endangered animals.

Walsh: There are many who’ve said if we can’t get it right in the Galapagos, we can’t get it right any place. The issues that address the Galapagos also address the people on the coastlines of North Carolina – issues of beach erosion, issues of overdevelopment, issues of development versus conservation. All of these are issues that fold very well into what happens to the United States and what happens to North Carolina in particular.

Satellite technology is helping Ecuador to patrol the massive marine reserve that surrounds the islands to prevent overfishing. More fishermen are moving into tourism and if tourists love wildlife, then fishermen love the animals too.