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Galapagos GPazyMinoC photo

Famous Pinnacle Rock in Bartholomew Island, Galapagos, Ecuador (G. Paz-y-Miño C. © photo)

Behavior and Conservation in the Galapagos*

By Guillermo Paz-y-Miño-C.

*Article published in The Conservation Behaviorist 2007, 5:4-5.

     “I will… [give] an account of the extreme tameness of the [Galapagos] birds. This disposition is common to all the terrestrial species; namely, to the mocking-thrushes, the finches, wrens, tyrant-flycatchers, the dove, and carrion-buzzard. All of them often approached sufficiently near to be killed with a switch, and sometimes, as I myself tried, with a cap or hat. A gun is here almost superfluous; for with the muzzle I pushed a hawk off the branch of a tree. One day, whilst lying down, a mocking-thrush alighted on the edge of a pitcher, made of the shell of a tortoise, which I held in my hand, and began very quietly to sip the water; it allowed me to lift it from the ground whilst seated on the vessel: I often tried, and very nearly, succeeded, in catching these birds by their legs… It is surprising that they have not become wilder; for these islands during the last hundred and fifty years have been frequently visited by bucaniers and whalers; and the sailors, wandering through the woods in search of tortoises, always take cruel delight in knocking down the little birds…” Charles Darwin, The Voyage of the Beagle, 1839.

     A great adaptation animals have is the ability to spot predators and avoid them; predators, in response, have to keep up with prey evolution. Elusive, poisonous, deceiving, confusing and difficult-to capture prey trigger countering responses in their predators, which have become, over millions of years, even more secretive, tolerant to noxious chemicals, smart and able to catch the fastest, most camouflaged and unpalatable prey. This “evolutionary arms race” is responsible for the enormous variety of prey and predatory traits existing in nature. But if predators are absent or rare, species mainly evolve behavioral repertoires to cope with the immediate struggle for life at the expense of behaviors that, if the environment changes by, for example, the arrival of unfamiliar enemies, could be essential for survival. “Maladaptive behavioral responses” or lack of appropriate action in presence of novel danger can drive animals into extinction, which nowadays is a concern in the Galapagos National Park, a protected volcanic archipelago located 600 miles of the coast of Ecuador (see below).

     Three to five million years of isolation have generated unique characteristics among the Galapagos endemic and resident species: cormorants have lost their ability to fly and now dive searching for fish in a turbulent ocean, marine iguanas feed on algae in the bottom of the sea shore, three-hundred pound giant tortoises digest cactus which spines cause no damage in their guts, lava lizards jump and tumble while capturing flies over the huge bellies of resting sea lions, bluefooted boobies and albatrosses saturate the ground with their nests and courtship displays, and various species of Darwin finches coexist by sharing seeds, insects and occupying distinct habitats near and above the ground. Although these tame fascinating creatures are fit for the Galapagos rocky landscape, human impact is threatening their survival. Introduced goats, cats, dogs, pigs, donkeys, and other animals, are destroying these fragile islands.

GalapagosGiantTortoise_Photo_GPazyMinoCA curious giant tortoise approaches a photographer (G. Paz-y-Miño C. © photo)

     Settlers released domestic animals in the Galapagos five centuries ago. Feral goats now feed on the natural vegetation and stump on regrowths of the endemic flora, transforming the landscape from shrubby-dense plant cover to desert-like and eroded terrains. Cats and dogs prey on birds and reptiles, while pigs dig into nests and crash and eat the eggs of giant tortoises, marine and terrestrial iguanas. Because the Galapagos vertebrates are nonpoisonous or unpalatable and have had no phylogenetic exposure to mammalian enemies, predator avoidance behaviors develop very slowly.

      After years of exotic animal invasions and other related human impacts on the islands (deforestation and farming), the Galapagos fauna seems to be losing this battle unless conservation plans are implemented. Captive breeding programs at the Charles Darwin Research Station (CDRS), in Santa Cruz Island, are giving positive results for the giant tortoises and terrestrial iguanas. Understanding their reproductive behavior and social organization together with research on feeding habits and dispersal patterns are helping biologists to reintroduce these species into the wild. But restoration requires entire habitat rehabilitation to secure viable populations. In Galapagos the solution is clear: feral nasty animals, such as goats, cats, dogs, pigs and donkeys must go! Who should go first? Goats, the nastiest; they are thriving in the Galapagos and overpowering tortoises and iguanas.

SeaLionsGalapagos_GPazyMinoC_photoSea lions resting while ignoring visitors; people quickly get use to wander among the uniquely tame Galapagos animals (G. Paz-y-Miño C. © photo)

     Creative hunting campaigns aimed at eradicating goats have been in practice over half a century. Most recently, goats have been trapped and released with radio tracking devices, which allow hunters to locate herds and gun them down from helicopters. Goats, however, do learn quickly to elude predators coming from the sky in flying vessels and soon turn erratically nocturnal and crepuscular, spread while being chased to congregate again and continue with their own survival. Confusion, dilution, odd prey effects, and other behavioral phenomena are taken into consideration by the CDRS to exterminate goats efficiently, yet the outcome is ambiguous. Hunting from aircrafts selects for fast, smart, even more opportunistic animals, plus is very expensive. The islands of Isabela, Santiago and Santa Cruz still have large populations of feral goats.

GalapagosMockingBird_GPazyMinoC_photoGalapagos mockingbirds boldly interact with people (G. Paz-y-Miño C. © photo)

     Galapagos -sanctuary of wildlife and United Nations World Heritage- faces its most challenging times ever. The archipelago is an example of both proper ecotourism/scientific management and acute human conflicts with nature. One hundred thousand visitors arrive in the National Park and Marine Reserve every year and follow strict rules and organized procedures to explore the islands. Scientists and students engage in research and environmental education programs (geology, biology, anthropology) sponsored by universities and nonprofit organizations. At the same time, the human population in Isabela, Santa Cruz and San Cristobal grows and enormous environmental pressure is imposed by farmers, fisheries and developers. Conservation problems continue and some worsen: fire ants, quinine trees, bees and rats invade the islands at an alarming rate, illegal sea cucumber harvesting and shark and tuna fishing propagate in protected waters, while powerful cruise corporations find their way into bringing entertainment ships to replace the local ecotourism enterprises. It is hard not to agree with Darwin and his disenchantment with the visitors of the nineteenth century who while “… wandering through the woods in search of tortoises, always [took] cruel delight in knocking down the little [Galapagos] birds…” Today’s “wanderers” either driven by poverty or equipped with technology, credit and political influence are knocking down an entire World Heritage.

The Galapagos Archipelago

     There is no place on Earth like the Galapagos Islands (declared World Heritage and Biosphere Reserve by UNESCO). Their unique natural history makes these islands ideal scenarios for scientific research in biology, biogeography, environmental sciences, human ecology and the history of evolutionary biology. Darwin’s visit to the Galapagos in 1835 was crucial for the development of the theory of evolution.



1535 Galapagos officially ‘discovered’ by the Bishop of Panama, Fray Tomás de Berlanga

1574 the Ortelius’ map calls the archipelago ‘insulae de los galapegos’

1500-1700s pirates, whalers and buccaneers control the islands

1832 Ecuador assumes jurisdiction of the ‘Archipiélago del Ecuador’

1835 Charles Darwin visits the Galapagos Islands

1959 Ecuador creates de Galapagos National Park

1964 the Charles Darwin Research Station opens

1979 UNESCO declares Galapagos a World Heritage

1985 UNESCO declares Galapagos a Biosphere Reserve

2000s >100,000 visitors arrive in Galapagos every year


UMass Dartmouth students take learning expedition to “enchanted” Galápagos Islands

Article written and published by the UMassD Alumni Magazine 2008

     It’s not unusual for students to travel during a school break. But it is rare to mingle among blue-footed boobies, giant tortoises, marine iguanas and other exotic creatures while earning biology course credits. For nine UMass Dartmouth undergraduates, a 10-day, January expedition to Ecuador and the Galápagos Islands proved to be the experience of a lifetime.

Galapagos UMassD group GPazyMinoC photo

UMass Dartmouth students with a naturalist (center) from the Galapagos National Park (G. Paz-y-Miño-C. © photo)

     “I had a great group of UMass Dartmouth students fully committed to experiencing naturalism and evolution in the greatest natural laboratory our planet has,” said Biology Professor Guillermo Paz-y-Miño C., who organized the trip in partnership with the Office of International and Exchange Study Programs.

     Paz-y-Miño C. explained that the unique natural history of the Galápagos Islands makes them ideal scenarios for learning biology, biogeography, environmental sciences, human ecology and the history of evolutionary biology. Charles Darwin’s visit to the Galápagos in 1835 was crucial for the development of the theory of evolution.

     The group visited Quito, the capital of Ecuador, exploring its colonial downtown, churches including San Agustín, La Compañía de Jesús, and San Francisco, the main plaza of Independence, and Ciudad Mitad del Mundo, or the “middle of the world city,” before navigating around Santa Cruz, Española, Isabela, Fernandina and Baltra Islands.

Galapagos Tortoise GPazyMinoC photoLeft: Galapagos tortoise approaches a student (G. Paz-y-Miño-C. © photo)

     There, the students completed 70 hours of intense academic work including independent projects that culminated in oral presentations and papers. Participants also attended environmental interpretations by scholars from the Charles Darwin Field Station, the Galápagos National Park, the Galápagos Foundation and the Ecuadorian National Observatory and wrote journals documenting their reflections.

     “My outlook on biology has totally been transformed,” said Larissa Basque, a freshman marine biology m ajor from Plainville. “There is an abundance of life of animals so exotic and unique to the islands, it has opened my eyes to new understandings and realization of how diverse this world is.”

     “All of the books you may read and all of the pictures you may see are nothing compared to the actual experience of visiting the islands. You will never see anything more beautiful in your life,” said Kayla Braunston, a freshman biology major from Gloucester.

     The participants had varying degrees of science background. There was a sense of adventure and now their perceptions of culture and views of this amazing part of the world have changed. The experience was valuable for students because for those pursuing environmental sciences or marine biology, this was an opportunity to see first hand what being a naturalist is like. This (trip) wa s a path to explore their future careers, a way to translate their academic focus into reality.


Student at close range with a Galapagos marine iguana (G. Paz-y-Miño-C. © photo)

     For non-biology majors, the trip was equally worthwhile. Bartholomew Walsh, a junior philosophy major from Charlton said, “The expedition allowed me to study a unique and beautiful place firsthand, gave me a newfound appreciation for science as methodological naturalism and also, more importantly, left me with a better understanding of evolutionary theory. In the Galápagos, evolution occurs right before your eyes, giving you a rare glimpse into the underlying process of the cosmos at work.”

     “It’s a place unlike any other on this planet with unique and fascinating creatures,” said Kaitlin Switzer, a freshman fine arts-painting/2D major from North Kingstown, Rhode Island. “You witness firsthand natural phenomena in its most raw form. As this life-changing journey unfolds, nature’s processes reveal themselves, opening your eyes to profound truths.”

     The Galápagos Islands are an archipelago of volcanic origin distributed around the equator, 600 miles west of continental Ecuador in the Pacific Ocean. They are comprised of 13 large islands, six small islands and 40 islets and have World Heritage National Park status.

     Paz-y-Miño C., recipient of a Commonwealth of Massachusetts award for his contribution to innovation in science education, has run similar expeditions in the past. He brought this initiative to UMass Dartmouth for the first time and its success has him thinking about future expeditions and other activities related to the Galápagos.


Guillermo Paz-y-Miño-C., Hillary Danz, David Messina, Marguerite Youngreen, Larissa Basque, Kayla Braunston, Kaitlin Switzer, Bart Walsh, Amy Budge (UMassD Galapagos 2008)