Galapagos project aims to recover island’s giant tortoise population

Quito, Jul 13 (EFE).- A team of scientists recently monitored hundreds of giant tortoises introduced since 2015 on Santa Fe Island, part of Ecuador’s Galapagos archipelago, in an effort to promote the re-population of those reptiles in areas where they had gone extinct.

Ecuador’s Environment Ministry said in a statement that those experts are affiliated with the Galapagos National Park, an organization tasked with safeguarding biodiversity on the archipelago, and the Galapagos Conservancy, a United States-based nonprofit dedicated to the protecting and restoring those islands.

The scientists, who spent seven days on uninhabited Santa Fe, carried out their annual monitoring of the re-population process and verified the condition of the Hood Island giant tortoises (Chelonoidis niger hoodensis) that were introduced between 2015 and 2021.

According to the ministry, the goal of this project is to repopulate the island with giant tortoises so they fulfill their role as chief herbivores and ecosystem shapers on that 24.6-square-kilometer (9.5-square-mile) island.

The original species of giant tortoise on Santa Fe went extinct more than 150 years ago, the statement said, adding that the Hood Island tortoises – native to Galapagos’ Española Island – were chosen as a replacement because they were most closely related genetically and morphologically.

Besides evaluating the condition of the 742 tortoises introduced to Santa Fe, the team of experts also documented their dispersal patterns on the island.

“The main find was to notice that most of the tortoises move about in a 5.5-square-kilometer area of the island and gradually move to new places on Santa Fe,” the Environment Ministry added.

The scientific expedition also monitored the state of the Opuntia, or prickly pear, cactus, a food source for the giant tortoises, as well as the interaction between the tortoises and the land iguanas that also inhabit the island.

“The return of the tortoises has stimulated Opuntia reproduction; that’s why a larger number of young cactuses were found during the Santa Fe monitoring,” Galapagos National Park Director Danny Rueda said.

The expedition also served to gather information from a score of vegetation plots established in 2014, when the program was launched.

“The goal is to identify over the long term how the tortoises and land iguanas impact the dynamics of the island’s plant communities,” said Jorge Carrion, the Galapagos Conservancy’s conservation director.

In addition, high-resolution panoramic photographs were taken so scientists can compare them with images in the future and record the changes in the island’s ecosystems, the ministry said.

The archipelago – which consists of 13 major islands, six smaller islands and scores of islets and rocks – was made famous by 19th-century British naturalist Charles Darwin, whose observations of life on the islands inspired him to develop his theory about evolution, natural selection and the origin of species.

Located in the Pacific Ocean about 1,000 kilometers (620 miles) off the coast of mainland Ecuador, the islands are home to more than 7,000 endemic and native species, many of them found nowhere else on the planet. EFE


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