Galpagos fights for its life

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The fragile life of the Galpagos continues to be threatened on many fronts.

On sea-horse-shaped Isabela, largest island in the chain, an estimated 100,000 feral goats (domesticated animals gone wild) do what goats do best - devour everything in sight. This has resulted in devastation of endemic flora, making it increasingly difficult for some species, such as tortoises, to survive. A projected eight-year goat kill is now under way on the island.

On Santiago, feral pigs snatch tasty giant-tortoise eggs as they're being laid.

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On the island of Pinta, the introduction of just a few goats in the late 1950s ballooned to thousands by 1970. This is the island where Galpagos' most famous resident, Lonesome George, was found in 1971 (see main story).

In the late 1970s, a pack of feral dogs slaughtered more than 500 land iguanas on Santa Cruz. On Pinzn, rats have killed every hatchling tortoise since the ravenous rodents jumped ship 100 years ago. Only an aging group of adult tortoises remains.

When El Nio hit in 1997 and '98, squid and lanternfish moved deeper to cooler waters, forcing half the sea-lion population to starve. The warmed waters killed much of the sea algae, causing devastation among marine iguanas. Recent studies give evidence of a remarkable discovery: The iguanas shrank up to 20 percent in length in order to survive. "Many people working with amphibians have seen this phenomenon, but have not reported it ... because the thinking is that vertebrates can't shrink," says Judy Stamps, a professor of evolution and ecology at the University of California at Davis.

Local fishermen, in a fight for their own survival, supply Asian markets with highly priced and prized delicacies such as shark fins and sea cucumbers.

The 60,000 tourists who trample the islands each year cannot help but add somewhat to the damage. They, however, bring needed dollars to help support the preservation of this delicate archipelago.

Given these ongoing assaults, it is remarkable that almost all of the indigenous creatures here remain at all.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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