Marine Life / Marine Preservation / Policy / Science

Conservation Minded: The Galapagos and changing the focus of conservation practices



What do you think of when you think about the Galapagos? Darwin, finches, tortoises, blue-footed boobys?


Yes, they are a bird and they have blue feet. (

Yes, they are a bird and they have blue feet.

What else comes to mind? The word pristine, perhaps? How many people do you think live on the Galapagos (a volcanic archipelago owned by Ecuador, but located well off of the coast)? In 1970 there were around 4,000 permanent residents, but now the population is above 25,000. This is a massive increase. Added together with a huge tourism industry ($418 million annual), and you have a couple of problems. The Galapagos islands are not huge and they are home to some of the rarest and most interesting animals on the planet. Two of the most interesting and iconic are the Galapagos finches (made famous by Darwin) and Galapagos Tortoise (thanks again, Darwin).

Also made famous by these guys (if you are my age). (

Also made famous by these guys (if you are my age).

In any case, both finches and tortoises are under duress due to human induced issues. I’m going to focus on tortoises today, but for more about finches and other issue check out the recent episode of RadioLab  which inspired this post (embedded below). To hear all about the tortoise and finch related issues,  listen to the podcast.

So, very quickly, Tortoises are on the decline because they rely on drip pools. Drip pools form when there is dense foliage to collect water out of the thick fog. Unfortunately, the forests are gone on the island of Isabella due to a huge goat population. These goats are non-native and were introduced by pirates, traders, whalers, and privateers who stopped in the Galapagos to replenish supplies (and collect tortoises). [This part of the podcast begins at 11:00].

In summary, goats reproduced quickly and had no predators, so they essentially ate the forest, leading to a huge decline in tortoise populations. Tortoises are the big staple for tourism (people can see goats anywhere) and they are famous, rare, and interesting due to their link to Darwin and his On the origin of species.

A Galapagos Tortoise (

A Galapagos Tortoise

Possibly the coolest thing about the tortoises (and most organisms on these islands), is that each island has similar organisms, but due to evolution, each population is genetically different (essentially a new species at this point). In many cases, similar organisms on different islands cannot successfully interbreed. Back to Isabella…

Tortoise populations are down and goats are taking over. In order to save the rare and iconic tortoise and return the island to its previous state (return to the pristine is a major tenant of conservation in most cases), those with the proper authority did something very drastic. They hunted goats with snipers and helicopters. Yeah.

Not only that, but they captured and neutered some goats, tagged them with a GPS collar, and let these goats lead them to other goats (these were know as “Judas Goats”). So, essentially what we have here is a very long, expensive, and incredibly drastic program designed to help get this island back to where it was before people started messing it up (in the 1500’s). This is a noble cause in the eyes of most conservationists, but there is obviously a moral dilemma. How can you justify killing thousands of goats who did nothing wrong? Some people don’t have a problem with this, others do. More importantly, these island experienced drastic changes, so it brings up another major issue. Is it worth it to try to return everything to pre-human conditions? Is it even possible? This is something that is embedded in the conservation culture. I am 100% for conservation, but as a coral reef scientist, I see my study sites of choice constantly decline and changing. In our case, I am positive that there is no way things will ever go back to how they were before humans. The same goes for the Galapagos.

Now, that is not to say that we cannot have new, healthy ecosystems. They just may not be the same as they once were. This management philosophy is highlighted in recent paper by Nicholas Graham and colleagues titled: Coral reefs as novel ecosystems: embracing new futures” (If you want a copy of this paper and cannot get through the paywall, email me. I have the pdf and am happy to share it). Graham argues that there is just no way we can restore every ecosystem to pre-human conditions and suggests that we attempt to understand how and why things are changing to better understand what organisms will thrive in the future. From there we can start building a knowledge of new ecosystem interactions and attempt to help get the ecosystem to a new, healthy, stable equilibrium. Current management strategies and practices are still very valuable and should continue to occur, but perhaps we as conservationists need to re-evaluate our goals.

It’s certainly a tough issue. I think about it daily. It comes into play when I am thinking of experimental designs (how do I get the most out of my work without doing a ton of destructive sampling, for more see my previous post about sampling). I find that for coral reefs, attempting to embrace new equilibrium states is a good approach to take. Obviously, we do not want to lose reefs, but we also cannot change them back to what they were. Management aimed at embracing the now and the future may prove more practical. Perhaps the same style of management will work in the Galapagos and in other areas.

I encourage you all to take a listen to the RadioLab podcast that I linked above and think about these issues a bit. Of course, I am always interested in hearing what you think, so comment away!


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