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Galapagos Summer

ESF grad student spends 10 weeks monitoring giant tortoises on Pinta island

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A graduate student at the SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry has embarked on a trip to a remote island in the Galapagos Archipelago, where she and three field assistants will spend 10 weeks monitoring the behavior of 39 giant tortoises that will be released into the wild in an effort to restore the island's damaged ecosystem.

Elizabeth Hunter, a master's student in conservation biology, and her colleagues will depend on an array of high-tech instrumentation and some old-fashioned techniques, like sitting and watching, to determine what effect the tortoises have on Pinta Island.

Dr. James Gibbs, a conservation biologist who is Hunter's major professor, said the goal is for the tortoises to help restore the island's ecosystem.

"Tortoises are huge and heavy. They eat grass all day. When you have them in the ecosystem, they have a huge effect," Gibbs said. "It's kind of like white-tail deer in New York. If we lost white-tail deer in New York state, imagine how our forests would change."

When the tortoises are released in mid-May, it will be the first time tortoises have inhabited the island since the removal of Lonesome George, the last known Pinta tortoise, in 1972. Researchers had hopes of finding a suitable mate for Lonesome George but have been unsuccessful.

Giant tortoises on Pinta are thought to have numbered between 5,000 and 10,000 before pirates and whalers began removing them for food.

The animals being released on the island this spring are the offspring of tortoises of unknown origin that have been held in captivity during the early years of the Galapagos National Park. They have been sterilized by a team of veterinarians so they don't reproduce.

"They are not native Pinta tortoises and there are policies in the Galapagos that say you can't put a species where it doesn't belong," Gibbs said. "So while the debate continues about what kind of tortoises should be introduced permanently, these sterile ones can fill the niche."

The tortoises are described as ecological analogs: Although not the same species as natives like Lonesome George, they will serve a function in ecosystem restoration.

ESF's role in the project is to monitor the tortoises' behavior, movements and impacts on the ecosystem.

"We're using fancy GPS loggers that record their position every hour," Gibbs said. "Three of them are equipped to broadcast live to the internet through a satellite. The other tortoises will be outfitted with devices that record their movements; Hunter and her assistants will have to go out and find those animals periodically and download the data.

"We'll know where they go and where they don't go," Gibbs said. "We'll be able to see the effects their feeding habits have on the vegetation."

Hunter and her team will determine if there is an adequate food supply for the tortoises, which feed on grasses and other plants during the lush rainy season and arboreal cactuses during the dry season.

"We don't really know about the food supply," she said. "That is something we want to find out before the park introduces the reproductive population."

Hunter said she has been compiling equipment - radios, GPS units and movement monitors - for months. She departed with four duffel bags full of equipment. Gibbs has worked in the Galapagos for some 30 years and he is an adjunct scientist of the Charles Darwin Foundation, which supports the national park. He and Hunter will travel to Pinta with a crew of scientists and national park rangers, as well as the Ecuadorian minister of the environment, for the release of the tortoises.

Park personnel are arranging the logistics of the trip - which, for the ESF contingent involves an overnight flight to Ecuador, a second flight to a former U.S. military base in the Galapagos, and then two boat trips. They will carry the tortoises three or four hours to a higher elevation on the island. They must also transport the 640 pounds of food and 2,000 liters of water that Hunter and her companions will need for 10 weeks.

Their link to the outside world will be a solar-powered laptop computer and a small satellite modem to send email.

"It's going to be a very isolating experience," Hunter said. "I love doing field work in remote places. Every aspect of this project is perfect for me. Just having a chance to go to the Galapagos is amazing."

She and her three companions will file updates from the island on their blog site, www.retortoisepinta.blogspot.com/.

After they get established, Gibbs will move on to another tortoise-related research project in the Galapagos and the four-member team will remain alone on the island, which is about 20 square miles.

"It's very significant," Gibbs said. "For the Galapagos, it's putting tortoises back on Pinta. It's a way of redressing 200 to 300 years of abuse to the ecosystem.

"We're using animals to restore plant communities," he said. "Often, we're focused on conserving things. But this is a creative act of restoration. We're thinking about this as a system rather than as a species. It's a more holistic approach."

Working with Hunter, who earned her bachelor's degree from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 2006, will be three recent college graduates: Garrison Loope of Penn State; Ben Risk of Cornell University; and Ecuadorian native Francisco Laso of Columbia University.

Other partners in the project are veterinarians from the University of Georgia, Zoo Atlanta and the Houston Zoo; and the Galapagos Conservancy. Funding sources include the Galapagos National Park, Panaphil Foundation, Continental Airlines, the Houston Zoo and members of the Galapagos Conservancy.