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ESF Researchers Return to Galapagos

Grad student, team will check on tortoises released into wild last year

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A SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry (ESF) graduate student who spent last summer repopulating the Galapagos Archipelago with giant tortoises will return to the island next week to find out just what those tortoises have been doing since then.

Elizabeth Hunter, a master's student in conservation biology, will be accompanied by a four-person team that includes a 2011 ESF graduate and an ESF student who is finishing her junior year.

"We're going to check on all the tortoises that were released last year. We'll download all the information about their movements over the last nine months," Hunter said. "We'll see if the plant communities have changed due to the tortoise activity and assess the avian and invertebrate populations' responses to tortoises."

Hunter will spend eight weeks on Pinta Island. Accompanying her will be John Mulligan, who is graduating from ESF the day before their departure, May 15th; ESF junior Katie Homan; U.S. Geological Survey field technician Claire Phillips; and Ecuadorian undergraduate Daniel Lara.

"I'm really excited to go back and download the data and see where they've been," Hunter said.

The 39 giant tortoises were released into the wild about a year ago in an effort to restore the island's damaged ecosystem. Hunter and team used an array of high-tech instrumentation. Three tortoises were equipped with satellite transmitters that allowed the researchers to track them throughout the year. The others were outfitted with GPS loggers to track their whereabouts; the research team this summer plans to locate those animals and download the data they are carrying.

Hunter's major professor is Dr. James Gibbs, an ESF conservation biologist.

Partners in the project have been 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.