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Professor Joins Expedition to Galapagos Home of Rare Tortoises

An ESF professor is among a group of scientists participating in an expedition to a remote volcano in the Galapagos Islands to search out rare giant tortoises, some of which were found to carry the genes of two species thought, until recently, to be extinct.

Dr. James P. Gibbs, a conservation biologist at ESF, said before his departure that the expedition is focused on rescuing some of the tortoises so they can be bred in captivity, paving the way for the re-establishment of two species that were believed to have vanished from the archipelago. The team departed Nov. 18 for a 10-day trip to Wolf Volcano on Isabela Island.

"Our team from the Galapagos National Park Service, Yale University, and the Galapagos Conservancy discovered a small trove of extremely unusual tortoises on the remote Wolf Volcano on the northern end of Isabela Island," said Gibbs, who has worked with Galapagos tortoises since 1994. "There are actually thousands of tortoises native to the volcano there — we don't know how many — and amongst them are some rather special ones."

Gibbs credited his colleagues at Yale University with the genetic analysis that revealed in 2012 that some of the tortoises at Wolf Volcano are descendants of the species of tortoises that are extinct on their native islands of Pinta and Floreana. The last known living Pinta tortoise was the famous Lonesome George. Floreana tortoises have not been seen for more than 100 years – Charles Darwin was one of the last to remark on them. Researchers had launched a high-profile search for a mate for the iconic tortoise, but the effort was unsuccessful and Lonesome George died in 2012. Gibbs escorted George's body back to the United States to be taxidermied where it remains as preparations are made in Galapagos to build an exhibit hall for the tortoise.

Given the discovery of the population living on the volcano, Gibbs said, George actually might not have been the last member of his species.

"We don't know yet. There may well be some pure Pinta tortoises on Wolf Volcano," he said. "But there are certainly hybrids. Rescuing as many of these as we can find, breeding them in captivity and releasing their offspring back to their native islands starting in five to 10 years will enable jumpstarting the process of evolution, letting natural selection recreate these species once they are back out on their islands."

There is more to the effort than simply re-establishing tortoise populations. The animals serve as ecological engineers, dispersing seeds and browsing as well as shaping the vegetation as they move around the landscape; they can help restore an ecosystem that has been degraded by species such as goats that were introduced to the islands by humans.

Wolf Volcano erupted in May 2015 in a spectacular flow of lava that Gibbs witnessed from a small plane. The tortoises apparently were not threatened by the lava flows.

Scientists speculate that the tortoises are descendants of animals left on Isabela Island by whalers, who collected huge numbers of tortoises for food but also deposited tortoises in various locations so they could serve as backup for subsequent voyagers. Ironically their actions, mostly destructive, may also hold the key to restoring some species thought to be extinct.

Gibbs spent the last three months before his departure from Syracuse purchasing and packing enough supplies to fill 15 aluminum chests and arranging transfer of the material to Ecuador.

"In principle, it's very simple; removing tortoises to a captive breeding facility on another island. In practice it involves a helicopter and a ship and a lot of people and a lot of logistics and cost and equipment," he said.

The equipment packed up on the ESF campus included 2,000 plant tags, 108 rolls of biodegradable flagging tape, 60 pairs of sturdy socks, 30 pairs of hiking boots, 30 headlamps, 20 whistles, 20 bottles for fuel that will burn in 10 camp stoves, 10 sleeping bags and pads, 10 tents, 10 GPS units, 10 digital cameras, 10 safety vests, 10 first aid kits, six pack frames, five compasses, five measuring tapes, and five packages of waterproof paper.

The expedition is a project of the Galapagos National Park Service. It involves researchers from Yale and the Galapagos Conservancy. The trip also includes ESF alumna Elizabeth Hunter, now a Ph.D. student at the University of Georgia.