Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Galapagos - Charles Darwin Research Center (Day 9)

Day 9 (Saturday, Sept. 6th) finds the Celebrity Xpedition anchored at Puerto Ayora, the largest town in the Galapagos. It is located on Santa Cruz Island, the second-largest island in the Galapagos and hub for tourists.

2009 marks the 50th anniversary of the Galapagos National Park and the Charles Darwin Foundation

In 1959 (the centenary year of Darwin's publication "The Origin of the Species"), the Ecuardorian government declared all the islands, except areas already colonized, as a national park. In the same year, the Charles Darwin Foundation (CDF) was founded with a primary objective of ensuring the conservation of the unique Galapagos ecosystems and to promote the scientific studies necessary to fulfill its conservation functions.

We took a short bus ride through the small town of Port Ayora, ariving at the entrance of the Charles Darwin Research Station. It was quite a walk to the actual start of the research station from where the bus dropped us off. The path was patio blocks at first but then changed to a dirt trail. We were concerned because one of the passengers in our group was on crutches and we didn't think she'd be able to make the walk. We were happy to see her waiting for us at the end of the path - there is vehicle access for handicapped and official vehicles.

One of the naturalists took us inside the tortoise conservation building where we saw displays on tortoise exploitation, conservation, and ecology. She also explained the captive breeding program which began in 1962. Since that time many tortoises have been repatriated to their original islands.

Wardens of the Galapagos National Park Service collect eggs and hatchlings from tortoise nests on Pinzon, Santiago, San Cristobal, and Santa Cruz Islands and bring them to the center for protection and rearing. Eggs from the nests of Espanola tortoises at the center are also gathered.

Eggs are placed in incubators. The hatching process usually takes about 3 days. After an incubation of about 4 months, a tortoise finally breaks free of its eggshell. A yolk sac attached to its stomach provides nourishment to the hatchling in its first few weeks of life.

Upon emerging from the egg, hatchlings are kept in dark boxes for two to four weeks, which simulates the time spent in the natural nest chamber. Each tortoise is given a colored identification number. The colors represent each tortoise's "home island".

Baby tortoises are weighted, and measured for length and girth. The hatchlings are then moved to outdoor corrals, where they live and grow for up to two years. You can see these corrals in the photos above.

Lonesome George - rarest creature in the world

Lonesome George is the last known individual of the Pinta Island Tortoise, one of eleven subspecies of Galapagos tortoise native to the Galapagos Islands. He has been labelled the rarest creature in the world, and is a potent symbol for conservation efforts in the Galapagos and internationally. It is thought that he was named after a character played by American actor George Gobel.

George was first seen on the island of Pinta on 1 December 1971 by American snail biologist Joseph Vagvolgyi. The island's vegetation had been decimated by introduced feral goats, and the indigenous tortoise population had been reduced to a single individual. He was relocated for his safety to the Charles Darwin Research Station.

George is estimated to be 60–90 years of age, and is in good health, however efforts to get him to mate with two females of a different subspecies from Wolf Island have failed. Research continues to date, and it is hoped that a pure Pinta tortoise lives among the 2,000 tortoises on Isabela.

Will George's subspecies become extinct? Hopefully not, but regardless of what happens to this one animal, let him always remind us that the fate of all living things on Earth is in human hands.

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