Feb 082019
 

From finches to cacti, the fingerprints of evolution are everywhere in the Galapagos

Over the year leading up to my Galapagos trip, I read just about every available book on the islands. My favourite by far was “The Beak of the Finch”, by Jonathan Weiner. Now a nature classic, the book describes how two scientists, Peter and Rosemary Grant, spent more than 20 years on a small Galapagos island proving that Darwin didn’t know the strength of his own theory. They were the first scientists to see evolution by natural selection happening before their very eyes, in real time, and in the wild. They saw that species are not immutable but always in flux. Natural selection is neither rare nor slow, and it is going on everywhere, even in our own backyards.

As the book’s title implies, it is the finches’ beaks that tell the evolutionary story. Adaptive changes in the size and shape of the beak has allowed each of the 17 species to fit into its own ecological niche, be it as small, medium or large seed eaters, nectar eaters, or fruit and insect eaters. DNA testing has confirmed that these birds are all close cousins, having evolved from an original pair of tanager-like birds that arrived on the Galapagos in the distant past from South America. They are also the most famous example of “adaptive radiation”, the process by which organisms diversify from an ancestral species into a variety of new forms.

Thanks to our highly skilled guides, Juan Tapia and Josh Vandermeulen, we saw 12 of the 17 finch species. We stood only metres away as Gray Warbler-finches poured out their warbler-like song from Miconia shrubs; pollen-covered Cactus finches drank nectar from Opuntia flowers; and Medium Ground Finches gleaned seeds from sprawling matplants. Watching them, I tried to remind myself that no other birds have had such a profound impact on human understanding of our own deep history.

Cactus Finch feeding in an Opuntia cactus. Both species tell an amazing story of evolution. (Josh Vandermeulen)

As I think back on these wonderful seven days, a flood of other bird memories come to mind, too. First among these were the Waved Albatross we saw at a nesting colony on Espanola Island. With a wingspan of over seven feet, they are the islands’ largest breeding bird. We were lucky to be there in courtship season and to see the elaborate ritual between male and female. This included bill circling, bill clacking, and a formalised dance with the bill raised vertically. The colony is located beside a low cliff where a strong updraft allows the birds to take off with relative ease. It was mesmerizing to watch not only albatross but a host of other seabirds as they soared along the cliff.

 

There were many other special moments, too: a male Nazca Booby courting a female by dutifully gifting her with pebbles; flocks of Red-billed Tropicbirds streaming overhead; tiny Red-necked Phalaropes riding the giant sea waves; Espanola Mockingbirds licking condensation off our water bottles; Short-eared Owls camouflaged among the rocks and waiting to pounce on storm-petrels; Lava Herons and Lava Gulls blending in perfectly against their namesake; and Swallow-tailed Gulls flashing their spectacular wing pattern. I was able to photograph a pair of these gulls sitting side by side in the late afternoon sun. With its heart-shaped, scarlet eye ring, one of the birds seems to be saying, “I love you!”

A pair of Swallow-tailed Gulls-the worlds only nocturnal gull. Note the heart-shaped eye-ring on the upper bird. (Drew Monkman)

Giant tortoises

“Galápagos” is an old Spanish word for giant tortoise.  When Darwin visited the islands in 1835, the Vice Governor told him that he could tell which island a given tortoise came from by the shape of its shell. Scientists now believe they know why. Those with a saddle-shaped carapace evolved on islands where they had to reach up high to feed on vegetation like cacti, while those with a domed carapace became adapted to feeding at ground level with no reaching up. In the highlands of Santa Cruz Island, thousands of Galapagos Giant Tortoises live in harmony with farmers. We walked among these colossuses – some five feet long, 400 pounds and over 100 years old – close enough to hear them ripping and chewing grass from the pasture. Others were wallowing in the mud of shallow ponds, seemingly oblivious to our presence and to that of the beautiful White-cheeked Pintails that swam among them.

Earlier that same day, we had visited the amazing Charles Darwin Research Station, which is a key player in the conservation of the Galapagos. Three-quarters of the staff at the station are Ecuadorian residents of the islands. This is part of a huge effort to help the islanders themselves engage with protecting the biodiversity and to become not only guides but also future scientists.

The station carries out a very successful tortoise captive breeding program, and we were able to see baby tortoises of several species. Thousands of tortoises have been re-introduced to islands where the original population has been decimated by everything from invasive rats and goats to whalers killing the tortoises for food.

There are also wonderful displays on evolution, such as the story of how Marine Iguanas and three species of land iguanas all evolved from an ancestral pair of South American Green Iguanas. The latter probably arrived millions of years ago on floating vegetation from the mainland. Seeing the black Marine Iguanas with their barnacled foreheads, erect spines, and habit of expelling salt from their nostrils, it’s easy to understand why Darwin famously called them “imps of darkness.”

Marine Iguanas on Espanola. The bottom iguana is snorting out salt. (Drew Monkman)

Amazing plants

The story of evolution is also written in the plants of the Galapagos. It is especially evident in the 15 species of Scalesia, the Darwin’s finches of the plant world. A member of the daisy family, Scalesia have adapted to different vegetation zones and evolved into trees and shrubs. In the highlands of Santa Cruz, we saw 15 metre Tree Scalesia, which are akin to giant sunflower trees with their ultra-fast growth, ray flowers, and soft pithy wood. On other islands, we saw shrub-like Radiate-headed Scalesia, which is a pioneer on barren lava.

 

The six species of Opuntia cacti are yet another example of the power of evolution.  The tallest is the Giant Prickly Pear, which grows to 12 metres tall and develops beautiful, rich brown bark. I was particularly fascinated, however, by the Opuntia species we found on Genovesa. Because there are no cacti-eating herbivores on this island, this Opuntia has soft spines. Why? Because there was never any adaptive pressure to put resources into making the spines hard and piercing. Amazing.

Climate Change

As isolated as the Galapagos are, they are not immune to the effects of climate change. Most of the iconic species stand to suffer as do the coral reefs. Warming seas, which are made worse by El Nino events, may already explain why sardines have become rare, and why sardine-eating Blue-footed Boobies no longer nest there. The climate crisis is also predicted to increase the rate and intensity of El Nino events, which are devasting for marine life as the seas warm. The effect ripples through the entire ecosystem and has a negative impact on everything from Galapagos Sea Lions to Marine Iguanas. Unfortunately, increased rainfall will be a boon to many invasive species.

As someone who writes constantly about climate change, there is maybe an element of hypocrisy in my even making this trip. We all know that flying has a huge carbon footprint. But how many of us are going to give up air travel or completely reinvent the way we live as individuals? A winter get-away, for example, is a part of so many people’s lives, as are retirement travel and visiting far-flung family members. That is why addressing climate change lies not so much in personal action (although there is much we can do personally) but rather in transitioning our entire economy away from fossil fuels to renewable, carbon-free energy. This may also lead to new technologies for less carbon-intensive air travel. Both a price on carbon and strict new emission regulations are essential to achieving this transition.

In the meantime, one thing we can also do is purchase carbon offsets whenever we fly. This is a system by which you compensate for your share of a flight’s carbon footprint by donating to offset carbon emissions elsewhere. Carbonfootprint.com allows you to easily calculate your personal footprint for a given flight. By clicking the “Offset Now” button, you can then choose a project to help fund. Our Galapagos trip footprint was 1.68 metric tons of carbon. We chose “Reforestation in Kenya” and paid $25 as an offset. Carbon offsets typically cost 5% or less of the ticket price. They are a great tool for all of us who are fortunate enough to fly regularly.

I came home from the Galapagos feeling incredibly privileged to have been able to visit the very cradle of evolutionary theory and observe first-hand the iconic species that taught the world about natural selection. Seeing so much wildlife with no fear of humans – the mother sea lions with their wide-eyed pups, for example – also made me think about how tragic it is that we humans – the very creatures of which they are so trusting – are responsible for a climate crisis that is likely to wreak havoc on their fragile lives.

Local Climate Change News

Well-known Canadian author and journalist, Gwynne Dyer, will present “The Climate Horizon: A Lecture” on Feb. 11 at 7:30 pm at Gzowski College, Trent University. “Climate change will have exponential influences on our military, politics, environment, social systems and economy, but with an unprecedented level of global co-operation, there might be a way through it,” according to Dyer. Please register at Eventbrite.ca for this free event.

 

 

 

Feb 012019
 

An unforgettable trip to the “laboratory of evolution” and the inspiration of Darwin’s earth-shaking theory

The shadowy form appeared out of nowhere in the turquoise water. It made a bee-line towards me, swimming just above the bottom. What is this? Within seconds, however, its dark back, white underparts, and stout beak were unmistakable as was my sense of incredible luck. A bird I’d dreamed of seeing for a lifetime was right below me, and I even managed to get pictures before it sped off into the distance. I had seen my first penguin ever and the smallest and most northerly of its kind.

It was a thrill to see this Galapagos Penguin speeding by in the clear turquoise water. (Drew Monkman)

Could the Galapagos Islands really be as extraordinary as I’d always heard? Since the age of 12, I had dreamed of going there. A great uncle of mine had made the journey in the 1960s and regaled me of the remarkable wildlife. For years, I had heard how the animals are show no fear of humans, and how you could get a front row seat to their intriguing courtship displays, feeding behaviours, and nurturing of the young.  My desire to go only grew as the years passed, and I became increasingly interested in Charles Darwin and evolution. Like few other places in the world, it is the subtle differences between species in the Galapagos – be they tortoises, mockingbirds, cacti or finches – that reveal the secrets of evolution and inspired Darwin in formulating “the greatest single idea anyone has every had.” In recent years, a disturbing sense of urgency had also set in as I read how climate change will irrevocably change the islands.

The Galapagos are a province of Ecuador, located on the equator 1000 km west of the South American mainland. They form an archipelago of 13 major islands and many smaller ones at the confluence of three major ocean currents. These include the Humboldt Current which brings cool, nutrient-rich water up from Antarctica. The islands emerged from the sea bottom as volcanic upheavals, which means that much of the time you are walking on lava. All the reptiles, half the birds, one-third of the plants, and one-quarter of the fish are unique (endemic) to the Galapagos – in other words, they are found nowhere else. Why would this be so? Why is the archipelago such a hotspot for evolution? It comes down to the islands’ isolation and to the subtly different climatic and ecological conditions from one island to the next.

We had booked our October 31 to November 10 trip a year in advance with Quest Nature Tours. Our group of 12 Canadians was accompanied by 28-year-old Josh Vandermeulen, who in 2012 set a new Ontario record for the number of birds seen in one year. A biologist and avid herpetologist (the study of reptiles and amphibians), Josh was an affable, attentive guide, expert photographer, and uncanny in his ability to find and identify wildlife of all kinds. We were also joined by a superb Galapagos guide, Juan Tapia. A native Ecuadorean, Juan has been guiding on the islands for over 30 years.

We flew from Toronto to Quito, the capital of Ecuador, where we spent two nights and enjoyed a guided tour of this historic city. We then took a flight to the islands via Guayaquil, before landing on Baltra Island. For the next seven nights our home was the 33-metre Beluga, a Canadian-owned yacht with a crew of eight. The food, accommodation and attentiveness of the crew were superb. Our itinerary took us to eight islands in the central and eastern part of the Galapagos. These included Santa Cruz, Santa Fe, South Plaza, San Cristobal, Espanola, Santiago and Genovesa. Most of the travelling between islands was at night.

Unlike anywhere else

My initial impression upon landing was that of a monochromatic, rocky outback, covered with cacti and small leafless trees. The uniqueness of the Galapagos quickly made itself known, however, even at the airport, which is one of the greenest in the world. The islands’ focus on sustainability – a necessity given the 220,000 tourists who visit each year – became immediately apparent, as well. Multiple signs spelled out the do’s and don’ts that tourists must follow. We even watched a dog sniffing the luggage for contraband fruit and vegetables that could introduce more invasive species to the fragile ecosystem.

A Galapagos Sea Lion posing on the beach at San Cristobal Island. The Beluga is anchored in the distance. (Drew Monkman)

Sensory overload began the moment we stepped off the bus at the harbour, courtesy of a Galapagos Sea Lion and Land Iguana within touching distance. Quintessential Galapagos birds like Darwin’s finches hopped about on the ground, while Lava Gulls and Blue-footed Boobies flew over the water. Josh and I went apoplectic trying to get photographs and not miss anything. Once on the boat, however, the mood turned more serious as Juan impressed upon us our special responsibility as visitors to respect the islands and their wildlife. “Take nothing but photos. No shells, no lava, no seeds. Nothing. And leave nothing but footprints. Stay two metres away from the animals. Don’t wander off the paths.” The values of respect and sustainability permeate every aspect of the islands’ administration, which is the shared mission of the Galapagos National Park Service and the Charles Darwin Foundation. This includes everything from a near-total ban on single-use plastics to where and when tourists can go ashore.

The daily routine

Each morning after breakfast, Juan would provide an overview of the day’s schedule and which species we were likely to see. We would then board the pangas – inflatable, motorized dinghies – which took us to shore for a dry or wet landing – the latter meaning you got your feet wet! Sometimes, before disembarking, we’d take time to travel along the shore looking for animals at the water’s edge or swimming underneath. This is how we saw our first Whitetip Sharks. Once ashore, Juan would allow us time to simply soak in the novelty of this special place: sea lions lounging on the beach, mockingbirds flitting about at our feet, brilliant orange Sally Lightfoot Crabs crawling over the rocks, Galapagos Hawks peering down from atop the cacti, and legions of black Marine Iguanas warming themselves on the lava as they snort out salt.

Sally Lightfoot Crabs were everywhere on coastal rocks. (Drew Monkman)

Once the proverbial “herding of cats” finally brought all of us together, we would set out on a trail walk, stopping regularly as Juan explained the amazing adaptations of the plants and animals. His knowledge of Galapagos botany was encyclopedic. There was always ample time to take pictures, ask questions and explore – within limits – on one’s own. After a couple of hours, we’d head back to the boat for a full-course lunch and time to relax. Later in the afternoon, we’d set out for a second hike. With the sun low in the sky, the light conditions for photography were wonderful. Some days, we’d also take the pangas to a snorkelling site for the unforgettable experience of seeing the islands’ underwater realm.

A pair of Nazca Boobies engrossed in courtship display. (Drew Monkman)

The day would wrap up with before-dinner beverages, trading stories of the day’s adventures, a gourmet supper, and the completion of our species checklist – not only the birds but everything from reptiles and fish to insects and plants. Josh would remind us of what we’d seen – species by species down the list – and we would dutifully check them off. “Blue-footed Booby, Nazca Booby, Red-footed Booby… Did anyone see a Lava Heron today?” When it came to the plants and fish, Juan took over. He then presented a short “slideshow” of the day’s highlights, and finally a preview of the next day’s itinerary. “Geez, this is like a dream university course!” one woman commented. By 9 pm we were all in bed.

Every morning I would get up shortly after dawn and join Josh on the deck. Together, we would scan the sea and shoreline for birds, cameras at the ready. There were always boobies, shearwaters, and frigatebirds putting on a show. On one occasion we watched a frigatebird attack a terrified booby, trying to make it cough up the fish it had caught during the night. Having to go back into the ship for breakfast almost seemed like a waste of time!

Experiencing the Galapagos from under the waves was particularly memorable. The number and variety of marine invertebrates and fish was astounding as was the sense of being in your own private world. In all, we recorded 35 fish species, including large schools of colourful surgeonfish and mesmerizing wrasse, parrotfish and angelfish. On several occasions, Galapagos Sea Lions joined us underwater, diving, twisting and turning within touching distance. One even came up and “kissed” me on the mask. I felt especially privileged to be able to follow a huge Pacific Green Turtle as it searched for food.

A school of Yellowtail Surgeonfish – a ubiquitous species in the Galapagos (Drew Monkman)

Next week, I’ll describe other highlights like the courtship displays of Waved Albatross and the other-worldly experience of hanging out with dozens of Giant Tortoises. I’ll also examine how the story of evolution is told by everything from Scalesia trees to the iconic Darwin’s finches. As I hope you can tell, these “Enchanted Islands” were truly the experience of a lifetime.

 

 

 

 

Local Climate Change News

Many of us with investments, either personal or through pension plans, are concerned about how to manage the risk in the stock market with looming climate chaos. Do we divest from fossil fuels? When and how?  Financial planner Tim Nash, aka “The Sustainable Economist” and recently featured on CBC’s The National, will explain how to invest safely, profitably, sustainably, and ethically in these precarious times. This free event will be of interest to individual investors, investment dealers as well as representatives of institutions with investments. The talk takes place at Trinity United Church (Simcoe St. entrance) on February 7 at 7 pm.