Research

Through research, we provide timely information in order to help protect, manage and maintain the unique ecosystems and conservation of Galapagos.
 

Decades ago, the Charles Darwin Foundation for the Galapagos Islands, through the Charles Darwin Scientific Station, has developed research to provide scientific evidence and to support decision making in the Galapagos Islands. At the beginning, the science was developed by mainly paying attention to the natural systems of this Archipelago. Later, the priorities and urgencies of knowledge determined that the research format in Galapagos needed to be adjusted, into a more inclusive approach. It was highlighted that the human dimensions needed to be addressed, in order to better understand and identify alternatives to deal with the challenges to the conservation and sustainability in Galapagos.

Since the Cooperation Agreement with the Ecuadorian State was renewed in 2016, a change was introduced at conceiving and developing our scientific endeavors. Then, a conceptual, methodological, and shifting of principles took place, and a reformulation in our research objectives and priorities was promoted. It was thus the starting point, at re-setting the research initiatives at CDRS towards a more holistic and integrative approach. Then, we identified the urgency to give the social systems the same treatment and the same interest, as research objectives, as those given to the natural systems. After that reflection, the research initiatives, it was planned, will integrate, as much as possible, a component integrating the role human beings play in the conservation and desired sustainability for Galapagos Islands.

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From now onwards, the science that CDRS will perform, will face many critical aspects. The human population increase in the Archipelago, the steady increase in tourists, the demand for goods and services by the local inhabitants, the increasing usage of resources, among others, are arguments to claim that a wider and more solid research agenda is needed at the CDRS. It becomes explicit that, it is necessary to open doors that have remained closed, and to look out of the disciplinary borders. Only through diverse and integrative perspectives will it be possible to better understand the problems and adapt to the changes we all face.

Our Active Research Projects in Galapagos

Currently, we manage over 24 projects and they are led by a committed team of scientists and supported by resourceful administrative staff.

Many fieldwork conditions are extreme and include intense heat, tricky boat maneuvering, or treks through thorny blackberry thickets. Our incredible team at the Charles Darwin Research Station is passionate about the work it does and is willing to do whatever it takes to ensure Galapagos is preserved for future generations.

Conservation of Threatened Populations of Small Land Birds

Conservation of Threatened Populations of Small Land Birds

There are 28 small endemic landbirds in the Galapagos Islands, including the iconic Darwin finches (17 species) and charismatic mockingbirds (4 species). In spite of extensive studies on the evolution of Darwin’s finches and other birds, surprisingly little is known about how many birds are found on each island and whether populations are healthy. 

Recent studies indicate that some bird populations are undergoing severe declines, in particular on the inhabited islands. Studies are underway to understand what is the cause of this decline. The reasons are multiple and include nestling mortality caused by the invasive parasitic fly Philornis downsi (the most serious threat), reduced food availability caused by habitat degradation, predation by invasive species (e.g. rats and cats and the Smooth-billed Ani), and introduced diseases.

To reverse these declines as quickly as possible, the Charles Darwin Foundation (CDF) and the Galapagos National Park Directorate (GNPD) formed the Landbird Conservation Program in 2014. This program counts on the help of Galapagos residents, visitors, and researchers from around the world and is investigating multiple options simultaneously for the protection of these iconic bird species.

Ecological restoration in Baltra Island

Ecological restoration in Baltra Island

Baltra is one of the islands of the archipelago that has suffered the greatest degradation due to its use as a U.S. Army air base during World War II. Today, most of the original vegetation has disappeared and the island is marked by abandoned infrastructure, metal debris, and waste. Baltra is also the first place tourists see when they arrive at the Galapagos Ecological Airport located on the island. For ecological reasons, as well as for the image that the Galapagos Islands convey to the world, as this is the first impression tourists have of the archipelago, it is necessary to establish a methodology for large-scale ecological restoration of the island. This is why GV2050 began efforts to restore the flora on this island in 2013, obtaining valuable results on the effectiveness of the use of water-saving technologies. In 2021, the relatively undegraded Seymour Norte Island was used as a reference ecosystem to generate restoration targets for Baltra. Because of this, the vegetation of woody species and cacti on Seymour Norte was evaluated, resulting in a list of 15 priority species and target densities for Baltra. With the information gathered, the project hopes to contribute to the conservation of Baltra through the development of an arid ecosystem restoration method applicable on a large scale on sites with different uses.

Ecological restoration in Special Use sites

Ecological restoration in Special Use sites

“Galápagos Verde 2050" is a program implemented by the Charles Darwin Foundation with the support of the Directorate of the Galapagos National Park, comprising multi-institutional collaboration components. From 2013 until 2021 it was managed as a project with two components: Ecological Restoration and Sustainable Agriculture, obtaining successful results especially in relation to cost-benefit analysis and the effectiveness of the use of water-saving technologies both in ecological restoration processes on various islands, and in improving the productivity of several short-cycle crops.

However, as of 2022, due to the need to enter a new phase, in which the program will move from experimentation to the implementation of ecological restoration activities on a larger scale, it was transformed into the Galápagos Verde 2050 program, which is composed of seven research projects focused on the ecological restoration of degraded ecosystems on seven different islands. The main objective of the program is to contribute with pure and applied research for the development of an adaptive management model that will guarantee the conservation of the natural capital of Galapagos and contribute to the well-being of its human population.

Ecological restoration of Española Island of Opuntia megasperma

Ecological restoration of Española Island of Opuntia megasperma

Opuntia megasperma var. orientalis is a cactus species endemic to the island of Española. This keystone species serves as a food source for giant tortoises, nesting and feeding structures for birds, and refuge for many other endemic and native species that inhabit the island. Unfortunately, the O. megasperma population was drastically reduced by feral goats, which were introduced to Española two centuries ago. Although the goats were eradicated in 1978, O. megasperma has not been able to recover due to their slow growth (approx. 2 cm per year), natural herbivory by endemic fauna, and the arid climatic conditions of the island. Therefore, this project seeks to contribute to the restoration of the ecological integrity of Española Island through the recovery of the Opuntia megasperma var. orientalis population using innovative and effective restoration strategies.

Ecological restoration of the South Plaza, Opuntia echios

Ecological restoration of the South Plaza, Opuntia echios

Plaza Sur, despite being one of the smallest islands of the archipelago, has become an iconic tourist destination due to its extraordinary flora and fauna. Among its main attractions are land iguanas and Opuntia cacti. Unfortunately, the Opuntia echios var. echios population has been affected by a combination of several events, such as introduced rodents, pressure from herbivores such as native iguanas, and extreme weather events such as El Niño and La Niña. In addition, an understudied factor is soil properties and their effect on the O. echios population. This is why GV2050 initiated restoration efforts in 2013, obtaining valuable results on the effectiveness of using water-saving technologies for O. echios restoration. Currently, the project is focused on the ecological restoration of Plaza Sur, through the restoration of the population of Opuntia echios var. echios using the island of Plaza Norte as a reference ecosystem.

Finding methods to control the invasive fly Philornis downsi

Finding methods to control the invasive fly Philornis downsi

Twenty Galapagos bird species, including 12 species of Darwin’s finches, are under threat from a parasitic fly, Philornis downsi. This fly was accidentally introduced to Galapagos and is seriously affecting the survivorship of several Galapagos birds including the critically endangered Mangrove Finch. Flies are adept at locating bird nests to lay their eggs. Once larvae hatch they feed on the blood of hatchlings, sometimes causing all of the chicks in a nest to die.

In order to reduce the impact of Philornis downsi on birds, CDF and the Galapagos National Park Directorate are overseeing a multi-institutional collaborative effort (now up to 22 institutions from ten countries) that is investigating the biology and ecology of this little-known fly, while simultaneously conducting research to find effective and environmentally friendly control methods.

Galapagos Tortoise Movement Ecology Program

Galapagos Tortoise Movement Ecology Program

Galapagos tortoise migration plays a fundamental role to maintain healthy tortoise populations. Understanding the ecological, social, and sanitary implications of these movements allows us to reduce the threats the tortoises are facing and contributes to their conservation.

This program is a multi-institutional collaboration between the Charles Darwin Foundation, Max Planck Institute for Animal Behavior, Galapagos National Park Directorate, Saint Louis Zoo Institute for Conservation Medicine, Houston Zoo, and Galapagos Conservation Trust. Drs. Stephen Blake and Sharon Deem lead the program with the support of a local team based in Galapagos and a large number of international collaborators and partners.

 

Invasive Marine Species in the Galapagos Marine Reserve

Invasive Marine Species in the Galapagos Marine Reserve

Marine invasive species can threaten biological diversity, human health and/or economic activity.

Globally, marine invasions have increased due to commerce, shipping and tourism. Invasions occur when species are transported from one region to another and become established in the new environment. These undesired guests compete for space and can displace and harm the populations of native species.

The Galapagos Islands are under threat from possible marine invasive species, given the connectivity that exists with the Eastern Tropical Pacific, the increase in tourism and associated marine traffic and the effect of extreme climatic events such as the El Niño Southern Oscillation (ENSO). The CDF scientists, together with our collaborators, are developing risk assessments along with protocols for the prevention, early detection and management of marine invasive species in the Galapagos Marine Reserve.

Population Studies of Marine Birds

Population Studies of Marine Birds

The Galapagos penguin (Spheniscus mendiculus), flightless cormorant (Phalacrocorax harrisi) and Galapagos waved albatross (Phoebastria irrorata) are endemic to the Galapagos archipelago and Ecuador.

They can now be found on the IUCN Red List of Endangered Species. The population status of these island species is being monitored on a yearly basis with our partners at the Galapagos National Park Directorate.

Protection and Recovery of Mangrove Finch Population

Protection and Recovery of Mangrove Finch Population

The Mangrove Finch (Camarynchus heliobates) is one of the 14 species of Darwin's finches that only live in the Galapagos Islands. It is the rarest bird of the archipelago, with an estimated population of 100 individuals that inhabit only 30 hectares in two areas on Isabela Island.

The International Union for Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN) Red List of Endangered Species classifies the Mangrove Finch as in Critical Danger. The main known threats are the introduced parasitic fly (Philornis downsi) and the introduced black rat (Rattus rattus).

Recovery of endangered plant species in protected areas of the Galapagos National Park

Recovery of endangered plant species in protected areas of the Galapagos National Park

The Galapagos Islands are recognized worldwide for their diversity of endemic species. Unfortunately, in the case of the Galapagos flora, many endemic species are threatened. It is known that 12% of the plant species of the archipelago are Critically Endangered (CR), 15% are Endangered (EN), and 32% are Vulnerable (VU). For this reason, GV2050 hopes to contribute to the preservation of Galapagos biodiversity through the restoration of threatened species. Currently the project is focused on the recovery of 3 endangered species; Lecocarpus lecocarpoides, Galvezia leucantha subps. leucantha, and Scalesia retroflexa. However, it is expected to continue expanding efforts to other species in the future. To select these species, an evaluation of all Galapagos endemic plants will be carried out using the IUCN criteria.

Reducing the Threats for Sea Turtles

Reducing the Threats for Sea Turtles

The Galapagos Islands are a key site for the conservation of the green turtle Chelonia mydas, as they are host to the second most important nesting colony in the region. It also provide numerous feeding sites for this specie throughout the archipelago.

Despite the protection provided by the "Marine Reserve" status, there are still some threats to the species in Galapagos, where interaction with fisheries and the impact of boats are the most problematic.

Like many Central and South American Countries, economic development in the Galapagos Archipelago is oriented towards ecotourism, and its potential continues to grow. In the last decade the number of visitors to the islands has increased dramatically, and in turn generating an increase in marine traffic as a product of tourism demand, and hence an increased interaction between boats and marine fauna.

Researching Bird Mortality on Santa Cruz Island Highway

Researching Bird Mortality on Santa Cruz Island Highway

The incidence of collisions between birds and cars in the road between Puerto Ayora and Canal de Itabaca seems rather high. The assessment of the frequency on which these events happen would enable us to illustrate areas with higher incidence, and to suggest mechanisms to mitigate this problem.

This project aims to offer evidence on what, where, when, these events occur, and to suggest alternatives to reduce it.

Restoration of the Los Gemelos Ecosystem

Restoration of the Los Gemelos Ecosystem

The vegetation coverage of the native forests in Los Gemelos zone, has suffered signficant reduction in the last years. The Gemelos is an area of two volcanic craters located in the highlands of Santa Cruz Island. This project aims to better understand the mechanisms to improve the restoration capacity of these zones by analizing the factors that compromise this capacity.

Native species in Galapagos have been seriously affected by the changes in the uses of the land in the past, and most recently by invasive species. The Scalesia habitat has been drastically reduced in Santa Cruz which was dominated by Scalesia pendunculata that now it is estimated to cover less than 1% of its original distribution. The best example remains in this area of Los Gemelos, an area of 100 hectares and which is the focus of all the restoration efforts of the Galapagos National Park Directorate (DPNG).

Rural ecological restoration: On the islands of Santa Cruz, San Cristóbal and Floreana

Rural ecological restoration: On the islands of Santa Cruz, San Cristóbal and Floreana

The humid highlands of Galapagos are the most productive regions of the islands, resulting in high development of agricultural activities. Agricultural expansion not only eliminates endemic and native flora through deforestation, but also makes these lands more vulnerable to the spread of invasive species. However, the proper management of agroecosystems can turn agriculture into an ally for the conservation of the islands. Silvopastoral agroecosystems, and agroforestry such as coffee grown under Scalesia pedunculata shade can generate services such as biological nitrogen fixation through mycorrhizal consortium that allow the improvement of soil microbiota, carbon sequestration that contributes to counteract the effects of fossil fuel use, attraction of pollinators that help with the process of fertilization of seeds of endemic plants and their subsequent dispersal; The project will also help to reduce phytopathological problems by promoting the establishment of healthy ecological niches, which will generate new protection zones for endangered species. Therefore, this project will be based on the restoration of degraded ecosystems in rural areas of agricultural use, by recovering endemic and native plants on farms in the Santa Cruz, San Cristobal, and Floreana Islands. Also promoting the role of women in agriculture, management of their farms as a source of economic income in their homes and science.

Saving Scalesia cordata from extinction

Saving Scalesia cordata from extinction

Scalesia cordata is a tree endemic to southern Isabela. Before the arrival of humans, it formed widespread forests that harboured a great diversity of plants, birds and associated invertebrates. However, its range has been drastically reduced to only a few sparse populations due to land clearing for agriculture in the past and current replacement by invasive species. Together with the Galapagos National Park Directorate, we are taking several management actions to prevent the local extinction of the remaining populations of Scalesia cordata and to facilitate its recovery. These measures include collecting seeds, growing seedlings in the nursery, controlling invasive plant species negatively impacting Scalesia cordata trees, and working with farmers and the Isabela community to raise awareness about this species, unique to Isabela. Galapagos has seen few extinctions of plant species; we do not want Scalesia cordata to be one of them.

Seamounts of the Galapagos Marine Reserve

Seamounts of the Galapagos Marine Reserve

Seamounts are underwater mountains, often of volcanic origin, that rise above the surrounding seabed at least 100 m from the seabed but do not reach the surface. These underwater structures provide deep-sea hard substrate, allowing productive formation of deep-sea coral and sponge reef communities. Additionally, seamounts are considered highly productive, redirecting deep-sea currents rich in nutrients that attract a myriad of other marine organisms, such as fish and marine mammals.

Due to the volcanic history of the Galapagos Archipelago, hundreds of seamounts, ranging from > 3000 to 100 m in height, are known to be scattered on the seafloor in the reserve. Given that most seamounts lie outside the margins for safe SCUBA diving (< 40 m), and exploring deep-sea ecosystems is technologically and financially challenging, our understanding of seamounts and other deep-sea habitats remains very limited.

To close this critical knowledge gap CDF, in collaboration with the Galapagos National Park Directorate (GNPD), is leading a multi-institutional collaborative effort to characterize the biodiversity, ecology and physical environment of these mysterious deep-sea ecosystems.

Shark Ecology

Shark Ecology

In the Galapagos, sharks are of great importance to the local economy. The marine tourism industry, which heavily relies on shark sightings, provides employment to 37% of the local active workforce. It has been estimated that on average a live shark is worth USD$360,105 per year to the local economy.

Thanks to the protection the Marine Reserve gives to the marine ecosystem and all plant and animal species within its boundaries, the Galapagos are one of the few sites around the world where shark populations remain healthy, providing a unique opportunity for researchers to study their populations. At the Charles Darwin Foundation (CDF), we carry out various projects focusing on increasing our understanding of sharks and their relationship with their environment with the aim of providing a strong scientific basis for the development of effective management plans that will ensure their long-term protection.

Socio-Ecology, Assessment and Management of Fisheries

Socio-Ecology, Assessment and Management of Fisheries

Fishing is one of the most important activities in Galapagos. It can produce more than 2 million dollars per year. It is source of employment for more than 500 fishers and their families. In addition, fishing is essential for food security for the local people of the Archipelago. There are more than 50 species that can be fished in Galapagos; among the most important are: spiny lobsters, slipper lobster and fish.

CDF along with Galapagos National Park Directorate and other partners are carrying out interdisciplinary researches to achieve sustainable fisheries in Galapagos. These researches include, from the biology and ecology of species, line-based ecosystems, capture technologies, up to the governance, sociology of fishers and economy of fishing activity.

Studying the Ecology and Distribution of the Invasive Treefrog

Studying the Ecology and Distribution of the Invasive Treefrog

Fowler’s Snouted Treefrog (Scinax quinquefasciatus) is a relatively recent invader of the Galapagos Islands, having been introduced from mainland Ecuador, most likely during the wet El Niño season of 1997/1998.

Little is known about the biology and ecology of this frog in Galapagos. To close this knowledge gap and to gain information for potential management, CDF is carrying out a study of the diet, distribution, habitat use and potential dispersal of this species.

The CDF works on this project in collaboration with the Galapagos National Park Directorate and the Escuela Superior Politecnica del Litoral (ESPOL).

Conservation of Threatened Populations of Small Land Birds
Ecological restoration in Baltra Island
Ecological restoration in Special Use sites
Ecological restoration of Española Island of Opuntia megasperma
Ecological restoration of the South Plaza, Opuntia echios
Finding methods to control the invasive fly Philornis downsi
Galapagos Tortoise Movement Ecology Program
Invasive Marine Species in the Galapagos Marine Reserve
Population Studies of Marine Birds
Protection and Recovery of Mangrove Finch Population
Recovery of endangered plant species in protected areas of the Galapagos National Park
Reducing the Threats for Sea Turtles
Researching Bird Mortality on Santa Cruz Island Highway
Restoration of the Los Gemelos Ecosystem
Rural ecological restoration: On the islands of Santa Cruz, San Cristóbal and Floreana
Saving Scalesia cordata from extinction
Seamounts of the Galapagos Marine Reserve
Shark Ecology
Socio-Ecology, Assessment and Management of Fisheries
Studying the Ecology and Distribution of the Invasive Treefrog

The ‘Charles Darwin Foundation for the Galapagos Islands’, in French ‘Fondacion Charles Darwin  pour les Iles Galapagos’, Association Internationale sans but lucrative (AISBL), has its registered office at Avenue Louise 54, 1050 Brussels, Belgium. Trade Registry # 0409.359.103

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