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Journey to the 'Enchanted Isles' - My Galapagos Islands Research Trip | Part 1

"The Galapagos Islands are probably the most famous wildlife-watching destination in the world. And no wonder - it's almost impossible to exaggerate the sheer spectacle of the place that provided inspiration for Charles Darwin's ground-breaking theory of natural selection."

- Mark Carwardine


I was a mere 12 492km away from home, the furthermost I have ever travelled. The vast South Pacific Ocean separated me from my hometown of Brisbane. 48 hours of transit and five international airports had led me to a place of sheer isolation and wonder.

Green Sea Turtle Swimming in Darwin's Bay

Marine Iguana basking

960km off the coastline of Ecuador, lies the Galapagos archipelago, consisting of 19 major islands which occupy a unique position in the history of evolutionary studies, owing to its importance as a conceptual landmark (Darwin 1859). These isolated islands and their varying ecosystems have taken on almost mythological status, often being referred to as being a living museum and showcase of evolution. Ongoing seismic and volcanic activity and the confluence of three ocean currents, has led to the development of unusual and extraordinary life, found nowhere else on the planet. As a result of the archipelago's ecological, evolutionary and bio-geographic significance, 97% of the emerged surface was declared as National Park in 1959. Human settlement is confined to the remaining 3%, with approximately 30 000 people living permanently on three islands and approximately 170 000 tourists visiting them every year. Limitations on tourism, isolation and strict bio-security has preserved the islands and their unique inhabitants, and one should certainly consider themselves lucky to visit one of the most spectacular reserves in the world.

View of town from the research boat

In July 2017, I had the unforgettable opportunity to travel to the Galapagos Islands, alongside Sunshine Coast University Lecturer/Supervisor Dr Chris Clemente. Whilst there, it was our hopes to conduct a scientific research project, meet the scientists involved with the UNC Galapagos Science Centre and adhere to all definitions of a 'gringo', and do some touring of the island.

The 10 days we had on the oldest island in the archipelago, San Cristobal, was a whirlwind. Days would often begin at 5:30am, despite the rest of the island's inhabitants still being fast asleep. If it wasn't for our somewhat obnoxious "I love Boobies!" shirts and hats (I'll point out here one of the island's emblematic birds is called the Blue-Footed Booby), our early wake up calls certainly distinguished us from the locals. We quickly noted that the sleepy town of Puerto Baquerizo Moreno, was on 'island time', and would not begin to function till at least 9am. This gave us the chance to explore the town whilst it was washed over in the calm, golden light of the morning. During these hours of the day, we also shared the bays and inlets with the boisterous locals, the Galapagos Sea Lions.

Sea lions love to give  kisses to curious snorkellers

Galapagos Sea Lions are one of the most conspicuous and numerous marine mammals of the Galapagos Archipelgo. They have a body length between 150 - 250cm and can weigh between 50 - 400kg. This endemic species is listed as Vunerable by the 'IUCN', with an estimated population of 50 000. Galapagos Sea Lions are particularly vulnerable to human disturbance and ecotourism. Their inquisitive and social nature makes them more likely to approach areas inhabited by humans and to come in contact with human waste, fishing nets and hooks. In recent years, there has been a push to monitor the population and educate locals on the importance of their conservation, with researchers from the Galapagos Science Centre tagging individuals almost every morning.

The bays that surrounded Puerto Baquerizo Moreno were truly teeming with life. From June to December the southern trade winds bring the colder Humboldt Current north to the Galapagos, meaning cooler waters and a layer of high atmospheric mist pervades the island skies. As we soon discovered, this time of year (the 'dry' season) was perfect for observing a large number of species, such as marine iguanas, giant tortoises, whales and sharks, blue-footed boobies, cormorants, lava lizards, swallow-tailed gulls, sea lions, lava herons, brown noddies, and frigate birds. It was truly a photographer's dream come true!

Blue-footed Booby and chick

With so much phenomenal, close-up wildlife encounters and breath-taking coastlines to explore, I could be writing for days detailing our touristy experiences and recommendations (don't fret, I shall come back to some of these in my next post!). However, some of the most magical memories were made whilst we were conducting fieldwork alongside scientists from the Galapagos Science Centre.

Upon arrival in the Galapagos, we were unsure what research was viable and what species we would be allowed to work with. Surely, getting to work with the flagship species was reserved for only the most acclaimed and experienced scientists?! Little did we know, that we were soon to be working alongside these scientists and even permitted to conduct our own study on the unique reptiles of Galapagos.

Juan Pablo Munoz, Co-ordinator of the GSC and intrepid spirit, introduced us to a team of American scientists and veterinarians who were conducting health checks on Lava Lizards and Galapagos Marine Iguanas over the next week. With a bit of convincing that we too were scientists, just with some unconventional methods, Gregory Lewbart (Professor of Aquatic Animal Medicine) and his team let us tag along on their field expeditions. With our makeshift 'racetrack' (made from cardboard boxes and planks that we found at a construction site - yes I know, we must have looked so professional), we set off into the field to film some Lava Lizards and Marine Iguanas.

The Research team

For our first day of fieldwork, we scrambled over treacherously sharp lava rocks and weaved between the cacti and shrubs that dominated this other-worldly landscape. We were repeatedly greeted by assorted finches, made famous by Darwin. The team set up their mobile work station and began constructing lassos to catch lava lizards with.

Galapagos Lava Lizard (male)

Lava lizards are some of the most abundant reptiles throughout Galapagos, being found on all islands aside from Genovesa, Darwin and Wolf. These little critters have attitude and like most of the Galapagos animals, they have a relative lack of fear of humans and can be observed quite closely (unless, as we found, you have a lasso in your hands!). Lava Lizards can grow to be up to a foot in length, but are usually about 10cm long. The male Lava Lizard looks quite different from the female whereby it is larger in size and more brightly coloured. The male's throat is black and yellow and the female's throat is mostly red. The males are especially territorial, staking out a prominent spot on top of a boulder and bobbing their heads up and down to indicate ownership. This behaviour and their sheer abundance made it easy to find specimens for health checks. However, catching the lizards was another story.

Christofer Clemente (right) and I (left) setting up a racetrack for Lava Lizard runs

It soon became evident that there was an art to catching Lava lizards, particularly ones large enough for us to film. Luckily, the team was prepared, having made long poles with a lasso on the end (often made from floss or fishing line). The poles were 1m long, but as soon as you got in close proximity with your target lizard, it would dart off into the dense underbrush. We all soon began to get in a good rhythm, having designated people to specific roles (not everyone seemed to be naturals at lizard catching). Lava lizards that were caught were given a brief health check by Lewbart's team and then passed along to Chris and I. This is where the makeshift 'racetrack' comes in. We had found flat, even ground (finding that alone was a challenge!) where we had set up an arena, with GoPros mounted to tripods surrounding it. This setup allowed us to capture high-speed footage of the Lava lizard locomotion, from a dorsal and lateral view. Examination of locomotory performance gives an understanding of both the difficulties a species may encounter in their habitat, and the morphology that aids in overcoming these difficulties.

Myself handling a Lava Lizard

Remarkably few studies have investigated the process to reveal selective pressures and trade-offs that cause morphological differentiation intraspecifically and interspecifically. Recent literature has centred on mechanical and physiological causes of variation in locomotory performance, with how performance affects probability of survival being oversighted. As evolutionary trade-offs between performance aspects promote difference in fitness and morphology between species and habitats, it is important to measure appropriate locomotory aspects when studying ecomorphological relationships. Clemente has long been interested in the evolution of locomotion, having studied the morphology, metabolic rates and biomechanics and locomotory ability in a large group of lizards, the varanids. The footage we collected on Lava Lizards provided a preliminary look into their gait mechanics, which will provide insight into the evolution and ecological considerations of locomotion in lizards (through comparison with other lineages, such as Agamids - water dragons, Varanids - monitors and Iguanidae - iguanas!).

Gregory Lewbart conducting health checks - MLParker Media
Lava Lizard being handled - MLParker Media

Additionally, we also observed bipedal locomotion in Lava Lizards. It is important to note that typical lizard locomotion is quadrupedal. However, bipedalism is a behaviour exhibited by over 50 species of lizards. During bipedal locomotion, the forelimbs leave the ground and the trunk of the lizard is elevated - only the hindlimbs power movement. There seems to be no speed or cost advantage to bipedal locomotion over quadrupedal locomotion, which makes this behaviour even more fascinating. As a result, there have been many theories proposed as to why lizards go bipedal. It is our hope to one day return to the Galapagos and further explore this observed behaviour.

This neatly leads into the story of our next field expedition, where we travelled to a remote island off San Cristobal, to catch and film arguably the most famous reptile of the Galapagos, the Marine Iguana.

Thank you for reading and stay tuned for Part Two. Leave a comment to let me know what else you'd like to hear about!


Check out the video above to see some of my amazing encounters with the marine life of the Galapagos. Please share and help raise awareness for conservation!

Thanks to Marley Parker and Christofer Clemente for capturing some fantastic images with me in them that I could share.

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