Day 4: The legacy of Charles Darwin

How a research center is working to save the Galápagos Giant Tortoise

Photos taken during the KPRC 2 - Houston Zoo trip to the Galápagos Islands. (KPRC 2)

Charles Darwin first arrived in the Galápagos Islands in 1835. He published his book, “On the Origin of Species,” in 1859. Today, his name in is synonymous with the Island. The research center that bears his name is charged with managing the resources of the Galápagos Islands and using the best science available to do it.

We spent the day at the Charles Darwin Research Center at the Galápagos National Park. This facility houses hundreds of giant tortoises from the archipelago with the goal of saving this magnificent creature. We walked through several habitats that house tortoises from different islands separating them by age.

Because of the high security, we did not see tortoise eggs and babies. But we did see one-year-old saddleback tortoises from Floreana Island and two-year-old tortoises from Española Island.

Photos taken during the KPRC 2 - Houston Zoo trip to the Galápagos Islands. (KPRC 2)
Photos taken during the KPRC 2 - Houston Zoo trip to the Galápagos Islands. (KPRC 2)

Once hatched the babies are marked with colors differentiating them from tortoises from other islands. The ones with a pink marking are from Floreana and the blue Española. Numbers show the scientist who is who. When they are clustered together, they look like a swarm of large beetles.

Photos taken during the KPRC 2 - Houston Zoo trip to the Galápagos Islands. (KPRC 2)

These saddlebacks are nearly extinct on their home islands. Loss of habitat and invasive species have nearly wiped this kind of tortoise from off the face of the Earth. The reason they are here at the Darwin Center is to help increase the population. Left on their own island, only 5% would survive. Here, 95% of these tortoises will make it to adulthood.

The adults are a few feet away and today was feeding day. All of the tortoises eat elephant ear plants.

Photos taken during the KPRC 2 - Houston Zoo trip to the Galápagos Islands. (KPRC 2)

This is a tropical plant high in nutrients and it doesn’t have seeds. That is important because when these tortoises are reintroduced to their home, they won’t bring back seeds that aren’t native to their home. We had the treat of seeing their magnificence in full display. They were hungry, active and the dominate males made sure the others knew who was boss.

Photos taken during the KPRC 2 - Houston Zoo trip to the Galápagos Islands. (KPRC 2)

None of these giants will be here much longer. These saddlebacks from Floreana Island will go back as soon as the invasive rat population has been eradicated. Rats feed on tortoise eggs, and if all the rats aren’t removed, the tortoise population will not grow. Floreana Island is expected to be rat free next year.

Lonesome George, A symbol of hope:

The Pinta giant tortoise was extinct. But during a scientific expedition to the island in 1972 George was found. He was the last of the Pinta giant tortoises. Since he grew up alone, he was given an added name of lonesome. He was brought to this facility for care as the last of his kind. Senior veterinarian at the Houston Zoo, Dr. Joe Flanagan, was one of the vets who cared for George for several years. Dr. Joe was one of the few people in the world who really knew George and has many wonderful stories about him, which we will share more about as our coverage of this trip continues.

Photos taken during the KPRC 2 - Houston Zoo trip to the Galápagos Islands. (KPRC 2)

George died in 2012, his body embalmed and brought back to the Charles Darwin Research Station. Dr. Joe, along with the Houston Zoo hopes George is the last extinction on the Galápagos.


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