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Galápagos Week: Lynn’s Tortoises

A little over a year ago I spent a week on a big boat in the Galápagos. Hopping from one imposing volcanic island to the next, I saw most of the odd creatures that Charles Darwin famously wrote about: century-old tortoises, finches with beaks of all sizes, swimming iguanas. But most of what I learned was new to me — like how the Ecuadorian government hired expert hunters from New Zealand to shoot down thousands of goats by helicopter, or how, in 1954, a massive geological uplift almost instantaneously raised one island’s coast 15 feet, taking with it mounds of coral that have since blackened with dust. Many of the stories converge on what’s, for me, a perplexing theme: that people can be sources of both ecological destruction and impressive restoration. As the climate changes, and population and tourism rates continue to skyrocket, it will be fascinating to see how the economic-political-scientific ecosystem of the Galápagos evolves.

After getting back from the trip, I wrote a six-part series for The Last Word on Nothing about what I had learned. I’m on vacation this week, so I figured it was a good time to re-publish the series for Phenomena readers. Below is the first installment, a story about one of my naturalist-guides, Lynn, who has lived on the islands since 1978.


Lynn Fowler today
Last year I wrote about how Craig Venter and his colleagues had inscribed a passage from James Joyce into the genome of a synthetic microbe. The line, "To live, to err, to fall, to triumph, to recreate life out of life," was certainly apropos, but it was also ironic, since it is now being defaced as Venter's microbes multiply and mutate. Turns out there's an even weirder twist on this story. Reporting from SXSW, David Ewalt writes about a talk Venter just gave. Venter recounted how, after the news of the synthetic microbe hit, he got a cease-and-desist letter from the Joyce estate. Apparently, the estate claimed he should have asked permission before copying the language. Venter claimed fair use. Man, do I wish this would go to court! Imagine the legal arguments. I wonder what would happen if the court found in the Joyce estate's favor. Would Venter have to pay for every time his microbes multiplied? Millions of little acts of copyright infringement? [Update: Looks like it wasn't actually a cease-and-desist letter the Joyce estate sent--more an expression of disappointment. Ah, life's grand game of telephone. Joyce would have loved it. After all, he was the sort of novelist who'd write : "What has she in the bag? A misbirth with a trailing navelcord, hushed in ruddy wool. The cords of all link back, strandentwining cable of all flesh. That is why mystic monks. Will you be as gods? Gaze in your omphalos. Hello. Kinch here. Put me on to Edenville. Aleph, alpha: nought, nought, one. Spouse and helpmate of Adam Kadmon: Heva, naked Eve. She had no navel. Gaze. Belly without blemish, bulging big, a buckler of taut vellum, no, whiteheaped corn, orient and immortal, standing from everlasting to everlasting"]

When she was 26, Lynn Fowler began her Ph.D. dissertation with a seven-hour, 5,000-foot hike up to the rim of the Alcedo Volcano, smack in the middle of the large, seahorse-shaped island of Isabela. Alcedo gushes fluid lava every few decades. Lynn camped at its southeastern rim for a year and a half, returning to the mainland just once every three months to call her mother.

Alcedo was not an easy place to live. The rocky terrain wore holes through her sneakers. The days were hot (“I was a one-woman nudist colony most of the time,” she says), the nights were chilly, and the air carried “evil-smelling sulfur.” Lugging fresh water, at eight pounds per gallon, up the volcano every couple of weeks was exhausting. Eventually she learned to trap it herself from the garua, or mist, that surrounded Alcedo. Under a big tree she would rig up a large plastic sheet with a hole in the center to collect dew. She gathered five gallons a night this way, and once during the rainy season netted 50 gallons in an hour.

Lynn is a tough, no-nonsense type who never flinches. Even so, this new habitat occasionally scared her. She was hiking on November 13, 1979, at 8:45 am, when the Sierra Negra Volcano, about 20 miles south of Alcedo, erupted. “It was a great fireworks show — spectacular and frightening,” she recalls. For the next five weeks, she could hear lava spilling into the ocean.

The volcanic islands of Isabela (right) and Fernandina (left)

Another pain in the neck: Lynn’s several-hundred-pound Galápagos tortoise neighbors. About one-third of all of these slow and dimwitted beasts live on Alcedo. They’re nosy, so Lynn put up a wood fence. That worked, for the most part. One time she returned to her campsite only to find an enormous tortoise plopped on her tent. It’s not as funny as it sounds  without shelter she would have had an uncomfortable and potentially dangerous night. She ousted him by poking a stick in the soft flesh between tail and leg.

But Lynn couldn’t very well stay angry at the tortoises. They were the reason for her trek.

Several hundred thousand giant tortoises lived in Galápagos when the first European explorers arrived in the 16th century. The animals, easily catchable, provided the men with tasty meat and  more important in a place that’s dry half the year — water. Tortoises can live more than a year without water because they store it in their bladders. (According to Darwin, tortoise-bladder water is “quite limpid, and had only a very slightly bitter taste.”) By the 1970s, the Galápagos tortoise population had plummeted to around 3,000.

Lynn wanted to find out about one particular aspect of the human invasion: donkeys. In the 19th century, sailors introduced burros on the islands to help carry the tortoises around. Some burros got loose, of course, and their numbers rose quickly. When Lynn arrived, about 600 donkeys lived on Alcedo. She wanted to know, were donkeys and tortoises competing for food?

She spent day after day following individual tortoises. It was usually tedious. Tortoises are solitary and don’t do much except sleep, eat and mate. But occasionally she’d witness something interesting. Once, an unsuccessful sexual attempt (poor dudes have lots of these, apparently) left a male tortoise flipped on its back. His lady friend took off, leaving him writhing on the ground. Lynn stuck around to collect minute-by-minute observations of his behavior. It took him two hours to get back on his feet.

Lynn’s data ultimately showed that tortoises and donkeys were not competing for food. In the lush wet season, both species feasted. In the harsh dry season, the tortoises lived quite easily on what they’d stored in their bladders, while many of the donkeys starved. But the donkeys were harming the tortoises  by trampling their nesting grounds, making it much more difficult for their eggs to survive.

Lynn’s tortoises provide just one of many examples of how foreign species (not only donkeys, but goats, cats, rats and insects) intentionally or unintentionally introduced by people have harmed native populations in the Galápagos. Later in this series I’ll tell you about some of the clever strategies that Lynn and other conservationists have used to keep these invaders in check and to bring back the tortoises.


Photos by Randal Vegter except the aerial shot, which came from NASA

This post was originally published on The Last Word on Nothing

One thought on “Galápagos Week: Lynn’s Tortoises

  1. One of my students was born in the Galapagos Islands. She returned from a visit with photos and wrote a documentary of her experience. Two things that I learned from her presentation confirmed Darwin Theory, but which I have not seen described previously: First, the cacti that the tortoises eat look very similar to that found in desert climes in the US — except for one thing. These plants have “trunks” which place the fleshy cactus pad above the reach of the tortoises, hence allowing the production of more seed-bearing fruit than would be possible if the tortoises could feed more easily. Second, the penguins which inhabit the islands are adapted to hot, dry weather but retain the ability to dive into the Humbolt current which passes through the island chain and has a near-freezing temperature. Compare these to the penguins of Antarctica!

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