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Galápagos Redux: When Is It OK to Kill Goats?

Two weeks ago, I wrote about scientists who intentionally killed 80,000 feral goats on one of the islands in the Galápagos archipelago. The effort was in the name of biodiversity and conservation, sure, but was it right? The post spurred some fascinating questions and comments, particularly from Jason G. Goldman, who writes The Thoughtful Animal blog at the Scientific American Blog Network. I put Jason in touch with LWONian Michelle Nijhuis, who just wrote a feature for Scientific American about how conservationists decide which species to save. Below you’ll find their conversation.

 

Michelle: So what was your first reaction when you read Ginny’s post about the “Judas goat” and the extermination of feral goats in the Galápagos?

Jason: I thought it was actually a fairly clever method of addressing the problems caused by this invasive species. But what was in some ways more interesting to me was the comment made by one of Ginny’s co-travelers: “I really enjoyed the trip, but the one big downer for me was the extermination of the goats and the donkeys and their very anti-Darwin approach…” My assumption was that the phrase “anti-Darwin approach” was meant to suggest that this is a case of humans unfairly intervening in a situation, or “playing God.” But it strikes me as an extremely anthropocentric view of evolution and natural selection. Isn’t human behavior – whatever drives it – itself a selection pressure?

Michelle: That caught my attention, too. We as humans have applied selection pressure to the Galápagos by bringing the goats in, and now we’re applying – or releasing – a different sort of pressure by taking them away. I’m wondering about your perspective as a cognitive neuroscientist – when I read about an effort like this, my logical brain supports the effort to restore ecological processes and biodiversity – but my emotional reaction to the killing of so many goats is different than the reaction I’d have to killing a bunch of invasive cockroaches, or, say, getting rid of a flu virus. Do we feel more concerned about goats and other mammals partly because their brains are more similar to ours?
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Galápagos Monday: The People Problem

This is the last installment of my six-week series about the Galápagos Islands. To recap the first five posts: The Galápagos is an archipelago of 14 volcanic islands that scientists since Darwin have gone well out of their way to study. The islands are extremely inhospitable to life, and yet, over long periods of time, life has found a way. Humans are capable of disturbing that ecosystem, but equally capable of restoring it. It’s this last point, the People Problem, that most interests me.
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Galápagos Monday: When Conservation Means Killing

Judas knew what he was doing when he double-crossed his friend Jesus. “What will you give me if I betray him to you?” he asked the conspiring priests in the famous Bible story.

The story of the Judas Goat is more tragic. She had no idea that she was leading her friends to their deaths.

Her captors sterilized her first, then coated her with hormones so she reeked of fertility. Then they collared her with a radio-tracking device and cut her loose. Nearby male goats smelled her and sought her out. As soon as they found her, people swooped in and shot them. The hunters saved Judas, though, so they could repeat the set-up again and again.

It was all part of a six-year, $6 million project in which conservationists killed nearly 80,000 feral goats on Santiago Island in the Galápagos. Similar goat genocides had happened on 128 other islands, including nearby Pinta, but never on any as large as Santiago, which spans 144,470 acres. The goats, introduced by sailers hundreds of years earlier, were decimating all flavors of vegetation there, putting ground birds, giant tortoises and other endemic species in danger. So officials — conservationists from the Galápagos National Park and the Charles Darwin Foundation — decided the goats had to go.
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Galápagos Monday: The Sad Sex Life of Lonesome George

To walk from the Charles Darwin Research Station to the center of the town of Puerto Ayora, on Santa Cruz Island, simply follow the “T-Shirt Mile,” a sleepy stone road lined with dozens of souvenir shops. Mugs, onesies and shot glasses pay tribute the town’s only famous resident, a century-old giant tortoise named Lonesome George. My favorite shirt had a cartoon George in the center, with eyelash-batting lady tortoises on either side of him and one line at the bottom: Not So Lonesome George.

Before his unexpected death on June 24, George had certainly been with his share of females. But for the first 60-odd years of his life, he was the most awkward of virgins.
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Galápagos Monday: World Within Itself

This is the third installment of a six-week series about my recent trip to the Galápagos. You can read the first post, about tortoises and donkeys, here, and the second, about eerie mounds of black coral, here.

If you go to the Galápagos, and even if you go, as I did, in a herd of clumsy American tourists, you will at some point feel like a field biologist. Regulations dictate that you be accompanied by licensed guides, and ours reminded me of my favorite college professors: authoritative and rhetorical most of the time, with sudden bursts of passion when they get a whiff of their pet topic.

Within an hour of my arrival, one of the guides launched into the difference between the islands’ endemic, native and introduced species. Endemic species arrived naturally but struggled to survive in the strange environment. Over many generations, they gradually adapted and are now found, in their modified form, nowhere else on earth. Native species also came naturally, but didn’t struggle as much and didn’t need to change. So they’re found in the Galápagos as well as other places. Introduced species did not “naturally” arrive, but were brought in by people.

My guides seemed to be obsessed with these definitions, mentioning them dozens of times over the course of my eight-day visit. When discussing endemic species — such as the marine iguana or Galápagos tortoise — they beamed like proud parents. But introduced species were the shameful family secret. “What are those trees?” someone asked guide Jason while hiking in the highland swamps of Isabela. “Those are cedars,” he said with a long sigh and a sad shake of his head. “Introduced.”

I rolled my eyes. I understand the concept, professor, really I do, now can we please move on? But, like most of the other times I’ve been annoyed with a good teacher, I was wrong. Several weeks and a lot of reading later, I’m finally beginning to get it. If you understand endemism, you understand the value of the Galápagos.
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Galápagos Monday: Southern Inhospitality

This is the second installment of a six-week series about my recent trip to the Galápagos. You can read my first post, about tortoises and donkeys, here.

At dawn on June 6, more than 30 years after Lynn was chasing tortoises at the top of Alcedo, our boat anchored near the volcano’s base in Urbina Bay. By 8 a.m., I was fully breakfasted and eager to begin the scheduled 2-mile hike, on which we were likely to see giant tortoises and land iguanas.

My mood dampened after disembarking on the beach. Even at this early hour, and even doused ear-to-toe with 100-SPF sunscreen, I felt an unrelenting solar assault. (Turns out it’s hard to concentrate on nature’s glories while obsessively imagining your skin cells morphing into irregularly shaped cancerous moles.) The beach was narrow and surrounded by foreboding gray rocks. Maybe this, I thought, is what Darwin meant when describing his first visit to these islands: “Nothing could be less inviting than the first appearance.”
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Galápagos Monday: Lynn’s Tortoises

Every Monday for the next six weeks I’ll be posting about my recent trip to the Galápagos. After a week on a big boat, 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.

I kick off the series (below, after the jump) with a story about one of my naturalist-guides, Lynn, who has lived on the islands since 1978.

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Barcoding Bushmeat

I’m beginning to think that my LWON byline should read: Virginia Hughes, the one who writes about obscure applications of DNA testing. First there was the story about the scientist who found a rare DNA blip that could prove that the corpse in Napoleon’s tomb really is Napoleon. Then there was the team that screened DNA from a mouse’s tail to solve an international insurance dispute. And now I’ve learned that DNA tests could help save two wood grouse species from extinction.

The wood grouse, or capercaillie, is a 12-pound bird that was once found all over Europe and Asia. People have hunted them since the Middle Ages, for fun and and for food. Apparently, capercaillies are the tastiest game birds in Europe, with delicate meat that’s “whiter than pheasant“*.

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Corridors of the Rainforest

Captain Matty

Captain Matty is a brilliant storyteller. I know because earlier this month I went on his famous tour through the rainforest of Far North Queensland, Australia. As he drove our orange bus up petrifyingly narrow, sinuous roads, Matty told tales, tall and short: about the legendary ‘drop down‘, wicked cousin of the koala, so named because it crashes down from the treetops onto its prey (including, Matty said with a wink, a Swiss-German tourist); about attending poisonous snake bites (it involves a credit card and lots of gauze); and about Aboriginal women who use a sacred waterfall to boost fertility. His most remarkable story was about the rainforest.

The Wet Tropics of Queensland span some 280 miles of coastline on the northeast side of the country, running parallel to the Great Barrier Reef. Thanks to the mash-up of Australian and Asian continental plates 15 million years ago, the area holds a supremely diverse mix of animals and plants (some of which are as much as 415 million years old). It’s difficult to describe without getting carried away, but I’ll try.

The region’s 3,000 plant species include 13 types of rainforest, as well as woody bush, mangroves and swampland. Now fauna: 370 species of birds, 58 frogs, 41 marsupials, 36 bats. Twelve of its mammals — including green ringtail possums, a masked white-tailed rat, and two tree kangaroos — exist nowhere else in the world.
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Lady Crickets Can Be Cougars, Too

 

The term ‘cougar’ — referring to an older woman who pounces on a younger man — used to be an insult. Remember the most famous cougar of the ’90s? Mary Kay Letourneau, the 34-year-old teacher who slept with her 12-year-old student. She went to prison for seven years. (Ok, so Mary was more of a pedophile than a cougar, but you get my point.)

It’s different now. Cougars are everywhere, and not only accepted, but chic (Samantha Jones, Demi & Ashton, Cougar Town). They’re independent, sassy and smart. And this month, they’re finally getting some recognition from the scientific world. Female field crickets, it turns out, prefer the serenades of younger males.
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Question of the Year: What is Life, Anyway?

As we near the end of 2010, everybody’s talking about the biggest science stories of the year. I’ve been thinking about these four:

May 20: Craig Venter’s team synthesizes a bacterial genome in the lab, sticks it into an empty bacterial cell, and watches it replicate. Venter calls it the “first synthetic cell“; many headlines prefer “synthetic life“. Controversy ensues.

July 23: NASA scientists take the new Mars rover, Curiosity, for a test drive. When it heads to the Red Planet, in late 2011, Curiosity will hold several instruments equipped to examine whether Mars has “environmental conditions favorable for preserving evidence of life, if it existed.” (more…)