Archive for the ‘South America’ Category

From Our Newsdesk: Smithsonian researchers find differences between Galapagos and mainland frigatebirds

Monday, October 4th, 2010

A frigatebird in the Galapagos Islands

Although the magnificent frigatebird may be the least likely animal on the Galápagos Islands to be unique to the area, it turns out the Galápagos population of this tropical seabird may be its own genetically distinct species warranting a new conservation status, according to a paper by researchers at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute, the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History and the University of Missouri-St. Louis published last week in the scientific journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

The Galápagos Islands, which once served as a scientific laboratory for Charles Darwin, boast a number of unique plant and animal species, from tortoises to iguanas to penguins. Magnificent frigatebirds, however, can fly hundreds of kilometers across open ocean, suggesting that their gene flow should be widespread and their genetic make-up should be identical to those of the magnificent frigatebirds on the mainland coast of the Americas. Even Darwin predicted that most Galápagos seabirds would not be very different from their mainland counterparts. But researchers at SCBI conducted three different kinds of genetics tests and all yielded the same result—the Galápagos seabirds have been genetically different from the magnificent frigatebirds elsewhere for more than half a million years.

“This was such a surprise,” said Frank Hailer, a postdoctoral research associate at SCBI and lead author of the paper. “It’s a great testimony to just how unique the fauna and flora of the Galapagos are. Even something that is so well-adapted to flying over open oceans is isolated there.”

Scientists began the research to determine whether the magnificent frigatebird on the Galápagos was more similar genetically to the magnificent frigatebirds on the Caribbean side or the Pacific side of the islands. Using frigatebird samples from Betty Anne Schreiber at the National Museum of Natural History, Iris Levin and Patricia Parker at the University of Missouri-St. Louis and those they collected in the field, SCBI researchers determined that the Galapagos version differ not only genetically, but also morphologically.

Now scientists are left with a number of questions: Are the genetics of the magnificent frigatebird on the Galápagos different enough to classify it as a distinct species? And what, exactly, accounts for the genetic and morphological differences when the seabirds can travel far and wide and therefore should not be isolated to one area to reproduce? SCBI and National Museum of Natural History researchers plan to collaborate with others in the field to find the answers.

What is clear, however, is that this small population of genetically unique magnificent frigatebirds is a vulnerable population. Any catastrophic event or threats by humans could wipe out the approximate 2,000 magnificent frigatebirds that nest on the Galápagos Islands.

“The magnificent frigatebirds on the Galápagos are a unique evolutionarily significant unit, and if the Galápagos population did go extinct, the area will not likely be recolonized rapidly by mainland birds,” said Robert Fleischer, head of SCBI’s Center for Conservation and Evolutionary Genetics and one of the paper’s co-authors. “This emphasizes the importance of protecting this small population of birds there.”

Magnificent frigatebirds are currently considered of least concern by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, but the Proceedings of the Royal Society B paper recommends that, because of the genetic uniqueness of those on the Galápagos, this status be revisited.

For more information, please contact Lindsay Renick Mayer at the Smithsonian National Zoological Park at renickmayerl@si.edu.

To see the frigatebirds for your self, click here to see our tours to Galápagos.

The Blue-Footed What?

Monday, August 30th, 2010
Male blue-footed boobies are monogamous and have been known to whistle at passing females.

Male blue-footed boobies are monogamous and have been known to whistle at passing females.

 

The poor blue-footed booby truly has an unfortunate name. The name “booby” originated from the Spanish term bobo, which means “stupid” or “foolish” like a clown. Although the bird may fly gracefully, he tends to be a bit clumsy on land. He dances to impress the ladies, showing off his blue feet and flapping his wings. As with most courtship displays, the majority of female birds in the vicinity of such a show just find it mildly amusing, until one takes pity on him and agrees to mate. The birds are monogamous, with partners taking turns to incubate the eggs. You can see this little guy and his friends on our Galapagos for Families tour.

Which animal makes you laugh? Share Below.

Conservation and the Galápagos Islands

Tuesday, June 29th, 2010
The Northern Elephant Seal Pup  Photograph by Thomas Schnetlage

Northern Elephant Seal Pup. Photo: Thomas Schnetlage

The Galápagos Islands are known worldwide for their stunning beauty and environmental diversity. Due to their unique location, size, and home to plants and animals found anywhere else in the world, the islands are in need of environmental conservation and were recognized in 1978 as UNESCO World Heritage Site. As a result, tourist organizations are very careful not to harm the sensitive islands while visiting.

Here are some other interesting facts about the islands:

  1. They are one of the few locations in the world that do not have and have never had an indigenous human population.
  2. In 1959, about 1,500 souls called the islands home. By 2006, the population had ballooned to as many as 40,000.
  3. Although there are eighteen main islands that make up the Galápagos Islands, only five are inhabited by people – Baltra, Floreana, Isabela, San Cristobal, and Santa Cruz.
  4. The islands have a healthy diverse plant and animal population, but have struggled to maintain them due to species that have been introduced by humans. 700 plants have been introduced by visitors since European discovery in 1535 – compared to the 500 native plants. As a result, there is competition between the two groups for survival.
  5. The same can be said for animals – British pirates first released goats on the islands to use for food. Today, non-native animals still include goats, as well as pigs, dogs, rats, cats, mice, sheep, horses, donkeys, cows, poultry, ants, cockroaches, and some parasites. Dogs and cats may attack birds and damage their nests. Pigs can destroy the nests of tortoises, turtles, and iguanas.

The good news is there are many professionals keeping an eye on the environmental balance of the islands, including the Galapagos National Park and The Darwin Foundation. To help learn, study, and educate yourself about our world’s oceans, we recommend the Smithsonian’s own Ocean Portal, which includes tools for educators, amazing photo essays, and information on how you can make a difference in preserving these precious resources.

What would you do to conserve the Galápagos Islands? Share your ideas.

Visit the Galapágos with your family! Click here for more information.

What You Need to Know About Machu Picchu

Tuesday, June 8th, 2010
A stone archway of Machu Picchu with the Andes in the background

A stone archway of Machu Picchu with the Andes in the background

Nobody wants to stand at a nice reception when an acquaintance announces she just got back from the absolutely fabulous Machu Picchu and have no idea what the fuss is all about. To make sure that never happens to you, here are the basics about Peru’s Machu Picchu so you can be as smart and cultured as the next guy.

  1. Machu Picchu is Quechua for ”Big Mountain.” The Quechua are the indigenous people of Peru, and the archaoelogical site of Machu Picchu is located south of the equator in the Andes Mountains and outside the city of Cuzco. But the location of the ruins is truly amazing as it sits in between the Machu Picchu and Huayna Picchu mountains, making it difficult to approach and easily defensible in an attack.
  2. The city was built in 1450 at the height of the Incan Empire. By 1572, the city was abandoned, but there is some confusion as to why. It doesn’t appear that the Spanish conquistadors defaced or damaged any part of Machu Picchu, so it is thought that smallpox, which the Spanish brought from Europe, may have been a major factor in the fall of the city.
  3. The buildings located at the site were very well built using a technique called ashlar. This involved cutting blocks of stone and stacking them without the use of mortar. The result is a long-lasting, earthquake-proof structure.
  4. Popular culture has cited Hiram Bingham as the person who “discovered” Machu Picchu in 1911. However, there is some evidence that he wasn’t the first non-Native to stumble upon the site. Simone Waisbard, a longtime researcher in Cuzco, believes three men named Enrique Palma, Gabino Sánchez, and Agustín Lizárragal left their identities inscribed on a rock at the site on July 14, 1901. Others believe a German businessman named Augusto Berns looted the site – a common practice at the time—in 1867. Physical evidence has shown Machu Picchu to be listed on maps as early as 1874. While Bingham gets the most credit today, there may have been other visitors prior to his notable arrival in 1911.
  5. In 1983, Machu Picchu was designated an UNESCO World Heritage Site and was described as “an absolute masterpiece of architecture and a unique testimony to the Inca civilization.”

With these little tidbits in your back pocket, you can be the hit at the party too—or at least answer that Final Jeopardy question and impress your friends.

Have you been to Machu Picchu? Share below.

Want to go? Peru is truly amazing! We still have room on our 2010 tours, or you can plan for 2011!

Patagonia: Five Things

Monday, May 10th, 2010

The Perito Moreno Glacier. Photo: Allison Dale

The unseasonably hot and humid weather we’ve had in Washington, DC, lately had our staff discussing cooler climates. This got us thinking about snow, then ice, and then glaciers, which led us to Patagonia. Here’s five things you should know about Patagonia, where during a heat wave, temperatures might reach all of 78 degrees Fahrenheit.1) The explorer Magellan named the region, which includes the southernmost portions of Chile and Arentina, after the native people there. He used the word Patagón, or giant, to describe the group, who were an average height of about 6 feet tall, much taller than the Europeans of the time.

2) Rawson, the capital of the Chubut region of Patagonia, was settled by Welsh immigrants in 1865, as part of an effort by the Argentinian government to attract settlers to areas outside of Buenos Aires. The going was even tougher than they anticipated; the settlers had been told the arid plateau of Chubut was much like lush, green lowland Wales.

3) The Patagonian region of Santa Cruz, in Argentina, is home to a 52-square mile petrified forest. The forest grew 150 million years ago, during the Jurasssic period, and was later buried under volcanic eruptions at the beginning of the Cretaceous Period, when the Andes began formation.

Cave Paintings at the Cueva de las Manos in Santa Cruz, Argentina. Photo: Mariano Cecowski.

Cave Paintings at the Cueva de las Manos in Santa Cruz, Argentina. Photo: Mariano Cecowski.

4) Humans have inhabited Patagonia since 10,000 BCE, if not longer, and traces of past settlements can be found across the region. One of the best known is the Cueva de las Manos (cave of hands), located in Santa Cruz, Argentina. The cave painters used ink made from hematite, and some archaeologists speculate that the young men stenciled their hands on the cave as part of a tribal rite-of-passage ritual. The cave was designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1999.

5) Some of the most famous residents of Patagonia include the Magellanic penguins of Magdalena Island. Situated in the center of the Strait of Magellan, Magdelena Island hosts 60,000 breeding pairs of penguins. Penguins mate for life, going back to the same nest to meet and breed each year.

Need more reasons to travel to Patagonia? Check out Smithsonian’s new Patagonian Frontiers tour, where you’ll explore the glaciers, islands, and windswept landscapes of Tierra del Fuego, the Beagle Channel, and more.

Ushuaia, Argentina, the world’s southernmost urban center, is 6,500 miles away from Washington, DC. What’s the furthest you’ve ever been from home? Please share.