Posts Tagged ‘galapagos2011’

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.

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.