Sound knowledge of the biology and ecology of a species is essential for conservation success. Though hunting of Galapagos giant tortoises for food is buried in the past, they remain under threat from human impacts including invasive species, urbanisation and land use change.
The Galapagos Tortoise Movement Ecology Programme, led by Dr Stephen Blake is answering questions like:
- What are the spatial needs of Galapagos giant tortoises?
- What are the ecological roles of Galapagos giant tortoises?
- How are tortoise populations changing over time, particularly in response to management threats and interventions?
The tracking team use both traditional survey methods (e.g. behavioural observations) and high tech methods such as fixing tags to the tortoises to track their migrations. They have tagged individuals from four different tortoise species so far – two on Santa Cruz, one on Alcedo volcano, Isabela and one on Espanola. To learn more about the techniques used for tracking tortoises, visit our Discovering Galapagos case study here.
Nesting locations and success rates
Adult female tortoises are tracked on Santa Cruz using GPS to determine whether they use the same nesting sites throughout their lifetime. This could be critical in understanding their adaptive responses to climate and likely land use changes. The project has also given insight into the so called ‘lost years’ (the years from hatchling to sub-adulthood about which we know very little). By studying over 100 nests, and tracking the growth and movement of over 40 hatchlings, the study is improving our understanding of the most vulnerable period of the tortoises’ lives.
Local education and outreach
Galapagos giant tortoises are one of many species affected by the increasing Galapagos human population so the team are closely involved in outreach and education initiatives. For example, they are working closely with key stakeholders to understand how tortoises interact with the human population, in order to reduce tortoise-human conflict. They are also engaging younger generations in their research initiatives, as well as helping to spread their work to the local population. This includes running afternoon sessions with the Ecology Project International’s ‘Mola Mola’ youth club. Activities have revolved around the projects work tracking tortoises and on seed dispersal.
In spring of 2018 the team hopes to deploy new, smaller GPS devices provided by the International Cooperation for Animal Research Using Space (ICARUS) onto newly emerged hatchlings, with data being uploaded to the International Space Station automatically and then sent to the internet. As a more efficient form of tracking than radio tracking, which requires time and energy locating the tortoises on foot, this will permit expansion of the study to other islands.
A questionnaire for farmers, tour operators and developers assessing the costs, benefits and risks posed by giant tortoises to different landowners within the Santa Cruz Highlands has been created. The results will be integrated with an ecological study of tortoises on private land, including levels of crop damage. These results will help form a preliminary framework for private land management to reduce damage by tortoises.
For the latest updates on the project, please read our 2016 report (PDF).
In 2017, this work has kindly been supported by the British Chelonia Group and the Woodspring Trust.