The wildlife of the Galapagos Islands has fascinated us since naturalist Charles Darwin brought them to the attention of the world through his groundbreaking voyage of discovery in the early 1800s. His research in the archipelago formed the basis of what was to become his revolutionary theory of natural selection.
In later years, this group of islands off the coast of Ecuador has become a popular place for eco-tourism. There are few places on Earth that offer such insight into the machinations of our natural world and, for wildlife enthusiasts, Galapagos holidays can be one of the most memorable experiences of their lives.
Among the unique endemic species, the rare and endangered Galapagos Penguin is one of the most sought-after sightings. In 2017, after several decades of population decline, researchers have seen a spike in the birds’ breeding, and it appears that there's some good news at last for the most endangered penguin species on the planet – and that’s also good news for wildlife lovers who visit the region on Galapagos holidays.
A Breeding Bonanza
The reason for the recent breeding bonanza has by no means been an overnight success. Many of the nests the birds had used for the past 40 years have been destroyed by flooding or overtaken by Marine Iguanas. So, in 2010, a research team from the University of Washington began to work on a project that encompassed the construction of 120 artificial penguin nests, with a goal of providing as many breeding opportunities as possible for the species.
The nests were created by digging tunnels into the lava of the landscape, or by stacking plate lava. These nests have been nicknamed “penguin condos" and have been built on three of the archipelago's islands: Isabela, Bartolomé and Fernandina. The researchers’ goal was to ensure that during times of abundant food availability (when breeding is most likely to occur), the birds had access to a safe nesting site in which to protect their eggs and keep them cool.
The nests are monitored twice a year and in the most recent visit by researchers, greater numbers of juvenile penguins were sighted – and, in fact, they accounted for around 45% of the entire population.
The upswing in breeding is directly correlated to the weather event of La Niña, which brings cooler, nutrient-rich currents to the oceans surrounding the archipelago. In the past years of El Niño events (which bring slower and warmer currents, creating a dearth of food sources), the consequences for the penguin population have been devastating. It's estimated that there are less than half as many today as in the pre-El Niño years of 1972-73 and 1982-83.
By providing the means for the species to take advantage of the favourable nesting conditions, the artificial nests have played a vital role in this population regeneration. With the expectation of another La Niña in the spring of 2018, it's hoped that this breeding windfall will continue and boost numbers even further. The Galapagos Conservancy has supported the programme since 2013, and the body recognises the valuable work of this dedicated group of researchers. Their long-term goal is to increase the population to such a point that it can withstand adverse climatic fluctuations, and representatives will return to the islands in February 2018 to check on the nests and share their findings.
The Privilege of Experience
For wildlife enthusiasts who visit the region on Galapagos holidays, it remains a privilege and a memorable experience to see the species in its natural habitat. In years to come, the population may regain its prevalence of decades past – proving that in some cases, human intervention can be positive rather than harmful to the world's wildlife.
Marissa Ellis-Snow is a freelance nature writer with a special interest in the unique wildlife of the Galapagos Islands. Marissa chooses the expert-led Galapagos holidays organised by Naturetrek, which have brought her unforgettable sightings of a wide range of wildlife in one of the most spectacular regions on Earth.