ěn-děm’ĭk

– in biology an organism occurring in only a specific region or environment, being naturally absent from all other locations.

The last week or so has been quite busy with starting on field work and traveling to another island. But the constant theme in all of this is the endemic species of plants and animals that we see.  It’s really why we are here and why biologists want to study in the Galapagos Islands.  Of course being restricted to only one place has its troubles too and thus most studies on the evolution of endemic species by necessity have a component on conservation.

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Endemica – a new (and the only) craft beer found in the Galapagos on the island of San Cristobal

After some wait all the permitting came through and I’m able to go in the field and start collecting of samples.  Most of this is being done with my principal collaborator Dr. Gonzalo Rivas of the Universidad San Francisco de Quito. My work in endemic Amaranthaceae is contributing to a larger project he is spearheading on detailed characterization of plant communities and long-term monitoring of plant species of special interest.  The research is based on a series of vegetation plots set up in different habitats around the islands in which basic species data and measurements associated with biomass are collected.  This is combined with detailed aerial photos obtained from a drone to more extensively characterize the area.  Monitoring of individuals in plots will take place in 5-10 years to understand individual persistence and recruitment – important aspects for understanding vegetation dynamics in response to changes in climate, management, and biotic interactions.

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A happy botanist pressing plants after a hot day in the field

In addition to providing assistance with plot establishment (not necessarily my favorite part – taking DBH measurement of cactus trees is a little, well, prickly) my major focus is on understanding the unique evolution and current conservation status of some of the endemic members of the family Amaranthaceae. In terms of species diversity the family Amaranthaceae is the fourth most species-rich vascular plant family in the Galapagos archipelago.  While relatively diverse they are not however a dominant form of vegetation in terms of numbers (expect for some members of Alternanthera [A. filifolia and A. echinocephala]) and most are quite rare only occurring in very restricted locations or habitats and many are considered endangered. Five extant genera contain endemic species and three of these are particularly unique either for the number of forms they have developed or for the vastly divergent forms from their continental ancestors the plants have evolved.

Alternanthera is the most species-rich genus with 9 species and 7 subspecies. Among these is a mix of widespread and highly localized taxa.  As is seen in a number of endemics just because you are endemic does not make you very rare – at least in your specific habitat.  This week I got to see the species Alternanthera flavicoma which is endemic to a small area around one bay on the west side of the island of San Cristobal.  You can find it growing naturally in old weathered lava flows but it’s also used in town as a common garden planting – and has been trimmed into topiary – I think the only such example of this horticultural use for an Amaranthaceae I have ever seen!

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Alternanthera flavicoma trimed as a topiary sea lion in Puerto Baquierzo Moreno

Froelichia, the subject of most of my studies, is represented in the islands by 2 species and 5 subspecies. Its habit is particularly unique.  I’ve seen the genus from the northern United States to Paraguay and on the continent they are all pretty similar – taprooted annuals (in the north) and taprooted perennial herbs in the tropics and subtropics. But here they can be sprawling shrubs over a meter in height to 3 meters in width with large woody “trunks”. Here is a slightly better photo of Froelichia juncea subsp. alata endemic to the island of Santa Cruz (I had promised a better photo – this is getting there – it’s just not very photogenic and I’m not a really good photographer either).

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Froelichia juncea subsp. alata

The last of the particularly interesting Galapagos Amaranthaceae is the genus Lithophila which is currently represented by two species (although stay tuned as I think there may be more variation than had previously been recognized).  The genus has a very unique form and is quite rare.  It was greatly affected by introduced goats which apparently decimated its populations, particularly on the islands of Floreana and Santiago.  With the control of these introduced herbivores the plants seem to be recovering.

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Lithophila radicata

Outside of work related endemics we have had the chance to see a few others as well. On San Cristobal we visited the breeding laboratory from the Galapagos National Park focused on the reestablishment of the endemic tortoise Geochelone chatamensis.  This species was greatly reduced in numbers due to direct exploitation for meat and oil, habitat change, and the effects of introduced animals including feral dogs and goats.  Here eggs are kept protected and the young are kept in pens for 5-6 years to protect them from threats in the environment.  As they grow they are transferred to larger protected areas until they are large enough to not be threatened in the wild.  At that point they are transplanted outside of the breeding area.  Such a conservation project is not for the impatient. Tortoises take about 20 years to reach sexual maturity and can probably live about 150 years if not more. Seeing the young of 1-2 years and knowing that if they survive they will surely outlive you and your children gives a sobering yet hopeful feeling.  Our conservation efforts can make a difference if we realize our folly before it’s too late to act.

We’ve continued to have encounters with other Galapagos endemics. The Galapagos Sea Lion (Zalophus wollebacki) was I think our favorite on San Cristobal.  You can see them all over the islands but they were particularly abundant there.

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Darwin’s Finches continue to be a favorite to see.  And it probably doesn’t hurt that both Aurea and I have been reading the book “The Beak of the Finch” – a very good non-technical read on evolutionary biology, particularly clearly visible instances of natural history focusing of course on Darwin’s Finches.

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Darwin’s finches find Emiliano and his sandwich irresistible

As we’ve spent lots of time by the beach and wanted something different, we spent a day climbing into the highlands of the island of Santa Cruz.  These highlands consist mostly of a community type known as the Miconia zone due to the abundance of the endemic species Miconia robinsoniana (Melastomataceae).  Trails lead to two high points, El Puntudo and Cerro Crocker.  We went to old volcanic cone of El Puntudo which was a great walk.  While not always clear due to frequent clouds in the highlands the day we went was clear allowing for a view out to the ocean. It is a wonderful break from the heat of the coast and surprisingly there are very few people – we only saw a couple people, all from the local area during the entire day.  Due to the wetter climate and presence of more soil in the highland regions these areas historically suffered more impact from man.  While now mostly protected there are more invasive plant species in this region and species such as Chinchona succiruba (Quinine), Psidium guajava (Guava), and Rubus niveus (Mora) are particularly troublesome and difficult to control.

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Aurea and Emiliano in the Miconia

Above the Miconia zone there is a small zone known as the Pampa or Fern Sedge Zone. Here there is little tall vegetation and an abundance of ferns and mosses.

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Ross and Emiliano nearing the top of El Puntudo. The “Agave” reminding us of Mexico is actually Furcraea cubensis, a species introduced from the West Indies that has the unique island adaption of reproducing via vegetative bulblets in its inflorescence.

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View from the top of El Putudo. The dead trees on the slopes are dead invasive Quinine trees the result of control measures by the Galapagos National Park.

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Ian and Emiliano in the shade of a guava tree

 

Thinking evolution and phylogenies

Having a slow Saturday around the house today. Actually it’s laundry day.  We haven’t been able to do laundry all week which with two small kids can be a big deal.  The owner of the house we are renting is having construction done behind the house to add on more space.  So..the back is all torn up and the laundry area taken apart and finally put up again in another area of yard.  And internet’s working a little better today.  A pattern I’ve seen is that it tends to be a little faster on weekends. So a little reading of news – but honestly the state of my country right now is not very uplifting. So back to plants and my current life on a tropical island.

This week has me thinking lots about phylogenetic relationships and how plants change as they invade islands.  Thus this small piece of algae I picked up while swimming the other day with its clear dichotomous branches made me think of a phylogenetic tree.

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Some of the changes are quite evident in the Galapagos flora.  A trend toward woodiness from herbaceous ancestors is common as is a trend toward non-showy flowers.  Most of the native species have relatively drab flowers – the large showy flowers you can see in town on along roadsides are predominantly introduced from other tropical areas.  One exception to this however is Opuntia which has large yellow flowers pollinated by the only native bee in the islands, the Galapagos Carpenter Bee (Xylocopa darwini). But in an isolated oceanic island with few animal pollinators there is little need for most plants to advertise for floral visitors.

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Xylocopa darwini visiting a flower of Opuntia echios

I’ve been continuing my regular work in the herbarium.  Mostly finished with the Froelichia work that can be done with collected specimens and I’m just waiting for the final approval of our collecting permits to head out for field work. I’ve also been able to develop a new collaborative study with staff here at the Charles Darwin Research Station – more on that as it develops – it should be exciting as I think we may have some new undescribed taxa.

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Emiliano has also been joining me in the herbarium off and on. I look at specimens and examine tiny flowers under the microscope and he sits at a table and draws.  He made some beautiful drawings of herbarium specimens and of some large seeds on display in the collection! He doesn’t say it but I think he enjoys going with me for the air conditioning – a must for maintaining a collection in a hot and humid environment!

The last couple weeks we’ve been continuing to explore the island of Santa Cruz and have started to take some short trips to a couple other islands. Lava tubes have been a favorite, particularly for Emiliano.

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Ross and Emiliano exploring a lava tube just north of Puerto Ayora

We’ve also come to the conclusion that giant tortoises are very much like deer are in Colorado.  They are common and you don’t always stop to see them.

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Aurea and a friend along the main road just north of Puerto Ayora

We’ve taken a couple boat trips to the nearby islands of Seymour Norte and Bartolomé. We feel a little guilty in that we have not taken Ian with us, but nothing is handicap accessible and with his disabilities and being unable to walk it would be very dangerous to move in and out of inflatable boats bobbing on the ocean and with the heat he would not enjoy it.  We have luckily been able to find a nice woman to babysit for us when we are out for the day.

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Sailing NW of the island of Santa Cruz. The small island of Daphne Minor is above our heads.

The excursions have been great for seeing wildlife.  Frigate birds, blue footed boobies, land iguanas, Galapagos Penguin (the only penguin occurring into the northern hemisphere), sea lions, dolphins, and Aurea saw a Sea Cucumber while snorkeling – she said it didn’t look like much but I really wanted to see one.

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Frigatebird

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Blue-Footed Booby

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The required photo from the top of Isla Bartolome looking toward Sullivan Bay and Isla Santiago

Plants seen during these excursions are generally your common beachside species. On Bartolomé which is almost barren of plant life I did see the genus Tiquilia (Boraginaceae) (likely T. nesiotica but the definitive characters to distinguish species is the surface of the nutlet and character of the stem pubescence which I don’t remember) which is one of the early colonizers on this barren landscape.  Yea, I love beautiful flowers but there’s something that attracts me to the plants trying to eek out a life in the harshest of environments.

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Tiquilia sp. – Isla Bartolome

Even our walks to the grocery store have been good wildlife excursions.  Rays (two different species), sharks, schools of small fish, sea lions, pelicans, frigate birds, marine iguanas, crabs – all between the market and our house.

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Walking home from the grocery store Ross and Emiliano watch for sharks on the dock in Puerto Ayora

I’ll end this post with one little note regarding evolutionary biology.  One of our excursions sailed right past the island of Daphne Major.  The island is not much but it is the site of one of the longest-running observational studies of evolution.  Here the native finches have been observed and tagged generation after generation for forty years to understand the process of natural selection acting on these bird populations.  No, I don’t think I’m going to embark on any 40-year studies, but in a place like Galapagos these processes are much more evident reminding us how selection and time work together to create the biodiversity that we see today.

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Daphne Major

Arrival to Ecuador and First Weeks in Galapagos

22 January 2017

We have now been in Ecuador for about three weeks and I admit that I am only now getting around to updating this blog. It seemed a good thing to do on a lazy Sunday afternoon.

I couldn’t get the post from a week ago to load due to a very erratic internet connection and I got involved in other things so it’s appended to this one.

The last week has seen us settling into the pace of things here in Puerto Ayora.   We have continued to explore the island of Santa Cruz going further out of town up to the highest area of the island to the zone of Scalesia (Asteraceae) and Miconia (Melastomataceae). Also more walks close to town have allowed us to explore more of the native environment.  The ubiquitous tree cacti (Opuntia echios) are truly amazing. It’s believed that the large tree forms are evolutionary adaptations to herbivory from tortoises.  On islands without tortoises you can find lower growing forms more similar to Opuntia seen in North America.

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Ross, Emiliano, and Ian exploring the highlands on Santa Cruz

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Opuntia echios

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Scalesia pedunculata

My work is going well.  I’ve been reviewing the collections at the herbarium at the Charles Darwin Research Center and reworking the treatment of the genus Froelichia (Amaranthaceae) for the archipelago.  Previous published work has never been completely clear on distributions with authors simply citing past works without checking their accuracy which has led to some false claims regarding distribution.  My greatest finding at this point is perhaps the realization that one taxon F. nudicaulis subsp. nudicaulis (there are five taxa in total for the genus in the islands) has not actually been collected since 1905.  I’m worried that this taxon may have gone extinct.  It’s a potential as another amaranth, Blutaparon rigidum, is known to now be extinct and other Amaranthaceae, particularly Alternanthera are threatened due to herbivory from introduced mammals. One goal for my fieldwork will be to search the areas where this taxon was previously collected in the hope it has simply been overlooked.

While I have yet to collect as I’m still waiting for all the permits to be completed I was excited to find Froelichia juncea subsp. alata in coastal forest not far from Puerto Ayora.  This taxon is restricted to the SE part of the island of Santa Cruz and exhibits an elongate inflorescence which is very atypical and particularly unique within the genus. Below is a photo – I promise something better later!

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Froelichia juncea subsp. alata

17 January 2017

Here we are! Bienvenido a Ecuador!

Our first stop was the city of Quito where we stayed for about a week. While in Quito we stayed in the downtown district of La Mariscal – an area full of activity and night life – although with two small kids walking by all the nightclubs in the evening prompted a few jokes from the guys on the street corner trying to get clients into their respective clubs.

While in Quito we took care of needed immigration paperwork and met the people at the Fulbright office – everyone was so welcoming and I am excited to be part of this cultural exchange! Also had the opportunity to visit with my collaborator Dr. Gonzalo Rivas at my host university (Universidad San Francisco de Quito) to work on logistical aspects of our project and I was able to give a talk to the science faculty introducing myself and my project.

We spent time seeing some of the sites around Quito. We visited the historic downtown and the Panecillo where there are fantastic views of the city. We also visited Parque La Carolina, the botanical garden and vivarium (herpetarium). Much of our wanderings around the city saw us walking in the rain. We are here during winter which means it is warm, but it rains a lot, which is actually a nice change from the cold and snow at home, so that has been fun. We also visited “Mitad del Mundo”, marking the point of the Equator and like any good tourist we had to place one foot in the Northern hemisphere and one in the Southern hemisphere. Aurea and I had visited here 14 years ago on a quick trip we made to Ecuador and it was nice to be back with our kids. We also visited a extinct volcanic crater, Pululahua where people are now practicing agriculture due to the fertile soils at the bottom of the crater. However one has to wonder what if the volcano decides to wake up one day…. for now it’s a paradise and looks like a wonderful place to live.

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Reserva Geobotanica Pululahua

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Aurea at the botanical garden in Quito

After a week in the capital we headed to the Galapagos Islands. We will be back to Quito in mid-March. Our flight left Quito with a short stop in the port city of Guayaquil. After a couple hours we arrived at Isla Baltra.  Movement of materials into the islands is highly controlled due to the fragile ecosystem. All luggage is searched for biological materials and all carry-on luggage was fumigated a little before we landed. Introduced insect pests can turn into a plague and in the past have had disastrous effects on native wildlife. From the airport we took a bus south to a small straight of water separating Islas Baltra and Santa Cruz. A short boat ride across the straight and then a taxi ride across the island of Santa Cruz took us to our final destination Puerto Ayora, the largest settlement in the islands. We are now living in a small house a few minutes from the beach and started our exploration of the islands.

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Puerto Ayora from near Punta Estrado

Our first few days in the Galapagos saw us learning our way around the town of Puerto Ayora and starting to explore the island of Santa Cruz.  We visited the Charles Darwin Research Center where I will be doing some work. We’ve seen some giant tortoises, visited lava tubes, and ventured to some beaches were the marine iguanas are so used to people that they seem to pose for the pictures.

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First blog post

For anyone that knows me you probably know me as someone not particularly good at modern forms of communication.  I have a Facebook page but I probably log in to it about once every six months.  I’ll send a text if I have to – and that of course is dependent upon my remembering to keep my phone charged, which sad to say, is something I often forget.  So why a blog?  Really, the request of friends.  This year I, along with my family, am embarking on a long-awaited adventure of travel and research in the Galapagos Islands.  Supported by a Fulbright fellowship I will be studying patterns of plant species formation across the archipelago and the interest in my work expressed by many people with whom I have discussed the project has spurred me on to put together this site to document our travels and discoveries.