A progress report prepared by the Charles Darwin Foundation for the Dutch Friends of the Galapagos Islands
This past year has been marked by growth in our long-term science projects, excitement for new ventures, and hope as the COVID-19 pandemic continued to persist. The Charles Darwin Foundation (CDF) is happy to share progress that the projects supported by the Dutch Friends of the Galapagos Islands have made.
Our Scalesia Forest Restoration team successfully finished the monitoring of invasive species and restoration efforts in permanent experimental plots covering an area of 14 ha at Los Gemelos on Santa Cruz Island. These include areas with continuous control of invasive species, such as blackberry, and areas that were left untouched (= invaded). First results indicate that overall, percentage cover of endemic and native plant species, and the species diversity in the blackberry-removal area, was considerably higher than in the invaded area. However, total cover of Scalesia pedunculata was lower in 2021 compared to 2020 in both, the invaded and controlled areas. This is likely due to the loss of mature Scalesia trees that had fallen over since the last monitoring. In the invaded area, 144 of the original 202 Scalesia trees were lost in this way (71%), whereas in the blackberry removal area, 99 of the original 255 trees had fallen over (61%). While this is a natural phenomenon since, as a pioneer species, trees only live for about 15 years, it is very problematic in the invaded areas. The blackberry thicket prevents light from passing through, which is required for germination of the Scalesia seeds. Our team determined the blackberry cover in the invaded plots to be 55% and, as a consequence, there was absolutely no natural recruitment of Scalesia in 2021, in an area of about 3,400 m2. In contrast, they counted at least 37 newly emerged seedlings in the blackberry-removal plots of the same area. The team still found 6% blackberry cover in the controlled plots with continuous removal of blackberry. These results show how important blackberry removal is for the native and endemic species in the Scalesia forest, but also how difficult it is.
One of the largest threats to Scalesia is land use change to make space for agriculture. Many privately owned farms on Santa Cruz were once covered with Scalesia forest. This is why the Scalesia Forest Restoration Project is also working alongside local farmers to support them in planting Scalesia pedunculata trees, as well as other plant species associated with this forest, like the endemic guava (Psidium galapageium) and coffee (Psychotria rufipes), on their properties. Of the 40 famers that the team interviewed to determine their willingness to plant Scalesia, 19 of them were open to the idea. This encouraged the restoration work to get started this year on three farms. With the help of our local field assistants, so far, a total of 0.75 ha has been restored. This might not seem like a lot, but there are currently only about 8 ha of Scalesia patches left in the agricultural zone of Santa Cruz. Therefore, our team has increased the total area covered by Scalesia by almost 10%! This year, the team will continue its activities on Santa Cruz, while also expanding its work to Isabela Island to hopefully save yet another Scalesia species, Scalesia cordata, from the brink of extinction.
Meanwhile, in 2021, our Education and Community Outreach (ECO) Program shifted their formal education activities online to meet the pandemic-related requirements of the Ministry of Education. Despite this adjustment, the team continued working with a group of 78 students from two schools on Santa Cruz Island, as part of the Sustainable Community project. In the meantime, the members of the Shark-Ambassadors Science Club, a non-formal education project, between April 2020 and March 2021, participated in various virtual activities on marine-related topics, such as the ecology and conservation of sharks, sea turtles and sea birds, fisheries, and climate change. As a result, the club prepared three awareness videos that were shared online (see their Earth Day 2021 video here). In March, in-person activities were slowly re-incorporated, which were in some cases carried out together with other organizations, such as Ecology Project International (EPI), Galapagos Conservation Trust (GCT), and Frente Insular, and included monitoring of sea turtles nesting in Tortuga Bay, monitoring of microplastics, and coastal clean-up. The re-implementation of in-person activities has had a positive impact on students, motivating them to continue participating in the project. In July, the Club completely resumed in-person operations with 25 students. In addition, in 2021, a new Science Club was founded in Isabela Island with a group of 18 students who have so far been part of a mixed agenda of virtual and field activities. Throughout December, the ECO-Program has led the 2021 Christmas Bird Count, a world-wide citizen science initiative, which is promoted locally every year to get Galapageños to explore the outdoors and take part in data collection and science.
While all of this was being accomplished in the field and throughout the community, back at the Charles Darwin Research Station we were eagerly looking upon the completion of the Inspiration Complex. CDF marine scientists’ new home was finally inaugurated on November 7th, during our 50th General Assembly meeting, with 60 attendees. Since then, our new Conference Hall has been used, among other events and meetings, to sign a five-year agreement with the Robert Wilson Marine Technologies, a Swedish company that operates a state-of-the-art research vessel. The objective is to collaborate on deep sea benthic exploration and mapping in the Galapagos Marine Reserve. The company will fully finance these activities, as well as current research underway at CDF, including seamount exploration. Therefore, this partnership has a potential to greatly expand our marine science capabilities in 2022 and beyond.
All this work would not have been possible without the support from our generous donors. This past year, the Dutch Friends of the Galapagos Islands’ gift provided the Scalesia Forest Restoration, Education and Community Outreach Program, Inspiration Complex, and the rest of the CDF teams, with the resources needed to carry on with our important work. On behalf of the entire Research Station, we thank you very much and are delighted to share our accomplishments with you, in hopes that we can continue to work together for the conservation of the Galapagos Islands. We wish you all a happy and healthy new year!