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Boat filled with protected species hits coral reef – Yahoo! News

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Sickening.

Boat filled with protected species hits coral reef – Yahoo! News.

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Wildlife of the Galapagos Islands

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As a wildlife ecology student my recent trip to the Galapagos Islands was the experience of a lifetime. I was so pumped about the trip that I even read Darwin’s “Origin of Species” (it was rough). From the moment I set foot in San Cristobal, my point of entry, I was completely blown away. My expectations for the trip had been surpassed within the first hour in the archipelago.

As soon as I had cleared through customs I spotted my first Magnificent Frigatebird and a couple of Blue-Footed Boobies. My first sighting of a Darwin Finch was on my way to meet up with my local guide. I felt like I was treading in the footsteps of Darwin himself as I observed the magnificent variety of bird life all around me. As my guides described it to me, the Galapagos do not have a huge diversity of species like I had seen on the mainland, but those species found in the islands are found in abundance. Imagine colonies of 70 or more Blue-footed Boobies or 400 sea lions laying on the beach.

One of Darwin's finches

One of Darwin’s finches

The most amazing characteristic of the wildlife I found on all of the islands I visited was their complete lack of fear. It was not uncommon to see a sea lion flop down on a bench next to a human. During my snorkeling trips I came face to face with Galapagos Penguins, sea turtles, and Galapagos sharks and none of them cared I was there. Sea lions would swim up to me and start trying to play by spinning in the water and bumping into me. However this lack of fear is not the result of taming or acclimation to human presence. The Galapagos do not have any large, terrestrial based, predatory mammals that are native to the archipelago. As such the animals do not see humans as a threat.

Sea lion on a bench

Sea lion on a bench

Along with some amazing photography opportunities due to this lack of fear I also had the opportunity to observe the effects of isolation and evolution. The greatest example of this were the mockingbirds I observed. The mockingbirds of the Galapagos originally evolved from a mainland species that somehow migrated to the islands. Over the years of isolation they have become genetically distinct from mainland mockingbirds. They have evolved into their own unique species, the Galapagos Mockingbird. I observed this species during my travels on Santa Cruz and Isabela. Speciation has continued with those mockingbirds found on San Cristobal though. Again they have evolved into a species of their own known as the San Cristobal Mockingbird.

San Cristobal Mockingbird

San Cristobal Mockingbird

Another great example of evolution within the species of the Galapagos is amongst the tortoises. Currently there are 11 species of Galapagos tortoises located on different islands throughout the archipelago (there were 15 species at the time of Darwin’s visit to these islands). These species are not only genetically distinct, some have developed unique shell shapes as an adaptation to conditions on their individual islands. The carapaces (shells) of tortoises on the islands I visited all had the common dome shape. However, on some of the islands like Española, which are arid and have little low lying vegetation, tortoises have developed saddle-shaped carapaces. This shape allows them to stretch their necks higher up to feed.

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  Galapagos Tortoise with domed carapace       Galapagos tortoise with saddle-shaped carapace

Galapagos tortoise with saddle-shaped carapace

Unfortunately I was unable to see the Flightless Cormorants (with no land based predators and a diet composed of fish flight is an unnecessary expenditure of energy and has thus been lost) during my visit to the Galapagos. However the trip was still an amazing experience, especially for a wildlife ecology student such as myself. Although they are somewhat difficult to get to the Galapagos Islands are an amazing destination and I would highly recommend them as a destination for nature enthusiasts.

Ecuador: A birder’s paradise

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From the viewpoint of a birder  Ecuador is paradise. In size Ecuador is roughly as  large as the state of Colorado, yet it has almost 1000 more species than the entire US. While the US has only around 500 species that are regulars (not counting odd migrants that have drifted off course), Ecuador has over 1500. According to the birding field guide released by National Geographic the entire continent of North America only has 990 species.

Not only does Ecuador have an incredible variety of birds in such a small area they have an excellent infrastructure to allow birders to quite easily visit all the different ecosystems the country holds. In a matter of two weeks I visited the Amazon rainforest, the Andes Mountains (around Cotopaxi National Park), the cloud forest on the western slopes of the Andes, and finally did some island hopping through the Galapagos. Aside from the Galapagos most of these regions are no more than a half day drive from Quito, the capital of Ecuador and main port of entry for foreign visitors.

Flame-rumped Tanager

Flame-rumped Tanager

As this trip was for a class most of my time was strictly scheduled and I could not break out and do some hardcore birding. Even so, on only three occasions dedicated strictly to birding and incidental sightings as we traveled, I picked up almost 100 new species for my life list. Some birds such as the hummingbirds and tanagers I saw displayed beautiful vibrant colors. Others, like the Hoatzins have developed unique adaptations to survive in their ecosystems. In fact the Hoatzins will likely be the focus of a later post.

In the Amazon I saw such species as Hoatzin (these strange looking birds feed entirely on leaves), an Anhinga, Blue-headed Parrots, Cocoi Herons and many more. These birds were mainly spotted as we were traveling from one activity to another, typically along the Napo River.

Hoatzin

Hoatzin

My only days of official birding on the Ecuadorian mainland occurred in the cloud forest at the Inti Llacta reserve and in the paramo (high mountain grasslands in the Andes) outside of Cotopaxi National Park. In the cloud forest I saw my first trogon, the Masked Trogon, Flame-rumped Tanagers, and almost a dozen species of hummingbirds including a Tawny-bellied Hermit and Booted Racket-tail. Up in the Andes I saw species such as Rufous-crowned Sparrows, Andean Lapwings, and Tyrian Metal-tails.

The Galapagos Islands provided some of the best birding opportunities. While they do not have as much diversity as the mainland, they have far greater concentrations. It was not uncommon to find Blue-footed Boobies in groups as large as 30-50 members. Not to mention Darwin’s finches which seemed to be chirping from every tree or window sill. And who could complain about snorkeling with Galapagos Penguins?

Blue-footed Boobies

Blue-footed Boobies

I would highly recommend Ecuador and the Galapagos to any nature lovers, but especially to birders. With such great variety of species in such a small area birders will think they are in heaven. Not to mention that the tropical climate and welcoming atmosphere make Ecuador a true paradise.

The Epitome of Biodiversity

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I just got home from a trip to Ecuador a couple of weeks ago. The amount of biodiversity packed into one small country was mind blowing. Roughly the size of Colorado, Ecuador covers an amazing diversity of habitat types ranging from tropical rain forests to high mountains and is home to almost 1515 species of birds, compared to 888 found in the US (this number is quite generous as it includes odd migrants that are lost or pushed off course by storms, really there are only about 50o species that are regularly found in the US). During my two weeks there I was lucky enough to see most of these different ecosystems and identified almost 100 species of birds.

We started in the Amazon rainforest along the Napo River, a major tributary of the Amazon River. The vegetation here was extremely thick along the river where plants were continually fighting for sunlight. Once you got away from the river into the primary forest though the understory opened up and was easy to move through. This is a result of the canopy trees absorbing the majority of the light energy and severely limiting the potential for growth on the forest floor. Above the canopy life thrives with hundreds of epiphytes and the giant ceiba trees that tower above the rest of the canopy.

Giant Ceiba tree

Giant Ceiba tree (note the person standing on a branch)

From the rainforest we traveled up into the paramo, a high elevation ecosystem found in the Andes Mountains. At 14,000 feet above sea level we found ourselves standing in hay meadows. In the US areas at this elevation would be nothing but rock and snow, yet thanks to being on the equator these areas are still able to produce thick stands of vegetation.

Landscape in the Andes

Landscape in the Andes

Next was the cloud forest on the western slopes of the Andes. I wish we could have afforded more than just one night here. As warm, moist air moves from the Pacific ocean up the slopes of the Andes it begins to drop its moisture. This moisture forms clouds that cover the forests with dew. As a result of all the moisture on the trunks of these trees they are covered in epiphytes (plants that grow on other plants, this is not the same as a parasitic plant as these epiphytes get all of their nutrients from water flowing down the trunks rather than stealing it from the host tree). The trees around us were covered in epiphytes such as orchids and bromeliads.

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Finally we found ourselves in the Galapagos Islands. Each island in this archipelago has its own unique features. Not only does the whole chain have endemic species (species found only in the Galapagos), but even some of the islands have endemics that are not found on any other island in the chain. For instance, the San Cristobal Mockingbird is only found around San Cristobal island. This bird actually descended from the Galapagos Mockingbird, which is common throughout the archipelago but not found anywhere else in the world.

Isabela Island, Galapagos

Isabela Island, Galapagos

From seeing the amazing diversity of such a small country to walking in the footsteps of Darwin himself this was the experience of a lifetime. Especially for a natural resource ecology student like myself.

Elephant fights off hyenas to save baby | Photo Gallery – Yahoo! News

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Elephant fights off hyenas to save baby | Photo Gallery – Yahoo! News.

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