Galapagos, Bird Behavior & More Great Science Writing


A booby doing its mating dance. Credit Wolfgang Kaehler/LightRocket, via Getty Images

We had missed one of our favorite science writers for a while and we are so happy she is back! In her latest outing, covering ground we thought was already familiar, we get some new clues to the meaning of their coloration and rituals:

On Galápagos, Revealing theBlue-Footed Booby’s True Colors

With no real predators, the birds live proud, public lives. That accessibility has proved a bonanza for scientists, casting light on their mating habits and even why the shade of their feet matters.

By Natalie AngierContinue reading

A Battle on the Ocean Bed

The potential opening of sea cucumber fishing in Galápagos has scientists and conservationists surprised and concerned after news leaked of a July 10 agreement that would allow the collection of 500,000 of the creatures, considered vital to the marine environment. PHOTO: Wikimedia Commons

The potential opening of sea cucumber fishing in Galápagos has scientists and conservationists surprised and concerned after news leaked of a July 10 agreement that would allow the collection of 500,000 of the creatures, considered vital to the marine environment. PHOTO: Wikimedia Commons

Sea cucumbers are in the news – again. The marine creature has been talked about as an adjunct treatment for those undergoing chemotherapy. They have also been tipped as a “wonder ingredient” in cosmetics. Not to forget the sea cucumber capsule industry, Asian cuisines that consider it a delicacy, and its place in the underground market of aphrodisiac market. This time around, the news isn’t good.

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Recognizing the Gift of the Galapagos


“We’ve all been given a gift, the gift of life. What we do with our lives is our gift back.”

-Edo, Sacred Economics

Being in the Galapagos was such a gift.

I remember reading a list in the newspaper when I was 14- something like “Top 10 Places to Visit Around the World”, and the Galapagos was on it with descriptions of black rocks and blue-footed boobies and I remember thinking how can I lead a life that takes me to places like that? The Galapagos Islands are a sacred mecca of biodiversity that most people will never have the privilege to see and I feel uncomfortable that I went without having to make any particular effort: I just chose a college and a study abroad program and voilà! my dreams came true. I feel immense gratitude for this. More importantly I feel a sense of obligation. I have an obligation to respond to this gift wisely and with intention in the way I conduct my life.

The sense of obligation is interesting to me because currently I’ve been reading about gift economies in my Economic Anthropology class. There is a concept called hau from the New Zealand Maori that tries to explain the sense of obligation to reciprocate when given a gift. From Wilk and Cligget’s book Economies and Cultures:

Hau is a term for the force of the identity of the owner of an object, which is attached to the object. Thus, upon giving the object away, part of the owner’s hau goes with it. And this is why receiving the gift always carries an obligation to reciprocate, because the hau wants to return to its original owner, though now it may be attached to another’s object.

In class, we’ve been talking about when things are separated from their origin, their story, the people who made it, there is some kind of erasure of the hau that represents the giver and we don’t feel compelled to respond in kind. Continue reading

Muro de las Lágrimas: Historical Conservation in the Galapagos



Isla Isabela: Paradise with a dark history

I am currently on study abroad in Ecuador, which has provided me with a mountain of experiences to post about when my homework will allow. I recently had the good fortune to go to the Galapagos, a dream I’ve had since I realized they existed. I am still so struck by everything I saw. In this post, I’ll just highlight one of the places on Isla Isabela that started some good conversations among my classmates about historical conservation of sites of trauma. Also, I will share a poem I wrote about the location.

Former President Ibarra of Ecuador used the island of Isabela as a penal colony (1946-1956), where prisoners were forced to do agricultural labor. They had to carry lava rocks from all over the island to construct the walls of their own prison. There are stories that they would cry as they carried the rocks. I was told that bodies are inside the walls from the rocks falling down while they were building them. The saying that accompanies the island’s history is: Los valientes lloran y los cobardes mueren, which means “The brave cry and the cowards die.” After ten years, the prisoners escaped by creating a play for the guards about prisoners escaping. They got the guards drunk, and actually escaped during the play.

Despite the story of escape, it couldn’t feel like a happy ending. My friends and I were talking about how it felt to visit this site of trauma as tourists. What is the role of historians and purpose of preserving places exactly as they were in the past? Is it to empower us with memories that in our normal lives we couldn’t have access to? Who are these memories for? For some people, this type of oppression is not of the past. They don’t need external reminders because the struggle for survival is part of their daily lives. There was conversation in the group about how preserving sites of trauma allows many of us to experience a sense of empathy before moving on to our daily, more privileged lives. This is how the set-up of touring through the site of trauma left us feeling. Continue reading

Throwback Thursday: Galápagos Coffee

Before my recent experience with growing coffee, the last time I had been exposed to the agricultural side of the brew had been almost exactly two years ago, on the island of Santa Cruz in the Galápagos Islands of Ecuador. The plants that I had a hand in starting up there should be reaching the beginning of their prime production this year.

The scale of the farm at Santa Cruz was much greater than that at Xandari so far, and hopefully Roberto and Reyna will get a bumper crop this year and we’ll be hearing about it!

You can read a little about their coffee farm and some of the work I did there Continue reading

Lonesome George Makes His NYC Debut

There’s something unsettling about taxidermy and the lifelike diaramas that I grew up seeing at museums.  But the research that goes into each zoological and botanical detail serves a monumental educational purpose for visitors and scientists alike. And in a “Last Chance to See” context, there are cases where those diaramas are the only way both current and future generations are able to have a face to face experience with extinct species.

A little over a year ago the icon of Galapagos conservation “Lonesome George” died of natural causes. Although property of the people of Ecuador, he is considered an example of World Heritage Patrimony. Researchers froze his body and shipped it to the American Museum of Natural History for preservation and a temporary exhibition in New York. Continue reading

Washington D.C.’s Green Carpet

When our new contributor ÉA Marzate wrote about a recent film festival it had the added benefit of providing the incentive to explore similar festivals worldwide. I’d nearly missed the DC Environmental Film Fest, which boasted documentaries that overlapped with those screened in Paris as well as some that touch a direct personal chord with RAXA Collective. (As I live in India, I use the word “missed” figuratively of course!)

I’m referring to the U.S. Premier of the 2012 BBC film Lonesome George and the Battle for the Galapagos. Continue reading

Diving with Scuba Iguana

Scuba Iguana trips start from the office on Charles Darwin Ave. either going north in a taxi to Itabaca Canal or taking a boat at the Scuba Iguana dock behind the office. All boat rides ranged from 35 to 120 minutes, and were generally pretty smooth. On the way, we could see Common Noddies, Blue-footed Boobies, Elliot’s Storm Petrels, Galápagos Shearwaters, and on North Seymour I saw a Red-billed Tropicbird twice! If I remember correctly, some Nazca Boobies were sitting on the coast of Floreana as well.

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The Final Bird Club Meeting

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Last Wednesday was the final day the Union Educativa Modelo Tomás de Berlanga Bird Club would be gathering under my supervision. In the end, I was never able to get the papier-mâché project off the ground for most of the kids – two students did end up making penguins, but forgot to bring them to this last day to attach body parts and spray the final product with a protective varnish, and my hosts’ son painted a bird I made (looks like a male frigatebird). The photo above is of the Blue-footed Booby I made for my host family.

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Galápagos Sea Lions

I just got back from Isabela Island, where I was able to snorkel with a sea lion as playful as the ones in this video (taken, once again, by the ScubaIguana guide Quike Morán), and play with it alone in the relatively shallow waters of Tintoreras (named for the reef sharks that can often be seen there; tinto is red in Spanish; you get the point).

I tried to mimic the swirling, bubble-blowing, and alternating fast and slow approaches as I played with the juvenile sea lion, and was rewarded with a dance even longer than that seen in the video. Continue reading

My First Dives in Galápagos (2/2)

Six legs and two sail-like fins! What?!

My last post shared a video of some of my scuba trips and a few images of two absolutely bizarre ocean species: the Red-lipped Batfish and the Galápagos Searobin. I had no clue that any such creatures existed in nature, or at least not under the light of the sun no more than 15 meters below surface level. Once again, Quike Morán of Scuba Iguana took the pictures and video with a point-and-shoot digital camera in a plastic waterproof case, and the two dives featured here were at Seymour Island and Mosquera Island, north of Santa Cruz.

My First Scuba Dives in Galápagos (1/2)

Last week, I had my first, second, third, and fourth dives since I got my CMAS diving certification in 2007 in Croatia. I saw two of the weirdest organisms I’ve ever encountered in the flesh (to be named in the next post), and was also able to fulfill one of my longtime wishes: to be underwater with any aquatic mammal!

I leave for a camping trip on the island of Isabela today, so for now my two brief and scheduled posts will be limited to a couple photos and the video that will be in each! All images and videos were taken by Quike Morán, my Scuba Iguana guide.

Galápagos Ultimate

Every Monday and Wednesday evening, starting at 8:30PM, a group of Puerto Ayora residents gathers at Parque San Francisco to play Ultimate Frisbee together. About half of these 25- to 35-year olds are teachers at Tomás de Berlanga, and others work at the Charles Darwin Foundation or around town.

Parque San Francisco is a long and fairly narrow stretch of land between Charles Darwin Avenue and the shore, and to walk from Baltra Avenue (the main road that crosses the whole island from north to south) to the main pier one has to walk through the part of the park that skaters, Ecua-volley players, and Frisbee players use at different times of the day: youngsters anywhere between eight and eighteen years old are constantly skating on the cement space enclosed by steps lengthwise, a stage on one end, and a large cement ramp on the other. Metal rails are often laid out to practice rail-grinds or hopping over the rail while the skateboard rolls under it. Skaters dominate this part of the park (the other parts are a sandy playground and some benches shaded by trees lining the coast) for most of the day, until 4:30PM or so when the volleyballers come out to set up two courts on one of the rectangle. These Ecua-volley players (who deserve their own post) then share half the park with the skaters, with the occasional stray ball or board, until the late evening, when volleyball stops and the skating continues on.

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A Tolkienesque Adventure

This Wednesday, I planned on walking from the school to Puerto Ayora on el camino viejo, or the “old path” that people used to walk before the asphalt road was created and cars became common. I had been told a few weeks before that the National Park recently cleared the trail and that it would be a great place to take kids to see quite a few species of finch and plenty of other birds. Last week I’d found the end of the trail on the upper edge of Puerto Ayora, and I thought I knew where to start from Tomás de Berlanga downhill.

I left the school at 10:45AM after covering 3rd graders for two hours between exams (we read eight or nine stories and then they played on their own) with my backpack full of food, snorkeling gear, and papier-mâché materials for my planned afternoon of lunch, the beach, and Bird Club. The path, which was about two meters wide of mostly cleared earth, weeds, and lots of lava rock, had the occasional green and white wooden poles the Park uses to demarcate National Park territory, and was always bordered on the left side by a barbed wire fence. Sometimes I passed farmland on the left, other times forest similar to that on the dense right side. Passion fruit often littered the path, and a couple times I passed orange trees, so I ended up never even considering the snacks in my backpack.

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Gathering to the Bird Club

Last week’s Bird Club sessions saw eight, nine, and one participant(s) in the Wednesday 2th-4th grade group, Thursday 5-6th grade group, and Friday 7th-12th grade group, respectively. My goal had been to start a papier-mâché project, but after forty-five minutes the youngest group was eager to walk through town, so we left the balloons to dry and reviewed the usual crowd at the Fisherman’s Wharf with the addition of a Great Blue Heron and an Elliot’s Storm Petrel. Since some of the eight kids hadn’t come to the first week, it was still a pretty good day, except that most of the students didn’t take their balloons home with them. This week, only three students arrived on Wednesday (it is final examination week), so we made papier-mâché again and this time everyone took their birds home to dry for next week’s wing and beak addition, and perhaps even painting.

Given the younger students’ response to the papier-mâché, I came to the Thursday group last week prepared to put the issue to a vote. Quite a few kids came half an hour late, so we ended up walking to Tortuga Bay, a 45-minute trip through the Park on a path surrounded by cacti and trees that always yields Galápagos Flycatchers, Galápagos Mockingbirds, and a couple species of finch. When we reached the shore a small group of Ruddy Turnstones flew away, and after a couple minutes we had to turn back towards Puerto Ayora. This Thursday, almost the same group of nine students made their balloons and drew their wing-plans on cereal boxes.

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The Younger Grades at Tomás de Berlanga


This past week, apart from being the second session of the Bird Club, I was teaching 1st and 2nd graders English, Science, and Art (e.g. bird names, bird biology, bird crafts). I wasn’t quite prepared for the radical change in behavior between 7th-12th graders and 1st-2nd graders in the classroom, though obviously I expected there would be significant differences.

But when on your first day a group of nineteen 6-year-olds spontaneously and simultaneously burst into a song about a little yellow chick in the palm of their hand while you’re trying to teach the basic body parts of a duck you’ve drawn on the whiteboard, you have a good sign that things might get tough. If this song includes mention of a hawk, which scares the chicks into hiding under their desks while the chosen bird of prey stalks the room to catch any straying chick-children, then things are already tough and you have to act accordingly.

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Bird Club

For the past two weeks I’ve been planning my bird-related extracurricular activity at Tomás de Berlanga, the school where I’m on my fourth full week of volunteering English substitute teaching for grades 1, 2, and 7-12 (1st and 2nd graders are taught English as a class, and the older students are classified based on skill level—I taught Intermediate for a week and Advanced for two weeks).

I decided on a weekly 2-hour (4-6PM) meeting of what we’d call the “Club de Aves,” the Bird Club, and I sent a small paper invitation and permission sheet home with students of 2nd grade and up. About 50 students brought back responses allowing them to participate, and a dozen or so slips denying permission because the student was otherwise engaged after school (Santa Cruz has a great cycling team that is quite competitive on a national level). Given this unexpectedly high number, I had to supplement my planned Thursday and Friday groups with a Wednesday one: about twenty 2nd, 3rd and 4th graders for Wednesday; thirteen 5th and 6th graders for Thursday; and eighteen 7th-12th graders for Friday.


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Participatory Monitoring Workshop: Part 2/3

My penultimate post covered the participatory monitoring workshop I attended the last week of June. Here I will describe our results in the last two days of the meetings.

When dividing the attendees into different groups with assigned topics of discussion, the workshop organizers assigned me as discussion leader of the Resident (Urban and Rural) group, where six or seven of us talked about varied approaches and types of programs.

We started with the rural residents, focusing on farmers since the majority of landowners in the agricultural region of Santa Cruz fit that category, either with coffee, sugarcane, cattle, or other crops. There are countless farms in the area, and only about a dozen of them practice any tourism, but we considered this smaller group the perfect audience for a pilot project, since they should be more interested in completing periodic checklists of focal species that serve as tourist attractions. Guides from cruises or local operators often take groups of tourists up into the highlands to see wild giant tortoises and less common landbird species like the Vermilion Flycatcher, and these few farms offer not only passage in their land (as safe havens for the attractive species) but also their coffee or homebrewed sugarcane rum to the tourists. Some properties even have lava tunnels, one of which I’ve been told by a Hawaiian visitor is even more impressive than the famous Thurston lava tunnel on the other well-known volcanic archipelago of the Pacific Ocean.

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WWOOF, the network of World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms, helps link volunteers with organic farmers globally. Although their website is quite navigable and clear for those who want to learn more, I’ll briefly describe some aspects here.

The number of little organic family farms around the world is immense, and the amount of them located in beautiful natural areas is, as one might imagine, also quite staggering. Just think of the expansiveness of the French countryside, or the warm welcomes of Latin American campesinos, and project such elements (and dozens of other great characteristics) on hundreds of thousands of farms around the world that could use a helping hand. WWOOF helps put people interested in growing organic crops and farmers who like to teach or need some additional assistance together; especially those of both groups who want to experience international travel, practice another language in an immersive setting, or learn from other cultures directly. Volunteers bring their skills and labor to a farm, and the host family provides housing and food in return.

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Participatory Workshop Introduction

Last week, thanks to the effort of very helpful contacts on the islands, I was able to attend a Participatory Monitoring workshop in Puerto Ayora. For those of you unfamiliar with the term in the workshop title, you are not alone. Participatory monitoring, community science, public participation in scientific research, volunteer data collection–these all mean practically the same thing as citizen science, which I have briefly written about before. Here is another good, and possibly the most definitive, source of information on the subject, and although the site is a part of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, I’ve pointed out (even more briefly) that projects are by no means limited to birds.

The workshop consisted of an impressive list of international expert invitees—representing Cedar Crest College/Earth Watch, SUNY (College of Environmental Science and Forestry and at Stony Brook), Stanford University, Pepperdine University/ Scripps Institution of Oceanography, the Center for Biodiversity and Conservation/American Museum of Natural History, Colorado State University/University of Wisconsin-Madison, the United States National Park Service (Joshua Tree National Park and Acadia National Park), and the Galápagos Conservancy. Additionally, the Galápagos National Park, Charles Darwin Foundation, WWF Galápagos, Conservation International, Universidad Central Sede Galápagos, and Grupo FARO were present. A very skilled interpreter, with portable headsets, helped those who didn’t speak English or Spanish. Being in the minority of non-PhD.-holders, and practically the only person with just an undergraduate education, made walking into the room slightly unnerving, but I knew that since the Cornell Lab of Ornithology didn’t have a representative in attendance there were still constructive inputs that I could contribute, seeing as the workshop was about citizen science. Another comfort was that people commonly mistake me for being older than I am. While a freshman at Cornell two years ago, many of my TAs thought I was a senior or junior for most of the semester, and when traveling, people who I tell I’m studying at Cornell tend to assume I’m in graduate studies until I correct them.

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