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Spare a Thought for the Galapagos Lava Lizards

The colorful lava lizards of the Galapagos require the same consideration as the big iconic animals of the world-famous archipelago — such as giant tortoises, tropical penguins, and marine iguanas — yet no funds or regulations are earmarked for the protection of these small animals. One way to protect them within human settlements is to show people how to care for our tiny reptilian neighbors. It means changing our cultural and conservation habits.

Figure 1. Female lizard at the top, and adult male below.
Figure 1. Female lizard at the top; adult male below.

Along the shore of the bigger islands of our archipelago, several human residents have created beautiful landscapes that we use to sustain our lives in comfort. But it is in this same coastal zone, and some parts of the arid zones, that these reptiles are an integral part of the original ecosystem.

The first time I came to the islands, I had no idea of just how big and complex was the biodiversity of the Galapagos. My knowledge was limited to some landscapes depicted on postcards, usually beautiful images of charismatic animals like sea lions and blue-footed boobies. But on my very first explorations of the different places on Santa Cruz Island, I heard some rustling noise coming from the base of the bushes alongside the footpaths. My first impression, as someone that grew up in a city, was that the sounds were being made by frightened snakes, or perhaps mice. It was only after the explanation from my guide that I learned that the majority of these sounds were generated by the lizards of the Galapagos Islands.

Nine Species of Tiny Insectivores

According to the taxonomic database of the Charles Darwin Research Station (CDRS) for the Galapagos, there are nine species of lizards on the islands — all of them unique in the world, adding to the endemic wealth of the archipelago. Six of these are Single Island Endemic, meaning that they are confined to a specific island, which is consequently reflected in their common names. See the list of at the end of my post.

Our Galapagos lizards are tiny insectivores 15-30 cm (6-9 inches) long (Swash, Still, and Lewington 2005). The biggest lizards I have seen were the size of a regular notebook. (I have had the honor to see the Santa Cruz, Floreana and San Cristobal species.) Males are bigger than females and are characterized by a black patch under the head. Females are characterized by orange cheeks and they are usually half the size of the adult male.

As usual, more attention has been given — and more studies done — on animals and plants that are the most threatened. According to the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, some of the Galapagos lizards are categorized as Near Threatened (close to qualifying for, or is likely to qualify for, a threatened category in the near future), while others (Española and San Cristobal) are regarded as Vulnerable (Datazone, CDRS). That is why it is important to evaluate the actual behavior, change of habitat, populations, and different indicators that secure the health of these animals.

Galapagos lizards are relatively easy to find in the conservation areas of the islands. But what about the lizards living within and around human settlements? The vulnerability of these reptiles must be considered, even in places shared with people. What can be done to include these animals in the wider protection of the important biodiversity of the archipelago? The challenge starts with what may seem to be a simple and tiny act of disposing of chewing gum in the gardens of the Charles Darwin Research Station, a facility visited by many thousands of tourists a year, to the impact that is demonstrated in the lower two images in Figure 2, where a lizard is surrounded by a large amount and type of trash.

Figure 2. Female lizard at the Charles Darwin Research Station (note the small amount of garbage, top photo). In the lower photos, a male lizard is surrounded by all kinds of garbage in the downtown area of Puerto Ayora.
Figure 2. Female lizard at the Charles Darwin Research Station (note the small amount of garbage, top photo). In the lower photos, a male lizard is surrounded by all kinds of garbage in the downtown area of Puerto Ayora.

Our CDRS campus is an ecological place, well kept with maintenance every day. Even with this care, we found, as in the top photo of Figure 1 above, some trash near the lizards. More perilous, approximately 2 km away in the settlement of Sta. Cruz, we found the sad picture of the loewer part on the Figure 2.

To wrap up my cautionary tale, I posit that we who live in, or visit, one of the most beautiful paradises of the world have a special responsibility to take care of it. It is not fair to our community, and especially to our children, that in the middle of our downtown we have an open dump, and perhaps even more disturbing, the fact that we find these unique lizards living there.

Location of Santa Cruz (above) and the Downtown of Puerto Ayora, which is located 2km from Charles Darwin Research Station.
Figure 3: Location of Santa Cruz (above) and the Downtown of Puerto Ayora, which is located 2km from Charles Darwin Research Station.

image004Byron Delgado is an expert in Geographic and Environmental Engineering with a Master’s Degree in Territorial Planning and Environmental Management. He works as a researcher in the Knowledge Management Program of the Charles Darwin Station in Galapagos, Ecuador. Spatial information is critical to all of the work that the scientists produce. With Byron’s support through his research and data treatment, scientific data has an increased impact, higher credibility, and broader outcomes.

“Any info you got, can be enhanced by mapping it.”

 

Charles Darwin Foundation Galapagos Lizard Species Checklist

Family Tropiduridae

Genus Microlophus

Microlophus albemarlensis  Baur, 1890

Microlophus bivittatus  Peters, 1871

Microlophus delanonis  Baur, 1890

Microlophus duncanensis  Baur, 1890

Microlophus grayii  Bell, 1843

Microlophus habelii  Steindachner, 1876

Microlophus indefatigabilis  ined.

Microlophus jacobi  ined.

Microlophus pacificus  Steindachner, 1876