Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Galapagos Plants

Opuntia Cactus Forest on Rabida
You would expect an island on the equator in the middle of the Pacific Ocean to be full of lush tropical vegetation. Yet the Galapagos surprises us in this aspect, just as it does with all the animals. There are only some 600 native species and subspecies of plants in the archipelago, compared to over 20,000 on mainland Ecuador only 600 miles away. 250 of these are endemic to Galapagos, having evolved from an original 110 species which arrived by natural means. The Adaptive Radiation found with finches and tortoises applies to plants as well.  If I failed to make a post here about the plants, my friend Tavia (a wildflower expert) would have my hide! Actually, I'm surprised at how many plant photos I have, especially since our guides didn't point out many plants unless we asked about them.
Vegetation Zones
Here's the biggest issue plants have on the Galapagos - lack of water. There are two seasons, the wet warm season, and the cool dry season, also called the garua. Prevailing winds from the southeast blow moisture in, but it only benefits one side of an island, and the higher the island is, the more moisture it receives on that side. The other side is in the "rain shadow" (Hawaii has the same problem.), and vegetation there must adapt to the arid conditions. The coastal areas, of course, require plants that are salt tolerant. Santa Cruz was the only island we visited with enough altitude for several of these vegetation zones. The other smaller lower islands were primarily in the arid zone only. Remember, many islands have no natural source of fresh water other than the rains and garua mists.

Garua Mist

Misted Cactus Needles

Almost every morning when we awoke, we saw heavy mist over the island outside our ship. Sometimes it remained till 10 or so before lifting. Plants have adapted to use whatever moisture is available during these months, until the rains come...if they do.
Palo Santo - ghost trees
Another plant adaptation is to cease making chlorophyll when there is insufficient moisture. These Palo Santo trees are also known as the "ghost forest" with their pale white color in the dry season. Actually, the bark on this tree is a darker color; the pale color comes from lichens growing on them. When it rains they will turn green, sprouting leaves and blossoms. The name "holy stick" comes from its habit of coming into leaf around Christmas time, and from its use as incense.

Sesuvium on South Plaza Island
Sesuvium also preserves its life by going dormant in the dry season, but it turns red and yellow instead of white, so the ground looks as if it's covered by autumn leaves.
Cactus Finch Nest
The Opuntia is a giant prickly pear cactus, and thus easily recognizable. There are six species and 14 varieties of opuntia. In the arid regions, it fills the role of trees and forests, since there isn't enough moisture for trees. On islands where the animals eat cactus, the needles are sharp, as expected, and it grows tall to evade being munched on. Rabida has no tortoises and the opuntia are low and sprawling. On islands with no cactus eaters though, the needles are soft and pliable.  Tortoises and iguanas eat the pads, while bird species eat the flowers, fruit, seeds and even extract water from the pads.
Candelabra Cactus - Santa Fe Island
Candelabra cactus can grow up to 24 feet high, with purple flowers and globular edible fruit. When it dies, a hollow woody skeleton is left behind.

Lava Cactus - Bartolome Island
But my favorite is the ultra-hardy and persistent lava cactus. Yes, just as the name indicates, they grow on bare black dry lava, where almost nothing else can exist. The young ends of each cactus are yellow, and they turn as grey-brown as they age.

Mollugo on Bartolome Island
This little mollugo plant grows (albeit slowly, I suppose) on the pahohoe lava fields of Bartolome.

Cutleaf Daisy on Floreana Island
Our guides did note that for some reason, most flowers are yellow, and the Galapagos sulphur butterfly is one of the pollinators. This cutleaf daisy is endemic to Floreana...
Galapagos Cotton
...while the Galapagos cotton is more widely seen. After it blooms, the seed pod actually opens to produce a white lint or cotton used by birds for nest linings!

Muyuyu - Yellow Cordia
The muyuyu, or yellow cordia, produces a white seed which early settlers used to make glue or starch, since it's very sticky.

Galapagos Tomato
Once again, we found a very familiar plant in an unfamiliar location. Yes, what looks like a tomato is really the Galapagos tomato, with small edible red fruit. There are also Galapagos species of passion flower, mistletoe, mesquite, guava, and aster.
Galapagos Lantana
Yes, there are non-native invasive plants, just as you would expect, and invasive insects like this wasp on a native lantana and fire ants.
Tequilia on Bartolome Island
It's easy for plants to grow where there is water. I admire the tough guys like this tequilia that hang on in a dry, rocky, barren, otherwise lifeless lava field like this. Way to go guys!

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Galapagos from Downunder

In the Wetsuits
A normal day in the Galapagos included hiking in the morning, and snorkeling in the afternoon, although one day we swam twice!  The water was about 64 degrees Fahrenheit, so these full-body wetsuits (provided by the Queen Beatriz) felt really good once we got wet. Getting into them was a real challenge though! After making sure the thing was right-side-out to begin with, you wiggled into it - one leg at a time, then pull it up far enough for the hips, and then the arms. Only by tugging each spot an inch or so at a time could you get it up far enough for someone else to zip up the back.  I think we used an many calories getting them on as we did swimming!  Dick and I both brought our own masks, with enough magnification to see things - like getting reading glasses at the drugstore. If we go snorkeling again someplace cool like Key West, I might get a better pair, and I'll definitely get an underwater digital camera! Notice our guide Hanzel, in this photo. He had been a member of the Navy Seals, and when someone dropped a mask, he thought nothing of diving 30 feet down to retrieve it. 
Black Striped Salema Fish - Kevin
Our tour leader, Kevin Loughlin, a professional photographer, posted some of his photos, which I borrowed for this post. Sometimes we saw individual fish, and other times just the mass of a school of fish trying to remain anonymous.

Blue-chinned Parrotfish - Kevin

Heiroglyphic Hawkfish - Kevin
Golly, no matter I couldn't find this heiroglyphic fish on my own. It really blends in with the backgound.
Chocolate Chip Star
This is one of my favorites - the chocolate chip star!  I thought it looked like a giant cookie covered with chocolate chips!
Galapagos Black Turtle - Kevin
The bigger sea creatures were easier to see, of course, and you always hoped you could swim with sea turtles, sea lions, sharks, or penguins. Some days they came to play, and other days they didn't.

Pelican Feet from the Fish's Perspective - Kevin

White-tipped Reef Shark - Kevin

Curious Sea Lion - Kevin
Spotted Eagle Rays
Rays included sting rays, manta rays, and this eagle spotted ray. They looked like they were flying underwater. When we snorkeled from the beach, we always had to be careful not to step on any of them in the shallows.

Devil's Crown
I confess to wimping out on one trip. Devil's Crown is all that's left of a volcanic caldera sunken into the waves. That day the currents were fierce as we rode the panga out. Just slide over the side, and let the current carry you around, they said.

Rescue by Panga
The pangas always floated nearby when we snorkeled, thank goodness, and if you got tired, they would come when you waved. Of course, getting the fins off, and climbing up that small metal ladder could be a problem when you were tired to begin with. At Devil's Crown I stayed in the panga, and it didn't take long for others to wave us over for a pickup. I didn't feel so bad about being a wimp when they described the power of the current. At Gardner Bay I wasn't sure I could swim all the way out to the rock, but every time I came up, it was a little closer, and I actually made it!

Humpback Whale Breaching - Gardner Bay - Kevin
After a while at the Gardner Bay rock, the pangas came to collect us all.  "Get in! They saw a whale!" A whale - a much desired animal which had eluded us so far. The driver revved the engine to full, and we, along with every other panga from all the tour boats in the harbor, sped off. Once in a while someone would say they saw it blow, but it didn't take long to realize this whale had easily outdistanced us. For a while though we felt some of the excitement of the old whalers, only our weapons were digital cameras instead of harpoons!

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Darwin's Finches

Male Medium Ground Finch - Rabida Island
All right, we've been home from the Galapagos for two weeks, and I've posted something here almost every day. But I have not written about the famous finches that inspired Darwin on the theory of evolution. But remember, I have trouble identifying Little Brown Jobs in any event, and they didn't all evolve from one species of birds!

Medium Ground Finch Female
In 1831, Charles Darwin was a 22-year-old who vomited in medical school classes, and began studying at Cambridge to enter the Church of England, when botanist John Henslow introduced him to the natural world. Henslow then introduced him to Captain Robert FitzRoy of HMS Beagle, and he joined on for the five year voyage as a companion and budding naturalist. Henslow also advised young Charles to read Charles Lyell's Principles of Geology, but told him 'on no account accept the views therein advocated.' Lyell described a world where land forms were constantly moving and changing. As Darwin observed volcanoes in various locations, he saw that the land was new in the Galapagos, and life had come later.
Medium Ground Finch Females - Rabida Island
Like all naturalists of the era, Darwin "collected" his samples, birds, lizard, plants, tortoises, amazed at their tameness. He noted, "I have specimens from four of the larger Islands...The specimens from Chatham and Albemarle Isd. appear to be the same; but the other two are different. In each Isd. each kind is exclusively found." It didn't take long for him to notice the changes from island to island for each species.
Click for larger version
In 1836 he and the Beagle returned home, and he gave his collected birds to ornithologist John Gould, who quickly concluded, "...that he was induced to regard them as constituting an entirely new group, containing 13 species, and appearing to be strictly confined to the Galapagos Islands...their principle peculiarity consisted in the bill presenting several distinct modifications of form." Unfortunately, Darwin had failed to mark the island of origin, having identified the different looking birds as other species familiar from home. Well, others in the crew had been more meticulous, so "natural selection" came into being with the help of finches, mockingbirds and tortoises. And the rest, as they say, is history, or evolution!
Male Ground Finch
I learned from Darwin, and carefully saved my photos according to the islands where they were taken. But to me, the finches are just more LBJs. They were not afraid of us, and filled the paths as we walked, blending with the color of the rocks. The males are black and the females brown with strips. So far, so good. I can tell them apart by gender. A flock of little ground finches flew almost between our legs to get the best seeds from the grass.

Female Medium Cactus Finch Santa Cruz
The part I couldn't get a feel for was the sizing.  Most finches are called Large, Medium and Small depending on the size of their beaks!  We saw this one actually eating cactus on Santa Cruz, and felt comfortable with it being a Cactus Finch. So there are Large, Medium and Small Ground Finches and Tree Finches. Rounding up the total is the Sharp-beaked Ground-Finch (only found on three islands we did not visit), the Vegetarian Finch (again, limited to just two islands), Mangrove Finch (only on Isabela), Woodpecker Finch and Warbler Finch. Just from their names, you get a feel for what they eat.
Male Large Cactus Finch Espanola
But Kevin identified this bird as a Large Cactus Finch.  Look at the beaks on each bird, and notice the difference.

Adaptive Radiation is the name for this process. Because the finches were isolated on each island, they had to change to survive in the conditions of that island. For finches, the change involved the size of the beak changing for the food available on the island.
Female Warbler Finch
 Did I ever mention how glad I am not to be an ornithologist in charge of determining the species of a newly found bird?

Friday, August 26, 2011

Our Yacht - the Queen B

Let's pause for a while to review the August posts to this blog. If you joined us in the middle of this "broadcast," Dick and I went to the Galapagos Islands during the first two weeks of August. Since then, I spent a week recovering from a cold caught while traveling (aren't you more likely to catch a cold in an airplane than anywhere else?), and then I spent 6 days on my feet volunteering for Raptor Rehab (it's the KY State Fair and we have a booth with live birds). My feet hurt, and I'm looking forward to a chance to sleep in for a day or two! This is a good time to fondly remember our time on the Queen Beatriz.  Before we even made it out of the harbor in Puerto Ayora, the water looked like this. I knew immediately that I would soon be seasick, but the Queen B took care of me.
Wildside Nature Tours booked us on the Queen Beatriz, with, and it was a marvelous choice! Click on the link for the Queen to see more details about the ship itself. The Queen is a large catamaran, which means the cabins are roomy and luxurious.

Our cabin had more space than the one on the Princess cruise liner going to Alaska. Before we came back from breakfast in the morning, the steward had come in to make the bed and put out fresh towels. A crew of 8 operated the ship, cooked and cleaned for 16 of us and our wonderful park ranger Hanzel.
Pangas are our mode of transport when not on the Queen. We rode around Black Sea Turtle Cove looking for eagle rays and sea turtles of all kinds. "Panga" is simply Spanish for dinghy.

Of course, we were apprehensive at first about getting into and out of the panga without an unexpected swim in the cold ocean, along with camera and binoculars!  There are two kinds of expeditions in the islands - one with a "dry" landing and one with a "wet" landing. In the dry landing, the driver revs the motor up to keep the nose firmly against the targeted landing area, or the steps at the back of the ship when returning.
Then Hanzel, or another who is experienced in this, grabs your hand to assist you over the rounded nose of the panga. They didn't lose one of us on the entire trip! In a short time we came to trust the crew and easily moved in and out of the panga several times a day. In a wet landing, you guessed it, we simply step directly into shallow water at the beach over the side of the panga.

The food was gourmet, and served with elegance. Buffets greeted us at breakfast and lunch, with a snack and juice when returning from the morning's adventure. In the evening, we enjoyed linen tablecloths and more silverware than I knew how to use!  Despite dessert every day, we didn't put on a pound all week. Boy, wish I could do that at home!

We looked forward to the fruit sculptures created by the galley staff at lunch every day. Not edible, but very imaginative.

When time to motor to a new island, the crew raised the pangas out of the water, securely fastening them at the back of the ship.

Occasionally the crew couldn't resist taking us beneath the boat!  I was too busy ducking to take any photos, but Kevin was braver and got this shot.

At the end of the day, we gathered on the middle deck for drinks and to enjoy the beautiful sunset. The captain always kept the ship steady while we ate dinner, and warned us if things would get choppy traveling to the next destination, which it did several times. By then I was an old salt (thanks to my transderm patch) and slept despite the rocking of our bed. In fact, it took about four days back ashore for the ground to stop rocking!
We've been home as long as we were gone now, but I'll always remember this view and our trip on the Queen Beatriz.