Monday 15 April 2013

Santa Cruz - Charles Darwin Reseach Station

Entrance to Charles Darwin Research Station
Entrace to CDRS by Scott Abelman
The Charles Darwin Research Station on Santa Cruz Island near the town of Puerto Ayora, is one of the best known and most visited sites in all of the Galapagos. The CDRS is a joint effort of the Charles Darwin Foundation and the Galapagos National Park Service to protect, conserve, keep from extinction and repopulate the many Galapagos Tortoise species that are endemic to the islands.

Lonesome George and a Petite Female Galapagos Tortoise
George and a Female
CDRS was created in 1964 and its tortoise preservation program initiated in 1965. From 1971 until his death in June 2012, CDRS was the home of the biggest celebrity in the Galapagos Islands, Lonesome George. George, who lived at the CDRS for more than 40 years, was the last extant tortoise from Pinta Island and had, for many years, been the focus of concerted efforts to breed him with other similar, but not identical, tortoises. Unfortunately, all efforts failed and when George died, so did the species. For an extensive discussion of Lonesome George and the efforts to reproduce the species see my earlier post written right after his death

Charles Darwin Research Station Logo
Though George was a symbol and icon of conservation not only of the giant tortoises, but of all of the environmental sustainability throughout the Galapagos Islands, and he is missed, I want to make it absolutely clear that though he was the most famous, George is certainly not the only important reason for a visit to the CDRS. In fact, under the rules of the Galapagos National Park Service, every touring Galapagos Island guest must visit either the CDRS or the Galapagos Interpretation Center on San Cristobal Island. The reason the CDRS is a “must see” attraction becomes obvious the moment you enter.

The CDRS is part of the Charles Darwin Foundation which states that its “mission is to provide knowledge and assistance through scientific research and complementary action to ensure the conservation of the environment and biodiversity in the Galapagos Archipelago.”  Within this context, CDF's vision is “to be the world's leading research institution dedicated to the conservation of the biological diversity and natural resources of Galapagos, and committed to building a sustainable and collaborative society to achieve this objective.” One might call the CDRS the epicenter of sustainability and conservancy for the entire Galapagos Islands.

Though you won't be seeing George - known for his longevity and solitary status - you will see Diego. And, really, Diego has a lot going for him as he is the future of revival of the Galapagos Islands' tortoises population. With George gone, Diego is in the spotlight – as well he should be. He has fathered at least 2000 babies - almost every little hatchling that you will see at the CDRS. Where George never successfully mated (or for that matter, even tried), Diego is prolific and still going strong. 

Diego is distinguished by his broken shell - a minor flaw insofar as the female tortoise population is concerned. The interesting story is how he got the broken shell. One of the many ways in which the CDRS staff tried to encourage George to mate was to allow Diego into his pen with some of the females, hopefully to show Lonesome George how to "do it." Well, George - though still not at all interested in engaging with the opposite sex - got what appeared to be the tortoise equivalent of jealous of Diego's antics and pushed him over, resulting in the broken shell. It seems to make Diego all the more handsome to his many willing mates!

Tortoise at Charles Darwin Research Station
A visit to the tortoise preserve and nursery is an eye-opening experience to say the least. Its scope, the number of species being studied and protected, the dedication to the little hatchlings and the purpose of returning them to their native habitats all attest to the commitment of the CDRS to its mission. The Galapagos Tortoise is found throughout the archipelago and different species populate each island. In many respects, the tortoises stand as the symbol of Darwin’s theory of adaptation to the environment.

Hatchlings at Charles Darwin Research Station
On a visit, you will see giant tortoises outside in natural environments and you will see hatchlings of all ages and sizes. The hatchlings are separated into pens according to their ages; there they are kept safely in predator-proof enclosures until they are big enough, at about age 3, to be placed in pens that simulate the terrain where they ultimately will live on the island of their ancestors, where they are returned at about age 7.

Land Iguana
The CDRS is also dedicated to the eradication of invasive species such as goats and feral cats. These are the type of predatory animal that is not natural to the Galapagos environment, but was brought by man. These animals destroy plant and animal life and unbalance the ecosystem. Once they are removed, in many cases the natural ecosystem can be reinvigorated.

Land Iguana at Charles Darwin Research Station
Attempted Escape

Another very important project undertaken at the CDRS is preservation and restoration of the land iguana population on Santa Cruz, Baltra and Isabela Islands. You will see examples of each of these species on your visit.

 There is much to be seen at the CDRS and you’ll get some great photo opportunities as well.

All photos from Flickr Creative Commons unless otherwise noted.


  1. Judi McCarthy4/15/2013 2:26 pm

    My husband and I enjoyed our trip to the Galapagos Islands this January. We loved the Reasearch Center along with the many islands we visited. In fact this trip has become one of the top 4 trips we have taken over the last 30 years!
    Don't miss! And make sure you have a great guide!! Harry Jimenez was ours and he is definitely in that category!

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