Galapagos Tortoises Make a Comeback, Thanks to Rat Eradication

By Carl Engelking | January 19, 2015 1:25 pm

A baby tortoise spotted on Pinzón Island. (Credit: James Gibbs)

When it comes to protecting endangered species, humans can do more harm than good. However, sometimes our efforts are exactly what Mother Nature ordered.

In 2012 conservationists waged an aggressive campaign to poison the invasive rats living on Pinzón Island, part of the world famous Galapagos archipelago. The rats — introduced through human activity — are the top enemy for saddleback giant tortoises, one of the world’s most ancient and threatened species.

Fortunately, it seems the carpet-bomb approach to Pinzón’s rat problem is working: For the first time in over 150 years, the population of saddleback giant tortoises is set to recover on its own and has nearly tripled since conservationists stepped in to help back in 1959.

Comeback Story

Pinzón’s rats eat everything, and that includes tortoise eggs and hatchlings. Because of ravenous rats, it’s thought that no tortoises have hatched in the wild on the island in more than 150 years. At one point, Pinzón was home to only 100 or so tortoises, and they were all well into old age.

So, in the 1960s the Galapagos National Park set up a comprehensive program to save the tortoises. Their tireless conservation efforts over 50 years primarily involved finding eggs and rearing hatchlings in captivity until they were too big for rats to target.

The Galapagos National Park Service also had another trick up their sleeves: covering a volcano on Pinzón with poisoned rat bait. In doing so, they decimated the rat population and tortoises finally had a fighting chance to rear their young in the wild. And they did.

baby tortoise

A baby tortoise hides its face from the camera in this photo taken in December. Due to decades of conservation efforts, the saddleback giant tortoises are making a comeback. (Credit: James Gibbs)

According to a correspondence to Nature, ten newly hatched saddleback tortoises were spotted on the island in December — proving they could reproduce without the protective guidance of humans. Furthermore, baby giant tortoises are quite difficult to spot, so there were probably many more.

James Gibbs, an environmental scientist at State University of New York, encountered over 300 tortoises on his trip to Pinzón. In a blog post, Gibbs said he estimates the total saddleback tortoise population on the island is roughly 500 — far from the 100 or 200 estimated six decades ago.

Similar breeding programs and pest control efforts have yielded success stories for tortoises on other Galapagos islands. For a creature that can live well over 100 years, these efforts mean a drastically more promising outlook for a long time to come.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Living World, top posts
  • Dre Mosley

    First one to be seen in 150 years and what did a human have to do? Pick
    it up… Just leave them the hell alone… they don’t need our help…

    • Rashad Basharat

      “and has nearly tripled since conservationists stepped in to help back in 1959.”

      It’s not the first time a tortoise was seen in 150 years.

      • Angela Steele

        A new young one it is.

        • Amber

          No it isn’t. It’s the first time one has been born in th wild. They clearly state they came in took the eggs and hatched them. Then they raised them until they were too big to be eaten by the rats. Am I the only one that actually read the article?

          • Rashad Basharat

            The suffering is real.

  • Edi Schwager

    In fact I think the title is just unfair. Not the rats per se are “the bad guys”. As always – when you’re after the real truth – humans are behind mess like that. But others have to pay the gruesome price. So on one side I’m happy for the turtles but I also have to say: “Poor rats!”

    • OptimistInChief

      But the rat species isn’t extinct, and it was threatening the extinction of the tortoises.

    • Chaz54

      I knew it!! I knew someone out there would feel sorry for those pesky egg, tortoise eating rats… I did say that man brought the rats on their ships. It is true that if man (or Darwin!) keep their noses out of those isles, there would be no problem. BUT they did and the rats did what they do, their hungry little creatures!
      All I can say “ED” is let me leave you for a night on a Galapagos beach and see if you still say “poor rats” the next day after they nibbled your toes & hunted your eyes all night… Bro get a grip. Your s member of the human race which is “…behind the mess…” and you’d be one big “mess hall” to those “poor,” but well fed rats!!!!

  • T.Olson

    YAH for the tortoises! Now my concern would be: What stops a tortoises from eating the rat bait? I hope there is some sort of clean up effort to get the poison out of the ecosystem after it has done its job.

  • Abelardo Samuel Márquez Gonzál

    Well, a minor victory but one anyways. Still have to find a solution for boas and pitons in the US, africanized bees in many american countries, rats, mice and toads in Australia, fire ants, brown spiders are where they shouldn’t because we inadvertently import them along with fruits an vegetables. Guess that’s the price to pay for human expansion and globalization.

  • Chaz54

    I was recently watching one of those “exotic animal vet” shows and literally got the shivers when, found in a garbage dump, a rat was taken in for a check up and sterilization. Further skin crawling occurred when it was announced that rats are one of the “best” small mammal pets, clean and intelligent.
    Yuk! Clean? The rodent was found in a garbage dump!! However, always rooting for the underdog (or rat in this case), Iknow that my aversion took weight over my intelligence; rats are obviously “gromming adept” and labs all over the world use them in numerous experiments involving animal intelligence.
    This took some doing on my part as, living in NYC in the 70’s, rats could be seen having “madcap midnight” fun all over the city. The subway rails were a virtual obstacle course of excitement for them and I never once saw one “light up” by the third rail,; now that is intelligent! I, with friends, often went “trash salvaging” and had a “unique” experience when, upon trying to salvage a cool sofa, we got close enough to see rats having a good old trampoline time on said piece.. that was with Warhol Star Hollywoodlawn but that’s another story!
    Now, my aversion is geared up once more after reading this alarming, to me, article. Ship vessels are a historic wonderland for rodents and man has exported them to places where natives have no desire for this brand of import. Visions of the Black Death, the sheer mention of which can give me physical hives


Discover's Newsletter

Sign up to get the latest science news delivered weekly right to your inbox!


See More

Collapse bottom bar