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As we count down to the opening of our new Giants of the Galápagos exhibit at ZSL London Zoo on Saturday 9 October, Professor Andrew Cunningham, deputy director of science at the Institute of Zoology, looks back at our history with this important archipelago... 

Professor Andrew Cunningham

This week, giant Galápagos tortoises Dolly, Polly and Priscilla moved into their brand new home at ZSL London Zoo, where visitors will soon be able to learn more about the slow-growing species and the islands on which they live.  

Scientists at ZSL’s Institute of Zoology, including myself, have long worked in Galápagos, examining its ecosystems and the unique species that call the archipelago home.  

In the 1990s, ZSL scientists began studying aspects of evolutionary biology in the archipelago, while in the 2000s our team began investigating the diseases that afflict or could spread to the Islands’ wildlife, and the impacts of different diseases on the conservation of Galápagos wildlife.  

ZSL’s work has even helped inform the formation and development of the Galápagos Biosecurity Agency, which was set up by the Ecuadorian government to protect the Islands’ unique ecology from invasive species and diseases introduced by human activity.  

Our research has, for example, shown that there are biogeographical differences in the gut parasites of the different giant tortoise species, which have evolved over thousands of years depending on which island they’re native to – important information for anyone working to conserve these majestic animals. 

Since 2004, ZSL researchers have worked closely with the Galápagos authorities, including the Galápagos National Park and other collaborating organisations, to investigate disease threats to its native wildlife, including its famous finches - often credited as the inspiration for ZSL Fellow Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection.  

While their role in Darwin’s work has been questioned, Galápagos finches provide a perfect example of his theory in action, as the 15 species of finches have evolved through the process of adaptive radiation, whereby a group of closely related species rapidly diversify to occupy different niches in the environment.  

The finches also have a mutual relationship with giant Galápagos tortoises on the islands, where they raise up their bodies and hold still while the birds pick them clean of parasites – this is known as ‘finching’, and is something that Dolly, Polly and Priscilla can sometimes be seen doing.  

Polly the Galapagos tortoise at ZSL London Zoo

The finches are an important part of life on the archipelago in general, and could be facing threats from avian malaria carried by mosquitoes: 

In the 1800s, an outbreak of avian malaria resulting from the accidental introduction of a mosquito species to Hawaii caused the extinction of at least nine native bird species and has a continued impact on Hawaiian birds to this day.  

ZSL scientists helped discover that the same mosquito species that had been accidentally introduced into the Galápagos ecosystem in 1985, had become established on the Islands. We’re now working to understand the threat this tiny species could pose to the famous finches and other wildlife - threats which could take hundreds of years to take effect, by which time it may be too late to mitigate. 

We also discovered an endemic mosquito species living side by side with the non-native mosquitoes, and we have been investigating the differences between the two – working to understand whether there are differences in the way the two species transmit diseases, and which species they’re more likely to transmit to, in order to understand their different impacts on wildlife and livestock.  

It’s important to preserve the endemic species as a natural part of the archipelago’s ecology, while evaluating the impact of the non-native species - so that mitigation measures can be put in place if need be.  

It’s incredible to think that something as small as a mosquito could threaten a whole island chain, but ecologies are surprisingly fragile and can be thrown wildly out of balance by the arrival of a newcomer, with devastating consequences.  

We will continue our work with the Galápagos authorities in the archipelago, aiming to safeguard the ecology of the Islands for generations to come. This type of work will take sustained dedication from our scientists over many decades, but is vital for the preservation of the Islands as we know them. 

Galapagos tortoises in front of Tiger Territory as they walk to their new home

In the meantime, visitors to ZSL London Zoo can find about more about the Islands and the wildlife that call them home by visiting Dolly, Polly and Priscilla at the Zoo’s new Giants of the Galápagos exhibit when it opens on Saturday 9 October.  

Book ahead to enter the world of the Galápagos Islands this October. 

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