Invasive Marine Species—A Growing Threat in the Galápagos

Experts have recently confirmed that the number of invasive marine species impacting the Galápagos is 10 times higher than previous estimates.

Galápagos has long been known not only for its breathtaking biodiversity but for Darwin’s Finches the inspiration for the theory of evolution. The world-renowned archipelago has received increased attention over the years due to the impact invasive species have had for native wildlife such as the Floreana Mockingbird.

Now scientists are turning to the marine environment to assess the impacts of invasive species. New research carried out by a team of scientists on the Galápagos Islands of Santa Cruz and Baltra have determined the number of marine species wreaking havoc is 10 times higher than previous estimates.

Darwin’s Finch on Galapagos. Credit: Andrew Miller

The research, conducted by a team of ecologists connected to the Environmental Research Center, Williams College, and the Charles Darwin Foundation, have found the Galápagos Islands host a total of 53 invasive marine species; a number exponentially larger than previous estimates. To draw this conclusion, scientists hung underwater settlement plates from docks and watched in astonishment as a plethora of invasive species began to congregate there. They cross-referenced the organisms they encountered with previously recorded data.

Smithsonian marine biologist Linda McCann helps Wilson Iniguez, researcher with the Charles Darwin Foundation, collect samples from underwater settlement plates on San Cristobal Island in the Galapagos. Photo by Kristen Larson/SERC

Researchers found a total of 48 species were identified in the area for the first time including invasive sea squirts, marine worms, moss animals, and bryozoans. One of the most rapidly proliferating among them is invasive spaghetti weed or spaghetti bryozoan. In California and Europe, this invasive has been known to clog pipes and harm native seagrasses. It is likely causing similar impacts on native species in Galápagos. James Carlton, emeritus professor of the Maritime Studies Program of Williams College-Mystic Seaport said:

We’ve seen colonies of spaghetti weed measuring about three feet long and a foot wide, so it’s an impressive colonial animal. In Southern California, I’ve seen colonies measuring three by six.”

Some conservationists are also worried about the invasive Indo-Pacific lionfish, which if it makes its way through the Caribbean, could have disastrous effects on marine biodiversity in the Galápagos.

Much of these invasive species have been introduced by humans in some way, often by boats and the release of ballast water. Fortunately, there is hope. In response to the news, Galápagos authorities have created an aggressive invasive species prevention program. Going forward, all marine vessels that enter Galápagos will be closely inspected by divers. This is great news for terrestrial and marine ecosystems alike and will have a profound benefit on the native species of Floreana as well as other islands within the Galápagos.

Source: UPI
Featured Photo: Floreana Island. Credit: Island Conservation

About Stephanie Dittrich

Stephanie Dittrich is a current senior in Environmental Studies at UC Santa Cruz and a transfer student from De Anza College. She is also currently pursuing a Certificate of Achievement in Geospatial Technologies and a second Associates Degree in Graphic Design from Foothill College. She has worked in multiple marketing and design focused roles at environmental nonprofits as well as the Genomics Institute at UC Santa Cruz. She just finished spending 3 months in Costa Rica conducting field work where she did an independent research project and wrote a scientific paper about flight response time in the Morpho peleides butterfly. In her spare time, Stephanie enjoys working on creative photography and design projects, often centered around wildlife photography, as well as more experimental and contemporary subject matter.

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