Jun 24, 2022

Galápagos

As our co-Hosts Lulu Miller and Latif Nasser are out this week, we are re-sharing the perfect episode to start the summer season!

This one, which first aired in 2014, tells the strange story of a small group of islands that keeps us wondering: will our most sacred natural landscapes inevitably get swallowed up by humans? How far are we willing to go to stop that from happening?

This hour is about the Galápagos archipelago, which inspired Darwin’s theory of evolution and natural selection. Nearly 200 years later, the Galápagos are undergoing rapid changes that continue to pose — and perhaps answer — critical questions about the fragility and resilience of life on Earth.

Episode Credits:

Reported and produced by Tim Howard.

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SOREN WHEELER: Hey, this is Radiolab. I'm Soren Wheeler. Lulu and Latif are out this week, so I'm just gonna step in to play an episode that—well, if I'm honest, it's just one that I felt like hearing and running again at this moment just because. So today, a little step back in time to one of my favorite radio producers Tim Howard telling us the story of a truly singular spot on the face of our Earth. Here we go.

JAD ABUMRAD: Hey, I'm Jad Abumrad.

ROBERT KRULWICH: I am Robert Krulwich.

JAD: This is Radiolab. And today we begin on a plane.

ROBERT: Thank you, Brooke.

JAD: Which carried our newly-married producer Tim Howard to the Galapagos.

TIM HOWARD: So I took the plane from Quito. We had just finished our honeymoon that morning, me and Brooke. They make announcements, and at a certain point the flight attendants, they open up all of the overhead bins and they walk up and down spraying some sort of insecticide.

ROBERT: Hmm.

JAD: For what? For like a ...

ROBERT: Invasive species, I think.

TIM: Yeah, like whatever bugs might have snuck on the plane. By this point I'm getting super excited, and I'm thinking about Darwin, and I start reading Voyage of the Beagle, his book on this Nook that I had bought for the trip. But then my power supply didn't work, and my Nook died.

JAD: That was a big problem for Darwin too. He kept running out of power.

ROBERT: His Nook, oh gosh.

TIM: And then the islands come into sight.

ROBERT: What is the color of the Pacific Ocean when you look out the plane window?

TIM: That was actually the first thing I noticed. It's this totally wild—like, I've never seen, like, this storybook blue-green iridescent aquamarine. And I'm thinking, like, "Wow! This is gonna be like dropping into another world." You know, like, nature in its purest form.

ROBERT: My version was—is my dream of what it would be like is you land and it's sort of like low, grassy knoll, and an enormous turtle comes by, a one that you could sit on the top of and it wouldn't notice that you were there.

TIM: Just kind of meets you at the airport?

ROBERT: Just wandering by.

TIM: Exactly. That's very similar to what I was picturing. But we land, we take the 40-minute bus ride to Puerto Ayora.

ROBERT: Ay—Ayora.

TIM: Puerto Ayora.

ROBERT: Ayora.

TIM: Puerto Ayora. Which turns out to be kind of a big town, tons of people live there.

ROBERT: Tons like a fishing village tons?

TIM: No, it's way bigger than a fishing village. And just let me say that my hours in Galapagos were totally different than I was expecting. Sort of the first thing that really just like, "Where the hell am I?" I—I'm walking through the town, it's kinda late.

TIM: The sun is just starting to set.

TIM: I'm actually walking down Charles Darwin Avenue.

[dog barking]

TIM: Just kind of getting the lay of the land, when all of a sudden ...

[cars honking rhythmically]

TIM: ... this line of cars comes around the corner honking, endless honking. And they're waving flags, blue flags. At first, I didn't know what the hell was happening, but turns out it was an election rally. And I was just really blown away that this continued, this procession, for like 15 minutes.

TIM: And I remember asking one guy, they were driving so slow I could just walk up to them. I asked him, "Who's your candidate?" And they're like ...

[supporters talking]

TIM: I didn't know who the guy was, but turns out he was the incumbent and I'm like, "Is he gonna win?" And this guy he, like, doesn't even say anything. He just kind of points. He, like, points at the cars in front and behind as if like, "Dude, seriously? You see how many of us there are?" But then at a certain point, I noticed this one guy by himself standing on the sidewalk wearing a white shirt and jeans. He's waving a flag, but his flag is a different color—it's white. And it's really loud, but I go up to him and I yell at him, "Who's your candidate?" And he said, "I am a candidate."

TIM: And I'm like, "What? Are you? Seriously?" So his name is Leonidas. He is a naturalist guide. You actually end up meeting a lot of people employed that way in Galapagos. And he tells me ...

LEONIDAS PARALES: So I am outsider politico.

TIM: Politically speaking, he's an outsider. And of course, I'm wondering why he's standing there by himself waving a flag at this entire parade of people who don't support him at all. And he tells me "Well, I'm nervous. If the party in power now, the front runners, if they get elected, then I see a dark and uncertain future. More big hotels, more of these enormous boats, more people. And if things keep going this way, then who's gonna stand up for nature?"

JAD: This is Radiolab, and we are dedicating the entire hour to this little set of islands, and to that question.

ROBERT: As the world is filling up with more and more and more people, is it inevitable that even the most sacred, pristine places on the planet will eventually get swallowed up?

JAD: And how far are we willing to go to return a place to what it was before we got there?

ROBERT: And more importantly, can we?

LINDA CAYOT: Oh, I'm never a doubter. [laughs]

TIM: Okay, so this is Linda.

LINDA CAYOT: Linda Cayot. Currently the science advisor for Galapagos Conservancy. I began my work in Galapagos in 1981.

TIM: She first came to study tortoises.

LINDA CAYOT: Back then, you know, Galapagos was really isolated.

TIM: Barely any cars, super limited electricity.

LINDA CAYOT: All I remember is having a smile on my face all the time because, you know, as a biologist, going to Galapagos is like going to Mecca.

TIM: She says you have islands with massive volcanoes and forests.

LINDA CAYOT: Tree ferns that grow, you know, well above a human's height.

MATTHIAS ESPINOSA: Yeah, I mean powerful colors. You know, there's green mangrove, black lava flows and pink flamingos.

TIM: This is Mattias Espinosa.

MATTHIAS ESPINOSA: A naturalist guide in the Galapagos.

TIM: And like Linda, he says that when he first got to the Galapagos in the '80s, he couldn't believe that the place was real.

MATTHIAS ESPINOSA: It was breathtaking.

TIM: He visited an island called ...

MATTHIAS ESPINOSA: Fernandina. And the first thing that I saw was a lava flow that was moving. I was like, "What's going on?" You know, no, that's not lava flow, that's like one thousand sea iguanas taking a sunbath.

TIM: And he says he would go on these dives.

MATTHIAS ESPINOSA: Can you imagine? Schools of hammerhead sharks, like 500, 800 passing in front of you like tuna, like sardines. It shows you the power. It shows you all the evolution there is where evolution's very strong.

TIM: Okay, so quick context: Galapagos Islands, cluster of islands, way off the coast of Ecuador in the Pacific. 19 bigger islands, bunch of smaller ones. And this is the place, of course, where Darwin landed in 1835. And as he went island to island, he started noticing that there were all these creatures that were really similar to each other, but also a little bit different. The tortoises had different shells, depending on the kind of Island they lived on. The finches look similar, but their beaks were always a little bit different. And this gets him thinking: what if it isn't the way that everybody always says? What if God didn't create every single species in the beginning and leave them unchanged? What if, in fact, life is purely change? What if everything has been changing all the time? Darwin's five weeks on Galapagos push him to develop his theory of evolution, and that's also why when we think of evolution we think of the Galapagos, and in particular, we think of two iconic creatures: the tortoise and the finch.

TIM: Let me start by telling you about the tortoise.

TIM: It's hot, it's bright. It's such a perfect day for tortoise hunting, or not hunting but, you know, looking for.

TIM: Fourth day I was there, I went to the island of Floreana which Darwin visited. And there up in the highlands, basically in the middle of this yard ...

TIM: Oh my God! There are these three massive tortoises just clustered together under a tree. Wow, that is freaking amazing!

JAD: Describe them. What do they look like?

TIM: They are such alien-looking creatures.

TIM: They're like the size of—jeez, I don't even know what. They're massive. They look like they would crush you to death.

TIM: I wonder how many years these guys have been here for?

TIM: They can live for over 150 years.

ROBERT: Wow!

TIM: There's a tortoise trying to get over a branch.

[breathing sounds]

JAD: What was that?

TIM: That is the sound of a tortoise breathing.

[breathing sounds]

JAD: That's cool.

TIM: So Linda, when she first went to Galapagos to study these tortoises about 30 years ago ...

LINDA CAYOT: I did a trip where we backpacked around the caldera.

TIM: She took a trip to this island called Isabela, hiked up the side of a volcano.

LINDA CAYOT: And looked at all the tortoise country. And it was an impenetrable forest.

TIM: Basically, tortoise heaven.

LINDA CAYOT: And what makes it so perfect for tortoises is, in the dry season in Galapagos, the garua, which is a very, very thick mist, comes onto the island.

TIM: It rolls over this forest.

LINDA CAYOT: And it catches in the branches of the trees.

TIM: The water then drips down from the top of the trees down to the ground ...

LINDA CAYOT: Creating what we call drip pools which provides tortoises with water during the dry season, and they like to rest in water.

TIM: And so they're under the trees. You have these ponds with dozens of tortoise domes just rising out of the water.

LINDA CAYOT: So that was my first experience. It was a magical magical area. And then I actually didn't get back there for maybe 15 years from when I was there the first time. And when I returned, that forest was 100 percent gone. The drip pools were just dry dust bowls.

TIM: Wow.

LINDA CAYOT: There was no shade.

KARL CAMPBELL: Tortoises were sitting out in the sun, or crowded around the couple of stalks that were still there.

TIM: This is Karl Campbell.

KARL CAMPBELL: I work for Island Conservation, and I'm based here in the Galapagos Islands.

TIM: Karl's actually the guy who showed me those tortoises.

KARL CAMPBELL: It was just a—you know, it was a barren landscape.

LINDA CAYOT: Yeah. Barren, barren grounds.

TIM: What happened to the forest?

LINDA CAYOT: Goats.

KARL CAMPBELL: Goats.

JAD: That was definitely not what I thought you were gonna say. I thought you were gonna say people.

TIM: It was kind of a collaboration. So here's the story.

KARL CAMPBELL: Goats were originally sort of brought to the Galapagos probably by pirates and whalers.

TIM: Back in the 1500s, you had tons of sailors making these long voyages across the Pacific.

KARL CAMPBELL: And Galapagos was, you know, the major port on the whaling route where you'd come and get fresh water, but you'd also come in and pick up tortoises, land tortoises. And, you know, boats would take away several hundred of them often and turn them upside down, and they can last for up to a year and a half in the hold of a ship.

TIM: Like lying there upside down?

KARL CAMPBELL: Yeah, lying there upside down.

TIM: In order to make space for the tortoises, the whalers and pirates would often take goats that they'd brought with them and throw them onto the islands. That way, when they're on their way back and sick of eating tortoises, they could grab those goats. So whalers and buccaneers, they introduced goats to Galapagos, but on islands like Isabela, which is this massive island the size of Rhode Island, the goats were actually penned into just a little part of it because there was this black lava rock that ran across the island.

LINDA CAYOT: Extremely rough lava that's extremely difficult to walk across.

TIM: 12 miles of it.

LINDA CAYOT: So that had acted as a barrier.

TIM: Basically with goats on one side, tortoises on the other. But according to Linda ...

LINDA CAYOT: Sometime in the late 1970s ...

TIM: The goats got brave.

LINDA CAYOT: I mean, we're probably talking just a few goats, but by the 1990s, those few goats, the population had exploded to about 100,000 goats.

TIM: Wow.

LINDA CAYOT: And if you think of 100,000 goats eating everything in their path ...

TIM: Every sort of plant, like, even the bark off of trees.

LINDA CAYOT: They destroy the forest.

TIM: So now they had a dilemma. You know, on the one hand, the tortoises needed help. On the other hand, you had all of these goats that didn't choose to be on the island. You know, it wasn't their fault.

LINDA CAYOT: And the goats that were out there were gorgeous. You know, they had curled horns, different-colored fur, just beautiful animals.

TIM: And they've been there for 500 years.

KARL CAMPBELL: Some people were concerned, you know, with goats have their own sort of, if you will, right to be there. Those arguments came up frequently.

TIM: To which Karl would respond ...

KARL CAMPBELL: Yeah. Are we going to let tortoises go extinct? You know, there's thousands of islands around the world that have goats on them.

TIM: These tortoises are only found here.

KARL CAMPBELL: So where do your values lie?

LINDA CAYOT: And so in 1994, we had what we called the tortoise summit in England, and that was where we started the discussions about what are we gonna do.

TIM: Experts came from all over the world. Linda says, "We want to get rid of the goats."

LINDA CAYOT: And many of them thought we were nuts and that it was impossible.

TIM: There's 100,000 of them!

LINDA CAYOT: So many doubters.

TIM: Karl says he even heard the idea ...

KARL CAMPBELL: Why don't you put lions? You know, they eat goats in Africa. You know, why don't you get lions on there? And those are really interesting ideas, but at some point, they're gonna get hungry and they're gonna start eating all the other things that, you know, you treasure like the occasional tourist.

TIM: In any case, after endless planning and meetings ...

LINDA CAYOT: It took eight years, I think.

TIM: ... they commenced Project Isabela.

FRASER SUTHERLAND: So the helicopters we used, they're called MD-500s. Small helicopter—they're for four passengers and one pilot. Single turbine, five blades.

TIM: This is Fraser.

FRASER SUTHERLAND: Fraser Sutherland. I was the engineer, pilot and sharpshooter, 2004 through 2006.

TIM: Almost every day during that time, Fraser would fly over Isabela Island, two guys with ...

FRASER SUTHERLAND: Two shooters, either side of the helicopter. What you do is, so you come across and you're flying along, and you might see one goat.

TIM: Says you follow that goat as it ran away until it joined its friends.

FRASER SUTHERLAND: So you have to find all those other goats.

TIM: Circle real low.

FRASER SUTHERLAND: You'd fly around them.

TIM: Round them up.

FRASER SUTHERLAND: Try and get them in a single group.

TIM: And then you'd start picking off the goats one by one by one. And there are actually videos online where you see these packs of goats running for their lives, and then dropping to the ground.

LINDA CAYOT: The last goat or two might sort of run into an area where it's impossible to reach.

FRASER SUTHERLAND: I'd actually go into caves, and what we'd do is we'd find a location as close as we could or right on top of the cave, drop out one of the two shooters that was in the helicopter, and he'd physically go into the cave, shoo the goats out or shoot them on sight.

JOSH DONLAN: And then you go on.

TIM: And actually, in under a year through this aerial attack, they end up wiping out 90 percent of the goats on Isabela.

JOSH DONLAN: But to give an example of the nature of this business ...

TIM: That's Josh Donlan. He runs an NGO that was involved in Project Isabela.

JOSH DONLAN: It's relatively easy to remove 90 percent of a goat population from an island. But as they become rarer and rarer, they're harder and harder to detect.

TIM: The goats become quote, "Educated." They learn that this sound ...

[helicopter flying]

TIM: ... means ...

[gunshot]

TIM: So the goats start hiding.

FRASER SUTHERLAND: So they go into bushes, they won't move.

TIM: They learn to stand under a tree holding their breath.

JOSH DONLAN: And so you end up flying around in an expensive helicopter not finding any goats. Now the way we deal with that is an interesting one, we use this technique called "Judas goats."

KARL CAMPBELL: Yeah, Judas goats.

TIM: Initially, it was Karl's suggestion.

KARL CAMPBELL: Because goats are gregarious and like being in groups.

JOSH DONLAN: They're herd animals, right? And so the technique that we would use was you would fire up your helicopter, you'd fly around, you'd find some goats.

KARL CAMPBELL: You'd capture goats.

JOSH DONLAN: Capture them live.

KARL CAMPBELL: And then come back.

TIM: Back to base camp.

KARL CAMPBELL: Offload them.

JOSH DONLAN: And you'd put a radio collar on them, and you'd throw them back on the island.

TIM: And then you wait. Instinctively ...

KARL CAMPBELL: That lone goat will go and find other goats.

JOSH DONLAN: A week, two weeks go by, you fire up the helicopter.

TIM: They get back over the island with this little device.

JOSH DONLAN: It's a directional antenna.

TIM: Start tracking the Judas goat, 'til they spot it with some other goats.

JOSH DONLAN: And then everyone gets shot except the Judas goat.

TIM: They let it go, it finds more friends ...

JOSH DONLAN: And then everyone gets shot except the Judas goat.

TIM: And then they do it again.

JOSH DONLAN: Everyone gets shot except the Judas goat. And you'd do that every two weeks for a year.

JAD: Oh my God!

TIM: And that is how they go from 90 percent goat-free to 91 to 92 to 93 to 94.

ROBERT: It's like having a pogrom on you over and over and over again.

JAD: I know. It's like a—Jesus!

TIM: It gets worse.

JOSH DONLAN: Now a Judas goat is a good Judas goat until it gets pregnant.

TIM: Because then it doesn't want to be social anymore.

JOSH DONLAN: It goes off and has its kid and is very solitary, which is the last thing you want when you're trying to get goats off islands.

TIM: So Karl kept mulling this problem.

KARL CAMPBELL: What would it take to basically make, you know, the perfect Judas goat? The ideal Judas goat if you will, is a goat that would search for and be searched for.

TIM: And that would never get pregnant.

JOSH DONLAN: So Karl Campbell figured out a technique where we could sterilize them in the field.

TIM: They'd grab the goat, dart them. And then in a matter of minutes.

JOSH DONLAN: Snip snip.

TIM: Did you do this?

JOSH DONLAN: Yeah. Well, I stood next to Karl and watched him do it. [laughs] And Karl took it one step further, and he actually gave these females hormone implants ...

TIM: That basically put them into heat ...

KARL CAMPBELL: ... for an extended duration.

TIM: Normally a female goat would be in heat for maybe a couple days. These females would go ...

KARL CAMPBELL: ... for more than 180 days.

TIM: And wherever they went, they would lure those male goats out of their caves so that, you know ...

[gunshots]

TIM: All in all, over the course of this two-year program ...

JOSH DONLAN: We had hundreds of Judas goats out.

TIM: And using those goats, they were able to go from 94 percent goat free to 96 to 97 to 98.

KARL CAMPBELL: And basically, when you have only Judas goats meeting up with other Judas goats ...

JOSH DONLAN: ... then you can say that goats have been eliminated.

KARL CAMPBELL: That you're done.

TIM: A point they got to, at least on Isabela, in mid-2006.

JOSH DONLAN: This kind of eradication program was far beyond anything that anyone had ever done anywhere in the world.

TIM: Because it turns out they weren't just doing this on Isabela Island.

JOSH DONLAN: No, we're talking about island by island.

TIM: Over the course of about seven years, they eliminate over 250,000 goats.

TIM: So you complete that with Isabela. And did it work?

KARL CAMPBELL: Yeah, the results of this were absolutely impressive.

JOSH DONLAN: You had plants re-emerging. You had trees growing back.

KARL CAMPBELL: And in a really short period of time.

TIM: And this allowed for those important drip pools. And tortoises, they basically got their home back.

TIM: This is the real thing. Tortoises walking around. ¡Es increíble!

JAD: So they did it. They got all the goats.

TIM: Not all the goats.

ROBERT: What do you mean?

TIM: Those Judas goats? They kept them around.

ROBERT: Why?

JAD: I would just—I would have shot them first just out of sympathy for them.

ROBERT: Yeah, exactly.

TIM: Well, they needed the goats because well, there was the problem of people.

[sound of protesters]

TIM: Because during the '90s, these demonstrations started to happen.

[NEWS CLIP: Demonstrations of outrage and violent activity. Constant conflict.]

TIM: To explain ...

AUGUSTIN LOPEZ: Lo que pasa es que la época de que esto de pa pesca.

TIM: This is Augustin Lopez, a long-time fisherman. And he told me that in the '70s and '80s, lobster was fished all year round, no restrictions. And then fishermen started making a killing fishing sea cucumber because there was this huge demand. But then the national park comes in—same group that's doing the goat eradication. And they tell the fishermen they're overfishing the sea cucumber. They've got to limit their catch. And the fishermen are like, "Who are you to tell me that I can't feed my family." So they lash out.

[sound of protesters]

TIM: They march down Charles Darwin Avenue.

PAUL WATSON: They would come down the street throwing rocks and sticks and everything.

TIM: That's Paul Watson, founder of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society. He was there counter-protesting, and he says that at one point, they went after national park buildings.

PAUL WATSON: And they were attacking the ranger stations with Molotov cocktails.

TIM: They blockaded roads.

PAUL WATSON: They literally drove the rangers out of the national park headquarters and took it over.

TIM: On Isabela, they burned down a building.

PAUL WATSON: They kidnapped some people, including some of my crew.

TIM: And they even killed dozens of tortoises, slitting their throats. According to some accounts, they even hung them from trees. Not only that, but according to Linda, those goats?

LINDA CAYOT: Couple islands where they've been eliminated, fishermen have put them back.

TIM: Really?

LINDA CAYOT: Oh yeah.

TIM: And so what they decided to do is leave the Judas goats on various islands where they can live out their sterilized days chomping on grass, sharing war stories, until such time as they might be needed again.

ROBERT: Is between the Greens and the—and the fishermen and such, is that still hot and difficult? And are they still, you know, killing tortoises and ...?

TIM: They're not. The fishermen, they seem to have stopped, you know, taking over national parks and killing tortoises.

ROBERT: Do you know why?

TIM: It's a combination of reasons. On the one hand, fishermen have started to participate in the actual fisheries management more, because it seems like they realize if they're gonna keep their livelihood, they can't just fish everything out. But then at the same time, the tourism economy has been taking off, and so all of these fishermen, they find that it's easier for them to actually survive by using their boats to take tourists around island to island. So they're all kind of converting over into the tourism economy.

ROBERT: Huh.

JAD: We're gonna take a short break. This is Radiolab. We'll be back with producer Tim Howard and this hour on Galapagos in just a moment.

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JAD: I'm Jad Abumrad.

ROBERT: I'm Robert Krulwich.

JAD: This is Radiolab. And this hour?

ROBERT: Well, the honeymoon's over.

JAD: [laughs] Galapagos.

ROBERT: This is the place where Darwin began to develop his theory of evolution.

JAD: And it's the place 170 years or maybe 180 years later where our producer Tim Howard landed, wearing fishnets and a Bad Brains t-shirt to find a very different landscape than what Darwin saw.

ROBERT: And we just told you a story about how far humans are willing to go to protect something.

TIM: This next part, it's about how far we're willing to go to get something back that we've already lost. To sort of restore a place and a creature to its quote "Wild state." This story unfolds on one of Galapagos's most northern islands, where they also had to get rid of some goats. It's called Pinta.

JAMES GIBBS: Yeah. Pinta is a very special place.

TIM: This is James Gibbs.

JAMES GIBBS: Professor of conservation biology at the State University of New York. It's one of those islands, it's not part of any tourist visitation site.

TIM: So there are no people there.

JAMES GIBBS: And when you set foot first on Pinta, you immediately sense sheer abundance. All the insect life, all the birds.

TIM: The problem is on Pinta, things were spinning out of control. The vegetation was growing wild, the forest was getting overgrown with the wrong kind of plant, and the whole ecosystem was just teetering out of balance. And one of the reasons for this, according to Linda Cayot, is that ...

LINDA CAYOT: We had an island with no tortoises.

TIM: Because tortoises are sort of like the lawnmowers.

LINDA CAYOT: You know, they plow down vegetation, disperse seeds.

TIM: But for centuries had been hunted by those whalers. And in about 1906, the Pinta tortoise went extinct.

JAD: 1906!

TIM: Yeah, a little over a hundred years ago. They don't know the exact date. But then, one evening in March of 1972 ...

PETER C. H. PRITCHARD: Yes.

TIM: ... this fellow ...

PETER C. H. PRITCHARD: Peter C. H. Pritchard.

TIM: ... he's a well-known tortoise researcher. He was on Santa Cruz Island having dinner with some friends.

PETER C. H. PRITCHARD: And we got onto chatting about tortoises.

TIM: And one of the people he's eating with says, "Hey, I was recently on Pinta Island collecting snails and I saw this ..."

PETER C. H. PRITCHARD: Tortoise. And I thought, "Do you know what you have done?" There have been no tortoises there for a hundred years.

TIM: He and some national park rangers race out to Pinta. And there it was.

PETER C. H. PRITCHARD: This beautiful tortoise.

TIM: One male tortoise, maybe 50 years old, they weren't sure. They'd eventually name him ...

PETER C. H. PRITCHARD: George.

TIM: Lonesome George. But at the time, the immediate question was ...

PETER C. H. PRITCHARD: Are there any more?

TIM: Because if they could find a female for George, then they could, you know, maybe de-extinct the species.

PETER C. H. PRITCHARD: So they poked around in the areas where we got the one, and I found a shell of a female.

JAD: Hey!

PETER C. H. PRITCHARD: Dead animal.

JAD: Oh.

TIM: How had—how had this female tortoise died?

PETER C. H. PRITCHARD: Someone chopped it in half.

TIM: No!

PETER C. H. PRITCHARD: You could see the marks where it was just chopped up. I felt violent. I wanted to borrow someone's gun and go and kill the person.

JAMES GIBBS: Everyone held out hopes for just finding more tortoises.

TIM: James says they kept going back, combing the island.

JAMES GIBBS: With highly trained tortoise-sniffing dogs.

TIM: But in the end, there's just George.

JAMES GIBBS: And then shifted the focus on now what do we do?

LINDA CAYOT: We then went to Wolf Volcano.

TIM: Island next door.

LINDA CAYOT: And collected two females.

TIM: Two females that sort of looked like George, but weren't quite the same species.

LINDA CAYOT: And we put them with George to see if we could get him to breed. He never did.

TIM: Wasn't interested. So they thought ...

LINDA CAYOT: Hmm.

TIM: Maybe he needs a Pinta lady. Now of course, there are no female tortoises on Pinta, but they thought, you know, maybe a zoo somewhere or private collection has one, because you really never know. So they called around, offered huge cash rewards. People sent in dozens of tortoises, but Linda took one look at them and was like ...

LINDA CAYOT: No. No. No. No.

TIM: They weren't pintas. So then they thought, "We've got to take matters into our own hands."

LINDA CAYOT: Basically, what you do is you sit at the back of the tortoise, and first you have to get to where they'll allow you to touch them.

TIM: Hmm.

LINDA CAYOT: And eventually you start, you know, fondling their—their legs and tails, and hoping to get them to ejaculate. And had a volunteer working with me. Her name was Fava Grigione. She worked with him every other day or so for a few months, and was never successful.

JAMES GIBBS: We were really starting to get kind of desperate about options.

TIM: And James says in a way it was a paradox because, on the one hand, awesome, we have an actual living Pinta Island tortoise, but on the other hand, he might have actually been like the worst possible candidate for last of his kind.

JAMES GIBBS: He seemed to really like to keep to himself.

LINDA CAYOT: He never really liked other tortoises much. He didn't seem to like humans.

TIM: And maybe that's why he survived. He wasn't curious. James says a lot of tortoises ...

JAMES GIBBS: They hear your footsteps, they raise their heads, they come out to see what's going on.

TIM: And then they get whacked.

JAMES GIBBS: Yeah.

TIM: In any case, for about 40 years, scientists tried everything humanly possible to get Lonesome George to mate with another tortoise so they could resurrect the species and bring Pinta Island back to its original state. Nothing worked until one day in July of 2008, George turns to the two female tortoises that he had been ignoring for years and he says ...

["Hello, beautiful and beautiful."]

TIM: And inexplicably, he just suddenly decides to mate with both of them. They each lay eggs.

JAMES GIBBS: Two clutches were ultimately laid in his corral.

TIM: And the scientists are like ...

JAMES GIBBS: George got our hopes up dramatically. But they ultimately were infertile.

JAD: Mother [bleep]!

JOSH DONLAN: In mid-'80s, they were having a meeting about this.

TIM: That's conservationist Josh Donlan again.

JOSH DONLAN: Whole bunch of herpetologists were out there and some Island conservationists, and they're talking about what to do with Pinta, and they can't get Lonesome George to reproduce, which they were hoping to do because then they could build a Pinta population and put it on Pinta.

TIM: And he says that as a meeting wore on, it got tense.

JOSH DONLAN: Oh, for sure.

TIM: In fact, one guy I spoke with ...

HARRY GREENE: Harry Greene. I'm a professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at Cornell University.

TIM: Said that at this meeting, there was one guy who just couldn't take it.

HARRY GREENE: All I remember is him just fuming. He sat there getting more and more and more frustrated, and finally he just blurted out, "Shoot that [bleep] tortoise and quit wasting our time."

TIM: [laughs]

TIM: Because in his view, this single individual was holding up this huge conservation opportunity.

HARRY GREENE: And of course, the shock was—there was a way went around the room when he said that. I recall seeing sort of a second wave as the Spanish translation passed around the room.

TIM: And really, what that guy was specifically saying was, "Don't be precious."

JOSH DONLAN: A tortoise is a tortoise is a tortoise. Let's just take some tortoises ...

TIM: From a nearby island.

JOSH DONLAN: And put them back on Pinta.

TIM: But there's a much bigger question here ...

JOSH DONLAN: That goes way beyond Galapagos.

TIM: Which is basically like, what is the right way to protect nature now?

JOSH DONLAN: People are right now throwing beers at each other around what is the right strategy.

TIM: Josh says that there are basically two camps right now. On the one side, you've got this classic, like what you might call the Eden approach.

JOSH DONLAN: Conservation biology, its foundation is this idea of pristine wilderness.

LINDA CAYOT: From the very beginning, I think all of us—well, I can't speak for other people, but you always have this idea of wanting to get it back to some kind of prehuman condition.

TIM: "Prehuman" being the operative word. And if you think about it, we all have this. We all have this picture of what we want to bring it all back to. You know, it might be like the plains just covered with buffalo, or maybe the Serengeti desert with lions and elephants or maybe it's 10,000 hammerhead sharks. But whatever the scene is, it just doesn't have any people.

JAD: But is carrying that idea, those pictures in your head, even, like, useful anymore? It's like ...

TIM: So cynical!

JAD: No! But it just seems so unrealistic.

JOSH DONLAN: Right? But I mean, in the bigger picture, you can make the argument that humans now affect every square meter of the Earth.

HOLLY DOREMUS: There's no place, no matter how remote we get. You can go to the North Pole, it's been affected by human activity. You can go—I don't know, the depths of the impenetrable jungle. It's been affected by human activity.

TIM: That's Holly Doremus. She's an environmental law professor at the Berkeley School of Law in California.

HOLLY DOREMUS: We're radically remaking the world, and the question is what's our responsibility?

TIM: And this brings us to our second school of thought, which in its most extreme version goes something like this:

JOSH DONLAN: We're God. We might as well get good at it. And we're going to have to create these ecosystems based on our best science.

TIM: And you could argue we're gonna have to get a whole lot better at making some very, very difficult decisions.

HOLLY DOREMUS: Climate change seems to mean that a lot of species are pretty much doomed. 30 percent, 40 percent, 50 percent of the species now on the planet, in a few decades may be disappearing. This is what I think is really the tough question now, is if we concede that we can't any longer save all the species, then does that put us in the situation of having to decide which ones we'll save and which ones we won't? And do we have any basis for making those kinds of decisions?

ROBERT: Hmm. So you're saying that the quote, "Let's go back to when it was good. Let's go back to a better time," that's just silly.

HOLLY DOREMUS: I didn't say it was silly.

ROBERT: Okay, what did you—yeah.

HOLLY DOREMUS: I said it was impossible.

ROBERT: [laughs]

HOLLY DOREMUS: Things might not be silly, they might not be stupid ideas, but we still might not be able to do them.

TIM: Okay, so here's a wood plaque that says, "Lonesome George is the last survivor of the dynasty of land tortoises from Pinta Island. And, in fact, in 2012, after decades of trying to get him to breed, Lonesome George dies. R.I.P. 24th of June, 2012."

TIM: And the Pinta tortoise went extinct.

JAD: So damn. Case in point, I guess. No going back.

TIM: Yeah. I mean, that's what I thought. But then I spoke with this woman.

GISELLA CACCONE: Hello?

TIM: Hello. Gisella, do you hear me?

GISELLA CACCONE: Yes, I do.

TIM: Who kind of scrambled everything up for me.

TIM: Can I get you to introduce yourself?

GISELLA CACCONE: Yes, my name is Gisella Caccone. I am a senior research scientist at Yale University.

TIM: And Giselle has come up with kind of a radical idea.

GISELLA CACCONE: I call it the Phoenix Project. [laughs]

TIM: Here's the backstory: in the mid-'90s ...

GISELLA CACCONE: We started in '94.

TIM: Gisella and some folks from the Galapagos National Park, they began taking a census of all the tortoises in the Galapagos.

GISELLA CACCONE: Every population of tortoises on all the islands.

TIM: They were gonna do this big population study, so they went island by island. Took a little bit of blood from all these different tortoises, did a genetic analysis ...

GISELLA CACCONE: And hoopla!

TIM: Found something they never expected: a group of tortoises not on Pinta that had a lot of Pinta DNA.

GISELLA CACCONE: I can remember very clearly that moment. It was very, very exciting. It's like, "Yes, look at this!"

JAD: Wait, you're saying this Pinta DNA was on another island?

TIM: Yeah.

JAD: Not on Pinta.

TIM: No.

JAD: Well, how would that happen?

GISELLA CACCONE: We don't think it was natural.

TIM: Gisella thinks it might have been the whalers.

GISELLA CACCONE: Either the whalers or the pirates.

TIM: You know, because like we talked about, in the 17-1800s, these whalers would come along, grab a bunch of tortoises, put them on the ship, and then they would hunt for whales.

["Thar she blows!]

TIM: And sometimes ...

GISELLA CACCONE: When they were done, and if the ship was filled with whale products ...

["There's no room down here!"]

TIM: They'd throw a few extra tortoises overboard, say a few from ...

GISELLA CACCONE: Pinta.

TIM: Maybe those Pinta tortoises swam with the currents to that nearby island, set up a little expat community and started breeding with the locals.

GISELLA CACCONE: That's our working hypothesis.

TIM: Which brings us to her idea.

GISELLA CACCONE: You know, on average, 50 percent of your genome comes from your mom and 50 percent from your dad. But it's an average.

TIM: So Gisella thought just by chance, some of these tortoises are gonna have a little bit more Pinta DNA from their Pinta ancestors than others.

GISELLA CACCONE: Yes.

TIM: So what if we took those tortoises and bred them together?

GISELLA CACCONE: Select them for the next generation, so you can give a push to this process.

TIM: She says if we keep doing that, taking the babies with the most Pinta DNA and breeding them together, slowly, surely ...

GISELLA CACCONE: In four generations, you could have 90 percent of the Pinta genome restored.

TIM: Really?

GISELLA CACCONE: Yeah. But that's four generations of tortoises, not rats, which means at least 100 years.

TIM: But in the meantime, the vegetation on Pinta is growing out of control.

GISELLA CACCONE: From an ecological point of view, Pinta can't wait.

TIM: So in 2009, they come up with a stopgap. They take 39 tortoises raised in captivity, and they use them as placeholders. They sterilize them and put them on Pinta.

ROBERT: Really?

JAD: What?

TIM: Yeah.

ROBERT: Well, these are very purist sort of visions they've got.

TIM: Yeah.

JAD: They sterilize them. 39 of them. So they're just basically the lawnmowers. They're not actually ...

TIM: Exactly. and they put them on Pinta, and they're just Chomping away right now. They're living out their lives really happily on Pinta, you know, until the originals are ready. Now Linda says in the end you don't actually need to do the full aggressive four-generation breeding thing. You can just take the best Pinta-ish tortoises you find and put those on Pinta.

LINDA CAYOT: And, you know, over the next 200,000 years, they will evolve into a Pinta tortoise. And it could be a bit different than the past Pinta tortoise, because evolution and mutation and all that doesn't occur the same. But eventually, nature's gonna take over and they will evolve into Pinta tortoises.

TIM: Is this the way that everybody who works on the tortoises thinks about it—this kind of deep time?

LINDA CAYOT: [laughs] I don't know. I'm not sure many other people think about that.

TIM: Just walked past a newspaper that says "72 hours left in the electoral campaign." And the flags are still flying everywhere.

ROBERT: We'll be back in less than 200,000 years.

JAD: Yeah, but we will be different when we come back.

ROBERT: Yeah, we will.

JAD: Stay tuned.

 

***

 

JAD: I'm Jad Abumrad.

ROBERT: I'm Robert Krulwich.

JAD: This is Radiolab.

ROBERT: Today, a whole hour on the Galapagos Islands, the place that inspired Charles Darwin to create his theory of evolution, whose basic ingredients are lots of time, isolation and then constant change. But Darwin didn't consider this possibility: what if on these islands, thousands of tourists arrive every day carrying fruits and chocolates and souvenirs, jumping from island to island.

JAD: Now the Galapagos government spends millions of dollars checking all of the goods that come in and out, trying to quarantine the ones that might have things that are a problem, but what if simply putting your foot on the ground can completely transform a place? Back to producer Tim Howard.

TIM: So I met this woman named Heinke Jäger who is like a plant scientist.

HEINKE JÄGER: I'm the restoration ecologist at the Charles Darwin Foundation.

TIM: Here we are in Los Gemelos.

TIM: We were going to look at these incredible craters called Los Gemelos.

TIM: Oh, I almost got hit by a car.

TIM: And as we're walking along the path ...

HEINKE JÄGER: See?

TIM: She's like, "Oh, wait. Look at this."

HEINKE JÄGER: Right here.

TIM: She points just to the right of the path.

HEINKE JÄGER: Look at this species here.

TIM: Small leafy green thing.

HEINKE JÄGER: They call it Jantin in Spanish. It is in—it's Plantago. I think in the US they call it the—what is it? The wrench of the white man?

TIM: The wrench of the white man?

TIM: It's actually the footprint of the white man. Doesn't matter. Point is ...

HEINKE JÄGER: It's an introduced species.

TIM: It's introduced. It's found in Europe, North Africa. Shouldn't be here.

HEINKE JÄGER: And you have this one here.

TIM: She points right next to it.

HEINKE JÄGER: It's called Tradescantia.

TIM: Shrubby thing. Green and white leaves.

HEINKE JÄGER: It has a terrible common name in English. I'm not going to say it.

TIM: Wandering Jew. Basic houseplant. You can buy it at Home Depot. But there it is in the Galapagos.

HEINKE JÄGER: And ...

TIM: Along this path.

HEINKE JÄGER: ... just looking to the right and the left.

TIM: And then she just starts counting the number of invasive species. One, two, three, four, five.

HEINKE JÄGER: As you can see here, it's only right next to the trail but not so much further.

TIM: You see that they're only there for this border of about 5 to 10 inches along the edge of that path.

JAD: Why? Why would that be?

TIM: Because, Heinke said, what happens is that tourists, they'll be back in their home country, they'll be walking around in a garden or a park, and it'll be filled with tiny seeds.

HEINKE JÄGER: The seeds stick to shoes and socks and trousers.

TIM: They wear the trousers on the plane, and then they wear them when they come here.

HEINKE JÄGER: And then people walk, and then just distribute or disperse the seeds along the trail.

JAD: Wow.

TIM: Now most of these plants are actually probably harmless. And, you know, like you said, Galapagos National Park, they spend tons of money, tons of time trying to keep invasives out, but fact is there's only so much you can do. And every once in a while, one of these hitchhikers slips under the radar and just wreaks havoc.

TIM: You just grabbed it, just like that. You just put your hands around it.

ARNAUD CHIMARAM: Yeah. But that's only possible the first day.

TIM: So while we were in the highlands of Santa Cruz, Heinke took me through the woods to meet this guy named Arnaud.

ARNAUD CHIMARAM: My name is Arnaud Chimaram.

TIM: He's an ornithologist.

ARNAUD CHIMARAM: From the University of Vienna.

TIM: And shortly after we walked up, he reached out into this tree and he grabbed this tiny little baby finch right off the branch.

TIM: He's adorable! He's—oh my God!

ARNAUD CHIMARAM: Yeah.

TIM: He's—he looks a little bit furry, almost.

ARNAUD CHIMARAM: Really tiny.

TIM: Vulnerable.

ARNAUD CHIMARAM: He's a fledgling of a warbler-finch. So the warbler-finch is the smallest of the Darwin's finches.

TIM: You can, like, see him pulsing kind of as he's breathing.

TIM: So Darwin's finches. In short, Darwin, when he visited Galapagos, he collected a lot of specimens of finches, took them back to England, and eventually he realized that the beaks had all adapted. They were all a little bit different, depending on which island the finches lived on.

JAD: Were the beaks adapted to whatever the finch ...

ROBERT: What they were eating? One island's finches had literally—like, the beak would be shaped sort of long, and then the next island it would look almost the same but much shorter. And this became one of the—one of the most important pieces of evidence that, you know, when animals would move from one place to another, that they would begin to differentiate based on what they were ...

JAD: Oh wow. So these are very, very important beaks.

ROBERT: Very important. Yes.

TIM: But speaking of beaks, that finch that Arnaud was holding ...

ARNAUD CHIMARAM: He's just afraid.

TIM: His beak?

ARNAUD CHIMARAM: Did you see that this side is extremely huge.

TIM: Oh yeah. Oh, the nostrils have big holes. Oh, poor little guy!

TIM: Something had gotten inside this little finch's nostrils, drilled these holes, and it was now eating the flesh on the inside of the bird's nostrils. Scientists first began to see this in 1997, when they started to find nests full of dead baby finches. At first, nobody had any idea what kind of creature it was, so they began to frantically study it. I actually visited one of the main researchers, Piedad Lincango.

[Piedad speaking Spanish]

TIM: She's lived in Galapagos for over a decade, and she showed me her lab.

TIM: I'm surrounded by shelves, and on the shelves are these tiny little plastic cups that are filled with flies.

TIM: This is the villain—a little black fly. Looks like every other fly.

[Piedad speaking Spanish]

TIM: In fact, Piedad says ...

[Piedad speaking Spanish]

TIM: ... that it's actually in the same family as the regular housefly, but it's actually a botfly called philornis downsi.

ROBERT: Can you just spell philornis downsi?

TIM: Yeah, it's P-H-I-L—I can't spell out loud. Phil-or ... L-O-R-N-I-S D-O-W-N-S-I.

JAD: Okay.

ROBERT: Huh.

CHARLOTTE CAUSTON: "Philornis" actually means "bird-loving."

TIM: That's Charlotte Causton. She's a researcher.

CHARLOTTE CAUSTON: At the Charles Darwin Foundation.

TIM: She says there's actually very little known about the fly. They're not sure where it came from or quite how it got here, but here's what they do know: the adult fly seems to be harmless.

CHARLOTTE CAUSTON: The adult fly is actually vegetarian. It feeds on flowers, and we think decomposing fruits.

TIM: Baby flies, they are not vegetarian.

CHARLOTTE CAUSTON: They will, you know, suck blood. And what happens is that as soon as the birds start laying eggs ...

TIM: Mother flies swoop in ...

CHARLOTTE CAUSTON: ... and lay their eggs on the base of the nest.

TIM: Sort of underneath the finch eggs.

CHARLOTTE CAUSTON: Once the eggs hatch, the eggs hatch of the flies as well. And the larvae ...

TIM: Wriggling little larvae will crawl out from the bottom of the nest, up the finch's body into its beak.

CHARLOTTE CAUSTON: And they go into the noses of the baby finches.

TIM: And just start eating.

CHARLOTTE CAUSTON: You know, they basically feed on the blood of the baby birds.

ROBERT: How did these little fly babies know—boy, that's a very specific trip to take.

CHARLOTTE CAUSTON: Good question. We're still trying to figure that out. You know, we assume that it was carbon dioxide.

TIM: Carbon dioxide?

CHARLOTTE CAUSTON: From the breathing of the birds.

TIM: Wow.

CHARLOTTE CAUSTON: Yeah.

[Piedad speaking Spanish]

TIM: She's opening a box of some of the birds, the little pinsones, the finches. Oh God!

TIM: Piedad showed me this tiny little dead finch in this box.

[Piedad speaking Spanish]

TIM: Wow, there's a little hole into the brain of this little finch. Oh my God! They ate the whole back of this little finch.

JAD: Wait, so how big a problem is this?

TIM: Well, I talked to one scientist ...

SONIA KLEINDORFER: Sonia Kleindorfer. I'm professor in animal behavior at Flinders University, South Australia.

TIM: And she told me that researchers recently did a survey of finch nests.

SONIA KLEINDORFER: Four different species on two islands, and all research groups found about 95 percent mortality in the nest.

JAD: 95 percent of the babies were dead?

TIM: Yeah. And Arnaud told me ...

ARNAUD CHIMARAM: That this year's small tree finches, so far, we had only two nests with fledglings, and all the others were dead. So it's a lot, yeah.

TIM: But even worse ...

CHARLOTTE CAUSTON: So far, we found philornis on 13 islands.

TIM: The fly's spreading island to island.

ROBERT: Is there any time scale we should worry about? Like, are these finches disappearing very fast, very slowly?

TIM: Depends on the species.

CHARLOTTE CAUSTON: We have at least five species that are known to be facing extinction, and another six in serious decline.

TIM: These five species, does that mean that they may go extinct in the next five years? In the next 50 years?

CHARLOTTE CAUSTON: I hope not. But, you know, we have the case of the mangrove finch. We have 60 to 80 individuals left.

ROBERT: Wow.

CHARLOTTE CAUSTON: It's a race against time.

TIM: So for starters, they put up all these traps. They took me outside to show me where the traps are.

TIM: There's a trap hanging from a tree here.

TIM: And you see them actually all over Santa Cruz, these bright yellow traps hanging from trees.

JAD: And this is to control the fly population?

TIM: No, they would need, like, millions of traps every few feet to do that. This is just to grab a few flies, take them back to the lab and study them so they can learn how to fight them. Charlotte and Piedad's fantasy is that the flies ...

CHARLOTTE CAUSTON: ... use a pheromone to attract the opposite sex.

[Piedad speaking Spanish]

CHARLOTTE CAUSTON: It would be lovely if we could find something like that.

TIM: Because if they could find that chemical, that love chemical that the flies used to attract each other, they could disrupt it.

CHARLOTTE CAUSTON: Confuse the flies ...

TIM: ... and screw up their mating. Another possibility is ...

CHARLOTTE CAUSTON: ... sterile insect technique.

TIM: Sterilize male flies and introduce them back into the wild.

CHARLOTTE CAUSTON: So that the female mates with a sterile fly and obviously it doesn't produce fertile eggs.

TIM: If they can't make babies, the population will crash.

CHARLOTTE CAUSTON: And in some cases, you can successfully eradicate a species.

TIM: But here's the problem ...

[Piedad speaking Spanish]

TIM: If they're gonna release sterilized male flies into the wild, they have to be able to raise ...

[Piedad speaking Spanish]

TIM: ... millions of these flies in the lab.

[Piedad speaking Spanish]

TIM: And they're trying like crazy.

TIM: She's showing me all of the larvas that hatched today.

TIM: Piedad showed me four baby flies that had just hatched.

TIM: And they're in these little cups.

[Piedad speaking Spanish]

TIM: But she told me that these four flies will probably die because they always die.

CHARLOTTE CAUSTON: Right now, we have huge problems trying to raise philornis in captivity, which is ironic given, you know, how abundant it is in the wild.

[Piedad speaking Spanish]

TIM: When I was there, Piedad told me that so far, they had only successfully raised three. Three adult flies.

JAD: Wait, and you were saying they needed millions..

TIM: Yeah. And meanwhile, the finch populations are just getting decimated. Charlotte says that they're trying to respond. Ornithologists have started to notice some new behaviors. For instance ...

CHARLOTTE CAUSTON: Adult birds picking the larvae out of the nostrils of the baby birds.

SONIA KLEINDORFER: And what we're starting to see is that they're beginning to consume them.

JAD: You mean, eat the fly larvae?

TIM: Yeah, which 15 years ago, they would never do.

SONIA KLEINDORFER: Back in the year 2000 ...

TIM: Sonia and some colleagues tried feeding the finches some fly larvae.

SONIA KLEINDORFER: And if ever there were a look of disgust on a finch face, that was it. So I think there's been a change.

TIM: They're also seeing baby finches climbing up over each other just struggling to get away from the larvae on the bottom of the nest.

SONIA KLEINDORFER: And then they'll even start standing on the nest rim just to avoid being eaten.

TIM: But when I asked Charlotte what she makes of all of these changes, she said ...

CHARLOTTE CAUSTON: I think probably too little too late.

TIM: But then Sonia told me something really surprising.

SONIA KLEINDORFER: Yeah, that was a very unexpected discovery.

TIM: Takes a couple steps to get there, but just to set it up: back in 2000, she was on Floreana Island for the first time.

SONIA KLEINDORFER: I started studying Darwin's finches.

TIM: In particular ...

SONIA KLEINDORFER: ... three tree finch species: the small, the medium, and the large. And we went out, and we set up our mist nets, and we caught the birds, and we measured them.

TIM: And the thing to know is that, even though these are three different species, they're actually really hard to tell apart visually. So she would end up relying on their songs, their mating calls.

SONIA KLEINDORFER: Yep.

TIM: Do you remember the song types? Could you whistle them for me?

SONIA KLEINDORFER: Oh yes. It's a very simple song. The small tree finch goes something like "Ch-ch-ch-ch-ch-ch-ch." That's a small tree finch. And the medium tree finch is just a bit slower. For the medium, it's "Ch-ch-ch-ch." For the large, "Chee-chee-chee-chee."

TIM: Wow, it's like a soprano saxophone and an alto and a tenor, or something like that.

SONIA KLEINDORFER: That's right. So we just, you know, sat in the forest and we're—and we would always quiz each other. "What's that? What's that?" And we all agreed.

TIM: Because the calls are really distinct. Easy to tell apart.

SONIA KLEINDORFER: But the interesting thing was from year to year, it got more difficult.

TIM: Sonia says each time she'd go into the field, the songs sounded like they were starting to blur together.

SONIA KLEINDORFER: Then when I showed up after a few years again, I was truly even more perplexed.

TIM: She thought "God, why can't I tell these finches apart?"

SONIA KLEINDORFER: It was very confusing.

TIM: "Am I losing my touch?"

SONIA KLEINDORFER: But that shouldn't really happen. You should actually get better with experience.

TIM: Yeah.

SONIA KLEINDORFER: Not worse. And that's where I thought, "Oh, something's changed in the system." I'd like to think of it as a kind of Darwin finch, you know, sleuthing adventure. So ...

TIM: So Sonia and her team rounded up some of the birds they tagged.

SONIA KLEINDORFER: We collected genetic samples.

TIM: Got some DNA ...

SONIA KLEINDORFER: ... and song samples.

TIM: Made some recordings.

SONIA KLEINDORFER: Yep.

TIM: Brought all this stuff into the lab.

SONIA KLEINDORFER: Analyzed the genetic samples, and ...

TIM: And had this terrible realization ...

SONIA KLEINDORFER: ... that the large tree finch is now extinct.

TIM: Totally gone from the island. So you really only had two species left. You had the small tree finches and the medium tree finches. And based on that genetic data, the small tree finches? Not doing great. But compared to the medium tree finches? They are. Because the medium tree finches were on the brink of extinction.

JAD: Hmm. Like the large ones.

TIM: Yeah. But then she sees something amazing in that genetic data. She sees a small group of birds who have mixed up genes.

SONIA KLEINDORFER: A hybrid cluster.

TIM: Some genes from the small tree finches and some from the medium tree finches.

JAD: Huh. What does that mean?

TIM: Well, it means that these two different finches had started having babies together, which should never actually happen because these are totally separate species.

SONIA KLEINDORFER: That's really the classical definition of a species.

TIM: It's like a biological rule about who you're not gonna make a baby with.

SONIA KLEINDORFER: So they choose not to breed even if they could.

TIM: For, who knows, maybe a million years, the medium tree finch has patrolled that boundary. Like, "I've got my thing over here, and you got your thing over there." But then along come the flies, and all of a sudden, like, over maybe 20 years, these medium tree finches, they start to break their own biggest rule and they start to mate outside of their own kind.

JAD: And these hybrid finches, are they doing better against the flies?

TIM: Well, there's a couple clues that say maybe, yeah. For example, when you look in the nests ...

SONIA KLEINDORFER: They seem to have fewer parasites.

TIM: And they seem to have more babies that survive.

SONIA KLEINDORFER: 15 percent.

TIM: Wow.

SONIA KLEINDORFER: Whereas the numbers were very small for the medium tree finch, and smaller for the small tree finch.

TIM: Wow! I daresay that sounds kind of hopeful.

SONIA KLEINDORFER: It does, yeah.

TIM: Now the jury is still very much out on what will happen, but ...

SONIA KLEINDORFER: If the hybrids do have a fitness advantage ...

TIM: And if they survive, we may be witnessing in hyperspeed the creation of an entirely new species.

SONIA KLEINDORFER: It would possibly be one of the first vertebrate examples of speciation in real time that we can observe.

TIM: So tucked into the story of these finches is the story of Galapagos. The same exact story that Darwin saw, these processes that he described, they just never ever stop. It's this unending struggle.

TIM: One last thing. My last night there, I went to meet up with that guy Leonidas, who was running for mayor. I met him at this pizza place. The election had happened the night before.

JAD: Did he win?

TIM: No. Bocelli the incumbent won. So we go outside ...

LEONIDAS PARALES: Leonidas Parales. My name is Leonidas Parales. I was running as mayor.

TIM: Turns out he speaks some English. So we—you know, we do this interview in English. And I'm almost embarrassed that I wanted to talk to him because I think the dude is just gonna be so down and out.

LEONIDAS PARALES: [laughs]

TIM: Exactly the opposite. He was so joyful.

ROBERT: To have lost?

TIM: That's what I thought.

TIM: You're not sad?

LEONIDAS PARALES: [laughs]

TIM: You're not sad?

LEONIDAS PARALES: I'm never sad.

TIM: And he's like, "Friend, this is a field of four. The other three all have money behind them, and you see their flags all over Santa Cruz. I just came in second."

ROBERT: Whoa!

TIM: "The guy who wins, he spent $500,000. I spent, what, two grand?"

LEONIDAS PARALES: Friend, it's the beginning. It's the beginning of a new—a new future for the Galapagos Island.

TIM: We are ascendant.

LEONIDAS PARALES: And we keep—we have our dreams up. So nature has a boys now. The sea lion has a boys in us. The tortoises has a boys in us. The penguin and everyone.

ROBERT: So something is happening.

TIM: That's exactly how he sees it.

LEONIDAS PARALES: So thank you very much for the interview. I hope you enjoyed the Galapagos Island.

JAD: Producer Tim Howard.

ROBERT: And before we close, very special thanks to Matthew "Judas" Kielty. Without him, Tim would have been crushed just by the sheer amount of tape that he gathered.

JAD: Indeed. Also thanks to Dylan Keefe for original music. Thanks to Trish Tillman and Screen Siren Pictures, Alex Galafant, Mathias Espinosa, the naturals guy from the first chapter, who wrote this song "Peak Open Zone." He's also a well-known musician in Galapagos, turns out. Thanks to the Galapagos National Park, Charles Darwin Foundation, Island Conservation and the Galapagos Conservancy. I'm Jad Abumrad.

ROBERT: I'm Robert Krulwich.

JAD: Thanks for listening.

[LISTENER: Radiolab was created by Jad Abumrad and is edited by Soren Wheeler. Lulu Miller and Latif Nasser are our co-hosts. Suzie Lechtenberg is our executive producer. Dylan Keefe is our director of sound design. Our staff includes: Simon Adler, Jeremy Bloom, Becca Bressler, Rachael Cusick, W. Harry Fortuna, David Gebel, Maria Paz Gutiérrez, Sindhu Gnanasambandan, Matt Kielty, Annie McEwen, Alex Neason, Sarah Qari, Anna Rascouët-Paz, Sarah Sandbach, Arianne Wack, Pat Walters and Molly Webster. With help from Bowen Wang. Our fact-checkers are Diane Kelly, Emily Krieger and Adam Przybyl.]

[ERICA: Hi, I'm Erica in Yonkers. Leadership support for Radiolab science programming is provided by the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, Science Sandbox—a Simons Foundation initiative, and the John Templeton Foundation. Foundational support for Radiolab was provided by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.]



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