By Jane Braxton Little
Linda J. Cayot's scientific focus for the day was a male giant tortoise, part of her dissertation research on the ecology of these iconic Galápagos reptiles. When her study animal lumbered into a swirling torrent of muddy El Niño waters, the intrepid scientist jumped in, too. Together they banged against rocks, his carapace and her daypack catching on tree branches as they thumped in tandem down the river to the lowlands of Santa Cruz Island.
Cayot studied Galápagos giant tortoises on many islands during her 40-year career. This 1982 photo is from Pinzon Island. (© Theresa Kineke Brooks, used with permission)
Respectful Relationships: Value Everyone’s Input<p>"You accomplish much more conservation by having good relationships with everyone," says Linda Cayot.</p><p>As a scientist Cayot worked with <a href="https://www.galapagos.gob.ec/en/national-park/" target="_blank">Galápagos National Park Directorate</a> rangers who were fresh out of high school, as well as some of the world's leading herpetologists and geneticists. She sought out people with the tools and ability to solve problems, regardless of their credentials.</p><p>Wacho Tapia is among of them. When he was a 17-year-old Galapagoan volunteer Cayot recognized his passion for giant tortoises and determination to save them. Now director of Galápagos Conservancy's <a href="https://www.galapagos.org/conservation/our-work/tortoise-restoration/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Giant Tortoise Restoration Initiative</a>, Tapia's years of working with Cayot ensure continuity in the tortoise restoration projects she initiated.</p><p>The respect Cayot demonstrated throughout her career is reflected in a small incident on Pinta Island. She asked <a href="https://www.houstonzoo.org/blog/houston-zoo-chief-veterinarian-helps-restore-giant-tortoise-population-in-galapagos/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Joe Flanagan</a>, an American collaborator and chief veterinarian at the Houston Zoo, to document the repatriation of tortoises by photographing the park rangers carrying them to their release sites. One after another refused to be photographed. But when he said the photos were for Cayot, each ranger agreed. Some even primped.</p><p>"Linda recognizes that most conservation problems are caused by people, but she strongly believes that people are also the solution," Flanagan says.</p>
Long-term Vision: Conservation Happens Slowly<p>"Projects can take 50 years," says Cayot. "That's a hell of a long time! But those are the projects that push conservation forward."</p><p>Cayot has always maintained a long-term vision. But working in the Galápagos honed it from years to decades and centuries.</p><p>The successful projects she worked on included repatriating tortoises to Española, the southernmost island. In the 1960s park rangers found just 14 tortoises there.</p><p>They took them to the <a href="https://www.galapagos.org/conservation/our-work/tortoise-restoration/tortoise-breeding-and-rearing-programs/" target="_blank">Santa Cruz breeding center</a>, added a male from the San Diego Zoo, and launched a breeding program Cayot later supervised. When young tortoises born at the center were old enough to survive out of captivity, they were released on the island of their ancestors.</p><p>In June Galápagos Park marked the successful conclusion of the <a href="https://www.galapagos.org/newsroom/espanola-tortoises-return-home-following-closure-of-successful-breeding-program/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">project</a> by returning the original tortoises to Española — 55 years after removing them — to join their progeny and the offspring they in turn had produced.</p><p>Cayot also had a central role in eradicating <a href="https://www.galapagos.org/conservation/our-work/ecosystem-restoration/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">invasive species</a> from the islands. When she first arrived in Galápagos, the southern rim of <a href="https://www.galapagos.org/about_galapagos/about-galapagos/the-islands/isabela/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Alcedo Volcano</a> was covered with <em>Zanthoxylum</em> trees. By the early 1990s, invasive goats were destroying the forest, a critical area for giant tortoises. Cayot coordinated <a href="https://www.galapagos.org/conservation/our-work/ecosystem-restoration/project-isabela/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Project Isabela</a>, the largest invasive species eradication ever attempted anywhere.</p><p>It took nearly a decade. Today the vegetation is slowly regenerating. Full restoration will take decades more, but that's not a problem in her mind: Cayot views Galápagos conservation in 100-year increments.</p><p>"I worked on the everyday details of Project Isabela, but I was thinking ahead to a century and beyond," she says.</p>
Serendipity: Learn From Surprises<p>"Don't worry if it takes a long time," says Cayot. "Emerging knowledge may result in significant changes and greater success in the end."</p><p>In 1972 <a href="https://www.nationalgeographic.com/news/2012/6/120625-lonesome-george-tortoise-last-extinct-galapagos-science-animals/" target="_blank">Lonesome George</a>, the last Pinta Island tortoise, was taken to a Santa Cruz Island pen for his protection. Scientists later decided to return tortoises to Pinta, where the habitat was declining without them. Although they would not be the endemic Pinta species, they would still disperse native plant seeds and modify habitat to help other animals and plants thrive, scientists reasoned.</p>
Lonesome George in 2008. Photo: Arturo de Frias Marques (CC BY-SA 3.0)
Collaboration: One Solution From Many Agendas<p>"You can see the excitement growing when you come up with solutions no one had thought of before," says Cayot.</p><p>When Cayot began coordinating Project Isabela, she knew it would only succeed if Galápagos Park Directorate and <a href="https://www.darwinfoundation.org/en/about/cdrs" target="_blank">Charles Darwin Research Station</a> worked together.</p><p>Because they'd never officially co-run a project, Cayot spent an evening sewing. She took a park hat and a station hat — each of which bore an image of a tortoise — cut them both in half and stitched them back together, making the bisected embroidered tortoise whole again. Cayot wore that hat when she gave talks, pulling it on if discussions became contentious.</p>
Linda Cayot made this hat out of a Galápagos Park cap and a Charles Darwin Research Station cap to symbolize and promote the cooperation required for the projects they shared. (© Jane Braxton Little, used with permission)
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International marine scientists have discovered 30 new species in the deep waters off the Galapagos Islands of Ecuador, highlighting how unique the ecosystems of the islands are as well as how little we know about the deep sea.
Researchers measured and observed specimens collected during one of the ROV dives. Ocean Exploration Trust / Nautilus Live
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A barge containing 600 gallons of diesel fuel sank off the Galápagos Islands Sunday, prompting fears for the island chain's unique wildlife.
He may be well over 100 years old, but Diego the Tortoise still has plenty of charm and he's using it to ensure that his species lives on.
The giant Galapagos tortoise has been "working" since the 1960s—when there were only 14 wild tortoises, two of which were male, left on Española—to save his native species from the brink of extinction. And he's doing an impressive job.
Based on recent genetic studies, Diego has single-handedly fathered an estimated 800 offspring—40 percent of the 2,000 captive-bred tortoises that have since been released into the wild.
Diego the Tortoise saves Galapagos species from extinction by fathering 800 offspring https://t.co/dmugt3GeKa https://t.co/mPwUxcYh9i— AFP news agency (@AFP news agency)1473848406.0
"He's a very sexually active male reproducer. He's contributed enormously to repopulating the island," tortoise preservation specialist, Washington Tapia, from the Galapagos National Park, told the AFP.
Scientists say Diego is the dominant male of the three assigned to repopulate the island, and weighs about 175 pounds, is nearly 35 inches long and 5 feet tall.
While most of Diego's history remains a mystery, scientists do know he was discovered at the San Diego Zoo in the 1950s. After being located at the zoo, Diego was brought back to the Galapagos in 1976 and put in the captive breeding program, AFP reported. He currently lives at a tortoise breeding center on Santa Cruz Island in the Galapagos, where he and six females share an enclosure.