1 Our trip started once we were over the Andean region of Ecuador, also known as La Sierra and the Highlands. It is the most visited area of the country.
2 The Highlands region is a diverse area of volcanoes, hot springs, beautiful farmlands and forests.
3 The area contains nearly 30-volcanoes with an average altitude of more than 15-thousand feet covering more than 200-miles from northern to southern Ecuador.
4 Known as the “Avenue of the Volcanoes,” the Highlands have cool, spring-like weather most of the year. The region is generally overcast and wet from October to May. The area's dry season runs from June to September.
5 The capital city of Quito is located in the northern Andes. The city draws tens of thousands of international visitors each year.
6 Quito is built on a long plateau lying on the east flanks of the Pichincha volcano and sits at an elevation of 9350-feet above sea level. It is the highest official capital city in the world.
7 Once in the Galapagos, we visited several islands, including Santa Cruz, where we stopped at the Charles Darwin Research Station. It is part of The Charles Darwin Foundation, a not-for-profit scientific organization founded in 1959 that conducts research and promotes environmental education. Patricia Jaramillo Diaz is the herbarium curator.
8 The herbarium is managed by the research station for the Government of Ecuador. It holds more than 33-thousand different specimens including more than 20-thousand vascular plants, and 12-thousand non-vascular plants.
9 This is a Scalesia helleri, a relative of the sunflower, and is unique to the Galapagos - it smells like perfume.
10 These Scalesias are endemic in the Galapagos. Nets are used to enclose its caterpillar predator so researchers can identify the group of insects it belongs to in all stages of life.
11 This is another Scalesia tree that is endemic to Galapagos.
12 This is Opuntia echios var. gigantea, or Opuntia cactus. It is being used in a water saving technique called groasis technology that helps to stimulate plant growth using a minimum amount of water. This allows for more productive trees to be planted on degraded areas without irrigation.
13 Here, Patricia is demonstrating how it works. Since 2013, the Charles Darwin Foundation has planted more than five-thousand plants distributed on four-islands - this includes 68-species of plants such as Opuntia cactus, and Scalesia afinis that are both in danger of extinction.
14 Here is Patricia showing two Opuntia specimens. This species has shown accelerated growth using groasis technology.
15 This is an Opuntia echios nursery being grown for ecological restoration in Plaza Sur. Opuntia echios is another species of plant in the Cactaceae family, and is also endemic to the Galapagos Islands. It is a prime source of food for birds, tortoises and other animals in the Galapagos.
16 Jasminocereus thouarsii is a species of plant in the Cactaceae family. It is endemic to Ecuador including the Galapagos Islands. It is a large succulent tree, which flowers at night and is pollinated by bats.
17 Passiflora maliformis, is a smallish passionfruit with purple, yellow or green skin and a dull yellow orange pulp that is aromatically scented and flavored. It is a fast-growing vine, that does best in somewhat cooler than tropical climates.
18 Cordia lutea, known as yellow cordia or in Spanish, "muyuyo", is a shrubby plant in the borage family. It is native to the Galápagos Islands, mainland Ecuador, Peru, and the Marquesas Islands in Polynesia.
19 Patricia shows a pumpkin that was found in the Galapagos - it's believed the pumpkin floated in from the mainland.
20 These are lichen samples that are part of the herbarium collection.
21 All kinds of plant samples are stored in the herbarium collection. Special acid-free paper is used to preserve all these documents. The Research Station preserves its specimens in the same way as other botanical institutions, such as the NYBG and the Kew Royal Botanic Gardens.
22 This sample of fungus is actually growing on a piece of wood.
23 These are more samples of lichen and moss.
24 Scalesia is a genus in the family Asteraceae endemic to the Galapagos Islands. It contains 15-species that grow as shrubs or trees. This is unusual because tree species are uncommon in Asteraceae. They are considered to be facing high risk of extinction in the wild.
25 This is natural lava rock used in the facade of one of the Charles Darwin Research Station buildings. These buildings are very old and in need of restoration, but unfortunately, there just isn't enough funding. More donations are needed, so we can all continue to enjoy these extraordinary Galapagos Islands.
26 Dr. Gustavo Jiménez is the senior researcher in charge of the vertebrates collection, and Paola Díaz is the coordinator of communications and public relations for the Research Station.
27 This is part of the finch collection - males are the black birds and females are the lighter brown colored birds. Everything is tagged, identified and preserved very carefully - all their practices are consistent with larger research libraries.
28 This is the skull of a common bottle nose dolphin, Tursiops truncates, a species that is among the most familiar of the dolphins because of its popularity around the world.
29 Short-finned pilot whales, Globicephala macrorhynchus, primarily inhabit warm tropical waters, but often stay offshore in deeper waters. At one time, it was commonly seen off of Southern California, but short-finned pilot whales disappeared from the area after a strong El Niño year in the early 1980s.
30 These are skulls of other marine mammals in the vertebrates collection - also well tagged and organized.
31 Here is a stuffed great albatross, and a flightless cormorant behind it, and other bird species - all part of the vertebrates collection.
32 Dr. Jimenez shows our group the albatross, and talks about the magnificent bird. Of the 21-albatross species recognized, 19 are threatened.
33 These are various finches including the common cactus finch and the large ground finch.
34 These are giant tortoise shells - an adult as well as a baby - the size difference is extraordinary.
35 Here is a closer look at the baby Galapagos giant tortoise shell. Because baby tortoises are so small when they hatch, very few survive, making the recovery process for these vulnerable species slow and challenging.
36 There are two distinct groups of Galapagos giant tortoises - the saddlebacks and domed tortoises. This is a saddleback tortoise shell. The bone and the skin of the shell are visible - they grow like fingernails. Most of this shell is missing
37 Vertebrate collections are kept in special conditions to keep the samples from deteriorating. This is one of the corridors of the collection in the Galapagos center.
38 The Exhibition Hall is the newest addition to the Charles Darwin Research Station. It gives visitors a look at the scientific work being done in the Galapagos. A big impressive Bryde's Whale found dead on Rabida Island in 1995 is the first thing you see as you enter the Hall.
39 The Bryde's whale, Balaenoptera edeni, is the largest specimen at the Research Station. They can reach lengths of about 40 to 55-feet and weigh up to 45-tons.
40 It belongs to the same group as blue whales and humpback whales.
41 This is a mural design by artist Carlyn Iverson, and painted by Carlyn Iverson and local artists Clovis Patiño and Isaac Delgado. It took two-weeks to finish the work. http://www.carlyniverson.com
42 The mural includes a sea turtle, a mola mola, a ray, a blue whale, and a frigate bird in the waters of the Galapagos.
43 Here is a Galapagos Islands mural at the Charles Darwin Research Station Exhibition Hall. It was also designed by Carlyn Iverson, and completed by local artist, Isaac Delgado.
44 Here I am with some of the staff of the Charles Darwin Research Station - Patricia, Alejandra Mejía, Paola, Kelsey Bradley and Jilla Nadimi. It was a great visit. For more information on how to help support the Foundation, go to their web site. http://www.darwinfoundation.org/en/get-involved/donate/
45 While were were on Santa Cruz Island, we also stopped at the El Chato Giant Tortoise Reserve. Tortoise shells are made from bone and go all the way around the giant tortoise. These shells are so big, some visitors could actually "try one on".
46 The Galápagos tortoise, or Galápagos giant tortoise, Chelonoidis nigra, is the largest living species of tortoise. Lonesome George was a male Pinta Island tortoise, Chelonoidis nigra abingdonii, and the last known individual of the subspecies. He died in 2012. Lonesome George serves as a symbol for conservation efforts in the Galápagos Islands.
47 The tortoise is native to seven of the Galápagos Islands. With lifespans in the wild of more than 100-years, it is one of the longest-lived vertebrates.
48 On hot days in the Galapagos, these wild tortoises love to rest in the muddy ponds.
49 Some of the wild tortoises wallowed in the mud baths to protect themselves from parasites and to help regulate body temperature.
50 We saw a group of tortoises enjoying the cool mud. These giant tortoises grow up to 500-pounds. On the far right, is a small, black baby tortoise.
51 An estimated 200-thousand tortoises were killed before the 20th century. In the 1800s, sailors would collect these slow, defenseless animals and store them live on board ships. Because tortoises are able to survive at least one year without food or water, they could be eaten fresh as needed. Tortoises were wiped out on at least three islands.
52 Giant tortoises reach maturity when they are about 20-years old. Female tortoises migrate to the drier lowlands during breeding season. Males also migrate, and then return to the Santa Cruz highlands after breeding. The females stay in the lowlands to lay their eggs.
53 When tortoises feel threatened, they pull in their heads and protect them behind their front legs.
54 Tortoises always maintain the same number of plates, or scutes, in their shells. The plates get bigger as the tortoise grows, but they do not increase in number.
55 On islands with humid highlands, the tortoises are larger, with domed shells and short necks. On islands with dry lowlands, the tortoises are smaller, with "saddleback" shells and long necks.
56 The species as a whole is classified as "vulnerable" by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. Here, you can see this tortoise's shell is a bit shiny - it started to rain while we were there. It made me happy, as I thought all the tortoises needed baths.
57 The legs are large and stumpy, with dry, scaly skin and hard scales. The front legs have five claws, the back legs four.
58 Tortoises have no teeth. Instead they have a sharp horn plate. Do you know what this tortoise is eating? Guavas! They love guavas - it's one of their favorite foods.
59 They are herbivores, and aside from these guavas, they consume a diet of cacti, grasses, leaves, lichens, and berries. Digestion takes one to three weeks, depending on what they eat.
60 Tortoises get most of their moisture from the dew and sap in the vegetation.
61 We visited an underground lava tunnel, also on Santa Cruz Island. These tunnels were formed when cooler outer parts of lava flows hardened into thick rock walls. This provided insulation to keep a flow going inside. Eventually the flow subsided leaving long empty tunnels.
62 Visitors are able to walk through the channels, which often run more than a half-mile in length.
63 The tunnels are pretty tall - rows of lights along the tunnel ceilings lit the way. The walls exposed different colored rock and earth along both sides.
64 Here is a closer look at the striations. They indicate the different lava layers that formed and burned through the earth.
65 This is the opening of the lava tube - such striking geological formations. These tunnels can be a bit slippery, but we all loved walking through them.
66 We visited an old sugar estate called El Trapiche, which is Spanish for "sugar mill". The children were invited to take a turn at the press.
67 As the children turn the press, long sugar cane leaves are run through it, while sugar cane juice spills into a pail underneath.
68 The children really enjoyed turning the press.
69 After the sugar cane is pressed into juice, it is fermented into strong alcohol, and boiled down to molasses.
70 There was also a demonstration of how coffee beans, also grown at El Trapiche, are pounded to retain the oils.
71 The beans are pounded with a very large mortar and pestle.
72 Here is a collection of beans before it is pounded down for coffee. It was all very interesting. Tomorrow - photos of all the gorgeous birds and other exotic animals - we saw such amazing creatures.