La cuarentena: a story of biodiversity, conservation, and chonies

The Galapagos islands are a hotspot for endemic species, meaning that many of the plants and animals you can see on the islands are only found here.  To try to conserve and protect the rich biodiversity of the islands, the Galapagos National Park has a number of rules in place for visitors:

1) National Park visitors must be accompanied by a guide at all times
2) Never stray from marked trails
3) Do not disturb, feed, or touch wildlife
4) Never transport live organisms (insects, seeds) between islands
5) Never remove natural objects (including rocks and shells) from the islands
6) Never smoke on the islands

These rules may seem straightforward, but there’s one catch: it is easy for us to transport insects and seeds between islands without even knowing it.  Seeds may be stuck in the soles of our shoes and insects may burrow in our luggage.  To combat this, as you fly into the Galapagos, the flight crew walk through the cabin and spray every overhead bin with insecticide.  And for the seeds, without most visitors even realizing it, every shoe passes over a mat covered in herbicide on the way into the small terminal.

As scientists, we apply months and months in advance for a permit for expeditions to go to remote areas of the Galapagos to collect samples, work with wildlife, etc.  Because this often means that scientists go outside the designated areas, it is even more critical that no seeds or insects are transported between study sites.  To address this, the Galapagos National Park and Charles Darwin Research Station have developed a rigorous quarantine process for scientific equipment and personal gear brought on each island.

When I say rigorous, I  mean rigorous!  I’ll never forget the moment when on one of our first field expeditions, meeting some of my colleagues for the first time, my underwear was held up to be inspected in front of everyone.  MY CHONIES.  I don’t embarrass easily, but I can only imagine how red I must have been.  Note to self: bring nicer chonies next time!

For each island, a complete separate set of  clean field gear is necessary.   This means different clothes, different shoes, and different chonies.  So if you’re one of those proud owners of the no-stink chonies that can be worn multiple days in the field, you’re out of luck here!

And for the lake sampling work we do this also means lots and lots of gear.  Multiple large, heavy inflatable rafts, sediment coring gear, etc.  Now you can easily see how we ended up with 12 bags for our initial field season!!

So what happens to all the gear in quarantine?  Like my chonies, each item is meticulously checked to make sure it is clean and free of insects or seeds, particularly big culprits like the inserts in our hiking boots (who knew so much stuff can get stuck under there– how does it get there?!).

Then all items are bagged by island, and sprayed down with powerful insecticide and left for at least 24 hours before bringing it directly to the boat.  All bags remain sealed until we reach the island.  Chonies and all.

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