In the Galápagos, ordinary cats are the exotic species

We had just seen a Galápagos hawk soaring overhead when we heard an incongruous sound; here were cats mewing beside the path. I caught a glimpse of a tabby kitten with the bluest eyes.

“I like cats” the guide said “but I’ll have to report these to the rangers. They will come here with dogs.”

We were returning from hiking on the tortured volcanic surface of one of the world’s largest active calderas, Cerro Negro, on Isla Isabela. We walked carefully along the border of the volcano’s crater; the path was narrow and muddy with a fatal drop-off. Fortunately, there was a slender border of green between the sheer wall and us. This is where these feline invaders lived.

Cats are an exotic species in the Galápagos Islands, maybe introduced to catch the rats that were also introduced accidentally by man. Sometimes, biocontrol (using one species to control another) works out well; other times, it is a disaster. Cats in the Galápagos are a disaster. Charles Darwin recognized this danger almost two centuries ago, saying, “The introduction of any new beast of prey must cause (extinction) in a country, before the instincts of the indigenous inhabitants have become adapted to the stranger’s craft or power.”

Galápagos hawks only live on that isolated group of islands; they are endemic, meaning they are found nowhere else in the world. They nest in low trees and in the hollows of walls of the volcanic rock of which the islands are made. Formerly, the hawks had no natural enemies but now their eggs, nestlings and fledglings are easy prey for cats.

A census of Galápagos hawks taken late in the 20th century estimated fewer than 1,000. These magnificent birds have been eradicated from much of their former habitat, so now this species is found on only four of the islands. The Red List of Threatened Species states that these hawks are vulnerable to extinction because of introduced predators and their small population.

Of the six ways that mankind sends other species to extinction, perhaps introduction of exotic plants and animals is the second most common.

Exotics may not seem so bad in that our homes and gardens are filled with beautiful plants from other lands. Unfortunately, they can cause problems in at least three ways. Exotics may out-compete natives. They often don’t have local pests to help control them, as is the case with cats in the Galápagos. Pollinators often find exotic plants unattractive, so pollinators become scarce, but they are essential to native species.

Ecuadorians are doing a fine job of dealing with exotic species. We paid $100 for a permit to visit the Galápagos; that money helps fund the rangers and other efforts to protect the unique environment. Our small group of “adventure tourists” also was given an orientation urging us to respect this amazing place with its many endemic plants and animals.

Destruction of habitat and climate change are two other ways that humans are causing the mass extinction of species. As the numbers of humans has grown, and as we “improve” the landscape with more agriculture and construction, there is simply less space for other species. Not only do we use more and more of the land – we break up what there is so it is of less value to critters.

Climate change is also wreaking havoc with many plants and animals. Species that need cold, or whose pests are controlled by cold, are susceptible to our climate’s warming. A local example is the little pikas that live high in the mountains. They are happiest with cold winters and lots of snow. They can move up in altitude as the world warms, but our mountains only go so high. If the world gets too hot, they will all “go to heaven.” Another example is the spruce-bark beetle, which has killed so many of our spruce trees. Sub-zero temperatures and adequate moisture have controlled this pest in the past, but the beetles are thriving with climate change and drought.

There is hope for endangered species, at least in the Galápagos. I have heard that this species now numbers almost 2,000 members, so efforts to protect their endemic hawk have apparently been successful. There are even plans to reintroduce them to islands where they had been driven to extinction. I feel good that our small contributions paid for by the permits to enter the islands have been effective in helping to preserve one of nature’s many wonders.

Richard Grossman practices gynecology in Durango. Reach him at richard@population-matters.org. © 2013 Richard Grossman, M.D.