Santiago Bejarano, co-founder of Think Galapagos, photographer and naturalist guide in Galapagos since 1992 describes one of his favourite Galapagos birds.
It might not be able to fly but look how it moves underwater! One of a kind, the Galapagos Cormorant is the only flightless Cormorant in the world. It propels itself forward underwater with its webbed feet and powerful, solid legs, very much resembling a torpedo.
Natural selection led to the species no longer having functioning wings as they had so few land predators, so individuals that were better suited to swimming were more successful and passed on their genes.
The population, which current estimates put at around 1,000 breeding pairs, lives only around the northern and western coast of Isabela Island and Fernandina Island in the Galapagos. I recently encountered this unique bird whilst snorkeling in and around Punta Vicente Roca on the North West tip of Isabela. I was lucky enough to capture this encounter on video so you can see this magical bird as he moves through the ocean in search of food.
A species under threat?
Sadly the Flightless Cormorant is a species which is extremely vulnerable to warm water anomalies such as El Niño years and longer-term changes in global ocean temperatures. The effects of climate change and more frequent and severe El Niño Southern Oscillation events could have potentially catastrophic impacts on the species in the future as its food, which is mainly made up of eels and octopus, becomes ever more scarce. In the 1983 El Nino event, the strongest in recent times, it is estimated that half the population was lost.
The fact the species cannot fly, coupled with its lack of dispersal tendencies (i.e. its concentration in such a small area) mean that it is highly vulnerable to disturbance by humans and environmental disasters such as oil pollution.
Furthermore, like many species in the Galapagos, the Galapagos Cormorant is entirely fearless of humans, which further increases its susceptibility to disturbance. In the past, introduced feral dogs were a great threat to the species on Isabela, but they have since been eradicated from the island. Future introduction of rats or cats to Fernandina is a huge potential threat to the species. Fishing with nets also poses a current threat to the species; this not only reduces the availability of the cormorant’s food, but also often results in birds becoming caught in the nets and killed.
Those with an interest in Galapagos conservation are monitoring the population the Flightless Cormorant carefully, not only because they are so vulnerable and an evolutionary gem of island ecology, but also along with the Galapagos Penguin (the other unique flightless bird of Galapagos) they are seen as indicator species which highlight the health of the marine ecosystem as a whole.
We can all help in our own little way
All guests who travel with Think Galapagos have the option to receive a complimentary years’ membership to the Galapagos Conservation Trust and most, after visiting this incredible place continue to support its work in helping to conserve the unique flora and fauna of the Galapagos for future generations.