The Galapagos Whale Shark Project is tackling big questions on big animals. As the leading group researching these animals in the Galapagos archipelago, the project is using exciting and cutting-edge techniques to find out the importance of the Galapagos Marine Reserve to the unusually high proportion of female whale sharks that swim through. This will allow them to understand how to push for more effective protective conservation measures for these gentle giants.
•Groundbreaking research on whale shark reproductive cycle
•Improving efficacy of protective measures for whale sharks
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Sea the Work
Yearly budget: € 317.612,00
Budget secured: 67%
Awareness & Outreach
In the past, the presence of whale sharks in the Galapagos was not established, with only some rumors from fishermen of big animals they feared would attack and turn their boats. Project leader, Jonathan Green was amongst the first divers in the archipelago that confirmed the presence of these creatures, the whale sharks, in the waters of Darwin Island; a remote rocky islet 2 days boating from the main group of islands in the Galapagos Marine Reserve.
The unknown passage of these gentle giants through the islands motivated the start of multiple streams of research using varying techniques. With the information collected from photo identification, satellite tagging, blood samples and tissue biopsies, the team began to place the significance of the Galapagos Islands in the, largely unknown, context of whale shark life cycle and behavior.
As the team started their investigations, they found something unusual. In most sighting locations worldwide, aggregations tend to be dominated by juvenile males and the few locations where adult females and males are found together tend to be in a 50:50 ratio. However, the team discovered that at Darwin Island the male to female ratio, is 1:99! Pupping grounds for whale sharks are completely unknown and this is key information for the protection of the species. Many of the female whale sharks sighted in the Galapagos have highly distended abdomens suggestive of pregnancy, and as feeding has only been observed on three occasions in over three decades of records, it seems that they are not coming to Darwin Island for reasons associated with feeding. There exists a high possibility that females have their young close to the Galapagos Marine Reserve, and the protection of this area would represent an astronomical step forward in the conservation of whale sharks.
In collaboration with scientists from Okinawa in Japan, who have developed an underwater ultrasound machine, the projects’ current goal is to investigate and understand if the females around the Galapagos waters are indeed pregnant.
Areas of work
From a knowledge base of zero, the team is gradually painting a picture of the importance of the Galapagos Marine Reserve for whale sharks. They have contributed over 600 entries to the global photoidentification database of whale sharks, which will slowly help understand their movements across the world. Photo-Identification is a slow-burning process but with fruitful outcomes. From over 600 individuals catalogued since 2003 they have had 15 re-sightings at different time intervals, demonstrating some form of cyclical use of the Galapagos Marine Reserve. They have also had an international re-sighting of one of their individuals, first sighted at Socorro Island, Revillagigedo, and spotted one year later at Isabela Island, Galapagos.
Besides the implementation of novel techniques in uncharted territory, by simultaneously obtaining the ultrasound images and blood samples – the team will also be able to look at how the hormone levels change for pregnant females – providing the first data points on hormone levels of pregnant female whale sharks. With a baseline established, identification of pregnant females will be able to be carried out more quickly and using cheaper methods. The team functions with a very open philosophy with regards to their data, sharing all their findings as opensource material.
The data collected by the GWSP informs the MigraMar Network, an international coalition of scientists focused on migratory animals, of the Whale Sharks in Galapagos. The data collected from the 107 whale sharks satellite tagged, contributed towards the formation of the new 60.000 square kilometers Brotherhood and Sisterhood Marine Reserve (Reserva Marina Hermandad). This corridor connects Darwin Island to Cocos Island – providing an essential safe zone for many migratory species.
In relation to their current focus, methods such as ultrasound and blood draw can help the scientist determine the reproductive stage of whale sharks and this will provide the answers as to how marine protected areas can issue greater levels of protection for all stages of their life.