An Erupting Volcano Threatens One of the World’s Rarest Animals

The endangered Galápagos pink land iguana is found only on Wolf Volcano.

(Photo: Tui De Roy/Getty Images)

May 28, 2015· 2 MIN READ
Taylor Hill is an associate editor at TakePart covering environment and wildlife.

A volcano threatens one of the world’s rarest animals, the Galápagos pink land iguana.

The volcano is erupting on Isabela Island, the sole home to 200 of the reptiles, some 560 miles west of Ecuador.

“The Wolf Volcano is not located near a populated area,” reads a tweet from Galápagos National Park. “This is the only population of pink iguanas in the world.”

Park officials are monitoring lava flows, but so far they have stayed to the south, and the island’s population of pink and yellow iguanas and giant tortoises has remained out of harm’s way on the mountain’s northwestern side.

“In the unlikely situation that an intervention is totally needed, they will act accordingly to protocols that have been established for natural occurring events,” Felipe Cruz, member of the General Assembly at the Charles Darwin Foundation, said in an email.

Wolf volcano spews smoke and lava on Isabela Island. (Photo: Reuters)

Male pink iguanas can grow to more than three feet long and can weigh up to 30 pounds.

Researchers had long thought Isabela Island’s pink iguanas were just Galápagos’ yellow land iguanas suffering from a skin disease. But by 2009, the pink iguanas had been declared a separate species that had diverged from yellow iguanas 5.7 million years ago, before the island even emerged.

In a research expedition last year, scientists with the Galapagos Conservancy found that pink iguanas lived only at elevations between 4,200 and 5,500 feet at the mountain’s summit. How the land-based iguanas ended up on the top half of an island that didn’t exist at the time the species evolved remains a mystery.

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“The population is still small,” Washington Tapia, head of research for Galápagos National Park, said in a statement last year. “Therefore, we should begin a captive breeding program soon to help increase the numbers and contribute to the overall conservation of the pink iguana.”

The breeding program, which was expected to start at the beginning of this year, would bring a few breeding pairs of pink iguanas to the Galápagos’ Santa Cruz Island, the archipelago’s main tourist hub and home to the conservancy’s long-running giant tortoise breeding center. From there, the conservancy would raise a geographically separate population of iguanas to ensure survival of the species should the volcano explode or in the face of other threats, such as feral cats and nonnative parasites.

Cruz said more research on the pink iguana’s ecological needs to be carried out before any action is taken.

“The small numbers of this population is something common in the endemic species of the islands,” Cruz said, pointing to examples of the islands’ other rare species, including its 2,000 penguins, 400 to 600 lava gulls, and plant varieties with fewer than 100 individuals known to exist. “The low numbers on the pink iguana is not much different than the listed ones. Scientific teams are doing all the needed research in order to fill the gaps of information and later take action, or not, based on solid research results.”