The University of Minnesota’s Raptor Center is taking part in a project that would seem like “mission impossible” unless you knew the logistics and the track record of the groups involved: The St. Paul-based center is to participate in the roundup and temporary incarceration of about 20 Galapagos hawks.
In October and November, Dr. Julia Ponder, the center’s executive director, is to bring her veterinary expertise with wild raptors to Ecuador where she will join a team of researchers from the Charles Darwin Foundation, Galapagos National Park, University of Missouri and the Peregrine Fund.
The story behind the project is a modern-day lesson in the interwoven eco system that fascinated Charles Darwin more than 150 years ago.
Over the centuries, boats visiting the Galapagos have carried unwelcome stowaways: rats.
The voracious and disease-carrying invaders have cut into the natural populations of everything from the native rice rat to prized tree-nesting birds such as the Mangrove Finch, according to a report from the Charles Darwin Foundation.
The alien rats also have diminished some species of plants and even the giant tortoises.
For years, scientists have experimented with anti-rat tactics — from traps to poison set in bait stations that weren’t accessible to other, native rodents.
Now the research team is ready to embark on a six-week project to eradicate the alien rats from four of the islands in the archipelago. They are building on similar work successfully completed on several other islands.
Here is the problem: The prey of Galapagos hawks includes rats, which means they would be at very high risk for secondary poisoning during the rat eradication program, according to the Raptor Center.
Some of the targeted islands are the only places on Earth where you find these hawks, an endemic species that is classified as vulnerable by virtue of its small population. Although exact counts aren’t easy to do, experts estimated that there were fewer than 900 of the birds in 2008. Once common throughout the Galapagos, the hawks now are extinct on several of the islands.
The hawks’ population has stabilized in recent years. But scientists want to be sure the eradication program doesn’t jeopardize that stability.
To mitigate the risk, the hawks will be brought into temporary captivity for four to six weeks of the rat eradication program.
The Raptor Center’s role will be to provide input on the project, veterinary expertise with raptors, and care and management of the hawks during that time.
Ponder is to actively manage the hawks and provide other veterinary support to the research team.
“In addition to our experience in raptor medicine, surgery, and critical care, we also bring leadership and knowledge in the area of captive management of wild raptors, which will be critical for this project,” Ponder said in a statement.
For future updates on the work on the Galapagos Islands, you can check The Raptor Center’s blog.