Conservation of the Floreana Mockingbird

Dr Luis Ortiz-Catedral is working on an international collaborative conservation programme to save an endangered endemic bird species of the Galapagos islands.

Floreana Mockingbird mural on Galapagos Islands

A mural in the township of Puerto Ayora on the Galapagos Islands, showcasing the plight of the Floreana Mockingbird and the work being done by Luis's team.

Galapagos Islands children learning about the Floreana Mockingbird

Children learning about the mockingbird through the play "A very special island".

Dr Ortiz-Catedral has been working bring the Floreana Mockingbird, known as ‘Darwin’s Muse’ back from the brink of extinction using genetic, translocation and predator control techniques developed in New Zealand in the 1970s.

Growing up in Mexico, Dr Luis Ortiz-Catedral’s childhood was spent outdoors, crawling under rocks to study the creatures beneath, and catching and taking home turtles, parrots and fish.

Now saving species has become the Massey biologist’s life’s work – and Ecuador’s Galápagos islands the site of a career crusade – to save the critically endangered Floreana mockingbird.

Darwin's muse

It is known as “Darwin’s Muse”, because of its pivotal role in the formation of English naturalist and geologist Charles Darwin’s theory of natural selection.

During his HMS Beagle voyage in 1835, Darwin observed that the native mockingbird differed in appearance between the islands, inspiring the evolutionary theory in his Origin of Species book.

Once endemic to the Galápagos, there are now just a few hundred surviving and the bird is relatively unknown even in its home country.

“Many people in the Galápagos have never heard of the Floreana mockingbird — they’ve never seen it. It is an amazing experience to connect with a very wide audience and get them on board,” Ortiz-Catedral says.

A group effort

Working with the Ecuadorian Ministry of the Environment, Directorate of the Galápagos National Park, Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust and University of Zurich scientists, the New Zealand-trained conservation biologist, is charged with halting the species decline, and helping it to become self-sustainable.

His first task was to spend time on the islets to learn more about the birds’ numbers, genetic make-up, diet, the threats – such as rats, feral cats and dogs– and the geography of the area.

The team found between 300-400 birds on the two islets. “This makes them about as rare as the Black Robin or Takahe,” he says.

The populations are also not interbreeding, which means that each population has very low genetic diversity – making them more susceptible to diseases.

Another challenge is that the already-tiny islets are eroding, leaving the birds with even less space to flourish.

The next step is to conduct extensive lab work on feather and blood samples to analyse the current genetic diversity and health status of both populations. They will then work with policy-makers to translate the findings into practical conservation initiatives.

Techniques from New Zealand's conservation history

Ortiz-Catedral, from Massey’s Institute of Natural and Mathematical Sciences, says the team will take genetic, translocation and predator control techniques developed in New Zealand in the 1970s, and apply them to the Galápagos setting.

It may include reconnecting the two islet’s populations genetically by swapping eggs; transferring the birds to different locations; and trapping predators on the islets. 

Developing education programmes is another priority, though early highpoints have been the popularity of a mural depicting the different species of mockingbird, including the Floreana, which is now a “selfie” spot for tourists and locals.

It also has a family connection for Ortiz-Catedral – his brother, Josue, painted it during his two-month volunteer stint on the islands.

Another is a play – 'A very special island' – put on by local school children about the lives of Floreana mockingbirds and the threats they face.

“It’s great to see the next generation get excited about this very special bird. They’re the ones who will be looking after it in the future,” Ortiz-Catedral says.

The global experts

He is confident that New Zealand’s expertise can make a difference. “Getting New Zealanders involved is a no-brainer because island conservation is a recurrent theme here. We’re the global experts. We have the capacity to reshape global conservation for islands worldwide.”

Ortiz-Catedral’s research on Floreana mockingbirds is funded by the Galápagos Conservation Trust, The Mohamed bin Zayed Species Conservation Trust, Massey University and Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust.

Contact Dr Ortiz-Catedral

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