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Oil Spill Starves Galápagos Iguanas

The effects of a huge oil spill in the Galápagos Islands last year may be much worse than earlier thought. Ecologists say the oil caused 62 percent of rare marine iguanas to starve to death.


The Galápagos Islands are home to unique animal species like the Marine Iguana.

More than a year after the cargo ship 'Jessica' ran
aground on a sandbank in the Galápagos Islands,
spilling almost all of its cargo of diesel and bunker
fuel into the sea, scientists say the accident has had
a severe impact on the islands' rare marine iguanas
(amblyrhynchus cristatus).

The erratic currents of the Galápagos archipelago
carried patches of bunker fuel as far as 130km away
from where the ship ran aground. Five major islands
were affected by the spill.

Tankerkatastrophe vor den Galapagos Inseln

Jessica ran aground near San Cristóbal Island on January 16, 2001.

The Charles Darwin Foundation for the Galápagos Islands says that given the quantity of oil spilled, the effects could have been much worse. Good weather and the efforts of the Galápagos National Park Service to keep the bunker fuel off the beaches meant the wildlife had a lucky escape.

Iguanas unlucky

But eco-physiologist at Princeton University in New
Jersey, Martin Wikelski, this week published findings
of research in the science journal 'Nature' which
suggest some Galápagos animals weren't so lucky.
Wikelski's research shows that more than sixty percent
of marked iguanas on Santa Fe Island, which was
subject to contamination, have died.

Adult iguanas on the island of Santa Fe have no
natural predators and their normal cause of death is
lack of food or old age. Wikelski's team thinks that
spilled oil killed microbes in the iguanas' guts that
enable the animals to digest algae, causing them to

The scientists say their research shows that even
low-level pollution can cause serious damage to
wildlife. "our findings warn against complacency over
apparently low-impact contamination after
environmental disasters in other wildlife areas,"
Wikelski said.

Still counting the cost

Wikelski is seeking damages of US$600,000 as part of a
wider $14m claim being brought by the Galápagos
National Park against the owners and insurers of the
tanker. The Park is also seeking damages from
Petrocomercial, an arm of the Ecuadorian state oil
company which owned the oil, to cover the cost of
cleaning up the spill and monitoring its effects, as
well as loss of tourism and fishing revenues.

Hearings in the case began in February in the High
Court at Guayaquil, Ecuador. Wikelski is claiming that
the spill prevented him from conducting research on
the iguanas. The $600,000 represents some of the
funding he and his team had received from Germany's
Max Planck Society, the University of Princeton and
the US National Science Foundation. If he wins,
Wikelski says the money will be used to set up a fund
for young Ecuadorian scientists.

The Galápagos Islands' unique flora and fauna inspired
Charles Darwin to write 'On The Origin of Species by
Natural Selection'. The islands have been in existence
for three- to four million years. Ninety percent of
reptiles and fifty percent of birds are unique to the
islands. The Galápagos Marine Reserve, created in
1998, covers 130,000 square kilometres of the Pacific
Ocean, and was recently named a World Heritage Site.

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