Galapagos Centre for Avian Health

To assess disease risks for birds on Ecuador’s Galapagos Islands


Island species have evolved separately from mainland species and are particularly susceptible to several risks, i.e. introduced species and diseases. A clear example is Hawaii – a island state accounting for only 0.2% of the USA’s landmass, but for over 50% of US' extinct species. Hawaiian avifauna has been devastated by a combination of introduced predators and diseases and habitat alteration. Of the 88 species present when the Polynesians first arrived, only 28 remain today. Avian malaria is currently having a major, negative impact on many species of birds, limiting some avian species to habitats above the range of the mosquito intermediate host. In contrast, the unique avian fauna of the Galapagos Islands, well known from Charles Darwin’s voyages and subsequent studies, remains relatively intact. To date, no avian species native to the Galapagos has gone extinct, although several are severely threatened. Several avian diseases that can have a notable negative impact on wild populations, including avian malaria, have not yet been reported in the Galapagos. However on human-inhabited islands avian pox is present in both domestic and endemic bird species. In addition, the risk of introduced diseases is growing with increasing travel and commerce between the archipelago and the mainland.


Recognizing that diseases may become a major threat to Galapagos wildlife, a co-operative programme has been developed to monitor avian health in the Galapagos Islands. The programme has two basic components:


  1. an ongoing monitoring programme that in its first year examined over 2000 samples from 16 avian species (13 sampled systematically, 3 opportunistcally) on 11 of the Galapagos islands,
  2. an organized effort to transfer information and technology to Ecuadorian personnel.

The latter effort includes the placement of a veterinary wildlife pathologist at the Charles Darwin Research Station to train Ecuadorian veterinary scientists in pathology techniques and to perform a more in-depth monitoring of avian species. Having full-time personnel is critical to the project's organization, to the development of local expertise, and subsequently, to the collection of valuable survey data.

The development of this long-term monitoring programme  is essential to prevent the introduction of disease. The programme may thus be viewed as an "early warning system" for the avifauna of this unique ecosystem. As the programme grows, the pathologist, and the local veterinarians and biologists are expected to identify additional projects in areas of concern.

WAZA Conservation Project 04019 is jointly operated by Saint Louis Zoo (Project Managers Drs. Eric Miller and Patty Parker), the Des Lee Professorship in Zoological Studies at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, the Charles Darwin Research Station, and the Galapagos National Park.


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