Ways of Engaging Nature Part 3: Community Science in the Galápagos Archipelago

By Michael Weisberg & Deena Skolnick Weisberg

In the late afternoon, hundreds of sea lions haul themselves out of the water and on to the rocks and beaches of San Cristóbal, one of the islands in the Galápagos archipelago, finding a warm flat surface for the evening. Two hours later, darkness descends on the islands, six hundred miles off the coast of mainland Ecuador. Not long ago, the night was pitch black and filled only with the sound of sea lion calls and waves crashing on the rocks. But now the beaches and rocks where the sea lions sleep are adjacent to a bustling town of 6500 Galapageños. Darkness is broken with electric lights, and the sound of sea lions and waves mixes with music from the Iguana Rock discoteca.

Famously an inspiration for Charles Darwin’s ideas in On the Origin of Species, the Galápagos islands remain an important focal point of biological work due to their relative isolation, their large number of endemic species (including Galápagos sea lions), and their unique and fragile ecosystems. They may well be the most ecologically well-preserved islands in the world. But due to the increasing popularity of ecotourism, changes in global climate, and, especially, the growing local population, these islands face many ecological challenges.

Many organizations attempt to address these challenges, but few have explored ways of engaging the local community in these efforts. This is especially unfortunate because the Galapageños are both the source of greatest stress on the islands, and also are positioned to be the archipelago’s most effective protectors. Is there a way that a group of outsiders, such as Penn researchers, can responsibly engage the local community to protect this place?

We believe the answer is yes. The approach we are developing will involve the local community directly in scientific research as a means to increase motivation for environmental action. Starting this summer, we will train a group of 12 local high school students to be field assistants for a project studying the impact of humans on sea lions. These students will be responsible for monitoring three beaches along the developed waterfront of San Cristóbal island, studying how the human population affects the number of sea lions, their behavior, and their social structure.

Why focus on sea lions? Our study is motivated by the priorities of both the Galápagos National Park rangers and local community leaders. For different reasons, both groups are concerned about interactions between humans and sea lions. The park rangers are primarily interested in conservation; they are rightly worried that humans pose direct and indirect threats to the sea lions. Boating, dog walking, fireworks, pollution, and direct harassment have all been responsible for sea lion injuries and deaths.

The local community is also concerned about changes in sea lion behavior. In recent years, sea lions have shown increased aggression on beaches, and begun to spend more time on boats and in other human-occupied spaces. At the same time, sea lions are considered the symbol of the town of Puerto Baquerizo Moreno, so their fate is taken very personally. Local wisdom follows science in understanding that the health of the sea lions indicates the health of the marine environment. Given that much of the economy of the Galápagos islands relies on fishing, when the sea lions are not thriving, trouble awaits.

It has not been established whether exposure to human influences disrupts or changes sea lion behavior or social structure. But we have observed a number of sea lion behavioral responses to human disturbance that are unique to inhabited parts of the Galápagos, including maternal aggression in response to interference with pups and skirmishes with local dogs. This suggests that sea lions are behaviorally plastic in response to habitat degradation and stressful interactions with humans. While we are optimistic that this plasticity will allow for sea lions and humans to share the limited space and resources available in the Galápagos, it might also have negative influences on their social structure and reproductive rates.

While the students study the sea lions, and try to find more effective ways to protect them, we will study the effectiveness of this type of engagement on their attitudes. Through a series of interviews and surveys, we hope to find a measurable increase in knowledge about sea lion natural history and in motivation for environmental action.  

Finally, in addition to helping us learn more about the sea lions themselves, our student field assistants will make presentations to younger students, their families, and their community about what they are learning. Based on what they have learned and the feedback from their presentations, they will help a team of researchers and local naturalist guides develop an informational campaign for their community. We hope that these efforts will protect the sea lions, and show how community science can be an effective conservation tool.

Michael Weisberg is Professor and Chair of Philosophy, and Editor-in-Chief of Biology and Philosophy. Deena Skolnick Weisberg is Senior Fellow of Psychology and Director of the Cognition and Development Laboratory. Together, they co-direct the Penn Laboratory for Understanding Science.