Studying Threats from Heavy Metals to the Waved Albatross of the Galapagos Islands

By comparing toxicity in wild birds with samples taken over the last century, conservationists will increase our understanding of the critically endangered Waved Albatross – and recommend intelligent action.

Held aloft effortlessly on huge wings that span up to three and a half metres, albatrosses seem like they could glide forever. Their serene presence is perhaps what has given the birds near-mythical significance, with mariners of old believing them to be omens of good luck, and to carry the souls of dead sailors.

While most albatrosses inhabit the endless ocean of the world’s southern hemisphere, some make the warmer Galapagos Islands their home. The only tropical species of albatross in the world, the Waved (Galapagos) Albatross breeds almost exclusively here on the island of Española. However, with this small breeding area and a declining population over the last two decades – principally due to accidental catching by fishermen – the Waved Albatross is now listed as Critically Endangered by the IUCN Red List of Endangered Species.

The Charles Darwin Foundation (CDF) and the Galapagos National Park Directorate (GNPD) are keen to investigate the causes and do everything they can to protect and conserve this unique species in the long term. Gustavo Jiménez-Uzcátegui, Senior Researcher at the CDF spoke to us about their latest project.

One threat among many

“To understand the survival of the albatross and other species, it’s important to understand the different threats,” begins Gustavo Jiménez-Uzcátegui.

Experts like Gustavo are already well aware of the main hazards for the Waved Albatross: accidental and intentional catching by artisanal fisheries outside of the Galapagos Marine Reserve. Sadly, fishing fleets are often stationed between the islands and mainland Ecuador and Peru, and result in the deaths of thousands of albatrosses and petrels each year.

Now, Gustavo and his team are committed to chasing down the other threats to the Waved Albatross, on the Galapagos islands themselves.

“Some of the threats coming to Galapagos are uncontrollable, such as climate change,” explains Gustavo. “But if we can stop the other, controllable threats such as human interaction, the introduction of other species, and some pathogens, then we can give the species more opportunities for survival. But we need to understand what’s happening.”

“With heavy metals already documented here, we need to understand the risks posed by them, and whether they could be controllable.”

“We need to understand the risks posed by heavy metals, and then whether they could be controllable.”

Gustavo Jiménez-Uzcátegui, Senior Researcher at the Charles Darwin Foundation

Contaminants affecting the birds

The Waved Albatross may be especially vulnerable to metal toxicity due to their position as top ocean predators. This means they are at the end of a food chain that naturally bio-accumulates metals in the tissues of successive species – and that ultimately end up in the albatrosses.

This could affect the birds’ reproductive success. As Gustavo explains, “Heavy metals often affect the reproduction of species. Usually, it makes the quality of eggs poor.”

However, the effects on albatrosses of heavy metals such as lead, cadmium and mercury are not yet fully understood. “The important thing for us is to understand whether heavy metals are affecting the survival of the Waved Albatross or not,” says Gustavo. “So, our first priority is to understand the concentrations of heavy metals here, whether they’re increasing, and what their origin is.”

“Heavy metals often affect the reproduction of species. Usually, it makes the quality of eggs poor.”

Gustavo Jiménez-Uzcátegui

Another factor to consider is that the heavy metals may be of a natural origin, so the Waved Albatross may have evolved with them.

“The endemic species in Galapagos have evolved alongside naturally occurring heavy metals for thousands of years,” explains Gustavo. “Then the problem would only be if the concentration is higher now, or if it has become a more frequent occurrence in the species,” he continues. “So that’s what we hope the study will be able to tell us.”

The team will do this by taking new samples from birds and comparing them to previous samples taken in 2004, the 1960s, and even all the way back to 1905-6.

Feathers host the heavy metals

Heavy metals can accumulate in the feathers of the birds as they grow. This makes feathers very useful indicators – they’re easy to extract and doing so is harmless to the birds.

To obtain new samples, Gustavo and his team will collect five secondary feathers from re-captured individual birds that they find alone, and sometimes nesting in the research area.

At the same time, samples for biological and clinical measurements will be taken, and each bird will ringed, and a microchip implanted under its skin.

To buy the sampling equipment and travel to the field, Hurtigruten Foundation has provided funding of NOK 50,000 (Approx. € 4,200).

The team will also take blood samples for pathogen analyses, and cloaca and trachea swabs to check the birds for Avian Flu – another deadly challenge faced by the Waved Albatross.

“It’s possible they are sharing their feeding areas with other marine birds like Blue-footed Boobies from the mainland. At the moment, these species are affected by Avian Flu – hundreds of birds have been found dead in Peru and Ecuador,” says Gustavo.

Finding the origins

Once the current phase of the project is complete and the team knows whether the birds face a greater concentration of heavy metals now than a century ago, the next step will be to understand their origin.

Gustavo and his team will ship their samples to France’s La Rochelle University, where isotopic analysis will ascertain whether the heavy metals found in the birds are natural or anthropogenic.

As the Galapagos is a volcanic area, the researchers will need to determine if any of the heavy metals have a natural, underground origin. Fortunately, their recent study gave them a very useful reference to compare with.

“During a previous study, the Sierra volcano in the Galapagos erupted and the lava ran into the water, so we were able to collect hot water with possible high concentrations of heavy metals. We analysed those samples in the universities of Ecuador and got good results, so now we can compare the concentration of these heavy metals,” says Gustavo.

“The Sierra volcano in the Galapagos erupted and the lava ran into the water, so we were able to collect hot water with possible high concentrations of heavy metals.”

Gustavo Jiménez-Uzcátegui

The team is also keen to confirm or disprove a theory that heavy metals may be brought to the Galapagos by natural currents.

“We did a study to understand the presence of heavy metals here four years ago,” says Gustavo. “The hypothesis was that cadmium and lead arrived at Galapagos on marine and atmospheric currents. This hypothesis was based on a previous study that found the chemical DDT – which is used in Africa to combat malaria – was also found in other species here, and even at the Earth’s poles.”

Revealing the bigger picture

Based on the findings of the project, the CDF will be able to recommend actions so the GNPD can implement possible solutions that safeguard the species into the foreseeable future.

This is why it’s vital to gather data over a longer timeframe, as this study does. “It’s important to do monitoring long-term because threats are changing over time,” says Gustavo. “Before the 1970s, the threats were directly caused by humans. From then onwards it was climate change.”

“In the future, it’s possible it will be disease, just as happened with us humans, with COVID. Just like that, something could happen with other species such as the Waved Albatross.”

The Waved Albatross is also an important ‘sentinel’ species, whose health reflects and indicates the vitality of the wider area.

“These birds can give us information about the island they are breeding on,” he says, “and also about the ecosystems in the national and international waters.”

“With more information that we can share with other institutions, we can work together to safeguard the future of these amazing animals.”

You can read more about the work of Gustavo on the Charles Darwin Foundation website.

If you would like to learn more about travelling to Galapagos, see Hurtigruten Expeditions’ cruises to Galapagos.