How an Expedition to the Galápagos Islands Saved One of the World’s Largest Natural History Museums

A soon-to-be digitized and publicly accessible collection of specimens helped resurrect the California Academy of Sciences

Galapagos tortoise
A Galápagos tortoise specimen from the California Academy of Sciences Kevin Twomey

In the spring of 1905, eight researchers from the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco set sail on a mission to complete a major comprehensive survey of the Galápagos Islands, something that no other institution had yet to accomplish. For 17 months, well-trained specialists in the fields of botany, geology, paleontology, entomology, malacology (the study of mollusks), ornithology and herpetology went on a collecting spree. They gathered multiple specimens of plants, birds, mammals, insects and reptiles. While they suspected that the collected specimens would help solidify Darwin’s theory of evolution and inform the world about Galápagos wildlife, they couldn’t have imagined that when they returned home, their city would be recovering from a catastrophic earthquake and conflagration that nearly destroyed their own institution.

“The Galápagos expedition was kind of a way to prove themselves. In the vein of, ‘We're this scrappy little West Coast institution and we want to compete with the other globally recognized leaders in biodiversity research,” says Rayna Bell, the Academy’s assistant curator of herpetology. “To do that we're going to do this large comprehensive survey of the Galápagos.”

Last month, the Academy kicked off a two-year endeavor to digitize a portion of its iconic bird, mammal, and reptile collection from the Galapagos, much of which comes from the 1905-1906 expedition. Consisting of 78,000 biological specimens, it’s the largest amassing from the Galápagos on the planet. It includes Darwin’s finches, a large variety of aquatic lizards, and more than 260 preserved giant tortoises. At the time collecting these specimens was both normal and legal, though Bell says that’s no longer the case. “Basically, the islands are now a living museum,” says Bell, protected in part by the Ecuadorian government’s Special Law of Galápagos. “It’s difficult even securing research permits to go there.”

The Academy’s Galápagos collection encompasses a specific moment in time, and plays a large role in the study of evolution. It also provides a starting point for researchers, scientists, conservationists, and even the general public to see how the archipelago has adapted, changed and even stayed relatively the same over the last 100 years.

For the next 24 months, Academy staff members and their affiliates will both CT and surface scan multiple representatives of each species from all of the islands on the Galápagos collection into 3-D digital images that will provide virtual access to both researchers and the public alike. The images will be placed online in batches beginning in 2021.

“Many research collections aren’t actually searchable online,” says James Gibbs, co-leader of the Galapagos Tortoise Restoration Initiative at the Galapagos Conservancy in Virginia. “The California Academy of Sciences is. Now, add to that the ability to see and with these visualization techniques, explore these specimens up close, swivel them around, and study them almost as if they were in your own hands?”

While the digitization remains mostly for researchers, teachers, students and really anyone will soon be able to pull up a 3-D images of say, a Galapagos land iguana, and study everything from its distinguishing facial angle to the way its skin tone varies from yellowish-orange on the belly to brownish-red up top. “It’s just such a tremendous way to share this collection,” Gibbs says, “and one that’s of great educational value.”

The California Academy of Sciences is just one of roughly 200 institutions placing images from their collections online. This past February, the Smithsonian released 2.8 million 2-D and 3-D images into an open access online platform. More than 2,400 3--D scans, from the Apollo 11 command module to a Tyrannosaurus rex, can be viewed by people from around the world. “The Smithsonian is made up of 19 different museums and we have this amazing collection, but not everybody can come to the museum to see this stuff, especially now—most of the museums are closed,” says Vince Rossi, the head of the Smithsonian 3-D program. “We’ve gotten a lot of excitement from the public, from educators, and from researchers that the Smithsonian is providing access of these 3-D scans.”

Herpetology Staff
Herpetologists (left to right: Erica Ely, Lauren Scheinberg and Dr. Rayna Bell) hold specimens from the California Academy of Sciences collection. Kathryn Whitney © 2019 California Academy of Sciences

The digitized collection at the California Academy of Sciences makes the Galápagos Islands accessible to everyone, despite socioeconomic status or geographic location. “This project is sort of a democratization of access as well,” says Gibbs. “For people in the Galápagos, in Ecuador…those for whom, in a sense, this is part of their patrimony.”

A large portion of the Galápagos specimens are housed within the Academy’s herpetology department, which holds 315,000 reptile and amphibian specimens from 175 countries. Most of the specimens are stored in jars ranging in size from eight-ounces to a gallon and on seemingly endless rows of compacted shelves that occupy two large rooms. Anything that doesn’t fit into the jars is placed into stainless steel tanks instead. This includes the only museum specimen of the Fernandina Island tortoise (Chelonoidis phantastica) on the planet.

The archipelago’s giant tortoises are a main prize of both the museum’s herpetology and Galápagos collections. As the largest living tortoises on earth, these land-dwelling creatures represent a surprisingly diverse mix of species (all belonging to the genus Chelonoidis), which vary in size and shape from island to island. During the 1905-1906 expedition, the specialists found and documented tortoises on islands like Isabela and Santa Cruz, where they had already been known to exist, but no one knew if any were on Fernandina, the westernmost isle. That is, until April 1906, when expedition leader Rollo Beck happened upon the Academy’s specimen: Chelonoidis phantasticus, also known as the Fernandina Island Galápagos tortoise. It was only in February 2019 that researchers came across a second Fernandina Island tortoise: a single female, which they then brought to a breeding center on the archipelago’s Santa Cruz island for further studies. Tortoises can sometimes get swept out to sea and land on other islands, or even be transported by humans from one island to the next.

“It [could be] the first Fernandina Island tortoise in more than 110 years,” says Lauren Scheinberg, collection manager of the Academy’s herpetology department. “But we’re still awaiting the genetic tests to see if it's the same species,” she says.

“When scientists do get genetic data from this new tortoise they’re going to need to compare it to something,” adds Bell. “That something is our Fernandina Island tortoise.”

Both the Fernandina Island Galápagos tortoise, and the expedition itself, played a pivotal role in the Academy of Sciences’ future. When the eight-man team finally returned to San Francisco in November 1906, the Academy’s collection of reptiles, birds, mammals, and amphibians had been reduced to next to nothing—a catastrophic result of a magnitude-7.8 earthquake and subsequent fires that struck the city in April 1906. The herpetology collection alone lost upwards of 100,000 specimens in the fires. The schooner on which the Galápagos expedition took place actually served as temporary storage for the Academy’s then-home on Market Street, which had been largely destroyed.

“Ultimately, I would say it actually sort of saved the day for the Academy,” Bell says, “in that it might not be the institution that it is today, had it not been for this major collection coming in at this sort of crossroads in the Academy’s history.”

In the more than century since the expedition, the Galápagos collection has helped assist in a wealth of scientific breakthroughs. Some of the bird specimens have been used in a parasite study to help detect avian malaria, and the tortoise specimens are special because they allowed scientists to determine the number of Galápagos tortoise species and recreate their evolutionary history using DNA sequence data. “The ability to understand the full diversity of tortoises in particular, from living ones to those that are extinct,” says Gibbs, “has really improved our understanding of what needs to be restored and how to go about it.”

It’s just one of the many reasons that digitizing the Academy’s Galápagos collection is so invaluable.

“A lot of the decisions that are being made in tortoise restoration involve, for example, islands that have lost their tortoises and are using surrogate species.” says Gibbs. “Scientists can example these specimens remotely and see how well-matched they are in everything from shell shape to neck length.”

Now, the public can also experience Galápagos wildlife up close, including animals that don’t live on the islands any more. “We have specimens in this collection that no longer exist in the wild,” says Scheinberg. Thanks to the Academy’s Galápagos digitization project, they’ll be seen beyond the walls of a museum.

Editors' Note, October 9, 2020: This article originally missstated that the full collection would be digitized in a two-year span. Only a portion of the collection will be digitized. We regret the error.

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