Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Townsend's Tortoises: an early example of historical ecology and the conservation of endangered species

If you read this blog often, you may have noticed my love of Charles Haskins Townsend. Townsend was the first director of the New York Aquarium under the New York Zoological Society (there was a previous director when the aquarium was run exclusively by the city) and before that he worked for the United States Fish Commission in a number of capacities.

Townsend was a rather interesting fellow and he shows up in so many important episodes of aquatic science at the turn of the twentieth century: he researched fisheries and he was also interested in basic research questions about fish physiology and behavior. But what I find most interesting about Townsend is the project he died believing was a failure, and which I think of as his biggest success: Townsend's tortoises.

Charles Townsend was an integral member of the Pribilof Seal Commission (for information on the Commission see this previous blog post). Under the direction of David Starr Jordan, Townsend wrote extensive reports on the status of the seal rookery on Pribilof Island.

Townsend with other members of the Pribilof Seal Commission. That's him (#11) in the amazing deer stalker. WCS Archives
As stated in my previous post about historical ecology (here), one of Townsend's jobs was to collect historical information about sealing from other countries. Well, while Townsend was collecting sealing data, he collected whaling data and this collection lead to a rather startling discovery: Galapagos tortoises were declining rapidly in population. 

The first reason that I love this story is that I love the way that Townsend followed a line from seals to whales to tortoises. As a historian who went from studying the history of religion and syphilis to eugenics to the history of marine science, I find in his trail of research a kindred soul. I get it- sometimes you just get sucked into a mystery and it consumes you. Townsend became consumed by tortoises (in an awesome non-painful way because they are herbivores- but seriously, nothing could be scarier because if they were actually to attack, I assume it would be a horribly slow and boring death).

The second reason that I love Townsend's interest in tortoises is because of what he did with the information: 

Townsend collected whaling logs from as many sources as he could find. In another historical study, he looked at these logs to ascertain how many tortoises these whaling ships had taken off the Galapagos islands for food on each voyage. By examining the data, Townsend found that the number of tortoises taken off each island had rapidly decreased over time, and that it appeared as if very few tortoises remained. 

Seeing this decline, he sought more data. He reached out to anyone who knew the islands to ask the question: how many tortoises are left? Can they be saved? 

Townsend received this photo of a turtle harvest on one of the Galapagos Islands from a natural history dealer. WCS
What he found wasn't promising: some populations were so depleted that sailors, explorers, and natural history dealers reported seeing few or no tortoises on several islands previously known to contain large populations. 

Townsend collected all his data and published it in The Galapagos Tortoises in relation to the whaling industry which you can read here. But he didn't stop there. Townsend set out to try to save the animal he saw rapidly declining. 

Through the use of historical data, Townsend recognized the dire prediction for the Galapagos tortoise and he sought to do something about it. Before his work with these creatures, most conservation efforts in the United States were centered on organisms that were considered edible or economically valuable. Clubs like the Boone and Crocket club had spearheaded conservation efforts of megafauna in the United States because they wanted to conserve those organisms for hunting; and Townsend was close to these men because they ran the New York Zoological Society. In the past, Townsend was involved in conservation efforts for organisms deemed economically valuable such as the Pribilof seals and also for sea turtles such as the black diamond terrapin that the USFC was trying to farm back from near extinction in Beaufort, N.C.  And Townsend was not opposed to conserving species so that they could be farmed for their perceived value, but for some reason he didn't take that tack with Galapagos tortoises. People had eaten them in the past, but he chose not to market his conservation efforts as saving a food source: he went a new route and wrote to zoo and aquarium directors asking that they raise these tortoises because they were valuable to humanity and the earth just because they were awesome. 

In 1928, Townsend sailed to the Galapagos Islands to trap and transport as many different species of Galapagos tortoises to the United States as possible. Throughout the previous 6 months, Townsend had been corresponding and traveling with various zoos and aquariums throughout the United States that he believed might have the climate and space to keep and breed these animals.   He eventually sends a varying amount of tortoises (usually between 2 and 10 specimens) to 15 different locations in and around the United States, several of its territories, and even to Sydney, Australia. Most of these institutions were zoological gardens, but Bermuda, San Diego, Honolulu and New Orleans were combined zoological parks and aquariums. 

Every six months, the directors of these institutions measured and weighed the specimens- sending Townsend a report on their progress.  If these animals died or in the case of poor 120 at the New York Zoo, were stolen, a necropsy was performed and the cause of death was reported.  Many directors received animals without knowing their sex or even what species they were- so a commentary on shell shape, sexual characteristics, and observations on behavior were reported as well. Townsend entered this data into a special spread sheet- which he later utilized to make comparisons between the sites. Throughout the years, the breeding and conservation of the tortoises took precedence over the ownership of the somewhat exotic specimens. While the tortoises were large draws for crowds, Townsend reserved the right to send the tortoises to new locations that might help them to breed more quickly.  In a letter to the Director of the Desert Arboretum in Arizona, Townsend uses his collected data to analyze what might be inhibiting growth and causing fatalities at the arboretum.  Of the original 18 specimens sent to Arizona, only 7 survive 2 years later.  Townsend states that the species in Bermuda and Honolulu are doing well, while those in the American west of Arizona and Texas have struggled because of cold nights.  He asks that Arizona send their remaining specimens to Florida so that they might have a better chance of survival and eventual breeding.  This moving of specimens is very common during the years Townsend was overseeing the breeding program. Ground cover was analyzed- there was a concern that some sites weren’t sandy enough for the turtles to lay eggs so they were moved to sandier locations. Food and environment were analyzed.  The tortoises apparently were deemed to like roaming room and hated being put in pens for the winter so the climate had to be warm year around.  And, there were quite a few pests and diseases that struck the tortoises.  But the interesting thing about all this is that, when told to move the specimens, for the good of the program and experimentation, the zoos and aquariums gave up those exotic species, or took on more.      
A child riding one of Townsend's tortoises. WCS Archives

While this conservation effort eventually did end in breeding colonies of Galapagos tortoises at some of these institutions, Townsend did not live to see them.  The Bermuda Aquarium and Zoological Garden did not successfully breed Townsend’s tortoises until the early 1950s. But, that success was followed by those in Honolulu and San Diego breeding. Some of these tortoises are still breeding and several have been sent back to the Galapagos to take part in the breeding program set up on the islands. 

A detailed record of the tortoises at their various locations around the U.S. Each tortoise was assigned a number and details such as weight and height were recorded monthly. WCS archives.
In addition to trying to save the tortoises by bringing them to American zoos and aquariums, Townsend was integral in jump starting the campaign to get the Galapagos declared a conservation area closed to hunters. 

Townsend was an old-fashioned fisheries scientist- he believed whole-heartedly in managing fisheries for sustainable harvesting, but for some reason he went a different direction with his tortoises. He didn't sell their conservation to the public as a part of fisheries management, but instead sought complete protection for the species. 

I'm a historian; I love complicated narratives and Townsend's is one of my favorites.


  1. I came across correspondence about this related to Barro Colorado Island when I was doing diss. research at SI. I'll have to look it up for you. If I am remembering correctly, Thomas Barbour did not think it was a good idea to ship the animals all to different locations. My notes don't have enough detail for your purposes, but I can find the copy if you're interested.

    1. I'm extremely interested. Obviously, I've only seen the correspondence that Townsend kept in his records at the WCS and those are spotty at best- over the years they've become scattered and mislabeled. I think the episode is extremely interesting and I'd love to see a different perspective.