Understanding Lava Lizards in Ecuador, including the Galápagos Islands

PhD Student Estefania “Tefa” Boada Viteri is working to develop the fascinating field of behavioural ecology in Ecuador with the assistance of local volunteers, writes Rebecca Connell.

PhD Student Estefania “Tefa” Boada Viteri is working to develop the fascinating field of behavioural ecology in Ecuador with the assistance of local volunteers, writes Rebecca Connell. 

Ecuadorian lava lizards are a diverse group of reptiles found on the Ecuadorian west coast and the Galápagos islands. Belonging to the genus Microlophus, 10 out of 12 species are distributed across the famous archipelago.

Adult lizards can range from 50 - 100mm long with significant colour variations between sexes and distribution. The name “lava lizard” comes from the volcanic rock of which the Galápagos islands are made. Previous studies of Lava Lizards have suggested they have a complex social structure and biodiversity, with the unique environment as a huge factor.

Boada, a PhD Candidate with the Department of Ecology, Environment and Evolution at La Trobe University, has completed three seasons of field work studying the unique species on the mainland and island sample sites. She is now in the process of data analysis and compiling her thesis.

“I chose the lava lizards due to their unusual distribution across the mainland and the islands especially as they have evolved to inhabit a very specific and fragile habitat,” says Boada. “This is a great opportunity for me since behavioural ecology is not a developed field in Ecuador. This field of study is basically absent.”

While previous studies have covered singular aspects of the lizard population, the Ecuadorian Lava Lizards project is an integrated study covering the behavioural, morphological and ecological aspects of the lizard population.

Richard Peters, Group Leader of the Animal Behaviour Group and Senior Lecturer with La Trobe’s Department of Ecology, Environment and Evolution, joined Boada for some field work, recording lizard behaviour such as territorial displays.

“A lot of international researchers travel to the Galápagos however they only study the iconic species, like the giant tortoises or finches,” says Peters. “Ecuador is an amazing place. It is one of the most mega diverse countries in the world. There is an opportunity here for the next generation of researchers to start tapping into the behaviour of their unique fauna and Estefania is one of those.”

Boada is the second Ecuadorian student to work with Peters and La Trobe University in studying Ecuadorian biodiversity. She commenced her studies after receiving a scholarship from La Trobe University.

This extensive and integrative research will establish a foundational understanding of these lizards which will prove vital for the management and conservation for the species. Previously isolated, this species has recently begun feeling the impact of human activity, such as urbanisation and tourism, as well as the introduction of foreign species.

“Creating this basic knowledge will give the Ecuadorian scientific community a basis to build a very good management project for this species,” says Boada. “We have these very interesting [environmental] conditions with limited resources and tourism affecting this species. This research will lead to the development of the behavioural ecology field in Ecuador.”

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