Human-induced ecological cascades: Extinction, restoration, and rewilding in the Galapagos highlands

Mark B. Bush, Shelby Conrad, Alejandra Restrepo, Diane M. Thompson, Marcus Lofverstrom, Jessica L. Conroy

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

7 Scopus citations


Oceanic islands support unique biotas but often lack ecological redundancy, so that the removal of a species can have a large effect on the ecosystem. The larger islands of the Galʹapagos Archipelago once had one or two species of giant tortoise that were the dominant herbivore. Using paleoecological techniques, we investigate the ecological cascade on highland ecosystems that resulted from whalers removing many thousands of tortoises from the lowlands. We hypothesize that the seasonal migration of a now-extinct tortoise species to the highlands was curtailed by decreased intraspecific competition. We find the trajectory of plant community dynamics changed within a decade of the first whaling vessels visiting the islands. Novel communities established, with a previously uncommon shrub, Miconia, replacing other shrubs of the genera Alternanthera and Acalypha. It was, however, the introduction of cattle and horses that caused the local extirpation of plant species, with the most extreme impacts being evident after c. 1930. This modified ecology is considered the natural state of the islands and has shaped subsequent conservation policy and practice. Restoration of El Junco Crater should emphasize exclusion of livestock, rewilding with tortoises, and expanding the ongoing plantings of Miconia to also include Acalypha and Alternanthera.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article numbere2203752119
JournalProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America
Issue number24
StatePublished - Jun 14 2022


  • endemic
  • giant tortoise
  • migration
  • overharvesting
  • whaling

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General


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