Isla Guadalupe Expedition (2000)

On June 2, 2000, scientists from the Museum's Biodiversity Research Center of the Californias embarked on a binational multidisciplinary expedition to Isla Guadalupe, a remote and rugged island 160 miles off the coast of the Baja California peninsula. Researchers from the Museum, Mexican universities, conservation organizations, and governmental agencies, participated in this expedition. Several disciplines were represented, including ornithology, botany, entomology, herpetology, paleontology, and ecology. The major purpose of this project was to survey and assess the status of the island's flora and fauna, which had been severely disturbed by introduced non-native goats, dogs, cats, and rodents.

Isla Guadalupe contains one of North America's most unique ecosystems due to its location as the westernmost island off of the Baja California peninsula (160 miles from shore) and the resultant extreme isolation. Since the island has always been geologically isolated from the mainland, a high proportion of the plants and animals are endemic. Although a substantial body of scientific literature existed regarding the island's biology, most work had either been conducted at more accessible, lower elevations or had taken place decades ago. Before this expedition, there were many critical issues still in need of study in order to create a plan to halt and reverse the damage done by the introduced species mentioned above. During part of the expedition, scientists landed a helicopter on the previously unexplored Islote Toro, a sheer-rock islet off the southern coast of Isla Guadalupe. Islote Toro offered an ideal opportunity to see undisturbed, pristine conditions and to compare them with the effects of introduced species on the main island.

An important focus for the ornithologists on this expedition was the search for the Guadalupe Storm-Petrel (Oceanodroma macrodactyla), a nocturnal sea bird thought to be extinct. This elusive bird spends most of its time at sea, except for the breeding season when it nests in underground burrows in the pine and cypress forests at the higher elevations of the island. There was reason to believe that the bird, not seen since 1912, was still in existence. While the expedition dates paralleled the breeding season, an opportune time when the petrel would predictably occupy the breeding grounds, the scientist did not find signs of the breeding sea bird. Dr. Exequiel Ezcurra, former director of the Biodiversity Research Center of the Californias and principal investigator noted, “We searched thoroughly for the Guadalupe Storm-Petrel, and failed to find it. Sadly, we are now more ready to admit that the species is indeed extinct.”

After the expedition, Dr. Ezcurra had this to say about the island, “Guadalupe was my true intimate conversion to the very cause I have been preaching for years. It was a wonderful journey of discovery, even if the island is definitely not a hidden Shangri-La. It has been for years devastated by goat grazing and soil erosion, by feral domestic cats and bird extinction. Guadalupe is an ecological mess. Yet, exploring it gave us a new perspective, and hope for the conservation of the remaining biodiversity of this unique place… Guadalupe is a unique stage of the world's evolutionary theater. In it, the ecological play of survival and extinction, of conservation and devastation, can be seen in a painfully clear way, and with all its dramatic consequence. There are few places like that in the world. Indeed, it was an outstanding expedition.”

The San Diego Natural History Museum has a long tradition of investigation and exploration of Isla Guadalupe dating back to the 1890s. Past Curator of Birds and Mammals Laurence Huey also conducted early expeditions in 1923 and 1924. Between 1948 and 1988, more than 20 were led by past Curator of Botany Reid Moran which ultimately resulted in the publication of The Flora of Guadalupe Island, Mexico in 1996. Past Curator of Entomology Charles Harbison visited the island four times in the 1950s, and past Entomology Collection Manager David Faulkner made three trips in the 1980s. Additionally, trips by past Curator of Birds and Mammals Joseph Jehl and Research Associate Bill Everett between 1969 and 1980 led to the publication of History and Status of the Avifauna of Isla Guadalupe, Mexico in 1985. Their research indicated the need to conduct a more exhaustive search for the storm-petrel. Mexican scientists, especially from Ensenada Center for Scientific Research and Higher Education(CICESE )in Ensenada, have also conducted research on Isla Guadalupe in the past decade.