Yale researcher Diego Ellis Soto GRD ’24 has dedicated years of his life to protecting the Galapagos giant tortoises, a critically endangered group of species native to the famous Galapagos Islands in Ecuador.
But when he recently led a miniature army of sound technicians and cameramen through the volcanic landscape in search of a baby tortoise, Soto said he could not help but feel nervous.
“You never get training on having to work normally with a team of 20, three inches away from your face,” he said.
In the end, he explained, the work has paid off: A BBC “Earth” documentary trailer featuring Soto has reached over 1.3 million views since it was posted on Facebook in July.
The trailer, which is part of the BBC Two program “Equator from the Air,” follows Soto and other scientists as they use technology to help save the tortoise population from extinction.
The doctoral student, who works in the Jetz Lab, uses highly detailed, drone-generated maps to find tortoise nests across the island chain. Once they are located, Soto can anchor wire mesh over the dirt mounds with heavy rocks to keep feral pigs from breaking in and eating endangered young.
Since the tortoises can live for centuries, Soto said, his work could help the species — and the Galapagos Islands themselves — through 2200 and beyond.
For Adalgisa Caccone GRD ’86, who leads her own lab at Yale and helps conserve the Galapagos tortoises, Soto’s work is invaluable.
“They’re beautiful animals and we decimated them,” she said. “I think it’s our moral and ethical imperative to do better.”
The entire Galapagos ecosystem depends on the tortoise population for survival, she said. The animals disperse seeds, make trails and prevent invasive plant species from spreading.
“If we lose the animals, no tourists are going to go to the Galapagos and the economy is going to crash,” Soto added. The archipelago was made popular by English scientist Charles Darwin, whose theories on evolution were supported in part by small differences in Galapagos giant tortoise shells.
As nervous as he felt with the film crew, however, Soto said his anxiety faded once he started to focus on the animals — instead of on the boom microphone hanging directly over his head.
“The second that I actually started doing the work, I got comfortable,” he explained. “Until then, [it] was very intimidating.”
Soto credits his success to new conservation technology, including drones and tiny GPS tags that give his team a better understanding of what tortoises see and where they go. For example, he said, if the animals’ migration patterns run through construction projects, conservationists can use his team’s work to ensure that plans do not impact the species.
A human touch to science — in this case, a video about Soto and his efforts in the Galapagos — can also spread public awareness about endangered species, he added.
“It brings me great satisfaction to know that my work has appeal to the public,” he said, referring to the video, instead of “25 pages of jargon behind a paywall” that very few will read.
Still, Soto said, there is more work ahead — especially if he wants the Galapagos giant tortoises to survive for future generations. This work includes more documentaries, he said, including one “in the making” that he cannot discuss.
After all, Soto said he has already felt the celebrity that comes from televised tortoise research: Two people in the Galapagos have already recognized him from the trailer.
“It’s really bizarre seeing yourself on TV,” he said. “I would definitely be open to something like this again.”
Matt Kristoffersen | firstname.lastname@example.org