Marine iguanas in the time of Covid-19, lessons from life

By: Gustavo Andrade

Where does one find marine iguanas? Why the curious name? What lessons can we learn from them in this time of COVID-19? This unattractive but fascinating reptile lives along the coastlines of the marvelous Galapagos Islands, where it is common to see them in large groups while the rest, sunbathing, very important for them as they as reptiles unable to maintain a constant internal body temperature; different from birds or mammals, to mention just a few of the best known by our readers.

All visitors who visit this World heritage site, undoubtably one of the gems in Ecuador’s crown, are fascinated by this unusual animal. Not only for it’s prehistorical look, but because they can be seen walking determinedly through sea lions colonies, between sharp rocks and lava flows, to reach the coast, dive in without hesitation, and swimming with their long flattened tails, the result of millions of years of evolution, as if by magic, disappear before our very eyes as they dive down under the waves. Underwater they search for specific algae growing on these submerged lava rocks; they flourish due to the cold, nutrient-rich ocean currents and up-wellings. Other visitors watch underwater as they swim down to various meters depth, and hold onto the rocks with sharp claws and start to graze, biting down to the surface of the rocks, feeding on algae barely perceptible to the untrained eye, and in this way fill their stomachs. From this comes their name marine iguana.

After having feasted, they return to the surface of the ocean, and at times surfing the waves, other times avoiding the playful, young sea lions (who enjoy biting their tails and pulling them underwater), make for the shore where they return to search out the perfect rock near others. As the sun gets lower, the group gets bigger, with the objective of sharing body warmth to get through the cold nights. And so day after day it continues with little ever changing. Perhaps a nearby volcano produces a brief and spectacular eruption; but nothing affects their nerves of steel and poker faces. Nothing! Until maybe years go by, and suddenly the temperature of the ocean starts to rise above normal, and the entire marine ecosystem begins to suffer the consequences of a phenomenon, new for most of the iguanas, and for those who possibly survived a previous one, may possibly not survive the next. Human beings call this the “El Nino” phenomenon, whose consequences are well-known to impact our lives.

But what happens to the iguanas during these times, and what can we learn from them in this time of Covid-19.

When the marine iguana population is faced with the phenomenon of El Nino, it faces one of the biggest threats of their lives, where the survival of the entire world population of marine iguanas (because they are found exclusively in Galapagos) depends on their ability to control stress. Yes, the stress popularized by psychologists, motivational speakers and meditation gurus. Iguana enter into a state where they make use of energy accumulated during times of plenty, in the form of fat reserves. Their primary source of food has disappeared due to the absence of the cold, nutrient-rich currents; despite this, they return to the sea in useless attempts to find green algae. Instead, they find brown algae, and those that feed on these often return with symptoms of intoxication, as they are not adapted to digesting these species. In response to high levels of stress, substances associated are released that begin the process of accessing the fat reserves, and it is at this moment we can learn something useful for future pandemics that will without doubt will present themselves in the future. It starts with consuming the accumulated fats and transforming them into easily absorbed sugars at the cellular level in order to continue basic functions. When the fat reserves have finished, their appearance starts to change and they appear cadaverous, continuing to consume reserves, this time from muscle. At this point their appearance is almost like a mummy, just skin and bones; almost on the point of death, when it seems there is nothing left to consume, something extraordinary takes place, rarely seen in the animal world; they begin to reabsorb boney tissue with the objective of extracting the few nutrients left, transforming them into sugars, for the sole purpose of staying alive.. The result is the iguanas shrink. The final result is the death of thousands of iguanas, those that could not manage the stress, starting in on their resources too early during the El  Nino period, while others with better tolerance, started on these extreme reserves later. It is horrifying to walk the trails and see groups of iguanas, some laying on top of others, and see life and death in coexistence in the same time and place; some iguanas having succumbed to death, while others resist stoically in the face of death, one could even think with pride, side by side to keep warm, with what is left around them.

However within this phenomenon that is part of a cycle of life, at some point conditions change, and those iguanas who manage to live, usually the young (not hatchlings nor the very large or the very old due to their weakness or larger needs for food), survive and start to recuperate, replace boney tissue, then musculature, and finally the fat reserves, to become stronger and become the reproductive members of the population, and a new generation returns to the coastlines over the next few years, to continue to fascinate.

If human beings, companies and governments could manage our stress during periods of crisis, as do the marine iguanas we could survive to the end of the crisis. In this fashion day after day we can see small companies fail and remain closed because of an inability to manage their resources, or used them too quickly; meanwhile others controlled their resources in small doses. We have witnessed how some businesses’ have left behind the traditional methods and in desperation gone onto new paths where the lack of experience, as marine iguanas who eat the brown algae, end up poisoned and die. The same has been seen at gubernatorial levels world-wide, where the best efforts were not in the very large or very small, as in the case of marine iguanas.

But those who are able to resist, will be reborn, and as in marine iguanas will gradually regrow their tissue, and in our case, our social and business structure to become strong; to be perhaps better prepared for the next pandemic.