Cracks bloom along the ovoid surface of an egg shell. First a small head peaks out, then the rest of a long, thin, scaled body. A pink iguana emerges. No, it’s not a convoluted gender reveal—but it does signal the birth of hope for a critically endangered reptile. Researchers have found nesting sites and juveniles of the Galápagos pink land iguana for the first time.
Since the species was first described in 2009, conservationists have believed the Galápagos pink land iguana was dying out. Only adult iguanas, up to nearly 4 feet long and a unique, pale Pepto Bismol shade, had ever been seen. Scientists couldn’t find any living young or nests, and the species was assumed to be on the fast track to extinction—doomed to disappear with the last mature adult.
Now though, the newly discovered underground nests and immature iguanas present a more optimistic alternative. It’s “given us the first hope for saving this enigmatic species from extinction,” said Paul Salaman, president of the Galápagos Conservancy, a nonprofit environmental organization involved in the islands’ and iguanas’ conservation, in a press statement. Via trail camera footage and in-person observation, a joint team from Ecuador’s Galápagos National Park Directorate and the Galápagos Conservancy documented the nests and young.
But even with the happy discovery, the species’ fate remains far from secure. Researchers estimate that there are just 200 to 300 of the pink iguanas remaining, based on 2021 survey data. The rare reptiles are only known to live in a remote area of less than 10 square miles on a section of slope on Wolf Volcano on Isabela Island. And the iguanas face numerous threats in their meager territory, particularly predation from invasive feral cats and rats introduced to the islands centuries ago.
Conservation monitors have already observed feral cats eating hatchling iguanas as they crawl out of their subterranean nests for the first time, according to Galápagos Conservancy. To make sure the next generation lives on, the national park and its partner organizations will have to continue their efforts to keep tabs on and protect the iguanas. Part of that work likely includes trying to eradicate the invasive cats. Efforts on Baltra island in the archipelago have shown promising results for the protection of another iguana species, and cat extermination has been successful in certain sections of Isabela island.
The park and conservancy have also pooled resources to establish a permanent field station to allow for better iguana monitoring and to help protect against poaching, according to the news release.
The Galápagos Islands are home to a huge number of endemic species found there and nowhere else in the world, including three species of land iguana. Pink land iguanas were first seen by park rangers in 1986 but were initially assumed to be mutant members of an already documented species. It wasn’t until more than two decades later that the reptiles became officially known as the distinct animals that they are.
The pink species diverged from its closest living relative about 5.7 million years ago, making its lineage the product of one of the oldest evolutionary splits known in the Galápagos. When first hatched, the reptiles are lime green with dark vertical stripes and spots. Overtime, they mature into their hallmark hue. Their rosy coloration isn’t the result of a pigment but rather transparent skin through which their blood is visible. Thin skin or not, conservationists now know for sure that the pink iguanas have the resilience to persist into the future.