Channel Islands National Park continues to preserve and protect endemic animals
From 5-foot-tall mammoths to foxes the size of house cats, the Channel Islands National Park off the Central Coast has provided a home for millions of terrestrial and marine animals and birds over the centuries.
The five protected islands also host a total of 23 “endemic” terrestrial animals — species that can only be found on the islands.
Beginning approximately 20,000 years ago, San Miguel, Santa Rosa, Santa Cruz and Anacapa islands were actually all one “superisland” known as Santarosae, and, as discovered in 1994, home to “mini” mammoths 4.5 to 7 feet high at the shoulders.
The mammoths were deemed “pygmy mammoths” due to their small size, and although they went extinct long ago, their remains exemplified island mammal evolution.
Like the Galapagos Islands of South America, the isolation of the islands in the park has allowed animals’ evolution to proceed independently. Out of more than 2,000 plant and animal species, 145 are endemic, according to information on the National Park Service website.
“These islands support animals and plants found nowhere else in the world,” Annie Little, the park’s supervisory natural resource manager, told the News-Press. “They’re extremely unique, and they’ve been referred to as the Galapagos of North America.”
Now, 20,000 years later, through diligent monitoring and conservation efforts, the Channel Islands are teeming with wildlife, and visitors have an exclusive opportunity to see the animals up close and personal in their natural habitats. The News-Press discovered that during a recent visit to the islands on a kayaking trip.
On the boat ride over to the islands or kayaking through island caves, visitors might catch a glimpse of a Pacific gray, humpback, blue or fin whale if they’re lucky.
They are also likely to spot at least a few sea lions or seals. According to Ms. Little, San Miguel Island has a breeding population of approximately 80,000 California sea lions and more than 200,000 breeding elephant seals.
“It’s a really important breeding ground for that species,” she said. “There’s just an enormous diversity of marine mammals out on the park, and they’re monitored each year by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration who keeps tabs on their population.”
Once visitors reach land, if they take their sights to the sky, they have many chances to see both landbirds and seabirds. Bald eagles, Channel Islands song sparrows, ravens and spotted towhees can be spotted swooping through the island air.
Perhaps most notable for birders is the island scrub-jay, the only island endemic bird species in North America, boasting brilliant blue feathers like a mainland blue jay.
In addition, the Channel Islands support 99% of nesting for seabirds in Southern California.
“The Channel Islands are extremely important for seabirds because these islands are isolated, and there’s relatively little disturbance compared to the mainland,” Ms. Little said.
She added, laughing, “If you don’t like birds, it’s a little bit of a scary experience going to Anacapa during the nesting season.”
Rare seabirds found on the Channel Islands include the California brown pelican and the Scripps’s murrelet, but other more common species such as the double-crested cormorant, the western gull and the black oystercatcher also call the islands their home.
A primary tourist attraction, though, is certainly the island fox, and hikers or campers on Santa Cruz Island might cross paths with one or two as they explore on foot.
Many of the foxes with territories near the campgrounds are bold when it comes to checking out human beings. And they may even run in between visitors’ legs or trot alongside them on trails.
The island fox is the largest of the Channel Islands’ native mammals, but one of the smallest canid (mammal of the dog family) species in the world. At the mere size of a house cat, the island foxes were given a 50% chance of extinction at one point, but soon became the fastest recovered mammal in the history of the Endangered Species Act — something both park officials and animal lovers consider a huge success story.
As an example of the success, there used to be fewer than 80 island foxes on Santa Cruz Island. Today, there’s estimated to be around 2,500 running around the nearly 100-square mile island.
In fact, the Santa Barbara Zoo currently has three island foxes from the southern Channel Islands in its care, two from San Clemente Island named Lewis and Clark, and one recently from Catalina Island, according to Estelle Sandhaus, the zoo’s director of conservation and science.
“In August last year, a little fox from Catalina came our way, and she’s not in an exhibit or a public space to my understanding right now,” Ms. Sandhaus told the News-Press. “She was found injured with bite wounds … She would not have survived without intervention, so she was brought to the zoo, and now she’s thriving and doing great.”
Ms. Sandhaus spoke to the importance of preserving and taking care of these pet-like foxes. She said that while island foxes are listed as near threatened now as opposed to endangered, the work is not done.
“It’s an example of a success story that we can achieve working together, but it’s also a cautionary tale,” she said. “Island species can be more vulnerable to changes, so different changes in the environment like climate change and fires … and potentially introducing disease … could do severe damage to such a geographically distinct species or subspecies across these islands. We need to remain vigilant and careful with these amusing and adorable creatures that we share the land with and remember to use care when visiting these species.”
The conservation director added she hopes the story of the island fox and its rapid recovery shows how humans can keep these precious species alive.
“The foxes, I think, were a pretty special case because of their conservation needs and their conservation story. It’s so important to tell that story for folks on the mainland,” Ms. Sandhaus said. “The islands are just an amazing jewel, and we’re so lucky to have them right off our coast, so I would definitely encourage folks to visit them, explore them and learn more about them, and, of course, come and meet our foxes at the zoo.”
Overall, despite the breathtaking views and exciting adventure the Channel Islands give to each human visitor, the animals provide an experience that outdoorsy and seafaring locals and tourists just can’t find anywhere else.
“These islands represent a sanctuary for these plants and animals,” the parks manager said. “We live in Southern California with millions of people living here, and we can go offshore and experience a true wilderness setting out there. The public can enjoy and appreciate nature in a way that sometimes you can’t find here on the mainland in cities.
“Protecting these really unique and special places is important, not only for the plants and animals that live there, but also just for us as humans to be able to experience such a wild place.”