Linda Cayot through her footprints


Linda Cayot through her footprints



Librarians and archivists are trained to reconstruct facts from the little bits of knowledge and memory that we store on our shelves. At the end of the day, human beings are nothing more than the sum of the memories and the traces that we leave behind.

Linda Jean Cayot was no exception. And there were many traces that she left.

Several copies of her biology doctoral thesis, worn by use and time, rest in the library of the Charles Darwin Foundation (CDF), within the "Galapagos Collection". Entitled Ecology of giant tortoises (Geochelone elephantopus) in the Galapagos Islands, the 400-page paper was submitted in May 1987 to Syracuse University in New York State.

In the paragraphs of that thesis, it is possible to find out that Cayot had graduated in science from the University of Colorado back in 1975, and that in that same institution she had finished her master's degree in 1978.

The text also reveals that Cayot was in the Galapagos Islands between January 1982 and July 1983, with a grant from the National Science Foundation, to collect the necessary data for her thesis. That she worked alongside Treesa Kineke, who was her assistant on the islands. That during her stay she received the help of Gayle Robinson and the ineffable Gayle Davis, who had been residing at the Charles Darwin Research Station (CDRS) for some time. That her fieldwork took place mainly in Santa Cruz, especially in the old "Caseta" in the highlands, and in locations such as El Chato. That she was also in Pinzón island. That Donna Reynolds accompanied her in the elaboration of the "fearsome" vegetable transects, while Gary Robinson and Priscilla Martínez helped her with the collection of turtle droppings. And that she was supported at all times by Fausto Cepeda, from the Galapagos National Park (GNP), and by Friedemann Koster, the director of the CDRS, and by Bob Reynolds, then the resident herpetologist at the institution.

But all these data would be sterile, typical of a stereotyped "acknowledgements" section, if they were not accompanied by other evidence. Among them, the hundred slides that Cayot donated to the CDF Archive. Images that dialogue with the books and articles at the Library, with the texts of the Noticias de Galápagos magazine, with reports and other materials stored in the Archive...

Thus it is possible to know that Cayot had already visited the islands in 1981. In fact, thanks to her we have the only existing photo of the small kitchen of the mythical "Caseta", which was taken in March of that year. The entire natural and landscape environment of the "Caseta", of El Chato and its surroundings were captured by her camera: that allows us to follow her footsteps through the highlands of Santa Cruz, and imagine what she did, where she was, what she saw... Thanks to these images we also know that during her fieldwork she suffered the devastating effects of one of the worst El Niño phenomena documented in Galapagos up to that moment. Cayot photographed mighty rivers rushing down the coast of Santa Cruz, as well as floods never seen before in towns like Bellavista. It was then when one of the most remembered anecdotes of her took place: she was dragged by a current of water alongside the enormous giant tortoise she was studying.

After obtaining her doctorate degree, she returned to Galapagos and began working at CDRS as a herpetologist in 1988, becoming actively involved in processes that had been going on for a long time, and which resulted from the close collaboration between CDF and GNP. Already in the mid-1960s, shortly after the inauguration of the CDRS, its director, Roger Perry, together with collaborators such as Miguel Castro, Rolf Sievers and Fausto Llerena, began to work on the reproduction of giant tortoises, whose first hatchlings were repatriated and released in Pinzón island in 1970. In the same year, invasive species were detected, which were progressively eradicated throughout the 1970s (in Pinta, Marchena, Bartolomé, Santa Fe and Española islands), while in 1978, Heidi and Howard Snell took over an initiative previously led by Dagmar Werner and achieved the arrival of "Esperanza", the first Galapagos land iguana born in captivity.

With that background and such a company, Cayot worked at the CDF until 1998. The traces of her steps can be followed, above all, in the pages of Galapagos Research. Her first contribution appeared in 1991 (#50), when she reported the death of "Chiquita", CDRS's "pet" land iguana, and of famous giant tortoise "Onan", from Pinzón island, whose remains were found by Gayle Davis and Washington Tapia, by then a young volunteer. Interestingly, the only images we have of "Onan" are Cayot's (as are the only photos of the Beagle V, the CDF ship at the time, on which she traveled). In the same issue of the magazine, she reported, together with Cruz Márquez, another influential figure in Galapagoan science, the success of the tortoise reintroduction program in Española island. In 1992 she did the same with the repatriation of land iguanas to Baltra island (#51), a process that took place in 1991, and of which Cayot left an interesting visual documentation through a short series of slides.

During all those years she participated in the building of the current breeding center for giant tortoises (named "Fausto Llerena"), taking numerous photographs of the development of the works. Likewise, she collaborated closely with the many professionals of that program for the reproduction of turtles and land iguanas. In particular, she became involved in the care of famous "Lonesome George", especially in the processes that sought his reproduction. In fact, Cayot was the author of the images that documented the work of Sveva Grigiani, who in 1993 became known for seeking manual sexual stimulation of the old male giant tortoise.

In 1994, Cayot was featured in Galapagos Research (#53) participating in studies on geckos and marine iguanas, an interest endorsed by the slides on the subject she took between 1991 and 1993. In 1994 (#54) she denounced the illegal hunting of giants tortoises in Isabela island, and in 1996 she continued to talk about the problems of turtles on that location (#56) together with Heidi Snell, although she already included in the panorama the goats that had been damaging the vegetation of the Alcedo volcano for years. In 1996 (# 57) she recorded the first goat-hunting expeditions to Isabela, in line with eradication programs that had been developed on other islands for three decades. Thus was born the "Isabela Project", which received extensive textual and audiovisual coverage by various collaborators, researchers and authors, and which over the years turned out to be a resounding success.

In 1997 (Galapagos Research #58), Cayot appeared as Head of Research for the Protection of Native Animals at the CDRS, reporting on a sudden death of tortoises in El Chato. And in 1998 (#59) she wrote about the progress of the "Isabela Project." In the context of these eradication tasks, at the beginning of 1997 Cayot promoted the construction of a small cabin on the southern edge of the crater of the Alcedo volcano, to support hunting and research work. This cabin, still standing, bears her name today.

After leaving the CDF, since 2008 she was a scientific adviser to Galapagos Conservancy, and in early 2020 she retired, after completing the edition of the book Galapagos Giant Tortoises (Academic Press, 2020) along with other figures in the conservation and recovery of the legendary Galapagos reptiles.

The articles and reports produced by Cayot leave evidence of her constant scientific and academic work. But it is her photos and her notes that allow us to see Galapagos (and the work she did on the islands) through her own eyes, from her own perspective, with her gaze. This perspective shows an active and committed person who traveled through the archipelago in an effervescent time of conservation struggles and biological advances, but who never stopped seeing the bigger picture, the general framework in which those struggles and those searches took place, and did not forget to look at the small daily and fleeting details.

As has been said, human beings are nothing more than the footprints we leave behind. Surely the coming years will allow us to weave the footprints left by Linda Cayot and understand, in an integral way, the legacy that her work and her person left in the Galapagos. Meanwhile, we have a handful of scraps that allow us to know and remember her.

[The photograph that illustrates this text is preserved in the CDF Archive. In it, Linda Cayot appears in "La Caseta" in the highlands of Santa Cruz Island in 1982, during her research work for her doctoral thesis.]


Text & picture: (
Publication date: 1 November 2022
Last update: 1 November 2022