When Linda Cayot began working in the Galapagos Islands, the giant tortoise populations were down to less than 10 percent of their historical abundance. Their growth since then has been bolstered by the visionary conservation programs she helped put in place during 40 years devoted to tortoise and iguana conservation in Galapagos.
Linda Cayot died at home in East Quincy on September 26, 2022 after a valiant battle with cancer. She was 70.
It’s no surprise that Linda found an occupation that put her outside most of the time. She did her first camping trip at nine months of age, a family trip to the Sonora Pass area and the first of a years-long Cayot family tradition that included Yosemite, Lassen, Yellowstone and other national parks of the West. Backpacking was one of Linda’s favorite ways to vacation, both in the Sierra and the Rocky Mountains. Age was no barrier as far as Linda was concerned, and she got her parents out on their first backpack when they were in their 60s.
When the Cayot family traveled to camp spots, they sang in the car. When they arrived they sang around campfires. Linda also sang in church and school choirs, developing an eclectic repertoire ranging from the goofy to the oratorical. During the COVID shut-down she turned to the New York Metropolitan Opera’s weekly free site for entertainment and solace.
The youngest of five daughters born to Ray and Hazel Cayot, Linda grew up in Berkeley, CA graduating from Berkeley High School in 1968. Her taste for foreign travel was cultivated by a post-high school year as an exchange student in Switzerland where she lived with a family outside of Geneva. She earned a Bachelor of Science degree from Colorado State University in 1975, majoring in wildlife biology. While researching for her Master’s degree in 1978 (also from CSU), she spent two summers in the field doing research for a grizzly bear study in Yellowstone National Park.
It was working on a dissertation for her PhD at Syracuse University in New York that Linda was introduced to the Galapagos Islands and their iconic giant tortoises. Her focus on the behavior and ecology of Galapagos tortoises put her in the field as a research scientist in 1982 and 1983, right when the islands were experiencing one of the worst El Nino storms in recorded history. When her study animal, a large male tortoise lumbered into the swirling mud, the intrepid scientist jumped in too. Together they banged against rocks, his carapace and her daypack catching on tree branches as they thumped in tandem down the river to the lowlands of Santa Cruz Island.
After completing the PhD, Linda took a position as a herpetologist at the Charles Darwin Research Station, where she supervised the tortoise and iguana breeding and repatriation programs. When she first arrived in Galapagos, the southern rim of Alcedo Volcano was covered with Zanthoxylum trees. By the early 1990s, invasive goats were destroying the forest, a critical area for tortoises. Linda coordinated Project Isabela, the largest invasive species eradication program ever attempted anywhere. It took nearly a decade. Today the vegetation is slowly regenerating.
From 2008 to until her retirement in 2020, Linda worked for Galapagos Conservancy as the chief scientist. She launched Iniciativa Galapagos, a collaborative effort with Galapagos National Park to restore all Galapagos Giant Tortoise populations, a project that continues. Though retired, Linda continued to work with co-authors James P. Gibbs and Washington Tapia Aguilera and completed a book on Galapagos Giant Tortoises designed to capture all that is known about these animals.
As a scientist, Linda thought of conservation in terms of deep time. She recognized that the goal of restoring tortoise populations to their historic numbers and distribution might take two centuries to achieve. As a supervisor, she applied that long view to mentoring young conservationists, especially women and local Galapaguenos. Many of them lead conservation efforts in Galapagos today.
Linda’s foresight continues to guide the conservation programs she initiated, says Gibbs, professor of conservation at State University of New York, Syracuse. “She will keep driving us all ahead to realize her vision of tortoises restored to their original numbers on all islands.”
In 2004, Linda moved to Plumas County where she had deep roots. Her great-great grandmother Cayot opened the LaPorte Hotel with her son, who took over management in 1884. One great aunt, Claire O’Rourke, was Plumas County treasurer for many years, while another, Eve Cayot, was county superintendent of schools. In Quincy, Linda joined the Feather River Land Trust, serving as a board member. She was active in a local writing group where she complete three drafts of a memoir about her life as a wildlife biologist.
Linda was a strong proponent of death with dignity for people with terminal illnesses. She exercised her right to die under California law, demonstrating the respect for herself she offered to her friends, family, and colleagues throughout her life.
She is survived by sisters Nancy Williamson of Portland, OR, Carole Klokkevold (Lance) and Judy Cayot of Albany, CA, and Annette Cayot of Berkeley, CA. She was a beloved aunt to numerous nieces and nephews and cousins.
Donations in her memory may be made to the Galapagos Conservancy or Feather River Land Trust.
Her inspiring legacy lives on.