It’s no secret that the Galapagos Islands are home to some of the world’s most unique and intriguing wildlife. Tucked away from civilization for thousands of years, there are a large number of endemic species that have evolved over time to adapt to the environment, inspiring a certain Charles Darwin to develop his ‘Theory of Evolution’. Now a World Heritage Site, the Galapagos National Park welcomes visitors from all over the world to see first-hand the amazing creatures that roam the islands. Here are our picks of the top 5 most unique wildlife of the Galapagos.
♦ The Galapagos Giant Tortoise
The largest in the world and one of the longest living vertebrates, the Galapagos Giant Tortoise is so prominent on the islands that when Spanish explorers discovered the archipelago in the 16th century, they named the islands after the Spanish word ‘galapago’, meaning ‘tortoise.’ The Giant Tortoise is native to seven of the Galapagos Islands, with different subspecies found in the other islands of the Galapagos due to evolutionary adaptations to the varying environments.
In order to help preserve these gentle giants, the Galapagos National Park has made certain areas off limits to visitors. The four islands in which visitors can view tortoises are Santa Cruz, San Cristobal, Isabela and Floreana. Without a doubt the most popular place to watch for tortoises is the island of Santa Cruz, with the Galapagos dry season between June and December being a great time to spot them as they migrate to the highlands in search of water and food. These guys are the star of the show in the Galapagos, and with lifespans well over 100 years in the wild; it’s unlikely that this will change anytime soon.
♦ Galapagos Island Marine Iguana
Found exclusively in the Galapagos, the Marine Iguana is the only iguana on the planet that swims in the ocean. These unique reptiles can be found on all of the Galapagos Islands, with varied subspecies of different sizes and color spread throughout.
Feeding almost primarily on algae, their long flat tail and dorsal fin helps them to become very good swimmers, with the ability to dive up to 30ft underwater. While feeding, they consume a significant amount of salt, which they excrete through their nasal gland by sneezing. They can only spend a limited time underwater, forcing them to return to land to bask in the sun and readjust their body temperatures. One of the most interesting characteristics of these iguanas is that when these little guys go hungry they don’t just get thinner, they shrink in size, making them the only known shrinking adult vertebrate. They are able to grow and shrink throughout their lifetime depending on the food supply, making them a perfect example of a species that continues to adapt to their environment.
♦ Galapagos Penguin
Another animal found exclusively in the islands is the Galapagos Penguin which is the second smallest species of penguin in the world. Found primarily on the islands of Fernandina and Isabela, they can also be found on Santa Cruz, Santiago, Floreana, and Bartolomé. Because the northern tip of Isabela crosses the equator, the Galapagos Penguin is known as the only penguin in the world that can be found in the wild in the northern hemisphere.
Populations of these adorable creatures are increasingly at risk due to climate changes caused by El Niño and by illegal fisherman disrupting the fragile marine ecosystem. Unlike most penguins that have a particular breeding season, the Galapagos Penguin has adapted to the unpredictable Galapagos ecosystem and is able to reproduce multiple times throughout the year whenever food is in abundance.
♦ Galapagos Fur Seal
One of only six native land bound mammal species on the island, the Fur Seal is yet another example of an animal endemic to the Galapagos. Interestingly enough, despite their name leading one to think otherwise, the Fur Seal is actually a type of sea lion, with its main difference being their thick fur coat and smaller size. Found mostly on the western islands of the Galapagos, the largest populations of fur seals can be found on Fernandina and Isabela. Contrary to most species of seals, these playful creatures spend around 70% of their time on land, making them relatively easy to spot.
Aside from the odd shark or orca that stumbles upon the Galapagos, the Fur Seal has almost no natural predator in the area. Historically the main threats of the Fur Seal have been either poachers in search of their fur or a lack of food during El Niño years leading to the starvation of the younger pups. Since the formation of the National Park however, poaching has not been a problem and the Fur Seal population is back on the rise and in a stable condition.
♦ Blue-Footed Boobies
These funny but aptly named creatures are not exclusively found on the Galapagos, but roughly half of the world’s population breeds on the islands. Their webbed feet and other physically adapted attributes make them great divers, plunging into water from up to 80ft in the air when going after schools of small fish for their underwater snacks.
For the Blue-Footed Boobies, the bluer the feet the better! Their characteristically blue feet range in color from light blue to a deep aquamarine, which can be seen as a direct signal of a booby’s health and a key factor when attracting a mate. The mating ritual of the Blue-Footed Booby is an entertaining one, which starts with the male strutting around and dancing while displaying his feet. They then ‘skypoint’ by pointing the head and beak upwards and spreading the wings, before going off to gather twigs and nesting material and finally sealing the deal. Between their odd colored feet, awkward demeanor on land and funny mating ritual, it’s no wonder they were named after the Spanish word ‘bobo’, meaning ‘fool’ in English.