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New giant tortoise species discovered in the Galapagos Islands

Endemic Species in the Galapagos Islands

The Galapagos Islands are considered by biologists one of the world’s most pristine “natural laboratories,” where some of the most fascinating life can be observed in its purest forms. It is here, in the varied and unique ecosystems of the Galapagos Islands, isolated in the Pacific Ocean by more than 600 miles from the mainland, that many endemic species thrive.

Unlike the many native species in the Galapagos Islands, which can be seen here and in other parts of the world, the Galapagos endemic species only live in the Galapagos Islands, with some species that are exclusive to just one island. These endemic Galapagos species can’t be seen anywhere else on the planet.

How did they get to the Galapagos Islands?

If you’re wondering how animals (those that couldn’t swim or fly, of course) first arrived to the Galapagos Islands, you’re not alone. The definitive origin of species on the Galapagos Islands is still a mystery, but the prevailing theory is that the first animals arrived to the Galapagos on rafts of vegetation that floated from the mainland.

While many of these rafts likely sank in the Pacific and others washed up on the Galapagos shores without any animal survivors, ecologists posit that only a few hearty individuals of each species would have had to survive on these rafts in order to establish life here, since the lava-based soil is extremely fertile and conducive to plant life and there are no natural predators.

No endemic mammals?

If you’re lucky, you’ll catch a glimpse of a mighty humpback whale migrating through the Galapagos Islands, and you’ll probably also see dogs and cats in the residential parts of town. But the only truly endemic mammals in the Galapagos Islands are the Galapagos Fur Seal, Galapagos Sea Lion, and the Galapagos Bat.

Endemic Reptiles

  • Land Iguana (Conolophus subcristatus, Conolophus pallidus, Conolophus marthae) – Cousins of the smaller green iguanas on mainland Ecuador, the land iguanas of the Galapagos Islands can weigh more than 30 pounds and measure over a meter in length. Different islands have different sub-species of the land iguana. Spread across six islands, the yellow ones are the most common, followed by a conolophus pallidus, endemic to Santa Fe, and a pinkish-black species that so far has only been found around Wolf Volcano on Isabela.
  • Marine Iguana (Amblyrhynchus cristatus) – With perfectly adapted claws for gripping lava rock, paddle-like tails for swimming, and the ability to hold their breath for long periods of time and then expel salt through special glands in their nose, the Galapagos Marine Iguana is a case study for evolution. With an adult length of 2-3.5 feet, these black iguanas can be seen soaking in the sun on rocky shores before diving deep to feed on algae.
  • Giant Tortoises (Chelonoidis nigra) – Perhaps the most iconic of the Galapagos animals, the Giant Tortoise lends its name to the archipelago itself – the first explorers here thought that the shells of these gentle giants resembled a Spanish-style saddle or “Galapago.” Although some species of the Giant tortoise were poached to extinction by whalers and pirates, those left undisturbed in their natural environment can live over 100 years and grow to a size around 500 pounds. The National Park now strives to breed and protect these tortoises at various breeding centers in the Galapagos.


Endemic Birds

  • Galapagos Penguin (Spheniscus mendiculus) – At just 19 inches tall, these tiny creatures are the only penguins that live north of the equator.
  • Galapagos Hawk (Buteo galapagoensis) – Look for these birds preying on sea turtle eggs around the beaches.
  • Flightless Cormorant (Phalacrocorax harrisi) – Though it is the only cormorant species in the world that cannot fly, the aptly named flightless cormorant has evolved into a very talented diver.
    Galapagos Dove (Zenaida galapagoensis) –
    Similar in appearance to the common pigeon, look for these brown birds in the arid Galapagos ecosystems.
  • Various Finch Species (Fringillidae) – With a keen eye, you can follow in Darwin’s footsteps and try to identify all 13 different species of finch throughout the Galapagos.
  • Galapagos Mockingbird (Mimus parvulus) – Among the smaller birds in the Galapagos Islands, the Galapagos mockingbird enjoys a healthy population.
  • Lava Heron (Butorides sundevalli) – At about 12 inches tall at maturity, the lava heron camouflages itself among the silver and gray tones of lava rock in the intertidal zones.
  • Galapagos Flycatcher (Myiarchus magnirostris) – Flighty and quick, these 15 cm birds are easy to spot, only because their curiosity often brings them right up to visitors.

You might also see some notable natives while traveling through the Galapagos Islands, including:

  • Frigatebirds (Fregata) – Identifiable by their inflated red pouches.
  • Blue-footed booby (Sula nebouxii) – A favorite of travelers for their curious mating dance.
  • Waved Albatross (Phoebastria irrorata)- Espanola Island is home to almost all of the world’s 12,000 mating pairs of waved albatross.
  • Rays & Sharks – The Galapagos Marine Reserve, especially around Wolf and Darwin Islands, is renowned for having some of the highest concentrations of sharks in the ocean.
albatross flying