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Unique wildlife of the Galapagos Islands

10 August 2017

Unique wildlife of the Galapagos Islands

The Galapagos Islands are incredibly isolated. The nearest land mass is South America, which is 1000 kilometres away.

Over millions of years, creatures have arrived on these islands – whether by perching on rafts that washed ashore, or by flying or swimming. These creatures have settled in, made a home in the Galapagos and adapted to suit the local conditions.

Isolation plus evolution has made a wonderful array of unique Galapagos wildlife – many of the creatures are not found anywhere else in the world. With a lack of predators on the islands, the creatures are incredibly tame, with no fear of humans.

A note about Charles Darwin

You can't talk about Galapagos Islands wildlife without talking about Charles Darwin. Darwin visited the islands on the HMS Beagle in 1835 and the animals he saw there started his brain working towards what would eventually become his major work: the theory of evolution presented in On the Origin of Species in 1859.

A note about Galapagos Islands tours

If you're thinking of a Galapagos Islands holiday, you'll be looking at boat tours with different itineraries, visiting different islands. In this article, we note where in the Galapagos you can find each creature – to help you choose the right Galapagos Islands tour for you.

A voyage through the Galapagos is an amazing experience. You'll be getting up close with many amazing creatures who have little or no fear of people. Here's our favourites.

Galapagos Sea Lion

The Galapagos sea lion is closely related to the Californian sea lion, but it is slightly smaller. The sea lions have a distinctive bark and a mother can recognise her cubs' bark in a crowd of barking sea lions. They have a social demeanour, so you'll often see them lolling around together on the beaches, surfing in the shallows or even lounging on a beachfront park bench.

Which islands to visit
The sea lions are a highlight of a Galapagos Islands holiday. They are one of the most populous species on the islands and they are found on all of the Galapagos Islands. Snorkelling off the islands, you might even find yourself swimming alongside a sea lion – a truly memorable experience.

Marine Iguanas

The marine iguana is the only reptile in the world that forages in the sea. The larger males dive down to retrieve algae to eat, while the smaller iguanas forage along the shoreline at low tide. Charles Darwin was very interested in the marine iguanas but he found them to be unpleasant creatures, writing: “The black lava rocks on the beach are frequented by large, disgusting clumsy Lizards. They are as black as the porous rocks over which they crawl & seek their prey from the sea. I call them 'imps of darkness'.”

Which islands to visit
There are quite a lot of marine iguanas and they are found on many of the Galapagos Islands. They live on the rocky shorelines. On Santa Cruz the large marine iguanas are around 35cm long while on Wolf and Darwin Islands, the iguanas are only 19cm long.

Galapagos Tortoise

The Galapagos Giant Tortoise is the world's largest living species of tortoise. They can weigh up to 417 kilograms and with a lifespan of over 100 years, they are one of the world's longest living vertebrates. The Galapagos Tortoise has been part of a strident conservation and reproductive program at the Charles Darwin Research Station, which has resulted in stronger tortoise populations and the saving of some of the subspecies from extinction.

Which islands to visit
Galapagos Tortoises live on several of the islands. On the islands with humid highlands, the tortoises are larger with higher domes and shorter necks. On the lower islands, the tortoises are saddlebacked with long necks. To see the tortoises, visit Isabela Island, Espanola Island and, of course, the Charles Darwin Research Centre on Santa Cruz Island.

Galapagos Land Iguanas

The Galapagos land iguana is a large and ancient-looking creature. It can grow to be up to 1.5 metres long and has a 50-60 year lifespan. There were so many iguanas and iguana burrows when Darwin was there that the visitors could scarcely find somewhere to pitch a tent. Again, Darwin wasn't very complimentary about the land iguanas, calling them: "ugly animals, of a yellowish orange beneath, and of a brownish-red colour above: from their low facial angle they have a singularly stupid appearance.”

Which islands to visit
The Galapagos land iguanas live in the dry lowlands of quite a few of the islands: Fernandina, Isabela, Santa Cruz, North Seymour, Baltra, and South Plaza. You might spot them basking on the volcanic rock in the sunshine.

Galapagos Penguin

The Galapagos penguin is the only penguin that lives north of the equator in the wild. The Galapagos Islands are on the equator, so the penguins aren't very far north – but it is a very warm environment for a penguin. They're the second smallest penguin in the world and the rarest penguin in the world.

Which islands to visit
Most of the penguins live on Isabela Island and Fernandina Island. They swim in the cool waters of the Cromwell Current and retreat into deep shady crevices to nest.

Galapagos Hawk

Before humans arrived, the Galapagos hawk was the biggest predator in the archipelago. They mainly live on insects such as locusts but also regularly tuck into bigger meals like sea tortoises, lava lizards, iguanas and rodents. As the biggest predator on the islands, they had no real fears and Charles Darwin wrote: "A gun is here almost superfluous; for with the muzzle I pushed a hawk out of the branch of a tree".

Which islands to visit
The larger hawks call Espanola Island home while mid-sized hawks live on Santiago Island. There are not many mating pairs of the hawks left, so you'll need to be on the lookout. You might spot the hawks circling overhead in groups of two or three.

Galapagos Lava Lizard

There are six species of Lava Lizard that are endemic to the Galapagos Islands. These little guys are around 5 to 10 centimetres long and the males display some fancy aggressive behaviour towards other males on their territory.

Which islands to visit
To spot a Galapagos Lava Lizard, head to Isabela, Santa Cruz, Fernandina, Santiago, Santa Fe, Seymour or Baltra. Morning and afternoon are the best times to spot them – they usually retreat from the midday heat.

Galapagos Flightless Cormorant

The Galapagos flightless cormorant is the only species of cormorant that has lost the ability to fly. It is a large bird, up to 100 centimetres long and it has webbed feet which it uses to propel itself through the water. It dives and feeds close to the sea floor.

Which islands to visit
They are only found on Isabela and Fernandina Islands and they are one of the world's rarest birds. They live on the rocky shores and forage in the shallows.

Darwin's Finches and Galapagos Mockingbirds

The birdlife of the Galapagos Islands can be credited with kick-starting Darwin's ideas about evolution. The Galapagos Mockingbirds were the first species that Darwin noticed varied from island to island. The group of birds that have become known as 'Darwin's Finches' consolidated his thoughts.

Which islands to visit
These birds are fairly widespread across the archipelago and spotting the variations in the birds is a real highlight for twitchers and Darwin fans.

Other creatures you might see on a Galapagos Islands tour

These incredible creatures didn't make the list as they can be found in places other than the Galapagos, but they will definitely be a highlight of any Galapagos tour.

Sally Lightfoot crab
The award for the best name goes to the Sally Lightfoot crab. Bright orange and quick on their feet, these little crabs feed on algae and can sometimes be spotted taking ticks from the skin of marine iguanas.

Blue-footed booby
With their incredibly bright blue feet, you will know when you've spotted a blue-footed booby. Males do a distinctive foot-lifting dance showing off the blue-ness of their feet to attract females.

Magnificent frigatebird
The frigatebird a large seabird with black feathers and the males have an extraordinary