Wildlife in Galapagos

The Galapagos Islands have fascinated zoologists, biologists and wildlife lovers ever since Darwin landed here in 1835 and began to document their extraordinary natural history. A volcanic archipelago over 1,000km from mainland South America, these rocky islands are a kind of wildlife laboratory, evidence of evolution in action, where cormorants have lost the ability to fly, and iguanas have learned how to swim. But it’s not just these curious traits that appeal so much to modern travelers; it’s the animals’ indifference to their human visitors that makes a trip to these islands so astonishing. With no natural predators, there is no need for fear, and walking past colonies of sea lions, snorkelling with penguins or watching a blue footed booby waddle right past you are encounters that never fail to thrill.
We’ve picked our top Galapagos wildlife species to whet your appetite.

Sea lions

Sunbathing on the rocky beaches, these streamlined marine mammals bark out a noisy greeting to their visitors. They’re inquisitive, sociable and surprisingly huge – at over two metres long and weighing over 200kg. They inhabit every island in the Galapagos, as well as mainland Ecuador’s Pacific coast. The tiny pups are born from May through to January – which means they can be seen all year round; as soon as the pups are weaned the mothers will give birth again.
The archipelago's cutest inhabitants embody the childish playfulness that many visitors feel when they set foot on the Galapagos Islands.

Marine iguanas

Their red and black mottle skins look half toasted by the equatorial sun, and their spike-lined spines give them something of a prehistoric air. Indeed, it is believed that marine iguanas reached the Galapagos Islands millions of years ago, after having drifted 1,000km across the sea on bits of driftwood.
As dark, salt-crusted and gnarled as the rocky islands themselves, the marine iguana is emblematic of the Galapagos's unique fauna
While some of the descendants of these seafaring reptilians remained land dwelling, others evolved into marine iguanas – developing unique adaptations which allowed them to thrive in these Pacific waters. They feed on seaweed and algae, which they scrape from rocks with their sharp teeth. Their flattened tails let them move efficiently through the ocean, and their dark skin – unlike the lighter, land iguanas – ensures they are able to warm up quickly after spending time in the chilly water. You’ll encounter marine iguanas on all the islands of the Galapagos, with subspecies evolving on each. Look out for these “imps of darkness”, as Charles Darwin called them, expelling salt from their nostrils as they warm up on the shore.

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Giant tortoises

The largest species of tortoise, one of the longest lived animals in the world and one of the least widely distributed, giant tortoises live on just seven of these islands, yet are the Galapagos’s most easily recognisable inhabitant.
Once the islands were discovered by Europeans in the 1500s, the tortoises – which previously had no natural predators once they reached maturity – were slaughtered for their meat and oil, while their habitat was destroyed to make way for farms.
Charles Darwin's theory of evolution was heavily influenced by these giant reptiles, which he observed were larger on the humid, highland islands – and smaller on those with dry lowlands
Numbers fell from a quarter of a million to just 3,000 – though happily, successful captive breeding efforts mean that today, an estimated 19,000 tortoises, of 10 species, roam these islands. Not all of the species made it; Lonesome George was famously the last of the Pinta Island tortoises, and he died, aged around 100, in 2012.

Fans of giant tortoises should head to the Charles Darwin Research Station to see tortoises of all ages – from eggs to hatchlings and the enormous adults, weighing over 200kg. Look out for sparring males – the winner is the one who can stretch his head the highest.

Blue footed boobies

These amusing little characters waddle around these islands on their surreally blue feet, which seem strangely oversized for their bodies. Visitors who arrive in May, June or July may be treated to the male boobies’ mating dance, during which he raises one foot and then the other in front of his chosen female.
The bird that inspired a thousand comedy souvenirs, when you encounter a blue footed booby you'll realise its name is actually one of the least entertaining of it's attributes

Galapagos penguins

It is rather odd to witness penguins – so associated with Antarctic climes – on these equatorial islands, but the chilly Humboldt Current brings more suitable water temperatures to the archipelago, and the penguins spend most of the day sheltering in the water, escaping the sun. Their eggs are hidden in caves and rocky crevasses for the same reason. Galapagos penguins are a diminutive 50cm tall, the second smallest in the world, and are most commonly encountered on Isabela and Fernandina Islands. Sadly, these are also the rarest penguins in the world, which makes swimming alongside them – even for just a few fleeting seconds – all the more special.
While penguins are said to live only in the southern hemisphere, there is one exception. The Galapagos straddle the equator – so here, and only here, the resident penguins can be found straying north.
Written by Vicki Brown
Photo credits: [Page banner: Longjourneys] [Frigate bird: AussieActive] [Sea lion: Caroline Ebinger] [Marine iguana: Jose Aragones] [Galapagos tortoise: Jose Aragones] [Blue footed boobie: Andy Brunner] [Galapagos Penguin: Peter Swaine]