Ecuador is one of the most species-rich countries in the world and this is largely down to the diversity of Galapagos Island wildlife. Many of the species found on the Galapagos Islands are endemic, and it’s common for their names to have the prefix ‘Galapagos’.
One of the most unique attributes of Galapagos Island wildlife is that it barely seems to acknowledge the presence of humans. This means you can get really close (but no more than 2 metres so as not to affect their behaviour).
GALAPAGOS ISLAND WILDLIFE
The following are some of the Galapagos Islands’ most loved resident species.
Blue-footed boobies are among the most famous residents of this archipelago. The name ‘booby’ stems from the Spanish term ‘bobo’, meaning ‘stupid’ or ‘foolish’. As soon as you see them waddling around clumsily, you’ll understand why.
Female boobies are slightly larger than the males. They both have yellow irises, but the females’ are smaller because they need larger pupils for better vision. The males do an awkward dance, flaunting their blue feet and whistling to attract a female. The brightness of the male’s feet changes depending on his daily diet, and the female can alter her reproductive investment – changing egg size – depending on the perceived quality of her mate.
There are quite a few species of sea lion on the Galapagos, but the most numerous is the helpfully named ‘Galapagos sea lion’, which is only found in the Galapagos and Isla de la Plata, off the coast of mainland Ecuador.
Their morphology makes them ideally suited to swimming and fishing in the ocean. Once on land, when they’re not lying moribund for hours at a time, they stumble over each other, heaving their bodies across the sand. Often, the only way to tell they’re still alive is the occasional sneeze or sneaky peek out of one sleep-encrusted eye.
Sadly, this species of sea lion is very vulnerable to human activity. Their inquisitive nature means they approach nets, fishing hooks and human garbage. Thankfully, local residents make special efforts to protect their Galapagos Island wildlife, and they take special efforts to impart this mentality onto those who visit too.
Marine iguanas are also exclusive to the Galapagos Islands. They are the world’s only seagoing lizards. Our guide told us that Charles Darwin described them as disgusting and clumsy; disgusting because they sneeze salt all over the rocks, and clumsy because they clamber awkwardly over each other as they seek out the best spot for basking in the sun.
They have flat snouts so they can feed on algae from the rocks, and strong claws allow them to cling on to the lava, preventing them from being swept too far out to sea by strong currents.
Marine iguanas are threatened by introduced species like cats and dogs, but efforts are being made on the islands to eradicate or control introduced species.
The giant Galapagos tortoise has the longest lifespan of all vertebrates, often living to the ripe old age of between 100 and 150 years. Sadly, the Galapagos Islands’ most famous resident – Lonesome George, the last of the Pinta Island species – died earlier this year.
Giant tortoises can weigh as much as 300 kg. Because they can survive for many months without food and water, sailors in the 16th and 17th centuries used to pack them into their ships’ holds as a source of fresh meat. This, and, more recently, introduced species, has threatened the population, but there are currently breeding programmes and rescue centres in place on a number of the islands.
Galapagos finches are the world’s best known example of natural selection. When Darwin spent 6 weeks observing wildlife in the Galapagos, he made one very significant observation – that the beaks of the finches on each of the islands in the archipelago were adapted to the diets available on those islands.
How he came to notice this, I don’t know. They all looked the same to me. I wonder if I discovered a new species adapted to drinking from wine glasses…?
SALLY LIGHTFOOT CRABS
These colourful creatures live just above the limit of the sea spray on the rocky lava shores of the Galapagos Islands, commonly competing for space with hundreds of marine iguanas.
They’re perhaps the only animal I had difficulty photographing because they would scarper as soon as we got close. And the task wasn’t made any easier by the fact that the algae-covered rocks on which they feed are often very slippery. I have a scarred shin to proove it!
The Galapagos green turtle is a great animal to watch – both on land as it tests out patches of beach for egg laying, and in the sea, as you chase after it with your fins on a guided tour of the marine Galapagos Island wildlife whilst on a Galapagos cruise.
It is difficult to tell the sexes apart, but we were informed that the male’s tail also doubles up as its penis and, as a result, it’s longer. The females only lay eggs every 2 or 3 years, adding to the vulnerability of the species, although they lay between 50 and 200 at a time, to increase the chances that at least some of the offspring will survive. After laying and covering the eggs, the female turtle has been known to dig another, fake nest to fool predators, as well as flinging sand around to disguise her tracks.
This Galapagos Hawk perched happily for 10 minutes or so on the end of a stick held by out tour guide. The next time I saw a Galapagos hawk, it was perched on a rock 2 feet away from a sea lion and they were both looking out to sea!
If a male wants to mate with a female, he will dive bomb her in a fake attack. Then he’ll follow her as she flies away. Perhaps the female’s revenge for this behaviour is to mate with up to seven different males in one season.
Sadly, these birds are now extinct on a number of the islands and records suggest there are fewer than 200 mating pairs left. As with so much of the Galapagos Island wildlife, they are threatened as a result of introduced species and disturbance of their habitat by humans.