Many questions come up when thinking about Galapagos Wildlife.
- How did Galapagos wildlife arrive at the islands?
- What are endemic species?
- Is Galapagos wildlife afraid of humans?
How did the Galapagos Wildlife arrive at the islands?
Five to ten million years ago, the first Galapagos volcanoes appeared above the seawater for the first time. This occurred about 600 km from continental Ecuador in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. These volcanic peaks were completely devoid of animals and plant life. All Galapagos plant and wildlife now native to the islands must have originally arrived at the islands on some sort of floating device or by air from continental Ecuador.
Galapagos wildlife is quite unbalanced compared to the diversity of species found in continental Ecuador. For example, there are plenty of bird species, and very few mammals, there are many reptiles but no amphibians. Regarding plant life, ferns and grasses are abundant while large flowers and big seeds are absent.
The islands are unique in many ways and its these incongruences that make them so special and worth visiting.
Normally there are two ways species can make their way to remote islands. The first method is by air and the second method is by sea.
Sea birds are usually strong long-distance fliers. They simply made their way to the islands by flying there. These birds most likely brought plant seeds and propagules along with them attached to their bodies or even inside their stomach.
Small insects were probably blown by the breeze from continental Ecuador. Land birds not good at flying probably got help from the wind. The wind is thought to have played a major role in transporting plants such as mosses, ferns, and lichens all the way to the Galapagos Islands.
The ancestors of present-day Galapagos animals that are good swimmers such as; penguins, sea turtles, and sea lions, made their way to the archipelago swimming along swift ocean currents.
On the other hand, reptiles and small mammals are thought to have been carried to the islands from South and Central America onboard makeshift rafts made of vegetation. This raft theory explains why no native amphibians can be found and why so few mammals exist on the islands. Reptiles would have been better adapted for floating for weeks at sea with harsh sunny and salty conditions.
Regarding plants, coastal plants such as saltbushes and mangroves have salt-resistant seeds which makes it likely they arrived by sea as well.
What are endemic species?
Endemic species are animals and plants that only exist in one geographic region. Species can be endemic to large or small areas: some species are endemic to a specific continent, some are endemic to a portion of a continent, and others can be endemic to a single island that can be observed throughout the Galapagos Islands.
Is Galapagos Wildlife afraid of humans?
Galapagos wildlife appears completely innocent. You can freely approach animals, and they will you. Even small lizards scurrying down the path won’t run away. The distance between the islands and continental Ecuador might have led to some strange and unique patterns of speciation, but it also means that colonizing animals have never had to face their natural predators. It is probably the absence of large mammal predators, rather than the recent arrival of man to the islands that accounts for the fearlessness of Galapagos wildlife.
Below is a list of some of the main species you will see in a relaxed week´s voyage of the Galapagos Islands.
There are few land mammals in the Galapagos Islands. Instead, you have plenty of reptiles such as giant tortoises and land iguanas.
The giant tortoise (Geochelone elephantous), is the most iconic Galapagos animal. It gets its name from the Spanish root of the word for tortoise, ´galapago´. They look like giant boulders and can weigh up to 250kg, and the top of their shells can reach up to a man´s waistline. Giant tortoises move slowly as if time moves at a different speed for them.
Giant tortoises arrived in Galapagos from South America about 2-3 million years ago. After undergoing diversification, 15 sub-species could be found on the islands. Lonesome George the last of the Pinta Island tortoises passed away in 2012. At present ten living giant tortoise species remain for certain in the Galapagos. The current population of tortoises is close to 20,000.
All giant tortoises vary in size and shape, but they all can be classified into two categories: those that have a dome-shaped shell and those that have a saddle-back shaped shell.
The most characteristic animal of the Galapagos coastline is the multi-colored marine iguana. The endemic Galapagos marine iguana is the only sea-going lizard in the world. It feeds off algae from the sea bed and they intake a lot of salt in the process. Marine iguanas have special glands above their eyes that secret the excess salt, which is then expelled with a dragon-like snort through their nostrils.
The multi-colored marine iguana has a sluggish cousin – the land iguana. These drab, yellow-greenish reptiles live in dry lowlands. They survive by drinking the liquid from the prickly pear cactus, their only food source. Darwin commented on their ¨singularly stupid appearance¨, and even if they can get quite large they are harmless.
Lava lizards are found all over the islands. You can spot them easily by their red throats and territorial behavior. It´s like they are telling you ¨what´s up¨.
The Galapagos Islands are an aviary of the ocean. There are 56 native bird species of birds in the Galapagos, 45 of which are endemic (only found in the islands) and 11 indigenous (native to Galapagos but can be found outside the islands). There are 29 migrant species (native but migratory) and 64 species that have been spotted once or twice. Galapagos birds can be put in two categories, sea birds and land birds.
Sea birds occupy a prominent place in the Galapagos fauna. Frigate birds are the most present and noticeable of the bunch. They are the pirates of the sky and the best aviators. They have a perfect wing to bodyweight ratio and you can see their black shapes break, stutter, swoop, and sweep in the sky. Male frigate birds have large, red gular sacks which they inflate to the size of basketballs during courtship. You can check out this mating ritual at the frigate bird colony on Seymour Island.
Frigate birds sometimes harass other birds such as the tropic-bird. This bird can be recognized by its long white tail-streamers and red bill.
The clown-like boobies are perhaps the most famous of Galapagos sea birds. They have a pointed tapered bill, a torpedo-shaped body, and a pointy tail. The booby is well equipped for plunge-diving and fishing. You can see them flying in long lines, diving vertically from a height of 20 meters, tucking their wings in a split second.
There are three species of boobies in the Galapagos Islands. The most common of boobies is the blue-footed boobie. You can see them all over the islands and seeing them dance during their mating ritual is oh so cute. The other two species of boobies are harder to spot. You can see the Nazca and Red-footed booby at Pitt Point and if also at Genovesa Island.
Española Island is home to the world´s largest population of waved albatrosses. The albatross has yet to perfect its techniques of take-off and landing. They require a high cliff to launch since they are too heavy to take off running. Seeing this huge bird jump off a cliff and take off is truly amazing. Albatrosses mate for life and have a complicated and frantic mating ritual that involves dancing and beak-kissing. This ritual takes place in April and late October.
The Galapagos brown pelican is a water bird with a wingspan of about 6 ft and a long bill with a pouch for holding fish. It can be spotted at ports, on dinghies, or flying in chevrons over the waves.
The most out of place bird of the Galapagos Islands has to be the Galapagos penguin. It’s the only penguin species to live and nest entirely in the tropics. It’s clumsy and comical and it uses the most endearing of strategies to protect itself. When penguins are on land, they merely turn their white tuxedo-like coat away from a predator, hoping their black backs will blend with the lavascape. Underwater its another story, they can torpedo along at 40 kph.
Another swimming bird is the black and sleek flightless cormorant. You can spot them on Isabela and Fernandina Islands. The cormorant evolved on the islands and lost the use of its wings. It now dives in the ocean and goes fishing.
Most of the land birds in the Galapagos Islands are dull-colored. They make up for their lack of color with their tameness. Land birds are curious and incautious, every visitor comments on their fearlessness.
You are likely to spot a Galapagos dove, with blue-ringed eyes, some of Darwin´s 13 finches, mocking birds, and the vermillion flycatcher.
The most fearless of Galapagos lands birds has to be the Galapagos hawk. Darwin wrote: ¨A gun here is useless; for with a muzzle I pushed a hawk out of the branch of a tree¨. These brown mottled birds have no natural predators or enemies, they fear no one and might even approach you.
Mammal populations are usually lacking in oceanic islands and the Galapagos are no exception. The two-week ride aboard a raft would be too long for mammals to survive. Except for two bat and rice rat species the only naturally introduced mammals in the Galapagos archipelago are all swimmers. Mammals such as; goats, dogs, cats, rats, and pigs introduced by humans are a present problem. They feed on young species and compete with the endemic wildlife for food sources. Back in the ‘70s, a hunting program for goats and dogs was implemented to deal with the issue.
While you cruise the islands you will often spot dolphins swimming in front of your boat. Dolphins are very smart, curious, playful, and social. Their brains are bigger in size than human brains. They once lived on land and slowly evolved to live in the seas.
Sea lions are present all over the Galapagos Islands. You will see them at most visitor sites, at ports, and lounging on most beaches. Jealous males can be heard honking off the beach guarding their harem of females. A surplus of males is inevitable and you can also find males grouped in gentlemen´s club-like bachelor colonies.
A small population of fur seals exists on the islands, even though they were nearly hunted to extinction in the 1800s. You can distinguish them by their smaller size and large sad-looking eyes. The best place to spot fur seals is at James Bay on Santiago Island.