Galapagos Giant Tortoise | Aqua Mare | Aqua Expeditions

The Galapagos Land Iguana: Dragons Of The New World

2 years ago Galapagos

The hunt for mythical creatures rarely bears fruitful results. For all the people who claim to have spotted Bigfoot, not one of them seemed to own a functioning camera. The blurry photos which do exist are questionable at best. A close look makes you wonder whether you’re looking at Bigfoot, a gorilla, or just a very large man dressed in a ghillie suit. 


Dragons, on the other hand, are a different story. We might not have spotted them soaring through the skies or rummaging through our banks for gold, but there are signs which make you wonder. In fact, a visit to the Galapagos Islands could turn a skeptic into a believer. 


The islands’ endemic reptiles – which include marine iguanas and three different species of land iguanas – display a striking resemblance to the legendary creatures which we see depicted across fantasy epics. They have distinctive colors and spikes running down their back. Who knows, maybe they even breathe fire when the humans aren’t watching. 


Speculation aside, here’s what we know about one of the most remarkable animals which inhabit the archipelago: the Galapagos land iguanas (Conolophus subcristatus).


They eat cactus

You read that right, and they don’t bother taking off all the spines either. In fact, Galapagos land iguanas are so fond of Opuntia – commonly known as the prickly pear cactus – that they’ve picked up on evolutionary traits which allow them to easily feed on it. 


land iguana eating cactus


The iguanas have a leather-like texture to their skin and tongue which protects them from the spines. They use their claws to remove the larger ones, but have no trouble eating and digesting the rest. Since the land iguanas have a pointed face, they’re able to feed on cacti without the spines poking their eyes.  


Cactus is an important source of nutrition for Galapagos land iguanas due to the lack of fresh water in the region. As  it doesn’t rain much in the Galapagos islands, they derive moisture from the cacti during dry seasons. This makes up for up to 80 percent of their diet. 


When there’s a scarcity of cactus pads and fruits, land iguanas resort to eating insects and scavenging carcasses instead.


They sunbathe for a living


Quite literally, in fact. Since land iguanas are cold-blooded reptiles, they spend most of their time basking in the sunshine. Fortunately, there’s plenty of that to go around in the Galapagos Islands. 


As we set sail on the Aqua Mare this May, guests can expect to be welcomed by land iguanas relaxing on the volcanic island rocks. There’ll be a number of spots to make these sightings. Most notably, guests traveling through the East Galapagos islands will make a stop at the aptly named ‘Dragon Hill’.  


galapagos land iguana basking


Located on Santa Cruz Island, Dragon Hill was coined by scientists back in 1975. It was one of the only places on the island where they could find a healthy population of land iguanas. Today, the population is still thriving, as guests will discover during an afternoon-long excursion through mangroves, sand dunes, and a flamingo lagoon.


They live solitary lives

Unlike their marine counterparts, Galapagos land iguanas tend to live by themselves. Male iguanas are especially territorial and often become aggressive while fending off other males. They may thrash their tails, head-butt, and even bite other iguanas which try to invade their space.


Female iguanas are not quite as hot-headed. They can be spotted living in groups – at least when it’s not breeding season. These dynamics change when it comes time to lay eggs. Female iguanas search far and wide for an ideal nesting place, and they may travel as far as nine miles to find it.


After settling on the right spot – which might, at times, be atop a volcanic summit – the iguanas dig a hole and lay anywhere between two and 25 eggs. In the subsequent days, they defend their nests from other females and prevent them from laying nearby. 


galapagos land iguana


That’s the last time iguanas take care of their soon-to-be offsprings. By the time the hatchlings actually arrive – which can take between three to four months – the female iguanas are already long gone. The hatchlings are left to fend for themselves and many of them don’t make it past the first few years. 


The threats to iguana hatchlings have increased since animals such as cats, dogs, and pigs were introduced to the Galapagos Islands. In 1976, feral dogs almost entirely wiped out the population of land iguanas on Santa Cruz. The last 60 survivors had to be rescued by the Charles Darwin Research Station. 


As part of Aqua Mare’s expedition through West Galapagos, we’ll be making a stop at the research station to observe  land iguanas (and tortoises too!) up close. Our scientific team and expedition leaders will guide us through the grounds and tell us more about the conservation program in place to protect these wonderful animals. 


Not everyone’s a fan

When Charles Darwin first arrived at the Galapagos Islands in 1835, he encountered land iguanas on Santiago Island. As he recorded his observations, he didn’t care to mince his words. Darwin described the iguanas as ‘ugly animals’ with a ‘singularly stupid appearance’. He felt that they were lazy animals which were clumsy in their movements. 


While that might seem bad, Darwin was even harsher on the land iguanas’ marine counterparts. Declaring them ‘imps of darkness’, he wrote about just how hideous, stupid, and sluggish they are – on multiple occasions.  


Even though he wasn’t particularly fond of them, Darwin was the last person to officially document sightings of land iguanas on Santiago Island. As humans began settling there, the iguana population was wiped out by the domestic animals which they brought with them. 


galapagos land iguana


More recently, iguanas have been reintroduced to Santiago Island from North Seymour – another island in the Galapagos Archipelago. Between 2019 and 2021, almost 2,500 land iguanas were brought over to restore the population.


Our Galapagos cruise guests traveling through West Galapagos will have the opportunity to disembark on the island and spot iguanas hobbling along the black sand beaches of Puerto Egas. Despite what Darwin might have said, we think they’re a wondrous sight to behold – the dragons of the new world. 


Book an expedition on Aqua Mare to discover the elusive wildlife and dramatic volcanic landscapes of the Galapagos Archipelago. Curated with exclusivity and personalized service enabled in mind, the yacht is the only one in the Galapagos Islands to have a one-to-one crew to guest ratio. Plan your trip now and feel free to reach out to our Expeditions Consultant with any questions you may have.