Over three to five million years ago, volcanic activity in the depths of the Pacific Ocean along the equator gave birth to the majestic Galapagos Islands. What started as a group of hostile and isolated lands completely deprived of life is currently home to a plethora of exotic and unusual animals and plants, many of which are found nowhere else in the world. Given the close resemblance of the wildlife species of the Galapagos Archipelago with those of South and Central America, and the fact that the islands were never connected to the mainland, suggests that animals and plants must have been dispersed long distances, either by wind or sea, ultimately reaching the islands. This also explains why certain types of flora and fauna are present in these areas, while other groups are mostly absent.
Reptiles are the predominant species of land animals in the Galapagos. It is likely they arrived at the Galapagos on rafts of vegetation carried away by ocean currents. Possessing the ability to survive long periods without water, they were best suited to withstand the rough maritime journey, while other species such as large mammals and amphibians failed to endure such voyages. And, animals such as penguins and sea lions were able to get there by swimming. The dispersal of species to the Galapagos Islands also occurred by air, with sea birds dominating the skies as they were able to fly long distances while just a small handful of land birds made it to the islands, driven by wind currents.
The flora and fauna of the Galapagos went through a series of evolutionary processes that allowed the fittest of species to survive by findings ways to adapt to their environment and developing these traits over generations – a concept introduced by Darwin in his famous evolution theory — resulting in the staggering diversity of unique subspecies gracing the Galapagos islands. But it is the lack of predators in the Archipelago that gave wildlife on the islands its most characteristic trait: a fearlessness towards humans that allows visitors once-in-a-lifetime access to a special world, where humans blend into the wild seamlessly and in complete harmony.
As you plan your next adventure to the Galapagos Islands, learn more about some of the most extraordinary wildlife you will likely have the chance to admire up close during your voyage aboard Aqua Mare:
Galapagos Giant Tortoises
The most popular and beloved of the Galapagos animal kingdom, the giant tortoises are the largest species of tortoise, weighing up to 500 pounds (227 kilograms). Their abundant presence throughout the islands gave the Archipelago its name, with Galápago being an old Spanish word for “tortoise”. They are thought to have arrived two to three million years ago from South America and at least 15 subspecies developed on the islands, with two main categories sharing several traits and behavior patterns. Tortoises with saddle-back shells have long necks that allow them to feed off cacti, while those with a domed shape live in highlands and can feed easily off the ground. Sadly, two species of giant tortoises have gone extinct in our lifetime, including the Pinta Island tortoise. The death of the last of its kind, a tortoise known as Lonesome George, in 2012 raised awareness on the importance of conservation in the Galapagos and the rest of the world.
Galapagos Marine and Land Iguanas
Marine iguanas are the only seafaring lizards in the world and one of the Galapagos’ most peculiar-looking species. Endemic to these islands, scientists believe that they shared a common ancestor with land iguanas but evolved over the course of millions of years to be able to survive on food found under the sea. They developed a flattened snout to feed off underwater rocks covered in algae, as well as claws to grab onto the rocks and a flattened tail for propulsion in the water, where they can spend up to 30 minutes. Land iguanas on the other hand, are found in the dry lowlands and will often be seen feeding on cactus pads. Their large size, curious yellow color, and spiky dorsal crest make them an instant eye-catcher for visitors during shore excursions.
Galapagos Land and Sea Birds
A staggering 22 out of 29 birds in the Galapagos are endemic, including 13 species of Darwin’s finches and four species of Galapagos mockingbirds. Darwin’s finches are one of the most studied species in the topic of evolution. During his 1835 expedition to the Galapagos Islands, Charles Darwin collected specimens of finches from different islands. Realizing they had different types of beaks, he later concluded that the shape and size of the bill were related to the food available on each island — an example of adaptive radiation, the process of the rapid evolution of different species from a single common ancestor in response to changes in the environment.
There is a diverse array of seabirds in the Galapagos Islands, accounting for approximately 750,000. A common visitor sight and crowd favorite are the blue-footed boobies, standing out for their bright turquoise blue feet and bizarre mating dance. There are three species of boobies in the Galapagos, which also include the Nazca booby and Red-footed booby. In the list of endemic sea birds, we can find the Galapagos penguins, the only penguins living north of the equator and the smallest of all existing species of penguins; flightless cormorants, a unique bird that lost its ability to fly due to a lack of predators; and waved albatrosses, the largest bird of the Galapagos breeding only on Española Island.
Given how wildlife arrived in the Galapagos Islands and the difficult task of surviving such an arduous journey explains why there are only a few species of mammals living in the Galapagos. However, they make themselves noticed as is the case of the 20,000 to 50,000 Galapagos sea lions that can be seen lounging along the coastline’s sandy shores and playfully interacting with visitors while out at sea; as well as the endemic fur seals who prefer resting on the rocky shores. Marine mammals populating the Archipelago’s rich seas also include dolphins, and a diverse variety of whales such as humpback, sperm, bryde’s, minke, and blue whales, making aquatic adventures equally amazing as those on land.