Galapagos Islands Animals: A Wildlife Lovers Guide
The Galapagos islands are one of the most popular wildlife travel destinations on the planet. Galapagos is of course famous for biodiversity, and the tameness of Galapagos Islands animals. Visitors are rewarded with unbelievably up-close encounters – like walking into your own BBC or NatGeo documentary! Many Galapagos animal species are endemic, meaning that you will only find them here at the Galapagos Islands. So if you are looking for a truly unique wildlife vacation, then Galapagos ticks off all the boxes.
What animals live in the Galapagos Islands? Read on to find out! Learn more about the most iconic Galapagos Islands animals, as well as how to organise a trip to see them.
For the sake of simplicity we have organised Galapagos animals into 3 categories: Reptiles, Marine mammals and Molluscs.
Galapagos Land Iguanas are easily recognised by their bright yellow scales, and comparatively large size. They live in zones of arid scrubland, usually close to cactus forest which is their principal food source – they eat cactus pads, spines and all! They are often solitary creatures, unlike Marine Iguanas who prefer to group together into large colonies.
Galapagos Iguanas have evolved into various subspecies on different islands, including the rare Pink Land Iguana that is only found on the slopes of Wolf Volcano. They can also be found on North Seymour, Fernandina, Isabela and Santa Cruz islands.
One of the show-stoppers at Galapagos is the Giant Tortoise, probably the most iconic animal at the Galapagos Islands. They are usually found lumbering along highland trails, or wallowing in mud pools. Made famous by visiting botanist Charles Darwin, the Giant Tortoise is a wonderful example of species evolution in action. Originally, 2-3 million years ago, a mainland species of tortoise drifted to Galapagos on ocean currents. Today, that one species has evolved into 15 unique tortoise subspecies on different islands. Each subspecies is differentiated by size, habitat and shell types (dome-shaped or saddle-back). They also evolved into giants, weighing up to an 900 pounds – capable of growing this big due to abundant food sources and lack of predators.
To see them in their natural habitat the highlands of Santa Cruz or Isabela are your best bet. There are also several Tortoise Breeding Centers that you can visit, helping to raise hatchlings for release back into the wild.
Galapagos Green Sea Turtles are a common sight right across the Galapagos Islands, as they surface for air, or slowly drift past excited snorkelers. These gentle giants are the only turtle species to breed and nest here, nesting sites can be seen at Las Bachas (Santa Cruz), Punta Cormorant (Floreana). After hatching, new turtle hatchlings face a true race for survival. Firstly, they must negotiate their way to the sea before hungry Frigate Birds or Hawks swoop for them. Even those that reach the ocean have more trials ahead of them, as sharks and other marine species look for food. Typically only 1 in 1000 may survive to adulthood.
Other Sea Turtle species that can be spotted in Galapagos waters include: Leatherback, Hawksbill, and the smaller Olive Ridley Turtle.
The Galapagos Marine Iguana is a remarkable species, definitely one for the Galapagos Islands weird anials list. They are the only Iguana in the world to have developed the ability to swim. They enter the sea to forage for algae, and are extremely agile in the water, using their powerful tails to steer. When on land they are often spotted huddled together in groups to generate warmth under the sun. After swimming, their bodies reject sea salt by sneezing it out of their nose via specialized glands.
Pretty much any island that you visit at Galapagos you’ll see cute, little Lava Lizards scurrying about the place. Females are distinctive for their red throats, while males can be spotted doing push-ups to protect their territory from rivals – you might even catch a push-up contest if a rival fancies his chances! There are seven different species of Lava Lizard at Galapagos, and they can be spotted on all islands except Genovesa, Darwin & Wolf.
There are four different species of endemic snake at the Galapagos Islands: Hood Racer, Galapagos Racer, Banded Galapagos Snake & Striped Galapagos Snake. They are small constrictor snakes, and pose no threat to human visitors, feeding instead on Lava Lizards, Geckos, Grasshoppers, small Marine Iguanas and Mice.
Galapagos Racer Snakes leapt to fame on the 2016 BBC Planet Earth documentary (click play on the image above), where incredible footage of snakes chasing a Marine Iguana went viral on the internet, with over 13 million views! Spoiler alert: the iguana manages to escape by the skin of his teeth.
Another big Galapagos animal crowd-pleaser are the friendly Sea Lions. Often observed sleeping on beaches (or benches!), or playing in shallow waters, sea lions are very social animals. A snorkelling experience with these inquisitive mammals will often be one of the main highlights of your Galapagos visit.
Big male bulls patrol their territory, to defend their harem of females against interlopers. Meanwhile poor non-dominant bulls are left to form their own bachelor colonies. You will literally see Galapagos Sea Lions everywhere, with particularly large colonies at Gardner Bay (Española), Isla Lobos (San Cristobal), and the Harbour Area of Isabela Island.
The Galapagos Fur Seal is a much shyer creature than the Galapagos Sea Lion, and therefore more difficult to spot. The best visitor sites to find them are in the grottos of James Bay (Santiago), or Darwin Bay (Genovesa). At first sight it is common to mistake them for Sea Lions, but a closer look can help to tell the difference. Fur seals are smaller in size, have bulgier eyes, and furrier skin. They hunt largely at night, where their large eyes aid with excellent night vision, to both catch their prey and avoid predators such as sharks.
The unmistakable Sally-Lightfoot Crab is present on all Galapgos islands. They are usually spotted scurrying around rock pools, or hiding in the crevaces of black lava. Visitors love these crabs for their dramatically colorful appearance – bright red body, light blue under carriage, orange face, and beady pink eyes.
They are very fast and agile on the land, and even capable of quickly skipping over water, hence the “light foot” name and reputation. Interestingly, you will often spot Sally Light Foots alongside Marine Iguanas, eating bugs from their skin. This is a unique symbiotic relationship, where the crabs get a tasty meal by helping rid the iguanas or parasites on the skin.
Fiddler Crabs get their name from their unusual appearance. They have one large claw (for protection, and attracting females), and another smaller one (for picking things up). When eating they use the small claw to transport food to the mouth, giving the amusing appearance of playing a violin (the large claw). They are usually found making their burrows around mangrove roots.
Cute Ghost Crabs are common on Galapagos Islands beaches, recognised by their orange/red body, and long stalk eyes. These little crabs burrow in the sand, and move impossibly quickly to catch. If you spot little balls of sand on the beach then you know Ghost Crabs are closeby – they make these balls while searching for algae and animal remains to eat.
There are two different species of hermits: the Galapagos Hermit Crab, and the Semi-Terrestrial Hermit Crab. Hermits are easily identified by the distinctive shell on their back which they use for protection. As they grow older they need to move into a larger shell.
The good news is that you’re guaranteed to see a great diversity of Galapagos animals on any vacation to the Islands. On either a Galapagos Cruise or Galapagos Land Tour you will undoubtedly come face to face with more wildlife than you can imagine, often at very close quarters as their curiosity gets the better of them. Your naturalist guide will be happy to point them out to you, and explain all about the behaviour of each animal. With either a professional camera or cellphone you can expect to return home with some amazing shots.
Contact us for a FREE TOUR QUOTE, or for help in organising your Galapagos vacation. Happy Gringo are considered one of the top expert agancies for Galapagos reservations, and are highly recommended by Trip Advisor, Lonely Planet and Footprint Guide.
Before you travel we recommend downloading the Galapagos Wildlife App to your cellphone – it requires a small investment up front, but will help you to identify Galapagos animals and birds, as well as learning much more about them.
It can also help to have a Galapagos Islands animals list to hand, we particularly like the Wildlife of Galapagos by Collins Publications, which is a compact field guide. For something more lightweight try this foldable pocket guide, both available on Amazon.
Happy Gringo have produced our own printable Galapagos Wildlife Bucket List PDF.
As you can see there is a wonderful mix of Galapagos Islands animals waiting for you to visit. Many can only be found at Galapagos, and have evolved in unique and curious ways. Most animals have no fear of humans, so are happy to be up close to tourists, and pose for photos. Thanks to all of this, the Galapagos Islands are recognised as one of the best wildlife destinations in the world … so what are you waiting for? Get your vacation planning started today!