The Galapagos Land Iguana is another of the long list of iconic Galapagos species. Today we find three different Galapagos land iguana species at the archipelago, all of which are endemic. If you go to the right spots then they are relatively easy for visitors to cross paths with. These little fellas have a kind of prehistoric looking charm about them, making them extremely photogenic. Under the early morning light they glow a radiant color of gold. There's also an interesting story of land iguana evolution to tell.
Keep reading for everything you need to know about Galapagos Land Iguanas. Which different species exist at Galapagos? Where and how to see them? Why are land iguanas endangered? Plus lots more interesting Galapagos land iguana facts & information.
When visiting the Galapagos Islands back in 1835 Charles Darwin was certainly less than flattering in his description of the land iguanas that he found. He went as far as to call them “ugly” and “stupid in appearance”, but we think he was being rather harsh. Galapagos land iguanas vary in colour from yellow to orange, and in good light can even appear to have a beautiful golden sparkle. Other distinguishing features include spines that run down their backs, a pink tongue, and an enigmatic Mona Lisa smile. The Galapagos land iguana is a fairly large reptile, capable of reaching more than 3 feet long over their 50-60 year lifespan.
The story of how land iguanas originally arrived to the Galapagos Islands is also fascinating. All Galapagos iguanas are believed to have descended from a common mainland anscestor. They likely crossing the ocean by floating on foliage and organic debris that washed into rivers, and drifted on strong currents into Galapagos waters. This single Iguana species then evolved uniquely on each island, depending on differences in habitat and food sources. This explains the three different species we find at Galapagos today. On some islands there was even an unbelievable divergent adaptation into Marine Iguanas – the only Iguana species capable of swimming, which it does to eat algae in the sea.
Galapagos land Iguanas prefer dry and arid areas of the archipelago. In the mornings you’ll often see them sprawled out under the rising sun to warm up, while around midday they retire to the shade of cacti plants. At night they sleep in underground burrows to conserve body heat - you may spot these holes in the ground along the Galapagos visitor trails.
The Galapagos land Iguana diet consists mostly of Prickly pear (Opuntia) cactus fruits and pads. The cactus spines prevent them from climbing for fruit, so instead they wait patiently in the shade until the food drops naturally to them. They swallow cactus pads, spines and all, and rely on this moisture to survive during long, dry periods. Land iguanas are herbivores and will also eat other low hanging vegetation if cactus fruits are not in season.
There is another interesting Galapagos land iguana behavioral trait that visitors can observe - the fact that they are often seen hanging out alongside Darwin's Galapagos finches. This is in fact a fasinating symbiotic relationship. Land Iguanas are accustomed to raising themselves from the ground to allow finches to remove ticks and parasites from their bodies. This is a good deal for all involved - The finch gets a tasty meal, while the Iguana receives a free cleaning service.
The good news is that it is quite easy for visitors to spot land iguanas in the wild at Galapagos. The best islands to see them include: North Seymour, Santa Fe, Espanola and South Plaza. All of these islands can be visited as part of a Galapagos cruise itinerary, or can be included into a Galapagos Land Tour. At these visitor sites it is common to come face to face with a Galapagos Land Iguana right along the trail.
Failing that it's also possible to see Galapagos Land Iguanas in captivity at the Charles Darwin Research Station in Puerto Ayora, Santa Cruz. These are in fact the last of the Santa Cruz Land Iguanas saved from extinction. Aggressive introduced species such as feral cats and dogs have destroyed land iguana habitat and also hunt baby iguanas and eggs. So the iguanas that you see here are protected to continue their lineage.
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At the Galapagos Islands today we find three different species of Land Iguana: Galapagos Land Iguana, Santa Fe Iguana and Pink Land Iguana. All are unique, endemic species that can only be found here, and nowhere else on the planet. On South Plaza island there is also the unusual curiosity of a hybrid iguana - the result of intergeneric breeding between a male marine iguana and female land iguana. Read on to learn more about each land iguana species.
Conservation Status: Vulnerable
Scientific Name: Conolophus Subcristatus
Where to see the Galapagos land iguana? On Fernandina, Isabela, Santa Cruz, South Plaza, Baltra, Santiago and North Seymour islands.
When to See Them: The Galapagos land iguana is active all year round.
The Galapagos Land Iguana is the most common and widespread of the species at Galapagos. They can be found across seven different islands of the archipelago. In appearance the Galapagos land iguana has yellow skin covered in yellow and brown blotches, a short head and powerful legs with sharp claws for digging.
The Galapagos Land Iguana is listed as a vulnerable species and have seen declining population numbers over the last century, largely due to the threat of introduced animals such as goats, dogs and cats. They are especially at risk during the first year of their lives after hatching, with many Galapagos predators looking for an easy meal. Until 2019 they were extinct on Santiago Island, but following a successful reintroduction project it is hoped that land iguanas will once again thrive there.
Conservation Status: Vulnerable
Scientific Name: Conolophus Pallidus
Where to see them: Santa Fe Island
When to see them: All year round
The Santa Fe Land Iguana, as their name suggests, can only be found on the island of Santa Fe off of the east coast of Santa Cruz. They are also sometimes referred to as the Barrington Land Iguana, after the original English name for Santa Fe island. The Santa Fe land iguana is slightly larger, with paler yellow colouring, smaller dorsal spines and a more tapered snout compared to the common Galapagos land iguana. Today, there are over 7,000 individuals living on this small island. They can often be spotted close to the trails, but visitors need a kean eye as their colors blend in perfectly with the arid habitat providing them with wonderful camouflage. Don't worry, your naturalist guide will be sure to point them out and tell you more about them.
Despite their healthy population numbers, the Santa Fe Land Iguana is considered vulnerable because they are found in just one single place on the planet. This leaves them at potential risk to one off extreme events such as fire or drought. Introduced feral goats used to roam free on Santa Fe island, destroying land Iguana eggs and habitat. Fortunately this threat was recognised and the goats were removed back in the 1970s. This gave the Santa Fe population a fresh foothold from which they have bounced back impressively.
Conservation Status: Critically Endangered
Scientific Name: Conolophus Marthae
Where to find them: Galapagos pink iguanas live in just one single place on the planet. Their home is on the slopes of Wolf Volcano on Isabela Island, a site which is unfortunately off-limits to tourist visitors so it is not actually possible to observe them in the wild.
The Pink land iguana has survived at the Galapagos Islands for the past 5.7 million years, yet incredibly was only recently discovered and identified as a unique species in 2009. This is testament to the fact that the Galapagos islands still hold many secrets even in this modern age. They are easy to identify due to their salmon pink body colour caused by lack of skin pigment, and the black striped markings that cover their body.
Today there are as few as 200 surviving pink iguana individuals, all found within a very small habitat range on Wolf Volcano. Scientific studies are ongoing to understand more about this critically endangered reptile, and to protect them in their risky natural habitat on the slopes of an active volcano.
All three Galapagos land iguana species are vulnerable to predation. Baby Galapagos land iguana predators include Galapagos hawks, especially when under one year old. While feral cats are capable of hunting larger iguanas up to four years of age. Other invasive species like goats, pigs and dogs also eat iguana eggs or destroy nests and habitat. An example of the impact of invasive species over time can be observed on Santiago island where the Galapagos land iguana has become extinct.
Fortunately, today there are active conservation projects underway to protect Galapagos land iguanas. The Galapagos land iguana project supported by the Conservation Trust has gathered valuable data through tagging of adult iguana on various different islands. This data was used to plan the successful reintroduction of land iguanas onto Santiago island in 2015, and also to monitor progress of the same population.
If you enjoyed reading this article, then check out our other posts about Galapagos Birds and Animals.
In conclusion, the Galapagos land iguana has a long & important history at the islands. Today they are under threat, but we can also see postive conservation steps in reintroduction projects. The incredible pink land iguana is also a great example of species adaptation and the constant fight for suivival. So if you visit Galapagos do try to spot one of these interesting creatures, and ask your guide to tell you more about them. Land iguanas are one of the true galapagos icons, and hopefully with a little help they will still be here for future generations to enjoy too.