The giant Galapagos tortoise is an iconic creature that needs no introduction. Whether you’ve crossed paths with them in person at the Galapagos islands, or watched them on Discovery Channel, these gentle giants seem to capture a place in people’s hearts. Yet there is so much more to the Galapagos tortoise than their impressive size. For those willing to delve a little deeper, the life of giant tortoises hold many unexpected secrets. Keep reading for our top 8 fun and interesting Galapagos Tortoise facts!
Our first Galapagos tortoise fact tells the story of a recent discovery in the Galapagos Islands that has sent ripples through the international scientific community. On Fernandina island to the west of the Galapagos archipelago tortoises were believed to have been long extinct – the last Fernandina tortoise (Chelonoidis phantasticus) was spotted back in 1906. That was until a team of scientists working with the Galapagos Tortoise Restoration Initiative found a healthy female while surveying Fernandina island in 2019. Over the years there had been reports of tortoise droppings and bite marks in cactus plants, but no positive tortoise sightings. Fern (as she has been named) has been transfered to the Charles Darwin Research Station on Santa Cruz island where she is being cared for while scientists perform genetic tests. The longer term goal is to find a male companion for Fern, in the hope of reproducing more Fernandina tortoises to release back onto the island in the future.
Ok, maybe not as famous as the Wildebeest migration on the Serengeti, but yes the Galapagos tortoise migration does happen – just at a slower pace! At the start of the wet season in December, adult males and females start a slow trek from the lush highlands down to the coast. This is a long trip, taking as long as three weeks to cover a distance of under 4 miles on Santa Cruz island. Why do giant tortoises undertake this arduous journey? The coastal plains are the most suitable place to dig nests and lay eggs. During the dry season (May/June to November) there is not enough tortoise food on the coast as vegetation dries up. So these intelligent creatures wait for the first rains before beginning their slow and steady plod. Once the eggs are laid they’ll head back up to their prefered habitat in the highlands, where lush green food and fresh mud pools await.
Although some scientists dispute what constitutes differences in species and sub-species, it is generally accepted that there are 14 different species of Galapagos tortoise alive today. These are split into two main types: dome shells and saddle-backed shells. Giant tortoises with dome shells live in highland areas where food is abundant and close to the ground. Saddle-backed tortoises live in lower arid areas with fewer food sources. So they evolved to have a longer neck and higher shell, to reach up high for cactus fruit. Most different tortoise sub-species are seperated by each island. But on Isabela, incredibly there are five different kinds of tortoises, separated by the volcanic lava flows of the island’s volcanoes over millions of years.
Yes, you read that correctly! Galapagos Giant Tortoises have an incredibly long life span. On average they live to a ripe old age of 100+ years, with the oldest ever recorded tortoise reaching 152 years old. These reptiles reach maturity after 20 to 25 years, and keep on growing until they are 50 years old. Adult giant tortoises have no natural predators, live a largely unstressful life, and are surrounded by bountiful food sources at the Galapagos islands, so there is nothing to stop them! If you are lucky enough to see a giant tortoise face to face at Galapagos, then take a moment to imagine everything that he/she has seen in their lifetime. If only tortoises could speak they would surely have many a tall tale to share!
For our next Galapagos tortoise fact, imagine what it would be like to not eat for 6 months or more. Giant tortoises have the remarkable ability to store food and water in their large bodies. This gives them an edge during years when rainfall wains and food is in short supply. In times of severe drought they can survive for periods of up to 1 year without any food. Over the past centuries this characteristic was also their downfall. Whalers and pirates who visited the Galapagos islands used the gentle giants as a portable food source – tortoises could survive in ship’s holds without food, providing fresh meat for sailors on long voyages at sea.
Good news for visitors to the Galapagos islands is that giant tortoises are not hard to find. Most Galapagos tours include visits to see tortoises in their natural habitat – for example at El Chato Tortoise Reserve on Santa Cruz. Here tortoises can roam where they like, munching on lush plants, or wallowing in cool mud pools. Visitors can also see Galapagos tortoises in breeding centers on Santa Cruz, San Cristobal and Isabela. These sites are a very important way to protect baby tortoises from invasive species (dogs, cats, rats) until they become old enough to fend for themselves in the wild. Many of those raised here have been released back into the wild to repopulate declining populations. Tortoise breeding centers are a great place to see tiny babies and giant adults in the same place, and to learn more about tortoise conservation work.
Our next Galapagos Tortoise fact relates to how the Galapagos islands originally got their name. What does the term “Galapagos” mean? In old Spanish Galapagos meant “saddle“. Visiting Spanish sailors had seen large populations of saddle-back giant tortoises during their visit, and had been surprised by the peculiar shape of the tortoise shells. So the Galapagos name stuck, and the whole world today knows the island under that original name. All thanks to the giant saddle-back Galapagos tortoise.
Famous English botanist Charles Darwin visited Galapagos back in 1835 aboard the Beagle. This was a very significant visit because the scientific specimens he collected later became the inspiration behind his Theory of Evolution. It was the variations in species of Finch, Mockingbird and giant Tortoise between different islands that gave him his Eureka moment. But what most people don’t know is that a young Galapagos tortoise named James joined the crew of the Beagle for their homeward voyage. Little is known about the life of James from that moment on, but his remains are now housed at the Natural History Museum in London.
If you’d like to meet Galapagos tortoises face to face then contact us. We’ll be happy to make your dreams come true, and help organise your trip of a lifetime to the Galapagos islands.
In conclusion, we hope you have enjoyed reading this post about Galapagos tortoise facts. These amazing creatures live remarkable lives, and there is still so much that we do not even know about them. Fortunately Galapagos conservation work is protecting giant tortoise species so that generations of visitors can meet them for years to come 🙂