One of the most iconic animals that people hope to see when visiting the Galápagos Islands is the one that gave the islands their name – the Galapagos Tortoise. When Spanish explorers landed on the islands in the early 16th century, they came upon these giants and named them “galapagos” for the saddle-like shape of the tortoises’ shell or carapace. This reptile can weigh over 500 pounds, grown up to 5 feet in length, can live up to 150 years and most importantly for the explorers, their meat is sweet, plentiful. The tortoises can also live quite a long time (up to a year) without water, making them a perfect food source for the long journeys across the seas. The tortoises were so in demand, that out of the 250,000 that are believed to have lived in the Galapagos, over 100,000 of them were killed by pirates, whalers and seamen over three centuries after the Spanish explorers’ first landing. By the 1970’s only 3,000 remained. Today there are between 20-25,000 Galapagos tortoises alive today and in another post I will write about some of the ways scientists are working towards keeping the population healthy.
There are actually two main types of Galapagos tortoise – the saddle back and the domed tortoise, Evolution shaped these shells as a response to availability of food. In those areas of the islands that have humid highlands there is abundant food for the herbivore – prickly pear cactus, flowers, leaves and grasses, so the domed tortoises grow very large and can stay low to the ground, The top picture is a domed tortoise as are these:
Saddle-backed shells evolved in areas of the islands where available food is more scarce, especially in times of drought. The shells angle upward so that the tortoise can fully extend his neck to reach vegetation that grows above the ground, such as bushes, trees and taller cactus.
Unfortunately saddlebacks are easier to catch since they live in the lowlands and the Spanish explorers and others thought they had sweeter meat so this type of Galapagos tortoise was truly decimated, with some saddleback species becoming extinct. One of these saddlebacks that did survive went on to become most famous. I will talk about Lonesome George in my post about conservation efforts, but here is a sneak peek:
The domed tortoises can also extend their necks, though not to the extent of the saddlebacks. See if this fellow has any resemblance to a particularly beloved movie hero:
HINT: He did phone home.
Photographing the tortoises is not quite a walk in the park (pun intended). Though not quick footed – they do move quicker that one might think – they don’t like people approaching them head on. Even keeping the appropriate distance, if you are directly in front of the tortoise you get a loud “Hiss” and then this:
Once again I relied on my zoom lens to stay far enough away so the tortoises, who have very sharp vision were not annoyed, while still getting some closeups of their fascinating faces – they appear stoic, prehistoric and somehow all-knowing:
Happily some of the tortoises were, if not outright friendly, a bit more “Laissez-faire:”