At times, when walking through the Galapagos landscape, you feel as if you have been mysteriously transported to prehistoric times. Miniature, dinosaur-like creatures cling onto the rough rocks of the volcanic scenery.
The Galapagos Islands have often been called the Kingdom of Reptiles. These dry, desert islands are a paradise for everything from giant tortoise to iguanas – including the only ocean-going iguana in the world. But there are other reptiles crawling through the sparse brush.
These creatures’ ancestors could best survive the long journey on vegetation mats drifting from the mainland, 1,000 kilometers (600 miles) away, as they can go long periods without water. But over millions of years, they have evolved to be totally different creatures from their continental cousins.
Here’s a list of what antediluvian creatures you can expect to see during your Galapagos vacation.
The most iconic of the Galapagos Islands’ reptiles are the giant tortoises. These gentle giants arrived about three million years ago, and evolved into at least 17 different species. Each of the larger islands had its own species. On Isabela Island, each volcano has its species.
The giant tortoise population was severely affected by pirates and whalers who hunted them for their meat. Four species are known to be extinct: Rábida, Santa Fe and Pinta, whose last specimen was the famous Lonesome George. The Fernandina giant tortoise most likely became extinct naturally, due to the frequent volcanic eruptions on that island.
For more than 100 years, it was believed the Floreana giant tortoise was extinct, but several years ago, hybrid Floreana tortoises were discovered on Isabela Island. A special breeding program is now underway to bring this species back to “life.” This same breeding program brought the Española giant tortoise back from the brink of extinction.
Breeding centers exist on San Cristobal, Santa Cruz and Isabela islands. In the highlands of Santa Cruz is El Chato, a nature reserve for giant tortoises. These reptiles can also be seen plodding across other islands’ wild landscapes.
- Scientific name – Geochelone spp.
- Spanish name – Tortuga gigante
- Best islands to see them – San Cristobal, Española, Santa Cruz, Santiago, Pinzon, Isabela
- Best time of year to see them – Year-round, though best during their migration season, June-December
- Breeding / nesting season – May-June (September on Santa Cruz); hatching season: December-April
Seeing an East Pacific Green Turtle while swimming or snorkeling in the Galapagos Islands is a magical experience, especially in the month of October when they are quite numerous. During egg laying and hatching seasons (January-May), it is important to stay on marked paths to prevent destruction of their nests.
Several other sea turtle species migrate through the Galapagos Islands, including Hawksbill, Olive Ridley and Leatherback. Perhaps, while snorkeling, you’ll be lucky and see one of these as they swim through the archipelago.
- Scientific name – Chelonia mydas
- Spanish name – Tortuga marina
- Where to see them – Santiago, Floreana and Española; also Fernandina, Genovesa, Isabela, San Cristobal, Santa Cruz
- Best time of year to see them – October-May
- Breeding / nesting season – mating: November-December; nesting: January-March; hatching: April-May
Charles Darwin wrote that marine iguanas were hideous creatures, imps of the dark. These remarkable reptiles are the only iguanas in the world that live in the sea.
Upon the black lava rocky shores of the Galapagos Islands, you’ll see these creatures huddled together, warming themselves after feasting on alga in the chill sea. When feeding, they can dive up to 20 meters (65 feet) deep – it is quite an experience to encounter one while snorkeling. When swimming, a marine iguana uses its long tail as a rudder.
Another fascinating feature of marine iguanas is that they sneeze, releasing excess salt from their bodies. The ones you’ll see on Española Island are famously called the “Christmas marine iguanas,” as they are turn bright green and red during the mating season.
- Scientific name – Amblyrhynchus cristatus
- Spanish name – Iguana marina
- Where to see them – Española, Fernandina, Floreana, Isabela, Marchena, San Cristobal, Santa Cruz, North Seymour, Santa Fe, Santiago
- Best time of year to see them – present year-round
- Breeding / nesting season – mating: January; nesting: February-April; hatching: May-July
If you land at Baltra Airport, one of the first Galapagos reptiles you may see is the land iguana. (They are so common here that the landing strips have to be cleared off of them before planes arrive!)
Most of the iguanas in the Americas are green – but not in the Galapagos Islands. Here, they are a vibrant yellow-orange. This allows them to blend into the landscape of red lava rock and sere brush. The species found on Santa Fe Island (Conolophus pallidus) is pale yellow.
Land iguanas diverged from the marine iguana about 10.5 million years ago. These reptiles are common throughout the Galapagos archipelago, and can be found on most of the islands you’ll visit during your cruise. They are extinct on Santiago Island.
Another uncommonly colored iguana in the Galapagos is the pink iguana (Conolophus marthae) which is only found on Wolf Volcano on Isabela Island, an area closed to the public. The pink iguana evolved from its yellow cousins approximately 5.7 million years ago.
- Scientific name – Conolophus subcristatus
- Spanish name – Iguana terrestre
- Where to see them – Baltra, North Seymour, Santa Cruz, Isabela (not on Cerro Azul), Fernandina, Plazas
- Best time of year to see them – Year-round, but especially January-May
- Breeding / nesting season – breeding: January; nesting: February-March; hatching: April-May
While walking around the Galapagos Islands, be sure to look at the ground. You surely would not want to step on a lava lizard, another reptile found only in the Galapagos Islands. Throughout the archipelago, there are nine species of these small lizards.
During the mating season, female lava lizards blush deeply as their potential mates do push-ups to attract their attention.
- Scientific name – Microlophus spp.
- Spanish name – Lagartija de lava
- Where to see them – Santiago, Pinta, Santa Cruz, Santa Fe, Floreana, San Cristobal, Isabela, Fernandina, Pinzon, Española Island, Gardner and Osborn Islets, Caldwell and Enderby Islets, Marchena
- Best time of year to see them – Year-round, especially July-November
- Breeding / nesting season – mating: July-November
During the night, you may hear chuckling in your land-based hotel room. These are the sounds of geckos happily feasting on ants, mosquitoes and other pests.
There six endemic species of Galapagos geckos. Fossil records show there was a seventh species on Rabida Island. All the endemic species are recognized by their leaf-shaped toes. Additionally, there are four introduced gecko species. Three have straight toes, and one is leaf-toed.
An interesting feature of some gecko species is the females are capable of reproducing without a male mate. This makes it easier for geckos to spread to new islands.
- Scientific name – Phyllodactylus spp.
- Spanish name – Gecko
- Where to see them – Floreana, Isabela, Pinzón, Santa Cruz, Baltra, Santa Fe, Wolf Island, San Cristobal
- Best time of year to see them – Year-round; nocturnal
- Breeding / nesting season – mating: October-November
Perhaps you have seen that seen that BBC documentary in which a whole pit of snakes pursues a newly hatched marine iguana. Although snakes are timid creatures, you might witness such a scene during your explorations of the Galapagos Islands.
Three snake species inhabit the Galapagos archipelago. All are brown and yellow, camouflaging perfectly with their surroundings. All are constrictors, and inhabit arid and coastal zones. The territories of each species do not overlap.
The Galapagos racer (Alsophis spp.) is a fairly common snake found on Santa Cruz, Baltra and Española islands. Subspecies live on Fernandina and on Isabela islands.
The Galapagos snake, also called the Floreana snake (Pseudalsophis biserialis) is endemic to Floreana Island. Subspecies exist on Española and San Cristobal islands.
The third species is Slevin’s snake or the Galapagos banded snake (Pseudalsophis slevini), found on Isabela, Fernandina and Pinzon. A subspecies, Steindachner’s snake (Striped Galapagos Snake, Pseudalsophis steindachneri) resides on Baltra, Rabida, Santa Cruz and Santiago.
As with other Galapagos reptiles, one species of snake may also be found in the sea. The yellow-bellied sea snake, also called the Pelagic sea snake (Hydrophis platurus) is a migrant in the Galapagos archipelago. You may have the luck to see one while snorkeling.
- Scientific name – Alsophis spp., Pseudalsophis spp.
- Spanish name – culebra
- Where to see them – Santa Cruz, Baltra, Española, Floreana, Champion and Gardner Islets, Isabela, Fernandina, Pinzon, Rabida, Santiago, San Cristobal
- Best time of year to see them – Year-round
- Breeding / nesting season – unknown
A Note on Amphibians ….
No amphibians are endemic or native to the Galapagos Islands.
However, in 1998, the Fowler’s snouted treefrog (Scinax quinquefasciatus Fowler) was discovered residing in the Galapagos Islands. It was accidentally introduced from the coastal mainland. This treefrog has been found on San Cristobal, Santa Cruz and southern Isabela islands. Efforts to eradicate this species have been unsuccessful to date.
During you explorations of the Galapagos Islands – both on land and in the sea – you will discover an astounding prehistoric Kingdom of Reptiles.
Already been? Share your favourite sighting in the comments below.
Photo credit: schorsch1982