Creatures of the Galápagos Islands


Located about 650 miles off the west coast of Ecuador is a curious group of islands composed largely of volcanic lava rock. Although they are situated under the blistering equatorial sun, the climate there is moderated by the cool waters of the Humboldt Current.

Inhabiting these islands is an assortment of strange creatures—giant tortoises, walloping sea lions, rare birds, marine iguanas, and even penguins.

Originally the ancestors of these island creatures came from the mainland. But in time, they began to change, according to the climate and survival conditions of their particular island. Hence, several of the islands possess their own species of tortoises, plants, birds, and lizards. No wonder naturalists became interested in studying this incredible group of islands.

Early Spanish explorers named the islands Galápagos because of the many giant tortoises they observed there, for galápago is the old Spanish name for tortoise. Later, visiting sailors killed hundreds of the tortoises at a time for their meat and shells. Most of the tortoises today are concentrated in corrals on Santa Cruz Islands, where scientists at the Darwin Research Center can breed them and help save them from possible extinction.

These huge tortoises live on spiny cactus leaves and manzanita shrubs and grow to such a giant size that they might be mistaken for boulders! Sometimes they weigh up to 600 pounds, and often they live until they are about 200 years old. Perhaps their long life is possible because they move ever so slowly. At night they journey to ponds in higher land regions for drinking water. It takes them two to three nights to travel eight miles.

On the beaches of the Galápagos Islands, one can find sea lions frolicking in the sand and snuggling one another. They are friendly creatures, but have a horrible smell. It is fun to watch them play tag in the water.

Marine iguanas, a kind of spiny lizard, are often seen in the company of sea lions. They are about a foot and a half long, black in color, and have a serrated ridge along their backsides. One most often finds them basking safely on rocks in the sun or darting in and out of the water. They regulate their body temperature by heating their bellies on warm rocks. Iguanas are able to grip slippery rocks and swim with perfect ease.

The marine iguana’s cousin is the land iguana. Longer in length—often three to four feet—they are perhaps the ugliest creatures on the islands. They have scaly skin and heads like a corncob, and they often make a hissing sound. Seaweed is their favorite food.

On the Galápagos Islands, cacti grow like trees, and they are called opuntia. On some islands opuntia grow to be tall trees, but on others they are small like a bush. Another unique feature of these islands is the varied terrain—red desertlike soil on some islands, lush jungle growth on others, and on still others, rocky lava.

The blue-footed booby is an unusual bird. When Spanish explorers first saw these birds on the islands, they reminded them of clowns, so they decided to call them bobo, the Spanish word for clown. Eventually they became known as booby birds. During parenthood, the male and female booby take turns sitting on their eggs to protect the chicks inside from the desert heat.

Wherever there are booby birds there are also frigate birds. These pirates steal fish from the mouths of booby birds by swooping down on them in midair. Frigates with a wingspan of eight feet are not uncommon. With wings spread wide apart, frigate birds are often seen perched in trees. The male is particularly distinguished by a tiny red pouch hanging below its bill that can be inflated to the size of a grapefruit when he goes courting.

On North Seymour Island, turtles, bat rays, oysters, and pelicans inhabit a place called Turtle Cove. Mangrove trees there grow straight out of the salt water, and the sea creatures swim in and out of their twisty branches.

A volcanic outcropping called Pinnacle Rock rises 360 feet above the sea near St. James Island. It makes an exciting landmark. Penguins huddle against the rocky coast near here because the Humboldt Current keeps the waters cold enough for them to survive.

Hood Island is famed for the waved albatross that congregate there during breeding season. Huge, gooselike, swaggering birds, they are so clumsy that they often stagger into bushes during takeoff or landing. In order to lift off, they sometimes jump from cliffs to become airborne more quickly. They are reputed to be extremely faithful mates, however, returning year after year to the same breeding spot to seek out original partners.

Along the cliffs of Plaza Island, swallowtail gulls dart about in the salt spray, while sea lions play along the shore, and land iguanas emerge from their burrows to hiss at passing shadows.

As you can easily see, a great variety of interesting creatures inhabit the Galápagos Islands. If you could sometime visit this remarkable place, you would see how different and yet how tame they really are!

[illustrations] Illustrated by Holly Rom

[photos] Photos by Holly Rom and Michael Burns