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Galapagos Big 15
When it comes to wildlife, no place on Earth compares to the Galapagos Islands. It must be the only place where you can swim with penguins, snorkel with sea lions and lumber along with giant tortoises. See cormorants dive into the water, dance with the waved albatross and ogle at the feet of the blue footed booby. Like Africa’s Big Five, the Galapagos Islands have their Big 15, which reflects the archipelago’s most unique and fascinating wildlife. Take a look at the Big 15 below and find out about the abundance of wildlife you can expect to see during a trip to Galapagos.
1. Galapagos albatross
Also known as the waved albatross, the Galapagos albatross is the largest bird in the Galapagos Islands, with a wingspan of up to 250 centimetres. What makes them so unique is their spectacular mating dance, whereby they circle one another and perform an audible clacking of beaks. This is a phenomenon that occurs every year in April and will lead to a lifetime courtship between the newly formed pair. Unlike most other animal species, the Galapagos albatross has a fairly predictable breeding cycle, which is determined by the weather patterns. Being so large and heavy, all couples and their hatchlings must leave the island before the winds fade away mid-January, or else they would remain stranded until the winds pick up again around April.
Fun fact: The Galapagos albatross spends most of its life flying or sat calmly at sea and can only be seen on land during reproduction.
Where to find them: These gigantic birds breed exclusively on Espanola Island in the southeast of the archipelago.
2. Blue footed booby
Blue footed boobies are an endemic sub-species in the Galapagos and one of the most attractive sea birds on the archipelago. They are the most famed and frequently seen of the Galapagos boobies, yet have the smallest population. Their brilliant blue feet, ability to dramatically plunge dive up to 100 metres and stunning mating dances, during which the male shows off his feet in up-and-down movements to attract females, is what makes them so fascinating and one of our favorite sea birds in the Galapagos Islands.
Fun fact: The shade of blue on their feet has a positive correlation to the bird’s health. The bluer the feet, the more food the blue footed booby is thought to have consumed.
Where to find them: The most important breeding colonies exist on Espanola Island and North Seymour, but they may be witnessed on any given day throughout the archipelago’s waters.
3. Nazca booby
As the largest of the three booby species, the Nazca booby is also the most violently competitive Darwinist of them all. They are bad neighbours, both to their own species and to their cousins, the blue footed boobies. Nesting on the edge of the shoreline, hatchlings are known to regularly commit siblicide, mostly by pushing the smaller brother or sister out of the nest. This peculiar act is thought to be a key factor for survival, as it eliminates the potential competition and increases the survival ratio of the staying sibling by 50%.
Fun fact: The Nazca booby was formerly regarded as a subspecies of the masked booby, but is now recognised as a separate species.
Where to find them: Genovesa, Espanola, and Floreana.
4. Red footed booby
Recognisable by their ruby red feet, the red footed booby is known for mating when they still have their juvenile plumage. Unlike the other booby species, they lay their nests in the branches of trees and bushes. To do this, they have longer toes than other boobies, allowing them to grasp and hold on to twigs and branches.
Fun fact: In the Galapagos, red footed boobies are the most numerous of all the boobies, but the least seen.
Where to find them: Genovesa, Punta Pitt (the eastern tip of San Cristóbal), small numbers breed on one of Floreana’s satellite islets, and a minute number nest on North Seymour.
5. Flightless cormorant
The flightless cormorant is the rarest, biggest and most unique cormorant of them all. The most unusual trait of these birds is there mating system. Unlike all the other marine birds, females lead and are more active than males in courtship and compete aggressively in the hope of winning the male over. Once offspring have been produced, the female normally leaves to re-mate whilst the males raise the young.
Fun fact: It is the only cormorant in the world that does not fly.
Where to find them: Fernandina and Isabela.
6. American flamingo
Flamingos are some of the most colourful birds in the Galapagos Islands. With deep pink feathers, their colour is determined by their carotene-rich diet, feeding primarily on shrimps which they find in briny lagoons. They are known to move from lagoon to lagoon, dependent on the abundance of food and can only be found on certain islands.
Fun fact: Flamingos can only eat with their head upside down. Their beaks have lamellae (thin, flat membranes) which are used to filter the mud.
Where to find them: Floreana, Isabela, Rabida and Santa Cruz.
7. Frigate birds
In the Galapagos there are two species of frigate bird that coexist side by side – the great and the magnificent. In breeding season, the males are known for their large red gular (throat pouch) which inflates into bright red heart-shaped balloons.
Fun fact: It takes approximately 30 minutes for the males’ impressive red gular sack to inflate.
Where to find them: All Galapagos locations will have frigate birds flying around, but the top places to see their nesting colonies include San Cristóbal, Espanola, and Genovesa.
8. Galapagos hawk
Endemic to the Galapagos Islands, the Galapagos hawk sits at the top of the food chain and is an excellent hunter. Feeding on invertebrates such as giant centipedes and locusts, they are also known to hunt lizards, young iguanas, turtle hatchlings and other birds.
Fun fact: Genetic investigation indicates that they are among the most recent native arrivals to the islands, having arrived around 300,000 years ago (compared with the famous finches, who arrived two to three million years ago).
Where to find them: Isabela and Fernandina.
9. Land iguana
Endemic to the Galapagos, these large cold-blooded reptiles can grow up to a metre in length and can be found on a number of the islands. The female iguanas are known to travel vast distances to find the ideal nesting site, where she will bury approximately 20 eggs and guard them for up to 110 days.
Fun fact: The land iguana can live for up to 55 years.
Where to find them: Fernandina, Isabela, Santa Cruz, South Plaza, Baltra and Seymour.
10. Marine iguana
As another endemic species to the Galapagos Islands, the marine iguana is the only iguana in the world with the ability to live and forage in the sea. Found on a number of the islands, the marine iguana differs in size, shape and colour dependent on the island on which they exist.
Fun fact: Marine iguanas sneeze frequently to expel salt from glands near their noses. The salt often lands on their heads, giving them a distinctive white wig.
Where to find them: Isabela, Fernandina, Espanola, Floreana, Santa Cruz and other islets around those.
11. Santa Fe land iguana
As the name suggests, this endemic species can only be found on the island of Santa Fe. With a small dorsal spine, a brownish in colour and tapered snout, the Santa Fe land iguana is perfectly adapted to blend in with its surroundings, meaning it is somewhat more difficult to observe than the land iguana.
Fun fact: These cold-blooded reptiles have a mutualistic relationship with finches, which can often be seen sitting on their backs, picking parasites from between their scales.
Where to find them: Santa Fe.
12. Galapagos penguin
The Galapagos penguin is the only penguin species found north of the equator and the only penguin to malt twice a year. Out of the 18 species of penguins, they are the rarest and smallest. Unlike other penguins they have no breeding pattern and can lay eggs up to three times in a year.
Fun fact: Galapagos penguins mate for life.
Where to find them: Isabela and Fernandina, Floreana, Santiago and Bartolome.
13. Galapagos sea lion
Endemic to the Galapagos and the most abundant marine mammal in the archipelago, the Galapagos sea lion is likely to be seen frequently on any trip to the Galapagos, whether it be lazing on the beach or playing in the water. Renowned as excellent divers, they can dive up to 580 metres and can stay under water for up to 10 minutes.
Fun fact: The male sea lion weighs up to four times more than the female sea lion.
Where to find them: Plaza Sur, Mosquera, Gardner Bay in Espanola, Rabida Island (with a bachelor colony) and Puerto Egas on Santiago.
14. Galapagos fur seal
As the smallest of the seals, the Galapagos fur seal is endemic to the Galapagos and due to their decreasing population they are classified as an endangered species. Often found resting in rocky shaded areas in the day, come night they are fearless hunters, diving in the waters between depths of 60m and 100m.
Fun fact: On a full moon, the Galapagos fur seal is known to hunt significantly less.
Where to find them: Can be seen on the majority of islands but most frequently on Santiago and Genovesa.
15. Galapagos giant tortoise
The Galapagos giant tortoise is undoubtedly the most famous resident found on the Galapagos Islands. They are the largest living tortoise species with some exceeding 1.5 metres in length. The shape of their shells varies from island to island and, on Isabela Island, from volcano to volcano. Islands with a humid climate have larger tortoises with domed shells and shorter necks; dry climates lead to somewhat smaller tortoises with “saddleback” shells and long necks.
Fun fact: Spanish sailors who discovered the archipelago in 1535 named it after the abundance of tortoises; the Spanish word for tortoise is galápago.
Where to find them: The Santa Cruz highlands, Alcedo Volcano on Isabela, Santiago, San Cristóbal, Pinzón, and Espanola.