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Galapagos wildlife guide
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, marked by stars, as well as other wildlife you can expect to see when taking a trip to the Galapagos.
Galapagos Giant Tortoise (Chelonoidis nigra)
Weighing up to 250kg it is the largest living tortoise species and an icon of the archipelago. Islands with a more tropical climate have bigger tortoises with dome-shaped shells, whilst islands with drier climates have smaller turtles with saddleback shaped shells.
Found: Isabela, Santa Cruz, Pinzon, San Cristóbal, Santiago and Española
Interesting fact: They are believed to live longer than 150 years.
Galapagos sea lions (Zalophus wollebaeki)
A subspecies of the Californian sea lion, they can usually be seen lazing on beaches or playing in the water. They are also known to inquisitively approach nearby swimmers. Sea lions are able to dive up to 600 metres and stay under for up to 10 minutes.
Found: Santiago, Santa Fé, Rábida, Española, Isabela, San Cristóbal
Interesting fact: Males weigh up to four times more than females.
Galapagos fur seal (Arctocephalus galapagoensis)
Often mistaken for the Galapagos sea lion, fur seals are smaller with bear-like heads, large eyes and large front flippers. They are also shyer, opting for shady cliffs and rocky areas to escape from the sun. Fur seals hunt at night and avoid their top predators – killer whales and sharks.
Found: Santiago, James Bay, Darwin Bay, Genovesa
Interesting fact: They can dive to depths of more than 90m.
Marine Iguanas (Amblyrhynchus cristatus)
The world’s only seagoing lizard, marine iguanas exhibit extraordinary marine adaptations. They have short noses, small teeth and a unique gland to get rid of excess salt from their blood flow. Their dark skin also helps protect against the strong heat of the sun.
Found: Isabela, Fernandina and Española
Interesting fact: They have been around for 10 million years.
Land iguana (Conolophus subcristatus)
Land iguanas can usually be found in drier areas of the islands. They feed mainly on fruits and cactus pads, and will roll them across the sand to remove the prickly spines. They can grow over a metre long, with powerful back legs and long, sharp claws.
Found: Fernandina, Isabela, North Seymour, South Plaza, Baltra and Santa Cruz
Interesting fact: They have predominantly vegetarian diets.
Santa Fé land iguana (Conolophus pallidus)
It is yellow/brown in colour, with a tapered snout and a row of spines along its back. They can weigh up to 11kg, and spend most of the day basking in the sun. They have a plant diet made up almost entirely of the island’s prickly-pear cactus.
Found: exclusive to Santa Fé island
Interesting fact: They dig and stay in underground burrows to conserve heat during cold nights.
Galapagos penguin (Spheniscus mendiculus)
The smallest and rarest of the penguin species. They prefer cold water, and form colonies in cracks and caves around the islands. Fast and agile swimmers, they propel themselves through the water at speeds of 40km per hour. Males are usually larger and heavier than females.
Found: Isabela, Fernandina, Bartolomé, Floreana , James
Interesting fact: the only penguin to live on the equator
Galapagos green turtle (Chelonia mydas)
The only turtle species to regularly nest on the islands. They are typically smaller than other green turtle species and have a darker shell. Large front flippers and a smooth shell help them to swim with ease through the water. They can often be seen making trips between the archipelago and the mainland.
Found: Open water and coasts
Interesting fact: They can stay underwater for several hours.
Frigate birds (Fregata magnificens)
Two species of frigatebirds coexist in the Galapagos: the great and the magnificent. They have long, narrow wings and long tails. During the breeding season male frigate birds will inflate the red gular pouches beneath their necks in order to attract a mate.
Found: seen throughout the Galápagos
Interesting fact: Their wings can span over 2 metres.
Galapagos hawk (Buteo galapagoensis)
The Galapagos hawk is at the top of the island’s food chain, and as the apex predator they have no natural enemies. They are brown in colour with yellow feet, broad wings, and a wingspan of 120 cm. They typically hunt in groups of three.
Found: James, Fernandina, Isabela, Hood and Santa Fé
Interesting fact: only 150 breeding pairs left on the islands.
Darwin’s finches (various names)
Famously inspiring Darwin’s evolutionary theories, these birds are an iconic resident of the archipelago. They have black-brown feathers, with short wings and a short tail. Darwin was interested in how each bird was perfectly adapted to the demands of each island, specifically the variety in the shape and size of their beaks.
Found: throughout the Galapagos
Interesting fact: 13 species have been recorded on the islands.
Red-billed tropicbird (Phaethon aethereus)
With white feathers, a bright red bill and two long tail streamers the red-billed tropic bird is easy to spot. Colonies of red-billed tropicbirds are usually found on high ledges and steep cliffs, and will fight for space in nesting areas. The red-billed tropicbird is the largest member of the tropicbird family.
Found: Genovesa, Daphne, Seymour Norte, South Plaza
Interesting fact: They dive for squid and fish far from the mainland.
Galapagos albatross (Phoebastria irrorata)
Otherwise known as the ‘waved albatross’, the Galapagos albatross has a wingspan of 2.5m and is the largest bird on the islands. They have a spectacular mating dance consisting of circling, gaping and loud beak clacking. They feed mainly on small fish, crustaceans and squid.
Found: almost exclusive to Española
Interesting fact: They only go on land to mate.
Blue-footed booby (Sula nebouxii)
Between May and July blue-footed boobies perform a comical mating dance during which males will show off their blue feet by strutting and moving their feet in quick up-and-down movements. The brighter the shade of blue the more interested a female will be.
Found: Española Island and North Seymour
Interesting fact: Around half of the world’s population of blue-footed boobies live in the Galapagos.
Nazca booby (Sula granti)
The largest of the three booby species, the Nazca booby is violently competitive. Hatchlings are known to regularly commit siblicide by pushing the smaller sibling out of the nest. They have a white body, black wings and tail feathers, and a bright orange beak.
Found: can be seen throughout the islands
Interesting fact: They plunge dive from heights of 30m.
Red footed booby (Sula sula)
Famous for its ruby coloured feet, the red-footed booby also has a light blue beak that turns pink around the mouth and eyes. They make their nests in the branches of trees and lay only a single egg. With aerodynamic bodies and long bills they are well adapted for catching their favourite food – flying fish.
Found: Genovesa, San Cristóbal, and Floreana
Interesting fact: Although the most numerous, they are the smallest and least spotted booby species.
Brown pelicans (Pelecanus occidentalis)
The brown pelican is the smallest member of the pelican family, with large feet and a pouched bill. This is used for draining water after diving for prey, with the trapped fished swallowed. They are elegant fliers, and are often seen flying in formation alongside other birds.
Found: throughout the Galápagos
Interesting fact: They can fly for over 100 miles per day.
American flamingos (Phoenicopterus ruber)
The bright pink feathers of the American Flamingo are a result of a carotene-rich diet (mainly crustaceans). It feeds by filtering large quantities of food through a special filter called the “lamellae”. They are one of the largest birds in the Galápagos, measuring nearly 2 metres tall.
Found: Isabela, Floreana and Santa Cruz
Interesting fact: Flamingos eat with their heads upside down.
Flightless cormorant (Phalacrocorax harrisi)
The rarest and largest species in the cormorant family. They rely on diving to catch prey, with webbed feet and strong legs to propel them though ocean waters. The upperparts of the flightless cormorant are black and the underparts are brown, with turquoise eyes and long beak hooked at the tip.
Found: only on Fernandina and Isabela (west coast)
Interesting fact: They can dive to depths of 80 metres.
Humpback Whale (Megaptera novaeangliae)
Adult Humpback whales range in length from 12 – 20 metres and weigh up to 36,000 kg. Their distinctive body shape makes them easy to recognise, with long pectoral fins and a broad knobbly head. They are slow swimmers and their skin is usually covered in barnacles.
Found: Galápagos waters
Interesting fact: The only long lasting bonds between humpback whales is between mother and calves.
Sperm whale (Physeter microcephalus)
The head of a sperm whale makes up one third of its overall body and houses the huge spermaceti organ. They can dive far below the water’s surface (averaging 500m), handy for catching deep sea squid and fish. Weighing up to 45 tonnes, the sperm whale is the world’s largest carnivore.
Found: Throughout the waters of the Galápagos
Interesting fact: Sperm whales can eat up to one ton of food per day.
Bottlenose dolphin (Tursiops)
Bottlenose dolphins are the most common and well known member of the dolphin family. They have a short nose, sleek body and a curved dorsal fin. They are grey in colouration, darker near the dorsal fin and paler at the underside.
Found: throughout the waters of the Galápagos
Interesting fact: A thick layer of fat (blubber) around their bodies keeps them warm in the cold Galápagos waters.
Galápagos Land Snails (Bulimulu)
Endemic to the Galápagos, the often overlooked land snail belongs to the sub-family Bulimulinae. They are usually found in dry areas under lava rocks and inside prickly pear bark. The Galápagos land snail is particularly threatened by habitat loss and the introduction of new species.
Found: all year round on Santa Cruz
Interesting fact: Several species of Galápagos land snail are extinct.