The giant Galápagos tortoise is the largest of it’s kind, can reach up to 880 lbs/ 400kg, and reach speeds of 0.3 kmh /0.2 mph. They should not be confused with sea turtles…two completely distinct species! Charles Darwin liked to ride tortoises and noted their delicious meat (from Voyage of the Beagle). Though riding and eating the tortoise sounded fun and delicious, I just took a picture.
Santa Cruz giant tortoises are one of ten sub species of tortoises living on six different Islands. The number of sub species was 11 until the death of “Lonesome George”, last of the Pinta Island tortoises. The speciation of giant tortoises is a fascinating history because some of the sub species can still successfully interbreed which sets off alarms for different types of taxonomists (because they are not really species), however, that is a subject of another post.
Feeding (see video of a giant land tortoise feeding) is primarily on grasses and cactus. Incidentally, food shortages for tortoises have been a major threat to populations on many of the islands. Feral goats and pigs (now with enormous populations) destroy much of the tortoise habitat because goats eat the vegetation while pigs go after the roots leaving nothing behind. This is particularly an issue on Isabela Island where park service hunters routinely seek out and dispatch the invasives.
Giant tortoises, like many large bodied animal species in the Galápagos Islands, have mutual relationships with ground finches. I witnessed finches crawling around tortoise shells but did not realize the depth of the relationship. Finches have been observed approaching tortoises and doing a bit of a dance to get tortoises to stretch out and expose hard to reach areas of the neck and genitalia. Once these areas are exposed the finches remove parasites and get their protein for the day. Mutualism is cool.
The Galápagos giant tortoises breeding program is ongoing on Santa Cruz, San Cristobal, and Isabela Islands. Tortoises at breeding centers in the Galapagos are raised in captivity until they reach 10-20 years of age depending on the program and study. That’s pretty incredible when you consider spending 20% of your potentially 100 year life in captivity. These tortugitas below were six months old at the time of the visit. Note the painted number in the back. Each tortoise is labeled to keep track of basic growth information and they are pit tagged or “chipped” before being set free in the wild.
Here is a tip if you want to see giant land tortoises in the Galápagos Islands. If you do a land based tour just ask a cab driver to take you to see them and negotiate a price you are both happy with ($30 for the car is about fair). If you re doing a cruise based tour and you want to see wild giant tortoises be sure to check your itinerary! It is not always included and you may get confused with breeding centers which are fun but more like a zoo. A simple solution to that problem is booking your return flight so you can stay in Puerto Ayora for another day. See my tips for Galápagos Islands land based tours.
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Much more Galápagos Islands travel coming here soon! Link to those posts.
“Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you did not do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines, sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover …” -Mark Twain