The Galapagos Turtle is among the largest on Earth. They can reach weights of over 250 Kg and its shells can measure up to 60 inches.
This giant turtle is endemic to the Galapagos Islands. The Galapagos tortoise has a very large shell made of bone.
Its shells can be domed or saddle backed.
The Domed shells are found on tortoises that live in areas with lush vegetation.
The Saddle backed shells, elevated in front (to facilitate extension of the neck), are for turtles living in dryer, less vegetated Islands like: Espanola, Fernandina, Pinta and Pinzon for instance with cactus trees and shrubs.
But there's also an intermediate race, found in Santa Fe Island that combines the features of the other two.
These patterns were crucial in showing Charles Darwin that different habitats allowed different versions of animals to thrive and evolve (over time) into new species.
The Galapagos turtle is vegetarian and they eat mostly prickly pear cactus and fruits, bromeliads, water ferns, leaves, and grasses.
In highland areas, giant turtles can be seen wallowing in shallow pools formed by rain or dew dripping from leaves. Galapagos Islands turtles stand and stretch their necks to give birds access to remove parasites.
When frightened, turtles retract their heads and legs into the protective shell.
It is said that the Galapagos turtle played an important role in Darwin's Theory of Evolution. When Charles Darwin visited the Galapagos Islands, he was told by the vice governor of the Archipelago that he could identify what Island the turtle was from simply by looking at its shape and characteristics.
These Galapagos endemic turtles have a good sense of smell and smells all of its food before eating it.
They have tremendous water storage capacities, enabling them to survive the long arid season. (more than a year without any food or water)
Most turtles in the world can lay hundreds of eggs at a time. However, the Galapagos turtle only lays between 2 and 16 eggs.
These eggs are laid in a hole dug by the mother. Then they are buried for incubation. The mother leaves, and the eggs hatch 4-8 months later.
It takes the baby turtles one month to dig out of the nest. When the Galapagos Islands were discovered there were around 14 or 15 species of turtles, all of them endemics of the Galapagos Islands.
After the arrival of the whalers 3 or 4 races of Galapagos turtles were extinguished forever.
During the 19th century, whaling ships and then fur-sealers collected turtles for food and many more were killed for their fine turtle oil from the late 1800s until early the 20th century.
Early Galapagos settlers then hunted them for their meat and cleared large areas of their habitat for agriculture.
The settlers also introduced domestic animals, many of which went wild and had a disastrous effect on the Galapagos turtle species.
It is impossible to know exactly how many giant turtles there were originally but it has been estimated that more than 100,000 were hunted in total over the centuries.
The result today is that three races of Galapagos giant turtles are extinct while just one individual survives from a fourth, and this lonely turtle is known as (lonesome George).
There are about 15,000 turtles left altogether. As the hunters found it easier to collect the Galapagos turtles living round the coastal zones, the healthiest populations today tend to be those in the highlands.
Fortunately with the establishment of the Galapagos National Park and the Charles Darwin Foundation on 1959, a systematic review of the status of the Galapagos turtle population began.
Only 11 of the 15 original turtle populations remained and most of these were endangered.
The breeding and rearing program for giant turtles began in response to the conditions of the turtle population on Pinzon Island, where fewer than 200 old adults were found.
With the eradication of introduced mammals, many of the giant Galapagos turtle populations are nearing the point when the breeding and rearing center will no longer be required.
The last remaining male tortoise of Pinta Island known as Solitary or Lonesome George was brought back to the Charles Darwin Research Station, where he is housed in a corral with two females from Wolf Volcano, on Isabela Island
But so far all the efforts have failed to breed successfully with these females.
Working with communities and establishing protected areas is crucial for the restoration and repatriation of young giant turtles close to towns, such as Puerto Villamil on Isabela.
Monitoring their populations and restoring their habitat will now be part of larger Island restoration programs.
The original ancestor of the Galapagos turtle was probably of normal size and evolved into the present day giant turtles after its arrival in the Galapagos Islands.
This is due to a phenomenon seen in many Island ecosystems where giant-ism evolves because there is no longer any need to hide from predators and because there are no other similar animals to compete with for food.
Once the turtles spread around the Galapagos Islands they evolved on their isolated Islands into the different races we see today.
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