Giant Galapagos Tortoise

The Giant Galapagos Tortoise has 14 subspecies of which 11 still exist some with only small populations.

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Giant tortoises are the longest-lived of all vertebrates, averaging over 100 years.

The records show that the oldest one lived 152 years.

The Galapagos Islands' giant tortoise is probably the best known of all Galapagos Animals and even gave this Archipelago its name.

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The Word Galapago means tortoise in Spanish it derives from the word for saddle, referring to the distinctive saddle-like shell of some of the tortoises.

The Giant Galapagos tortoise can weigh up to 250 kg. and measure 6 feet from head to tail.

The Galapagos tortoise has a very large shell made of bone. The shell can be domed or saddle-backed. Domed shells are found on tortoises that live in areas with lush vegetation.

Saddle-back shells allow the tortoise to reach vegetation higher off the ground. This shell is more common in areas with less vegetation.

Giant Galapagos Tortoise History

In the 1600s, buccaneers started to use the Galapagos Islands as a base, restocking on water and repairing their boats before setting off to attack the Spanish colonies on the South American mainland.

But the main attraction of the Islands were the giant tortoises which were collected and stored live on board ship where they survived for many months, providing invaluable fresh meat.

In the 1800s, whaling ships and then fur-sealers collected tortoises for food and many more were killed for their fine turtle oil from the late 1800s until early the 20th century.

Early 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 tortoises.

No-one knows exactly how many giant tortoises 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 giant Galapagos tortoise are extinct while just one individual survives from a fourth.

There are about 15,000 tortoises left altogether. As the hunters found it easier to collect the tortoises living round the coastal zones, the healthiest populations today tend to be those in the highlands.

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Giant Galapagos Tortoise Evolution

The original ancestor of the tortoises was probably of normal size and evolved into the present-day giants after its arrival in the Galapagos Islands.

This is due to a phenomenon seen in many Island ecosystems where gigantism 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 tortoises spread around the Galapagos Archipelago they evolved on their isolated Islands into the different races we see today, some with domed carapaces (shells), and others with saddle-back carapaces.

The unusual saddle shape is believed to have evolved several times on different Islands, showing that it must be a very successful design for life in Galapagos.

Giant Galapagos Tortoise Evolution

The original ancestor of the tortoises was probably of normal size and evolved into the present-day giants after its arrival in the Galapagos Islands.

This is due to a phenomenon seen in many Island ecosystems where gigantism 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 tortoises spread around the Galapagos Archipelago they evolved on their isolated Islands into the different races we see today, some with domed carapaces (shells), and others with saddle-back carapaces.

The unusual saddle shape is believed to have evolved several times on different Islands, showing that it must be a very successful design for life in Galapagos.

The Giant Galapagos Tortoise Today

With the establishment of the Galapagos National Park and the Charles Darwin Foundation in 1959, a systematic review of the status of the tortoise populations began.

The breeding and rearing program for giant tortoises began in response to the conditions of the tortoise population on Pinzon Island where fewer than 200 old adults were found.

Without help, this population would eventually disappear. The only thing saving it was the longevity of the tortoise.

The rearing program began in 1965, with the first transfer of tortoise eggs from Pinzon to the new tortoise center on Santa Cruz Island

In the early 1990s, a second giant Galapagos tortoise center opened in Puerto Villamil on Isabela Island

This center was originally planned during the wildfire of 1985 but was not fully operational until the wildfire of 1994, which coincided with an increase in poaching of tortoises in Isabela.

Helicopters used in fire-fighting were also employed to evacuate tortoises, not from fire areas but from areas on Sierra Negra volcano where they were threatened due to illegal hunting.

The Isabela tortoise center is a breeding and rearing center, currently with tortoises from both Sierra Negra and Cerro Azul volcanoes.

In 2003, the Galapagos National Park established a breeding and rearing center for the giant Galapagos tortoise on San Cristobal Island with the tortoises enclosed in a large, natural area.

It is also said that Galapagos tortoises played an important role in Charles Darwin's Theory of Evolution.

Recommended Reading

Ecuador & Galapagos (Insight Guides)

Ecuador & Galapagos (Insight Guides)
With 250 photos and tons of great information, this is an essential addition to your pre-Ecuador and -Galapagos reading! There are better guides if you are only interested in the islands, but for a combination trip taking in Ecuador as well, it's hard to beat.

Birds, Mammals, and Reptiles of the Galapagos Islands

Birds, Mammals, and Reptiles of the Galapagos Islands
Small enough to fit into your pocket, yet containing comprehensive information and pictures of all the species you will encounter in the islands, this book is a must-have for nature lovers. Let's face it, Galapagos is largely about the wildlife. This book will NOT disappoint, and you'll have a great memento of your time with the seals, penguins and tortoises!

Galapagos: The Islands That Changed the World

Galapagos: The Islands That Changed the World
Definitely NOT a tourist's guide, but if you're like me, and find the history and geography of the islands irresistible, then this is a title you ought to invest in. Stunningly illustrated, and painstakingly researched, those of you who have been there will be enchanted again -- and those of you who have not will begin planning your trip!

Moon Spotlight Galapagos Islands

Moon Spotlight Galapagos Islands
If you're a seasoned Galapagos regular, then you will probably prefer something weightier. But for first-timers looking for simple, down-to-earth advice on where to go, what to see and the best shopping and eating on the islands, this is the book for you. Small, well-priced, and reliable!

Galapagos: Islands Born of Fire

Galapagos: Islands Born of Fire
The 10th anniversary edition of this photographer's tour of the Galapagos Islands is a stunning book, worthy of anybody's coffee table. This is a perfect post-trip talking point -- a great way to remember what you've seen, and spread the word amongst your envious friends!


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