The giant tortoises of the Galapagos Islands are one of the most emblematic species of this archipelago in the Pacific Ocean. These majestic reptiles were one of Charles Darwin’s main inspirations in his work on the theory of evolution.

Galapagos giant tortoises are renowned for their longevity and impressive size. They can grow to over 1.5 meters in length and weigh up to 400 kilograms. Each species of Galapagos giant tortoise has distinct physical and behavioral characteristics, depending on the island where it lives.

These animals are of crucial importance to the fragile Galapagos ecosystem. They are ecosystem engineers, helping to disperse seeds and maintain the archipelago’s biodiversity. However, Galapagos giant tortoises have also been threatened by human activities, including hunting and the destruction of their natural habitat.

Today, ongoing conservation efforts are underway to protect these endangered species. The Galapagos giant tortoises are a symbol of the archipelago’s unique natural wealth, and of the importance of preserving biodiversity for future generations.

The Galapagos Islands: a paradise for giant tortoises

A few facts:

  • 10 species of giant tortoise have been recorded in the archipelago
  • They are thought to have inhabited the islands between 3 and 4 million years ago
  • They have an amazing DNA repair mechanism, which explains their average lifespan of up to 200 years
  • Average weight: 220 kg
  • Average height: 1.20 m (imagine walking among these impressive animals).
  • Average length: 1.80 m
  • Herbivore and frugivore
  • Breeding season: year-round, with most activity between January and August
  • Laying: 2 to 16 eggs
  • Total population: around 15,000 (compared with an estimated 250,000 when the archipelago was discovered in 1535).

History of giant tortoises in the Galapagos

Millions of years ago…

The history of Galapagos giant tortoises goes back millions of years, when turtles began arriving on the archipelago as accidental drifters on tree trunks or floating plants from the South American continent. Over thousands of years, these turtles have evolved to adapt to the unique environmental conditions of the archipelago’s various islands.

Discovered and hunted

Giant Galapagos tortoises were first discovered by European explorers in 1535, when Spanish navigator Tomás de Berlanga sailed to the archipelago by mistake in search of a route to Peru. In the centuries that followed, the turtles were hunted by sailors and pirates for their meat and oil, leading to a massive decline in their population.

Inspiration for Charles Darwin

In the 19th century, the giant tortoises of the Galapagos Islands became a major source of inspiration for British naturalist Charles Darwin in his theory of evolution. By studying the different species of giant tortoise in the archipelago, Darwin realized that the physical and behavioral variations of the tortoises were closely linked to the environment of each island.

Conservation efforts

Over the years, conservation efforts have helped protect Galapagos giant tortoises from extinction. Captive breeding programs have saved some species from the imminent threat of extinction. Today, Galapagos giant tortoises continue to be an icon of the archipelago’s unique biodiversity and the importance of conserving endangered species.

Importance of giant tortoises in the Galapagos ecosystem

A crucial role for plants

Galapagos giant tortoises play a crucial role in the archipelago’s fragile ecosystem. As “gardeners of the ecosystem”, they help to disperse seeds and maintain biodiversity. Giant Galapagos tortoises feed on a variety of plants and, as they walk long distances, transport seeds from one plant to another in their digestive tract. This contributes to plant reproduction and ecosystem regeneration.

Food source for other animals

Galapagos giant tortoises are also a source of food for many predators, such as boobies, owls, rats and feral cats. Their habitat, made up of wetlands and dry forests, is also important for other animal species, such as iguanas, birds and crabs.

Finally, the giant Galapagos tortoises are a symbol of the archipelago’s unique history and natural wealth. They were studied by Charles Darwin in his theory of evolution, and are a key element of the archipelago’s identity. The preservation of Galapagos giant tortoises is therefore essential not only for the ecosystem, but also for the archipelago’s history and culture.

Protection and conservation of giant tortoises

Galapagos giant tortoises are an emblematic species of the archipelago and an integral part of its fragile ecosystem. However, they have been threatened by hunting and the destruction of their natural habitat for many years. Today, major conservation efforts are in place to protect this unique species and ensure its future survival.

Protecting giant tortoises

The Ecuadorian authorities have put in place a series of measures to protect giant tortoises, including the creation of national parks and nature reserves. These areas are strictly controlled, and visitors must abide by strict rules to avoid disturbing the turtles and their natural habitat.

Conservation programs

Conservation programs for giant tortoises are essential to preserve this endangered species. The Giant Tortoise Breeding and Captive Rearing Program, set up by the Galapagos National Park, aims to reintroduce the tortoises into their natural habitat. Eggs are collected from the islands where populations are strongest, then incubated in breeding centers before being released back into the wild.

Scientific research

Scientific research is also an important element in understanding and protecting giant tortoises. Studies are carried out on their behavior, diet and natural habitat to better understand their ecology and evolution. The results of these studies are used to guide conservation programs and environmental policies.

Today, new species of turtle are making their appearance

It’s a female turtle from the Chelonoidis Phantasticus family! Fantastic news from the uninhabited island of Fernandina. This specimen had not been seen in 113 years and was discovered in February 2019!

This follows the announcement in 2015 of the discovery of a Chelonoidis Donfaustoi specimen, a new species.

Centenarian turtle saves its species, released in its natural habitat

More recently, we also learned that Diego, the turtle who saved his species from extinction, was released on June 15, 2020 into his natural habitat on the island of Española! During his captivity, the centenarian was responsible for at least 40% of the baby turtles that have since grown up on this island.

If you’re a nature lover or simply curious about discovering new species, a visit to the Galapagos is a must.

Whether as a family, couple or group of friends, for sports enthusiasts, divers or nature lovers, there are many ways to discover the archipelago. Contact Terra Ecuador, a local travel agency, for more information.