The Galapagos Islands’ animals, both on land and in the water, are exceedingly unique. Visiting this remote wildlife haven you will see highly-adapted species, some incredibly being endemic to individual Islands. Indeed the Galapagos are home to some of the highest levels of endemism anywhere on earth, with around 90% of the archipelago’s land mammals and reptiles, 75% of its land birds and 20% of its marine species found nowhere else on the planet.
Something else truly incredible about Galapagos Islands animals is that they have evolved with comparatively little human contact or major predators for hundreds of years. As such, their fear of humans has never developed, meaning you can observe these beautiful creatures from surprisingly close range in their natural habitat.
For a full list of Galapagos Islands animals you may like to check out the Charles Darwin Foundation’s comprehensive Galapagos Species Checklist Archive. However, if you aren’t so familiar with the scientific names of animals, we’ve created a list of 10 of the most remarkable wildlife species that you can have the privilege of seeing on a Galapagos tour, as well as some useful safety advice to bear in mind when around the archipelago’s animals, and some helpful Galapagos Islands wildlife spotting tips.
The iconic tortoises are probably the most important species on the Galapagos Islands and the most famous. Not only because the islands themselves were actually named after these creatures, Galapagos means tortoise in Spanish! The world’s largest tortoise and longest-living vertebrate, these impressive creatures can live to be over 150 years old! Once the species thrived on the Galapagos Islands with populations exceeding 250,000, but after years without a natural predator, humans have since exploited the creature leaving just 15,000 in existence today, and as a result, the tortoises are under intense conservation.
Which island? The largest group of Galapagos Tortoises can be found on the Volcano Alcedo on Isabela Island, with over 4,000 living there.
This species of iguana is the only marine lizard left on earth! The Marine Iguana is unique to the Galapagos Islands, where it lives its unique marine lifestyle, adapted from years of life on the islands. The Marine Iguana lives on seaweed, with special nasal glands that are able to filter out excess salt from its body. This incredible creature can dive up to 30 feet in the water and can be found on the rocky shorelines, marshes and mangrove beaches of the Galapagos Islands. Despite its appearance and spiky exterior, which can look a little mean and frightening, the herbivores are perfectly harmless, docile creatures who are actually vulnerable to extinction from rats and other feral creatures on the islands.
Which island? Marine Iguanas can be found on every Galapagos Island, so be sure to watch where you step!
Better known as Darwin’s Finches, the 13 species of finches on the islands are defined by their environment, with differing features between each species. This diversity of species contributed to Darwin’s theory of natural selection and gave Darwin valuable insights into evolution.
Which island? You can spot the endangered sharp-beaked finch on the central and western islands, the small ground finch on most of the large islands and the cactus finch on the central islands, except Fernandina.
One of the smallest penguins in the world and the only penguin that lives north of the equator, the Galapagos Penguin is entirely unique to the Galapagos Islands. The most endangered creature on the islands and most endangered penguin in the world, their populations have dropped largely because their limited options for nesting on the islands have been destroyed or overtaken by Marine Iguanas. Galapagos Penguins mate for life and their population is said to be around 1,000-1,300 pairs.
Which island? You can find 90% of the Galapagos Penguins on the western islands of Fernandina and Isabela.
Defined by their distinctive blue feet and comical mating dance, Blue-footed Boobies are not exclusive to the Galapagos, but half of the world’s population breeds on the islands. The shade of blue is very important, since the bluer the feet, the healthier the bird, and the more attractive the bird is for potential mates. They can be found all along the Pacific coast, stretching from Southern California down to Peru. Approximately 70% of the total blue-footed booby population are found on the Galapagos Islands.
Which island? The Blue-footed Booby can be found on most islands, except those in the north. Their population is, however, decreasing and traditional breeding sites on Española Island have been largely abandoned by the birds.
The adorable Galapagos Sealion is completely unique to the Galapagos Islands, with smaller numbers found on the Isla de la Plata and Gorgona Island. Watching the sea lions surfing in the ocean or sunbathing on the shore, enjoying their laid-back lifestyle, is definitely one of the great attractions of the Galapagos. The largest marine mammal on the islands, and with a population of around 50,000, the playful nature and loud barking noise of these creatures usually make them one of the first animals you see on your approach to the islands by boat.
Which island? Sealions can be found on most of the Galapagos Islands, including Fernandina Island.
The male Magnificent Frigatebird has an extremely distinctive feature of a giant red throat pouch just beneath its beak. When it is fully inflated it’s quite a sight to see! The males inflate in a display for the females, and the brighter the pouch, the more attractive! While not entirely unique to the Galapagos, the species found on the islands are thought to be genetically distinct from their other worldly counterparts. While the Magnificent Frigatebird is a seabird, if its plumage gets too wet it will drown, as it does not have the oily, waterproof feathers seabirds usually have. You can often hear the Magnificent Frigatebird before you see it, with its rattling, drumming noise.
Which island? The largest and most active colony of Magnificent Frigatebirds can be found on North Seymour Island.
The distinctive population of Sally Light Foot Crabs on the Galapagos Islands are a unique species of the Light Foot crab, found on the coast of the Americas. Unlike their crabby cousins, the Galapagos Sally Light Foot Crab works in harmony with the marine iguanas of the islands, cleaning ticks from their skin. Their brightly-colored bodies make them stand out on the rocks and shores of the islands, a target for keen wildlife photographers on the islands. Their name comes from their ability to move easily across the top of the water, which makes them look like they are walking on water!
Which island? Often see in large groups on the rocks of Santa Cruz Island.
There are three species of iguana found on the Galapagos Islands, the yellow iguana Conolophus subcristatus, Conolophus pallidus, and the pink or rosada iguana, Conolophus marthae. The latter of the three species was only discovered in 1986, and wasn’t studied until the 2000s. Most land iguanas can be found in the drier areas of the islands, hiding in the shade of cacti, rocks or trees. Land iguanas can live to be 60 years old and are herbivores.
Which island? Land iguanas can be found on the islands of Fernandina, Isabela, Santa Cruz, North Seymour, Baltra and South Plaza.
The Galapagos Green Turtle is the only species of green sea turtle that nests on the Galapagos Islands. Weighing up to 600 pounds, the Galapagos Green Turtle is one of the largest sea turtles in the world. Unlike tortoises, sea turtles cannot put their heads inside their shells, but can stay underwater for about two-and-a-half hours without coming up for air. You may see these huge creatures gliding through the waters around the islands or bathing in the sun on the shore. The Galapagos Green Turtle is an endangered species, and certain beaches are closed to the public during nesting times on the islands.
Which island? Large numbers of sea turtles are found on Bartolome Island, Santiago Island, Santa Cruz Island, Santa Fe Island and Floreana Island.
The Galapagos Islands are a protected National Park and a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and the primary concern of the park is to protect the rare wildlife of the islands. Always listen to the advice of your naturalist guides who will be there to advise you of any danger you may pose to the wildlife, and conversely any natural dangers to you to be aware of. Beyond their expert knowledge, we’ve compiled some extra guidance below that may be of use.
If you decide to swim with Galapagos sea lions be wary of the bulls. They are usually friendly but can charge in the water and even bite when they feel threatened. On land, you may find the playful pups nudge you and touch you, but resist the temptation to pet them. If their smell gets tainted, as a result of getting to close to humans, their mothers will abandon them. Stings are also something you want to avoid. Wearing a wetsuit, even when the water is warm enough to snorkel without one, will reduce the risk of being stung by jellyfish. Some of the beaches on certain islands also act as nurseries for some ray species which have nasty barbs which can be very painful if you were to step on them.
With that in mind, a key issue is keeping a respectful and safe distance from the wildlife. Your guide will instruct you on how much distance to stand from animals (for their and your safety). You may not use the flash setting when taking photographs as it can startle or even harm the wildlife. Selfie-sticks are not allowed to be used for taking close-up photos. Another less cute issue, is to watch out for iguana snot. When they leave the water they have a tendency to clear their nostrils of salt, with a spray of saline. It isn’t a harmful substance, but can ruin up your digital camera so try to stay out of the way.
To help you spot (and identify) the abundant Galapagos Islands’ animals, we’ve put together some expert tips – a series of dos and don’ts – to enhance your time wildlife watching in Galapagos:
Now that you have our tips and species list – and know which islands you can find them on – you can plan your Galapagos itinerary to increase the chances of seeing them, and check off the top 10 Galapagos Islands animals as you spot them with ease (with a little bit of luck) – on your Galapagos vacation.
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