Gentle giants of Galapagos

The most famous of the unique fauna of the Galapagos Islands is the giant tortoise. Known as the Galapagos tortoise, the islands were named after these creatures, with early explorers describing them as galapago – an old Spanish word for saddle, hinting at the shape of their shells.

Charles Darwin

When English naturalist Charles Darwin famously visited the Galapagos Islands in 1835, his studies showed that the shape of these shells varied from island to island and each subspecies adapted to its particular habitat. The largest species can grow to more than six feet long and weigh up to 880 pounds.

Slow metabolism

To keep its body at the perfect temperature and to maintain its energy levels, the tortoise moves very slowly and spends a large proportion of the day – up to 16 hours – at rest, basking in the sun or wallowing in mud pools. As with all tortoises, the Galapagos variety has a very slow metabolism and can go without food or water for a very long time, up to a year or more. However, when it eats, there’s plenty on the menu including berries, lichen, leaves, grass and cactus, although this lacks real nutrition, so it will get hungry quite quickly. The tortoise can also drink large amounts of water, which can be stored up for later use if necessary.

Lonesome George

Their ability to go without food or water for lengthy periods was also to lead to the downfall of this creature when sailors discovered they could have a plentiful supply of fresh meat by storing them live on their ships during long voyages. This exploitation, which was prevalent from the 1800s to the mid-1900s, led to the extinction of three species, with a fourth, the Pinta, losing its last member, Lonesome George, in 2012.

Conservation icon

Believed to have been around 100 years old when he died and never producing any offspring, this famous giant tortoise became an icon for conservation. The inscription on his former enclosure reads: Whatever happens to this single animal, let him always remind us that the fate of all living things on Earth is in human hands.

Galapagos National Park

With the establishment of the Galapagos National Park and the Charles Darwin Foundation in 1959, the conservation of the Galapagos Islands has been placed in safe hands. Many ongoing projects aim to protect the wildlife and habitats of the Galapagos from human impact. This will ensure that these incredible islands remain intact and creatures such as the Galapagos tortoise enjoy this magnificent home for a long time to come.

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