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Galapagos Tortoise

Galapagos Tortoise

The Galapagos tortoise is a unique species of tortoise with a striking presence given its surprisingly enormous size in comparison to other tortoises.

The Galapagos tortoise is a unique species of tortoise with a striking presence given its surprisingly enormous size in comparison to other types of tortoises. The massive reptile can weigh up to 550 pounds and measure up to 5 feet long, consuming a vegetarian diet based mainly on grass, fruits and cactus pads. These slow moving herbivores conquer the hearts of many observers with their laid back attitude and endearing behavior.

Galapagos tortoises are native to the Galapagos Islands, located about 600 miles off the coast of Ecuador. The isolated location of the islands helped contribute to the rich exoticism of the flora and fauna found here, where about three to five thousand Galapagos tortoises reside today.

They busy themselves by napping almost 16 hours a day, munching on island vegetation and hanging out in the sun. A low stress life and a haste-makes-waste approach to living seem to have encouraged the development of great health benefits. Reaching maximum speeds of about one mile per hour, these easy going animals have incredible life spans (averaging about 100 years) and abilities to survive. The longest living vertebrate in the world, they can also survive up to an entire year without food or water, a characteristic that ironically nearly lead to their extinction; when 17th century sailors discovered the tortoise’s unique trait, they began loading up their ships with the tortoise so they could have low maintenance fresh meat for chow during long voyages.

Tortoises were so abundant on the islands when the Spanish first arrived in 1535, that they named the islands after them (galápago means tortoise in Spanish). From the 17th to the 19th century, whalers and pirates would make frequent stops here and the Galapagos tortoise population would plummet by over 100,000. The different varieties of Galapagos tortoises also decreased from 15 to 11. One of these varieties had one single individual remaining known as Lonesome George, who resided in the Charles Darwin Research Station until his death in 2012. Researchers at the station, located on the islands, take an active role in the preservation of the tortoise which is listed as an endangered species. The government of Ecuador also protects them, which has banned the hunting or removal of the huge critter from the islands. In 1959, the government also declared all unsettled areas of the islands national park land.

Despite their slow pace crawl (although during mating season, males may be inspired to journey up to 13 km in just two days) they do not have to worry too much about being directly attacked by animal predators. Like other types of turtles, when the tortoise feels threatened, it draws its exposed tail, legs and head into the cozy shelter of its large shell. Their only natural threat is the Galapagos hawk, which consumes eggs and newly hatched tortoises. Nonnative threats include cattle, goats, rats and cats.

Galapagos tortoises have a curious form of competing with one another for dominance. Pairs of competitors square up and extend their necks as high as they can, holding their mouths wide open as they face off. The tallest tortoise wins while the shorter one backs away in defeated disappointment.

While populations of the enormous tortoises have sadly dwindled over the centuries, great efforts are being made to preserve the endangered species. Researchers have recently cleared one of the islands (Pinzón) of its invasive rat population, which nearly wiped out the local tortoise community, rending the specific variety classified as extinct in the wild. Over one hundred young tortoises raised in a breeding center were then returned to the island. More projects of the same type are being planned on other islands. The promising success story suggests that this fantastic species may one day be able to thrive once again on the unique islands that were named after them.