The giant Galapagos Tortoises are amongst the most famous endemic species in the World and unique to the Galapagos Archipelago. It’s thought that giant tortoises once thrived on all the continents of earth; only to have been hunted to extinction almost everywhere else except on the Galapagos.
The islands themselves were named after the tortoises found here. The word Galapagos coming from the Spanish word ‘galapago’, which means saddle (named after the shape of their distinctive large shells). It’s thought that there are as few as twelve and as many as fifteen sub-species of giant tortoise left on the islands. Owing to the age of individual animals and similarities of the species, it can be hard to distinguish them from each other.
One fact that we do know for sure is that one sub-species did pass into extinction. It happened with the death of Lonesome George, the last remaining Abingdon Island tortoise, in 2012.
Let’s examine one of the most important remaining sub-species of the Galapagos tortoises :
It is estimated that there are around 20,000 Galapagos tortoises left on the islands in total; with around of 6,000 of these belonging to the Volcan Alcedo sub-species. These animals are native to the slopes of the Alcedo volcano on Isabella Island. They exhibit a surprisingly low level of DNA, which may be the direct result of a volcanic eruption that took place there around 100,000 years ago.
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With just under 2,000 remaining, these animals have had to be protected within a fenced off habitat. This was originally to protect them from feral dogs in the 1970s. They can grow to 1.8 metres in length and weigh in at around 400 kgs – making them true giants, in every sense of the word.
Lives on the slopes of the Wolf Volcano, and also on Isabella (making this perhaps the best Galapagos Islands to visit for tortoise lovers). This sub-species has adapted to the harsher conditions higher up the slopes. This is thought to have hindered the main predators and allowed them to survive in an otherwise inhospitable environment.
Living on the island amongst the scrubby hills, these animals have blacker shells and comparatively shorter necks. However, there is some debate about whether this is just one species or a sub-set of three different types. Scientists are still discussing the matter.
Isabella and Santa Cruz Island are two of the best Galapagos Islands to visit to see tortoises; but a number of the other islands are also home to sub-species. To see them all, a boat tour aboard a vessel like the Galapagos Sea Star Journey will let you take it all in. Check out this tour with Santa Cruz Island tortoise visits.
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