Galapagos Giant Tortoises in the Galapagos

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“The giant tortoises of Galapagos are among the most famous of the unique fauna of the Islands.  While giant tortoises once thrived on most of the continents of the world, the Galapagos tortoises now represent one of the remaining two groups of giant tortoises in the entire world. The Galapagos Islands were named for their giant tortoises; the old Spanish word galapago meant saddle, a term early explorers used for the tortoises due to the shape of their shells.” Galapagos.org

Galapagos Tortoises general facts

Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Chordata
Class: Reptilia
Order: Testudines
Family: Testudinidae
Genu: Chelonoidis
Synonyms: Geochelone nigra, Geochelone spp., Testudo nigra.
Size length: up to 1.2m
Size male weight: up to 320kg

Where can I see giant Galapagos tortoises?

All our Santa Cruz II Galapagos tours options provide you with a safe, active, educational, and fun experience enhanced by the Big 15.

Where Can I Find Giant Tortoises In Galapagos
Giant Tortoises Are Pretty Common In The Galapagos Islands But There Are Certain Points In Which You Will Definitely Be Able To Spot Them

“The tortoises are strictly protected in Ecuador, which declared
the Galapagos Archipelago a National Park in 1959.” Ian R. Swingland

Galapagos Islands Breeding Center
There Are Centers In The Galapagos Islands Specialized In Helping Giant Tortoises Breed. Photo By Mrthompson Via Flickr

One of the most fascinating features of the Galapagos Islands is that they can show visitors how the early presence of humans affected the islands, and what is currently being done in order to reestablish the damage while gradually building consciousness in visitors, as well as natural appreciation by local residents.

“The giant tortoise is an iconic species from the Galápagos and is only found on these islands.
They are the largest living tortoise in the world.” Giant Tortoise by WWF

Back in the 1960s, during the early days of organized tourism, seeing giant Galapagos tortoises was conceived as a way of showing a somewhat domesticated animal at local farms, towns, and few at the Charles Darwin Research Station.  Thanks to a more proactive and sustainable approach, local farms up in the highlands of some populated islands have opened their doors to the migration range of tortoises. These farmers have become the best option for visitors to see giant Galapagos tortoises in their wild environment. Most of these farms are located right at the boundary of the national parkland and private land, although tortoises don’t realize what is federal or private land. These farms do not interact with tortoises at all; they just let visitors come in for an entrance fee and enjoy the facilities while having a chance to explore the area. Some farms have become great restaurants, while some have gift shops, restroom facilities, rubber boots, rain ponchos, etc. This option is a great example of how tourism can provide a better quality of living for farmers of the island.  The island of Santa Cruz is where you find a fair good number of farms in the highlands for exploring.


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The option of seeing giant Galapagos tortoises in semi-captive conditions, and as part of rearing in captivity program, is best witnessed at Santa Cruz, Isabela, and San Cristobal islands. The famous Charles Darwin Research Station has great displays and it lies right next to the Fausto Llerena breeding center. A similar setup is found up in the highlands of San Cristobal and is called Cerro Colorado, while the island of Isabela right at a short walk from Puerto Villamil, shows a very quiet walk next to an adjacent protected area of wetlands with some great birding too. These places provide visitors with an outstanding background as to what happened in the past, how it all started, and the current situation of giant tortoises in the archipelago. You can easily spend half a morning of the afternoon just seeing the many different ways in which humans are now gradually helping restore the original biodiversity in the islands. And then, of course, there are places in which you do come across giant Galapagos tortoises in the middle of the national park visitor sites. Up in the highlands of Santa Cruz, for example, you can venture for a guided walk right from the inhabited areas and into the protected land. Other places, like Urbina Bay on Isabela Island, do bring wonderful surprises for those who travel far out to the western side of the archipelago. Don’t expect to see that many, but throughout the year you can easily spot 3-4 tortoises who have come down from the slopes of Alcedo Volcano. San Cristobal Island also boasts a site called La Galapaguera Natural, but this is quite a long trek into the arid zone of the island.

A bony portable armor

Anatomically, turtles, tortoises, and terrapins are very unique vertebrates in the animal kingdom. Their shells are made of a bony armor that includes fused ribs, vertebrae, and sternum. On top of these bones, dermal plates, called scutes and rich in keratin, grow extensively and provide protection against the outer world. The shell is made of two parts: an upper part called the carapace, and a bottom part called the plastron.

Their anatomy is quite astonishing, and the fact that makes them unique is that both shoulder and pelvic girdles are inside the rib cage, and unlike all other vertebrates, including ourselves, have these girdles outside of the rib cage. Have a look at your personal anatomy. Another obvious feature is that they have a rigid rib cage, and when they exhale you can loudly hear them as their lungs truly collapse in order to push air out. When we inhale or exhale our rib cage, in a very flexible way, expands and retreats. Quite amazing vertebrates tortoises are!

Galapagos Tortoise carapace plastron

From an evolutionary perspective, it is widely agreed that in Galapagos they became the top of the food chain, or at least the top herbivore of the islands, occupying all-vegetarian niches with no competition whatsoever. They are almost predator-free animals, except for a couple of sightings of hawks and mockingbirds preying unusually on newly-hatched tortoises. These realities and the fact that there are several types of island habitats due to the islands’ geological makeup have resulted in an evolutionary showcase of various types of adaptations including carapaces, behavioral differences, shapes, abilities, etc. Visiting the islands that have visitor sites with access to giant tortoises, is quite a revealing way of seeing all these unique adaptations.

The Ultimate Reptilian Vegetarian

Galapagos Giant Tortoise In Its Natural Habitat.
Slow Yet Persistent, There Was No Fence Stopping Their March Into Their Original Feeding Grounds.

If one feature can show how incredible these reptiles are, it must be the way they feed. The way they feed is one incredible feature of reptiles. They are strict vegetarians with a slow metabolism, and toothless!. This implies they virtually eat all vegetable material and are hardly selective. That makes them constant grazers, although they do take breaks from time to time.

When feeding, their sharp mouth edges (aka. lips) aptly cut vegetation, and then without chewing, it goes down from their mouths into their stomachs. Here, and quite slowly, the digestive process starts. Their droppings clearly show the different plants eaten at a given time. This is evidence that their slow metabolism does work! In fact, it takes about a week to fully process their food before it becomes an oval-shaped dropping.

“The giant tortoises of the Galápagos Islands are famous for their impressive size (some weigh over 500 pounds) and their long life spans (averaging more than 100 years). They also played a pivotal role in inspiring the English naturalist Charles Darwin to develop his groundbreaking theory of evolution and natural selection after an eye-opening visit to the Galápagos in 1835.” History.com

Galapagos tortoises only eat vegetables like cactus, vines, grasses, fruits, and other vegetation. Tortoises are able to go without eating or drinking for up to one year.

Galapagos Tortoises are part of the Galapagos Big15 iconic species

“It’s quite simple: The more Galapagos iconic species you see on the  Islands, the more rewarding and memorable your experience will be!”

“Did you know? Today the 3,000 to 5,000 tortoises that live on Volcano Alcedo on Isabela Island are the largest group of giant tortoises in the Galápagos.” By NationalGeographic

Can You Say Ectothermic? Try it!

Giant tortoises are ectothermic reptiles (this means the outside temperature regulates their own, as well as their metabolism), and therefore as temperature decreases so does their activity and overall physical readiness.  In order to be able to see these individuals when they are most active, as opposed to hidden in the bushes or inactive, it makes perfect sense to be able to arrive early to the tortoise wild area.

Since individuals will be active and not hidden in bushes or inactive, it makes total sense to arrive early to any tortoise’s wild area.

The earlier we get to the highlands, the more active the tortoises will be.  Any time past mid-afternoon reduces the chances of seeing tortoises freely roving or active. Here’s why seeing reptiles too late in the day, results in observing quite inactive individuals. In reptiles, all their activity and metabolism is regulated by the current external (outdoor) temperature. Bizarre!

Meet the Aldabra Tortoise. Is this in Galapagos?

Galapagos Giant Tortoise Species: Aldabra
The Aldabra Giant Tortoise Is One Of The Species That Inhabit The Galapagos Islands. It Can Also Be Found In Other Places Around The World. Photo By: Jim, The Photographer Via Flickr

The Galapagos Islands are located about 1,000 km off the coast of western South America in the Pacific Ocean, while another far-out archipelago off the coast of eastern Africa (parallel to Tanzania and Kenya) and northeast of Madagascar is home to many islands and atolls. This is the Seychelles Archipelago. It was colonized much earlier than the Galapagos, and over the years it received direct human impact with the introduction of many species and the extinction of many native and endemic species. Many islands in Seychelles had giant tortoises in the past, but now only one remote atoll holds a natural population of tortoises: Aldabra Island.

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Exploring the Galapagos Islands provides you with several options to see giant tortoises in the wild and also under semi-natural conditions. The big difference is that, opposite from Seychelles, in Galapagos, you can still see giant tortoises in various islands of the archipelago, and also see the efforts for the protection of these equatorial chelonians.

Learn more about our Galapagos itineraries up to 15 days

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Blog Reviewed by: Francisco Dousdebés
Image Credits: Francisco Dousdebés, Wikipedia

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Updated:March 5, 2024

Published:September 22, 2016