Reptiles of the Galapagos Islands are of wildly varying renown, mostly because the Galapagos Giant Tortoise is so famous. Remember all the media chatter when Lonesome George died? Meanwhile, the poor little gecko gets practically no airplay. There are plenty of species and subspecies of reptiles of the Galapagos islands, because the climate (usually hot and dry) is perfectly suited for them. As we hopefully know, reptiles are cold-blooded and rely on the sun to warm them up. Reptiles of the Galapagos are no different; what does make them different, however, is the number of species that are endemic to the islands. Even the humble little gecko: of the nine gecko species on the Galapagos, six are endemic (meaning, found nowhere else). And poor old Lonesome George, of course, was the last surviving Pinta Island tortoise, a subspecies of the Galapagos Giant Tortoise.
My family and I took an extended Christmas tour of the Galapagos Islands and spent every day snorkeling in the water and hiking around on land. Tour groups are kept small and highly regulated by the Ecuadorian government to ensure that the Galapagos don’t become overrun with tourists; our small ships’ charted path took us to the southern Galapagos islands of Santa Cruz, Isabela, Floreana and Espanola, with San Cristobal being our arrival and departure island. We saw nearly every reptile of the Galapagos islands — I didn’t see any snakes while there — and these were my five favorites.
Galapagos Giant Tortoise: is there any reptile more iconic to the Galapagos Islands than the Galapagos Tortoise? (Answer: no.) These reptiles are, as their name indicates, really huge. Their standing height is around 4 feet tall. People used to sit on them, although now we know how truly terrible it is for them — just because their shells are thick and hard doesn’t mean they can withstand the weight of an adult human without health repercussions. The Galapagos Giant Tortoise has the longest lifespan of any vertebrate (that is, any animal species with a backbone) and many live for a century or more. They are currently an endangered species, due to centuries of hunting and more recent problems with invasive, introduced species like cats and dogs that eat their eggs. The Charles Darwin Research Station on Santa Cruz Island in the Galapagos has a well-designed, progressive series of outdoor coops and cages to protect eggs and babies as they grow. This is helping, but currently, there are only around 15,000 Galapagos Giant Tortoises remaining. On my family’s trip to the Galapagos, we stopped on Santa Cruz Island and looked at the tortoise area in the Charles Darwin Research Station. The adult tortoises lumber around, slowly as one would expect, and didn’t seem to consider walking around us as we stood or crouched near them; instead, it was our job to scramble out of the way when they approached. Getting knocked over and trodden upon by a Galapagos Giant tortoise would probably be a memorable experience, but it’s not recommended by the employees of the Charles Darwin Research Station, or by the Ecuadorian government, or, frankly, by anyone.
Galapagos Land Iguana: Most tourists embarking on a trip around the Galapagos Islands get started in Guayaquil, the main port town in Ecuador. Therefore, the first land iguanas most of us see on the trip are in Guayaquil (assuming a day to adjust to the time zone before the real fun starts), in Parque Seminario. Locals call it Parque de Las Iguanas because large land iguanas spend their lives wadding around the park eating scraps like so many land bound pigeons. But, on the Galapagos Islands, the Galapagos land iguanas are different than those greenish critters. The Galapagos subspecies is yellow (more sepia, a brownish yellow), with a rounder body and a serious “don’t mess with me” facial expression. Seeing these reptiles, which grow to over three feet long, is an impressive treat for nature enthusiasts. It’s common to see them on Santa Cruz, Isabela and Fernandina (where my family’s boat took us) and North Seymour and Baltra islands. We find them by following their tracks on dust or dirt pathways; there’s no mistaking the footprints with the dragging tail marks in between. It’s fun to track them down. Most animals, including reptiles of the Galapagos Islands, are very blasé about people approaching them, and Galapagos land iguanas are no exception. Just be respectful and keep a little distance, they’re faster than they look. Now, there is a pink iguana type also endemic to the Galapagos, but we didn’t see any; they’re only on the northern tip of Isabela Island and we stayed central and southernly there.
Marine Iguana: There is something otherworldly and almost prehistoric about marine iguanas. Most of us are used to seeing reptiles sunbathing and laying languorously on branches (even just under hot lamps in pet stores or zoos), but these guys are natural swimmers and travelers to the Galapagos Islands can expect to see them paddling around the shoreline and around coral reefs. Reptiles as a genus are already ancient creatures reminiscent of dinosaurs: seeing marine iguanas in their element is akin to coming across a plesiosaur, the Mesozoic Era come to life. Of course, exploring the Galapagos Islands in general feels something like a dip into “the land before time,” but the marine iguanas, with their flattened tails, snub noses and black scaly skin really bring that sensation home. They’re also all over the Galapagos Islands and it’s hard NOT to see them. What’s especially fun (and somewhat startling) is snorkeling close to shore and having one or two of them churn their way past you, eating seaweed and not minding our splashing, oohing and aching. Marine iguanas don’t live in the water (they need to sunbathe to warm up) but rather live on land and dive in to graze on different types of seaweed. Unlike the Galapagos tortoise and land iguana, the marine iguana is not endangered in the Galapagos. These are pretty reptiles, as far as iguanas go. The babies are all black, and as they mature they have red, grey, black mix-and-match colors. On Espanola Island, there is even a subspecies dubbed Christmas Iguanas that are a colorful green and red.
Galapagos Lava Lizard: Look fast, these little guys are a lot quicker to dash away than are their iguana and tortoise cousins. This isn’t to say they’re as skittish as the lizards we have in the USA (our Southern California backyard especially), though; like all Galapagos animals, these are relatively unafraid of people. There are six types of lava lizards endemic to the Galapagos islands, with some distinct subspecies residing only on different islands. The San Cristobal lava lizard is considered a different subspecies than the Espanola lava lizard, for example. Herpetologists believe that all six evolved from the same ancestral species. Lava lizards are usually around six inches long, and they are absolutely not endangered. In fact, lava lizards re the most populous, common reptile of the Galapagos islands. Like marine iguanas, lava lizards come in a few different colors; some are striped with yellow and black, some are yellow and grey, and some are a pretty copper color with little spots. We see lots of them on the Galapagos, especially if they’re what we’re looking for (they can change their colors like chameleons, and are handy at crouching near similarly colored rocks). If we see a lava lizard with a red patch on their throats, we’re looking at a female lizard. The males, though, do something cute; they’re territorial and when threatened by another male on their “turf,” they do this funny up and down dance like push-ups that is meant to look threatening. We saw this once on our trip and agreed that, to us non-lizards at least, it was not actually very threatening.
Galapagos Green Sea Turtle: Green sea turtles as a whole are endemic to the Pacific Ocean, and we see them in the ocean near all the coastal countries there. Galapagos green turtles migrate but always come back to the Galapagos to lay their eggs. The Galapagos green sea turtle is the only green sea turtle that lives and nests in the Galapagos islands, and is considered a distinct subspecies because of this, their smaller size, and their darker, more sloped shell. These sea turtles are, like all sea turtles, an endangered species. The usual suspects (poachers, invasive species like feral cats, dogs, and pigs) are to blame but the Ecuadorean government has made committed movements to help protect Galapagos green sea turtles. We saw a few Galapagos green turtles swimming in murky bay water…we were in Zodiacs rather than snorkeling, though, and so our photos leave a lot to the imagination. The turtles we saw were slowly swimming around and under our Zodiacs, as unfazed by human presence as any other reptile of the Galapagos islands. Fun fact, even though these are scientifically green sea turtles, the Galapagos green sea turtle actually varies from dark olive-brown to black.
Other reptiles of the Galapagos Islands include geckos and Galapagos snakes. While we didn’t see (or, honestly, seek out) any geckos or snakes on our trip, it’s a guarantee that anyone traveling to the Galapagos Islands for a ecologically sensitive experience will see tortoises and iguanas without much effort. The Galapagos lava lizards are everywhere too, albeit smaller so harder to just stumble upon. And, snorkelers and tourists to take Zodiacs to the murkier inlet waters around the islands will probably see Galapagos green sea turtles.
Observing these reptiles in their natural environment, simply grazing, sunning themselves and moseying along, is a joy. Without the Endangered Species Act and the work of the Ecuadorian government, tortoises and the sea turtles may well have been extinct by now. What a distinct pleasure, what a thrill, it is then, to be able to appreciate the reptiles of the Galapagos islands living their lives as they were meant to be. May the travel lovers of future generations also be able to experience these animals in the wild.