Look at the Galapagos Tortoise
In 1831 Charles Darwin, the now renowned scientist, set off on a voyage that would change the world in many ways. While he had no real ambitions of changing the world, he did come across the Galapagos tortoise, now considered to be the largest and longest-living tortoise in the known world. The creature is native to nine of the islands in the archipelago, and you might be interested to know that the islands were specifically named after the tortoises. The carapace, or shell of the tortoises reminded the Spanish explores of the Galapago saddle, and the name simply stuck! Today we can learn all about these amazing creatures and even buy educational toys that remind us of them.
All About the Tortoises
On the Galapagos Islands, there was a time when fourteen different subspecies of tortoise could be found, though today it is believed that there are only eleven as three have gone extinct. The Chelonoidis nigra is among these, and it is widely thought that the species was hunted to extinction just one year after Charles Darwin set foot on the island.
Fun Fact: Did you know that the adult species of Galapagos tortoise can weigh more than 600 pounds, and measure up to four feet long? That’s right, a tortoise nearly as long as a human being! To make it even more interesting, the tortoises can live for over one hundred years, and many believe that some of the tortoises from Darwin’s original visit may still be alive!
The Galapagos tortoises have larger shells than most turtles and tortoises, and its hardness protects it from the elements as well as predators. Tortoises are unusual as they do not have a specific mating season; on the Galapagos Islands, it’s all year round, and they continue to surprise scientists by having a diet that includes Hippomane mancinella, a plant that is toxic to nearly every other creature, including those on the island chain.
The food items that tortoises eat were responsible for showing Darwin the great amount of diversity to be found in the Galapagos vegetation, making them one of the most important discoveries on the islands. In a way, the tortoises shaped the way that we see the Galapagos, and for that reason, the tortoise is the symbol of the Charles Darwin Research Station.
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Lonesome George - The Last of His Kind
We mentioned that a few of the Galapagos tortoises are extinct, and one of the most recent examples is the Pinta Island tortoise. The last member of this subspecies, known as Lonesome George, passed away in 2012. He was thought to have been born around 1910, making him around a hundred years old when he died. His death means that the Pinta Island tortoises are gone completely, which serves as an important remind of how fragile the Galapagos Islands can be. A once thriving race of tortoises wiped out at the hand of man shows us that we have a significant responsibility to the environment and every action we take can have a severe impact.
Seeing Tortoises in the Wild
Visitors to the Galapagos Islands often have one question on their minds: where can they see some of the famous Galapagos tortoises? It’s not a bad question, and right now, there are 15,000 to 20,000 of them still alive in the island chain. Before you visit, know that the Galapagos were declared a national park back in 1959, meaning the tortoises are a protected species and you will have to be very respectful of the island. If you really want to see them, you might start with Santa Cruz island where there are a wide variety of farms in the highlands, all home to free ranging tortoises that are monitored, but free to move as they please. The tortoises will stick to the farms for most of their lives – they have the ability to go wherever they wish, but they are kept happy and healthy at the farms, much to the relief of the workers there. For an even more interesting experience, consider heading to the El Chato reserve, a visitor site on Santa Cruz Island that will allow you to hike some of the most amazing trails to see the turtles on your own. Just be careful – the trails are often overgrown, and you may want to hire a guide.
If you aren’t stopping by Santa Cruz island, you might still have the opportunity to see Manzanillo and Primicias, both of which have their own highlands full of Galapagos tortoises.
The Galapagos tortoises, like many of the other animals in our collections (like dinosaurs and sea animals) are some of the most and amazing in nature. In many cases, they represent utter resilience in the face of humanity’s destructive tendencies. Still, they remain a stark reminder that we must be careful, as the creatures at the top of nature’s self-imposed food chain, to preserve our environment for future generations to come. It is up to us to determine whether this species goes the route of the dinosaur and becomes extinct, or follows the path of the shark and is able to thrive for another million years.