Giant Tortoises of the Galápagos

It is said that Ecuador’s greatest treasure is the group of islands off its coast called the Galápagos. Discovered by accident when a Spanish ship making the Panama-Peru run was blown off course in 1535, this group of 13 large and many more small islands first became widely known in the 19th century when Charles Darwin based his groundbreaking book on the theory of evolution, “The Origin of Species”, on the flora and fauna of the Galápagos Islands.

Scientists have divided the Galápagos tortoise into 11 different species, some particular to only certain islands. The largest tortoises can weigh as much as 650 lbs. and have shells 4 feet long. The Galápagos tortoises are also extremely long-lived. Earlier this year, a Galápagos tortoise named “Harriet” died at Steve Irwin’s Australia Zoo at what was believed to be 175 years old. Charles Darwin collected Harriet and two other toprtoises on his 1835 scientific research voyage to the Galápagos Islands. Darwin estimated, according to the size of her shell, that she was about 5 years old.

In those days, the Galapagos Islands were a welcome stop for trading ships and commercial whalers who found them to be a safe harbor in a large and lonely expanse of ocean. They also served as a place to stock up on water and food, and the main source of meat on the island was the large population of giant tortoises. Stored below decks and on their backs to immobilize them, Galápagos tortoises could live for months without any food or water. This was a critical factor in the days before refrigeration when ocean voyages took weeks or months. Unfortunately, regular predation on the island tortoise population resulted in the total number of tortoises dropping from an estimated 250,000 down to the 15,000 or so found on the archipelago today.

Now protected and monitored by the Charles Darwin Foundation (formerly the Galapagos Conservancy) and the Galapagos National Park Service, these magnificent creatures continue to help us understand and appreciate the complex and interlinked world we all share!