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Tortoises in the Galapagos Islands

The Galapagos tortoises are among the biggest in the world. They are capable of reaching lengths of over 5 ft and weights of 500 lb. These giant chelonians have lengthy lifespans, with the longest living specimen reaching an age of 175 years. In all, there are 12 living species. 

These tortoises are endemic to the Galapagos archipelago (Galapagos means tortoise in Spanish). These islands are home to about 15,000. The wild population used to be 250,000 a few centuries ago. 

Many of the species are endangered or critically endangered. Historical exploitation, habitat destruction, and the introduction of nonnative mammals have led to the endangered nature of these tortoises.  Thanks to recent conservation efforts, the wild populations of several species have been on the increase. Regardless of recent efforts, it will be a while until these chelonians are once more abundant in the wild. 

Tortoises of Galapagos Islands

1. Volcán Wolf Giant Tortoise

Cape Berkley giant Tortoise (Chelonoidis becki) by Daniela Salazar
Cape Berkley giant Tortoise (Chelonoidis becki) by Daniela Salazar
  • Family: Testudinidae
  • Scientific Name: Chelonoidis becki
  • English Common Names: Wolf Volcano giant tortoise, Wolf giant tortoise, Beck’s giant tortoise, Cape Berkeley giant tortoise
  • Spanish Common Names: tortuga gigante del Volcán Wolf, Galápago del Volcán Wolf
  • Male Adult Size: 123.5 cm
  • Female Adult Size: 70.9 cm
  • Generation Length: 60 years

C. becki is a species of the Galapagos tortoises and the only species endemic to the regions around the Wolf volcano located in northern Isabela Island. This volcano gives them their common names (ex. Wolf Volcano tortoise). They are quite common in areas around the Wolf Volcano. Their geographic range is about 263 sq. km in size.

Males of these species reach carapace lengths of 123.5 cm who;e females reach lengths of 70.9 cm. As you can see the males are much larger than the females. These turtles are easily identified by their saddleback carapace shape.

C. becki is a diurnal reptile and can be found in dry grasslands, dry shrublands, humid grasslands, montane forests, and deciduous forests. C. becki is terrestrial and herbivorous. Its diet consists of shrubs and hard grasses.

C. becki holds a conservation status of Vulnerable on the IUCN Red List ver. 3.1. There are an estimated 10,000 to 12,000 individuals although this number is imprecise. Threats to the wild population include the introduction of nonnative mammals such as rodents (including rats), cats, dogs, pigs, and goats.

Additionally, the Wolf Volcano is active and that poses a risk to the wild population. The population is mostly restricted to the eastern and southern flanks of Wolf Volcano. Occasional poaching is another threat the wild population faces.

2. Pinzón Island Giant Tortoise

Pinzón Island Giant Tortoise (Chelonoidis duncanensis)
Pinzón Island Giant Tortoise (Chelonoidis duncanensis) – source
  • Family: Testudinidae
  • Scientific Name: Chelonoidis duncanensis
  • English Common Names: Pinzón Island giant tortoise, Duncan Island giant tortoise, Pinzón giant tortoise
  • Spanish Common Names: tortuga gigante de Pinzón, Galápago de Pinzón
  • Male Adult Size: 85.5 cm
  • Female Adult Size: 79.5 cm
  • Generation Length: 60 years

Formerly considered a subspecies of C. niger, C. duncanensisis now considered a separate species. This is the only giant tortoise species endemic to Pinzon Island. Pinzón Island is also known as Duncan Island and can be located in the Galapagos Islands. Their geographic range is estimated to be 12 sq. km.

Male Pinzon giants reach lengths of 85.5 cm while females reach lengths of 79.5 cm. As you can see the males are slightly larger than the females. These tortoises are easily identifiable by their saddleback carapace and long necks.

C. duncanensis is a diurnal reptile, meaning they are most active during the day. As with other tortoises, C. duncanensis are terrestrial. These reptiles are most active during the morning and late afternoons as the temperatures are suitable for foraging. During the hot part of the day (late mornings and afternoon), the tortoise keeps itself by being in the shade of wallowing in mud. These turtles are known to feed on fungi, leaf litter, lichens, moss, grass, epiphytes, forbs, herbs, shrubs, and cacti.

Females lay two to eight eggs which incubate for about 85 to 240 days. While fully grown C. duncanensis have no predators, hawks prey on the hatchlings.

C. duncanensis holds a conservation status of Vulnerable on the IUCN Red List ver. 3.1. There are an estimated 850 specimens in the wild. The decline of the wild population is due to over-exploitation for food by sailors prior to the 20th century.

In the 20th century, the biggest threat to the wild population was the collection of specimens for museums. In recent times, predation of hatchlings by black rats (an invasive species) led to a decline in their numbers. Black rats were eradicated from this species habitat in 2012. This has helped the recovery of the species. Currently, the wild population is on the rise.

3. Alcedo Giant Tortoise

Alcedo Volcano Giant Tortoise (Chelonoidis vandenburghi)
Alcedo Volcano Giant Tortoise (Chelonoidis vandenburghi) – source
  • Family: Testudinidae
  • Scientific Name: Chelonoidis vandenburghi
  • English Common Names: Volcán Alcedo giant tortoise, Alcedo giant tortoise
  • Spanish Common Names: tortuga gigante de Alcedo, Galápago de Alcedo
  • Male Adult Size: 129 cm
  • Female Adult Size: 89.7 cm
  • Generation Length: 60 years
  • Lifespan: 100 years +

C. vandenburghi is endemic to the areas around the Alcedo Volcano located on central Isabela Island. This tortoise has a domed carapace.

Like other Galapagos tortoises, the C. vandenburghi is diurnal and terrestrial. These tortoises spend their days feeding and resting. They feed on fruits, lichens, foliage from trees, forbs, sedges, shrubs, and grasses. These chelonians obtain water from rain pools as well as their diets.

Gravid females nest beginning from May to June which is the end of the rainy season. Females lay anywhere between 5 to 27 eggs.

Unlike most Galapagos tortoise species, C. vandenburghi was not overexploited. This is mostly down to the inaccessibility of the geographic range. C. vandenburghi provides a risk to the wild population although the last major volcanic eruption was 100,000 years ago.

This eruption may have led to the low genetic diversity among the wild population. However invasive species such as rats, goats, and donkeys have had a negative impact on wild populations with feral donkeys known to trample upon unhatched eggs.

It is estimated that the wild population has seen a population decline of about 83% over the last three generations (180 years). This has led to the species having a conservation status of Vulnerable on the IUCN Red List ver. 3.1

4. San Cristóbal Giant Tortoise

San Cristóbal Giant Tortoise (Chelonoidis chathamensis) by Juan Arias Bermeo
San Cristóbal Giant Tortoise (Chelonoidis chathamensis) by Juan Arias Bermeo
  • Family: Testudinidae
  • Scientific Name: Chelonoidis chathamensis
  • English Common Names: San Cristóbal giant tortoise, Chatham Island giant tortoise
  • Spanish Common Names: tortuga gigante de San Cristóbal, Galápago de San Cristóbal
  • Male Adult Size: 98.3 cm
  • Female Adult Size: 98.3 cm
  • Generation Length: 60 years
  • Lifespan: 100 years +

This species can be found on the San Cristobal Island and is the only Galapagos tortoise that occurs on this island. The species is moderately saddlebacked. Males are usually bigger than females but not by much. Males can reach lengths of 98.3 cm, while females can reach lengths of 89.7 cm.

These turtles are land turtles as with other tortoises. They can be found in deciduous forests, dry grasslands, and dry shrublands of the San Cristobal Island. These tortoises are diurnal and as such are active during the day.

They generally feed during the mornings and late afternoons as the afternoons can get very hot. During the afternoons. These tortoises seek shade. The species get their water from their diet and/or rain pools. C. chathamensis feeds on shrubs and grasses.

C. chathamensis is listed as Endangered on the IUCN Red List ver. 3.1. This is because the species have observed a population decline of about 88% in the last three generations (180 years). In the early  1970s, the wild population saw a decline of 24,000 individuals to just 700 to 500 individuals.

Historically threats to the wild population include overexploitation by sailors and settlers. The introduction of nonnative species such as rats, donkeys, goats, dogs, and pigs has also contributed to the endangered status of the species.

The wild population is however on the rise. This is due to captive breeding and reintroduction into the wild by the Galapagos National Park. In 2016, the estimated wild population of the species was 6,700.

5. Darwin Volcano Giant Tortoise

Darwin Volcano Giant Tortoise (Chelonoidis microphyes) by Kurt Andreas
Darwin Volcano Giant Tortoise (Chelonoidis microphyes) by Kurt Andreas
  • Family: Testudinidae
  • Scientific Name: Chelonoidis microphyes
  • English Common Names: Tagus Cove giant tortoise, Volcán Darwin tortoise, Darwin Volcano giant tortoise
  • Spanish Common Names: tortuga gigante del Volcán Darwin, Galápago del Volcán Darwin
  • Male Adult Size: 135 cm
  • Female Adult Size: 86 cm
  • Generation Length: 60 years
  • Lifespan: 100 years +

C. microphyes is so-called because the species is endemic to the slopes of the Darwin Volcano located north of Isabela Island. These are the only giant tortoise species found here. The males of the species are much larger than the females. Males adults generally reach a length of 135 cm while females reach a length of 86 cm. 

The diurnal C. microphyes can be found in dry grasslands, deciduous forests, and evergreen forests. The species is generally active in the morning and evening. During the afternoons, the species escape the hot sun by remaining in the shade. The species is found wallowing in mud pools after rains.

They sleep under shrubs. During the dry season, the species diet mainly consists of cacti. However, in the rainy season, the species feed on lichens, berries, foliage, and grasses.

The species is listed as endangered in the IUCN Red List. This is down to a wild population decline of almost 94% in the last 180 years (past three generations). There are only about 500 to 1000 remaining in the wild. The wild population may be increasing in number but this is not known.

Historic threat to the population has included the collection of individuals for oil and food by whalers and sailors. The introduction of nonnative species such as rats, pigs, goats, cats, and dogs has also led to a sharp decline in wild populations. The eruption of the Darwin Volcano has also negatively impacted the wild population of the species.

6. Santiago Giant Tortoise

Santiago Giant Tortoise (Chelonoidis darwini) by Frank A
Santiago Giant Tortoise (Chelonoidis darwini) by Frank A
  • Family: Testudinidae
  • Scientific Name: Chelonoidis darwini
  • English Common Names: James Island giant tortoise, San Salvador Giant Tortoise
  • Spanish Common Names: galápago de Darwin, tortuga gigante de Santiago, Galápago de Santiago
  • Male Adult Size: 125.6 cm
  • Female Adult Size: 82.1 cm
  • Generation Length: 60 years
  • Lifespan: 100 years +

The Santiago giant tortoise is a critically endangered species facing extinction. The wild population numbers are however increasing. C. darwini is listed as Critically Endangered on the IUCN Red List because of the 95% decline of the wild population over the past three generations (past 180 years). 

Historically the decline has been down to overexploitation by sailors especially whalers for oil and food from 1788 to 1868. Other reasons for the decline include the introduction of invasive species such as rats, donkeys, pigs, and goats. These mammals prey on hatchlings and eggs while others such as donkeys and goats destroy the species native habitat.  

Currently, there are about 1,700 specimens in the wild. This number has been on a steady increase because of captive breeding and reintroduction into the wild by the Galapagos National Park. Also, the invasive nonnative mammals have been eradicated from the natural habitats of the tortoise. 

C. darwini grows to lengths of 125.6 cm for males, and 82.1 cm for females. As you can tell, the males are much larger than the females. The carapace of the species is shaped between domed and saddlebacked. 

C. darwini is a diurnal tortoise that feeds on grasses, scrubs, and cacti. They also drink from rain pools during the rainy season and can go half a year without any water. 

7. Don Fausto’s Giant Tortoise

Eastern Santa Cruz giant Tortoise (Chelonoidis donfaustoi) by Juan Arias Bermeo
Eastern Santa Cruz giant Tortoise (Chelonoidis donfaustoi) by Juan Arias Bermeo
  • Family: Testudinidae
  • Scientific Name: Chelonoidis donfaustoi
  • English Common Names: Eastern Santa Cruz giant tortoise, Don Fausto’s giant tortoise
  • Spanish Common Names: tortuga gigante del este de Santa Cruz, Galápago de Don Fausto
  • Male Adult Size: 117.5 cm
  • Female Adult Size: 112.8 cm
  • Generation Length: 60 years
  • Lifespan: 100 years +

The eastern Santa Cruz giant tortoise is so-called as the species is endemic to the east of Santa Cruz Island, specifically Cerro Fatal. The geographic range of the tortoise is estimated to be 80 sq. km.

Male eastern Santa Cruz giants grow to lengths of 117.5 cm. Females grow to a length of 112.8 cm. As you can see there is little difference between the male and female lengths. The carapace of the species is strongly domed.

C. donfaustoi is a diurnal species and as such is active during the day. During the day, C. donfaustoi feed on lichens, flowers, cacti, shrubs, grasses, and herbs. C. donfaustoi is known to feed on fruits from nonnative plants such as guava, blackberry, and passion fruit.

While most of the young populace can be found in the warmer lowland regions of the island. Adults can migrate from the warmer lowlands to colder highland regions where there is abundant forage. Members of the species are nomadic and can cover over 5 km.

Nearly 97% of the wild population has vanished over the past three generations (180 years). Before human impact, there were an estimated 13,500 individuals. However, today only about 550 individuals are around. Because of the drastic decline in the population of the species, C. donfaustoi is classified as Critically Endangered on the IUCN Red List.

Threats to the species have included overcollection of individuals for food and oil by settlers, whalers, and sailors, loss of habitat, degradation of habitat, and the introduction of nonnative invasive species such as fire ants, rodents, dogs, pigs, and goats.

Some of these invasive species feed on the eggs of the eastern Santa Cruz tortoise while other invasive species destroy the habitat of the tortoise. The expansion of agricultural fields and pastureland into natural habitats has also negatively impacted the wild populations.

8. Sierra Negra Giant Tortoise

Sierra Negra Giant Tortoise (Chelonoidis guntheri) by Patrick Cox
Sierra Negra Giant Tortoise (Chelonoidis guntheri) by Patrick Cox
  • Family: Testudinidae
  • Scientific Name: Chelonoidis guntheri
  • English Common Names: Günther’s giant tortoise, Sierra Negra giant tortoise
  • Spanish Common Names: tortuga gigante de Sierra Negra, Galápago de Sierra Negra
  • Male Adult Size: 120.5 cm
  • Female Adult Size: 92.3 cm
  • Generation Length: 60 years
  • Lifespan: 100 years +

C. guntheri can be found around the Sierra Negra Volcano which also gives the species their common name. They are the only giant tortoises that can be found in this area. The species has a geographic range of 817 sq. km. 

The males can grow to be 120.5 cm in length. The females on the other hand can reach a length of 92.8 cm. The males are significantly larger than the females. The carapaces of specimens can be flattened (also called aplastadas) or domed. When flattened, C. guntheri has the flattest carapace of the Galapagos tortoises. Domed individuals of C. guntheri are indistinguishable from C. vicina. The two can only be distinguished through the use of genetic information. 

C. guntheri is a diurnal tortoise that can be found in a variety of habitats. They can be found in evergreen forests, deciduous forests, dry grasslands, and even on agricultural lands. These chelonians are known to be grasses, herbs, shrubs, fruits, cacti, and lichen. The domed carapace specimens mostly feed on low-growing herbaceous plants while flattened carapace specimens mostly feed on shrubs. 

C. guntheri is a critically endangered species and is listed as such on the IUCN Red List. It is estimated that there has been a 99% population decline over the past three generations which is 180 years. Before human impact, there were an estimated 71,000 specimens. As of the 1970s, there are only 300 to 500 specimens in the 1970s. Today, there are about 400 to 7000 adult Sierra Negra giant tortoises. 

9. Española Giant Tortoise

Hood Island Giant Tortoise (Chelonoidis hoodensis)
Hood Island Giant Tortoise (Chelonoidis hoodensis) – source
  • Family: Testudinidae
  • Scientific Name: Chelonoidis hoodensis
  • English Common Names: Hood Island giant tortoise, Española giant tortoise
  • Spanish Common Names: tortuga gigante de Española, Galápago de Española
  • Male Adult Size: 85.5 cm
  • Female Adult Size: 76.9 cm
  • Generation Length: 60 years
  • Lifespan: 100 years +

C. hoodensis is a species endemic to Española Island. This gives the tortoise its common name. The chelonian has a saddleback carapace. Females can reach lengths of 76.9 cm while males can reach lengths of  85.5 cm. As you can see the females are smaller than the males.

The terrestrial and diurnal Española giant tortoise is known to be found in dry grasslands, dry shrublands, and deciduous forests of the Espanola island. The C. hoodensis is heat sensitive and tends to seek shade during hot afternoons. During the early mornings, and late afternoons, the species forage – feeding on fruits, flowers, grass, and cacti. The prickly pear cactus makes up a bulk of their diet.

C. hoodensis is critically endangered and is listed as a Critically Endangered species on the IUCN Red List. The population has seen a decline of 99% over the past 180 years. The wild population went from an estimated 2,400 individuals to just 14 adults in the 1960s.

These 14 individuals consisted of just 12 females and 2 males.  A third male called Diego was introduced from San Diego Zoo. The species were successfully captive-bred. Today there are about 860 individuals and the number is still on the rise.

10. Santa Cruz Giant Tortoise

Santa Cruz Giant Tortoise (Chelonoidis porteri) by Francisco J. Muñoz Nolasco
Santa Cruz Giant Tortoise (Chelonoidis porteri) by Francisco J. Muñoz Nolasco
  • Family: Testudinidae
  • Scientific Name: Chelonoidis porteri
  • English Common Names: Santa Cruz giant tortoise, Indefatigable Island giant tortoise, Western Santa Cruz giant tortoise
  • Spanish Common Names: tortuga gigante del oeste de Santa Cruz, Galápago de Santa Cruz
  • Male Adult Size: 115 cm
  • Female Adult Size: 96.5 cm
  • Generation Length: 60 years
  • Lifespan: 100 years +

The Santa Cruz giant tortoise is endemic to Santa Cruz Island which lends its name to the species’ common name. This tortoise is also known as the western Santa Cruz giant as it is endemic to western Santa Cruz Island. This is in contrast to the eastern Santa Cruz giant which is endemic to the east of Santa Cruz. 

C. porteri grows to lengths of 115 cm for males and 96.5 cm for females. The chelonian has a highly domed carapace. 

C. porteri is a terrestrial chelonian. Wild populations can be found in the deciduous and evergreen forests of its geographic range. Additionally, individuals can be found in introduced vegetation and agricultural lands within their natural habitat. They sleep in tall grass and prefer to rest in water holes.  They mostly feed on fruits., flowers, cacti, vines, lichen, moss, shrubs, sedges, forbs, herns. Grasses and the leaves of trees within their habitat.  They feed on fruits of invasive plants such as guava, passion fruit, and blackberry. 

Gravid females can lay 7 to 21 eggs with these eggs incubating for 110 to 250 days before hatchling.

Unsurprisingly, the species is listed as critically endangered on the IUCN Red List. The wild population has experienced a decline of about 90% in the past 180 years. Before human impact, the population is estimated to have had 35000 specimens. Currently, there are about 3400 specimens in the wild. 

Reasons for the drastic decline of the species include the overcollection of individuals for oil and food by settlers and sailors as well as the introduction of nonnative invasive species that destroy the natural habitat of the tortoise or feed on the eggs.  Currently, invasive species such as rats and pigs are a threat to the wild populations. 

The wild population is however on the rise due to efforts by the Galapagos National Park.  These efforts include captive breeding and reintroduction to the wild as well as the ongoing eradication of nonnative invasive species. 

11. Cerro Azul Giant Tortoise

Isabela Island Giant Tortoise (Chelonoidis vicina) by Juan Arias Bermeo
Isabela Island Giant Tortoise (Chelonoidis vicina) by Juan Arias Bermeo
  • Family: Testudinidae
  • Scientific Name: Chelonoidis vicina
  • English Common Names: Iguana Cove giant tortoise, Cerro Azul giant tortoise
  • Spanish Common Names: tortuga gigante de Cerro Azul, Galápago de Cerro Azul
  • Male Adult Size: 117.1 cm
  • Female Adult Size: 93 cm
  • Generation Length: 60 years
  • Lifespan: 100 years +

C. vicina is a tortoise that is endemic to areas around the Cerro Azul Volcano. This volcano also lends its name to the common name of the species. These tortoises can be found in some of the places where C. guntheri can also be found. Domed individuals of C. guntheri are indistinguishable from C. vicina. The two can only be distinguished through the use of genetic information.

Adult males generally reach lengths of 117 cm while adult females reach lengths of 93 cm. As you can see the males are larger than the females. The species have a dimed carapace.

C. vicina is terrestrial and can be found in dry grasslands, evergreen forests, and deciduous forests of their geographic range. These tortoises feed through the day and sleep through the night.

To beat the heat during the day, they generally only feed during the cooler parts of the day and wallow in mud or shade during the hotter parts of the day. These tortoises feed on grasses, cacti, leaves, lichens, berries, and fruits. They are fond of the berries of the manzanillo.

C. vicina has an Endangered status on the IUCN Red List. Currently, there are about 1800 to 2700 individuals. This number used to be about 18000 before human impact. Causes of the decline include overexploitation by sailors and settlers. The introduction of nonnative invasive species such as rats, goats, dogs, and pigs has also contributed to the decline of the wild population.

12. Fernandina Island Giant Tortoise

  • Family: Testudinidae
  • Scientific Name: Chelonoidis phantasticus
  • Common Names: Narborough Island giant tortoise, Fernandina Island Galápagos tortoise

So far only specimens of this species have been discovered. The first was discovered in 1906 and the second, a female, was discovered in 2019. Genetic testing concluded that the tortoise indeed belonged to the species C. phantasticus. There have been attempts to find other specimens of the species.

This giant tortoise has a saddleback carapace.  

C. phantasticus has a Critically Endangered conservation status as there is just one living individual.

There are no records to suggest that these tortoises were exploited by sailors including whalers.

Where are the Galapagos Islands and can I visit the place?

One of the best and easiest ways to see and interact with the Galapagos tortoise is to visit the Galapagos Islands. You will need to visit the Galapagos national park as it may be illegal to interact with the tortoise without supervision by a naturalist guide.

The Galapagos Islands are situated about 906 km or 563 miles west of Ecuador. They are considered to be part of Ecuador, politically.

Conclusion

The Galapagos tortoises are huge and are among the largest chelonians on Earth. These reptiles can reach weights of 500 pounds. Several species make up the Galapagos tortoise wild populations. These chelonians are native to the Galapagos Islands. Interestingly, Galapagos is a Spanish word for tortoises. The species is also known as giant tortoises due to their size.

While some species are extinct, most aren’t. Overall these chelonians may be endangered, but there is positive news. In recent times, their wild populations have been on a rise. This is due to conservation efforts by several organizations and groups, most significantly the Galapagos National Park.

If you have any questions or extra information, you can leave them in the comment section below.

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