In 1835, Charles Darwin arrived in the Galapagos Islands on the HMS Beagle. It was the ship’s second voyage and he was eager to take rock specimens home for study. But what he found instead piqued his curiosity: Tortoises from different islands, he wrote, “differ not only in size, but in other characters.” Some had long necks, some short. Some had shells shaped like domes, some were curved at the edges like saddles. The observation laid the foundation for his pivotal theory of evolution.
It also drew new attention to the Galapagos tortoise, named 300 years earlier by the Spanish when they landed here and first saw this gigantic creature. They could not yet know that these wise-looking animals live to be well over 100 years old and can weigh up to 900 pounds. One female, named Harriet, is said to have been brought to England, then Australia, by Darwin; remarkably, she died in 2006 at the Australia Zoo, at the ripe old age of 175.
When Spaniards landed on the Galapagos, there were about 250,000 tortoises on the islands, but that number shrank to just 3,000 by the 1970s. Predation by humans and other non-native animals that have been introduced to the islands—including goats, pigs and egg-eating rats—is responsible for the decline. Ten of the original fifteen species that Darwin observed survive. An eleventh was long represented by a lone survivor, named Lonesome George, until his death in 2012. Today, about 19,000 turtles roam the islands, thanks to conservation and breeding efforts.
One of the islands’ breeding centers is located on Isabela Island, and your Discovery Tours small group will have a chance to visit and learn about its successes and challenges. The center exists largely thanks to the formation of the Galapagos National Park in 1959, which alerted the government to the near-extinction of the remaining tortoise species. Breed-and-release programs started in 1965 and have done well to bring the population back. Goat eradication has also been effective, with 41,000 being removed from the islands over a period of a decade.
Conservation efforts are about more than bringing species back from near-extinction. Tortoises are what naturalists call a “keystone species” in that they play a critical role in maintaining entire ecosystems. To the casual observer, it might look like they merely roam around an island without having much impact on their environment. But their slow lumber helps to spread plant seeds and thin the underbrush so that sunlight can bring other plant life to germinate. The tortoise also frequently has company: small birds such as the flycatcher. The winged freeloader finds a perch atop the shell and, as their host tramples over brush, they catch the insects that are released into the air. The unassuming tortoise, then, helps flora thrive, supports birdlife, and keeps the insect population in check.
You can meet the magnificent, unsung Galapagos tortoise during our new Galapagos, Ecuador, Andes & Amazon trip.