Reptiles

Andrew Shansby

July 12, 2004

Lava Lizards

These little creatures -- about six inches and smaller in length -- are the ubiquitous terrestrial reptiles of the Galápagos Islands. A lava lizard even greeted us on the landing strip of the Baltra Airport! On the island of Bartolome, we saw the sexual dichotomy of the lizards. Males have black marks in the form of designs on their backs and a small red mark on the bottom of their heads. Females also have black marks over a greyish-tan skin, but not in a design. Underneath their heads, the females have a large bright red spot.

At Punta Espinoza on Fernandina, lava lizards of all sizes were abound. They scamper very quickly and then suddenly stop, and freeze. On the head of a sleeping sea lion there was a lava lizard resting! There were also lava lizards on Puerto Egas, and at the Darwin Research Center on Santa Cruz. In the tortoise area, two lava lizards were running around, one following the other. Finally, on Española Island were the largest lava lizards of the Galápagos. The biggest were about two inches larger than any lizard we had seen previously.

While the lava lizards were most often observed on the lava, they were found on all surfaces: sand, coral, sediment, etc.

Land Iguanas

Beautiful large yellow iguanas were found basking in the shade on the island of Isabela. At over two feet long, this fat creature seemed quite lazy, barely taking note of the arrival of our group. To retain heat at night, the iguanas couple up and go into a hole in the ground that they had made. We saw the openings of several of these holes on the sides of the walking path. They are essentially burrows that are formed in dirt mounds.

Further along on the hike on Isabela, we came upon a male land iguana who was courting a female. He made a display, craning his neck up and bobbing his head up and down, to the receptive female. She extended her neck so that she is basically looking up, and retains this position. This exchange went on for several minutes, but mating did not occur, most likely because of our presence.

We did not encounter land iguanas again in the wild, although there was a land iguana on display in the Charles Darwin Research Station. Of a bright yellow color, the iguana sat by a cactus tree, and walked slowly around a little bit.

Snakes

A wonderful surprise this trip was the sighting of a snake. On our walks we had seen evidence of a snake, finding snake skin at two locations. Luckily, on our walk on Rábida Island, we found a snake in a small space between to large rocks. The small snake was resting in the shade, and did not escape even though all of us in the group were trying to look at it and take pictures of it. We were excited to see an animal that is not commonly seen on tours.

Marine Iguanas

These rather large black reptiles are quite funny to look at. They have huge claws, live in large groups and crawl all over each other, and sneeze out salt all day. In the morning, the iguanas face sideways so that the sun rays will warm up their skin. As the morning progresses, they will face toward the sun so they will absorb less sunlight. Later, when it gets unbearably hot, the iguanas will go out to eat — that is they will swim out in the ocean, looking for algae. Smaller iguanas will simply stay on the intertidal zone and eat the algae that comes up to the shore. Because they take in so much salt water, the marine iguanas end up sneezing excess salt water through their noses. This results in their noses becoming white and crusty — until they go for a swim again.

The marine iguanas are so common that they were found on almost each coast throughout the Galápagos. On the island of Bartolomé, we found the first one, and I cannot think of a day that passed without seeing these creatures. Almost always quite close to the water, the next time we saw them they were in a group on the Marieia Islets. They were on the sides of the rocks, some spaced several meters apart, other just laying on top of one another.

On Isabela we saw some huge marine iguanas. They were hanging out on some lava rocks.

At Punta Espinoza on Fernandina, there were an enormous number of iguanas in an area on lava rocks near the coast. When we arrived at around 8 AM, some were starting to head out to the ocean. By 11 AM, most of the iguanas had left the area on the rocks, but the several that remained were facing a direction perpendicular to that which they faced before. They must have been getting hot, because in changing their direction, they would get less heat from the sun.

In Puerto Egas, we saw a male marine iguana swimming in from the sea. Large waves swept over the iguana, but he stayed atop the waves and made his way to the shore.

On Española live an exotic type of marine iguanas. They are quite large and have red markings on their backs. While this color comes from the particular algae that they eat, only the Española iguanas exhibit this color.

Sea turtles

Giant marine turtles often graced us with their presence. The large reptiles -- over a meter long; bigger than the testudo monument in front of McKeldon -- were similar to land turtles except for their feet. As we first saw snorkling off of Bartolomé, the turtles have large front flippers, and smaller rear feet. The turtles manuevered by swimming with their front feet -- not so different from breaststroke -- and steering with their rear feet. Although they are slow, the sea turtles are a most graceful animal as they calmly swim past.

On the dinghy ride through Elizabeth Bay, there are many turtle sightings in the shallow waters. We see less than 20 swimming by the boat, yet not one sighting is unexciting. The turtles are a 'trademark' Galápagos marine animal.

On Las Bachas we see evidence of marine turtles. There are depressions in the sand, at and near the top of the sand banks. Some of the depressions have shells in them. On one depression, there is even footprints leading up to the pit.

Another example of how bustling with life the Galápagos Islands are: within three seconds of exiting my room when we were anchored off of Santiago, I see a sea turtle sticking its head out of the water.

Giant tortoise

The giant tortoise is synonymous with the Galápagos Islands. In fact, the Galápagos are actually named after the saddle-shell shaped creatures. The tortoises are huge, and varied; as there are different shaped turtles on many of the islands. While they are such a trademark of the islands, tortoises are not exactly the easiest animals to find. Because their habitats are protected, the tours and walks do not lead us up to turtle central, exactly. We were fortudate enough to find one in the wild, however, on the island of Isabela. While it stood still and majestically, the young tortoise was photographed and admired. It did not retreat into its shell.

Although we only saw one tortoise in the wild, we saw many in captivity at the Darwin Research Station on Santa Cruz. They run a turtle regeneration program there to raise the different species of turtles to an age when they are viable and likely to survive in the wild. Then they are released onto the island from which the species originates.

In cages, there were young -- less than five years old -- tortoises that were seperated by which island they represent. These smaller cages had from around ten to twenty tortoises. In other areas, there is large open space for adult tortoises to move about. We saw Lonesome George, the last of his species, with his neck extended having a rest. One of the cages we were allowed to enter, and we enjoyed the royal photo opportunities. These turtles are so big that their shells have enough space for several students. The largest rose to a height of above my waist. They slowly walk around, dragging their feet and sometimes bumping their shell on the ground. Almost all of the tortoises remained with their extremeties out of their shells all of the time -- due to an absence of natural predators.