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Endemic Species in the Galapagos

The Galapagos Islands are known as the inspiration for Charles Darwin’s theories of evolution and natural selection, and the reason is the abundant, unique, and rich wildlife that can be found here. Life has existed virtually unaltered on these islands for millions of years, since the tips of volcanoes first broke the surface of the Pacific Ocean.

What’s the difference between “endemic” and “native”?

In biology, the word “endemic” refers to any animals that exist exclusively in a certain region, whereas “native” species can be found in those regions, but can also be found in other areas. The Galapagos Islands, a relatively small geographic region (especially considering the tiny total landmass), boasts an impressive number of endemic species. Those who are lucky enough to visit this enchanting archipelago have the privilege of seeing animals that can only be found here.

Endemic Reptiles

  • Land Iguana (Conolophus subcristatus, Conolophus pallidus, Conolophus marthae) - The largest of the iguanas in Ecuador, these big lizards can reach well over a meter in length and weigh more than 30 pounds. There are three different types that can be seen throughout the islands - the yellow ones are the most common and can be spotted on six of the islands; the conolophus pallidus is a population that is endemic to Santa Fe; and the pinkish-black conolophus marthae is the most recently investigated species, and so far it has only been found around Wolf Volcano on Isabela Island.
  • Marine Iguana (Amblyrhynchus cristatus) - If ever a case for adaptation could be made, it is with the marine iguana. A cousin of other iguanas, it grows to only about 2-3.5 feet as an adult. The dark skin absorbs the heat of the sun to warm up so they can dive deep into the water to graze on the algae. Their tails have become perfect paddles, and their claws are sharp and long to latch onto the lava rock while feeding. When they surface, special glands above their nose allow them to dispel extra salt from their system.
  • Giant Tortoises (Chelonoidis nigra) - These gentle giants are actually the namesake of the Galapagos Islands, as when the Spanish first arrived they thought the shells of these animals resembled the Spanish-style saddle, or “Galapago”. Weighing close to 500 pounds, they are the longest-lived vertebrates, with lifespans well beyond 100 years. Several of the populations were poached to extinction by traveling whalers and pirates, but the recent conservation efforts of the National Park have helped to protect and repopulate the remaining vulnerable populations.

Endemic Birds

  • Galapagos Penguin (Spheniscus mendiculus) - Found on the cover of many guidebooks, these cute little birds spend their days diving deep for fish or drying off on rocks with their wings at 45-degree angles to allow the wind to cool them down. Though they are just 19 inches at maturity, they are not the smallest penguins in the world, but they are the only penguins that can be found north of the equator.
  • Galapagos Hawk (Buteo galapagoensis) - These predators are keen on sea turtle eggs and can be spotted around beaches on the hunt. Their behavior is similar to other hawks, and the adult wingspan is about 120 cm.
  • Flightless Cormorant (Phalacrocorax harrisi) - While there are several cormorant species in the world, the Galapagos cormorant is the only one that has sacrificed its ability to fly in favor of a body more suited to diving. It can be seen airing its wings out to the side.
  • Galapagos Dove (Zenaida galapagoensis) - Cousins of the common pigeon, these peaceful brown birds can be seen throughout the arid lowlands of the Galapagos.
  • Various Finch Species (Fringillidae) - When Darwin traveled here in 1835, he noticed that the finch populations on each island were distinct from each other. This led him to theorize that animals can evolve to survive and ultimately gave birth to his Theory of Evolution.
  • Galapagos Mockingbird (Mimus parvulus) - These are common throughout the Galapagos Islands and were another species of interest to Darwin as he explored the Islands.
  • Lava Heron (Butorides sundevalli) - A master of disguise, this silver-gray bird is just about a foot tall at maturity and blends into a backdrop of dark lava rock around the mangroves and intertidal zones where it lives.
  • Galapagos Flycatcher (Myiarchus magnirostris) - A comparatively small bird in its genus, the flycatchers grow to only 15-16 cm and are naturally curious, often coming right up to visitors.

Galapagos Fur Seal (Arctocephalus galapagoensis) - This is the only mammal native to the Galapagos Islands and can be spotted lounging around, defending its harem, or raising playful young in the shallows.

What about endemic mammals?

Interestingly, there are no land mammals that are endemic to the Galapagos Islands. The mammals that do live there now - such as pigs, dogs, and rodents - were introduced by man. The lack of mammals, which tend to be predators in the food chain, has allowed the other species to flourish with very few threats.

Interestingly, three goats were brought to the Galapagos Islands for the first time in the 1970s, and by the end of the 20th century, their population had reached six digits. In just 30 years, they had wrought such destruction on the habitat that a massive project, called Project Isabela, was needed to exterminate or sterilize the goat population. The invasion had become so bad that it took between 1997 and 2006 to completely eradicate them from the Islands.

Other Notable Natives

  • Frigatebirds (Fregata) - Both Great and Magnificent Frigatebirds can be spotted throughout the Islands, inflating their signature red pouches to attract mates and soaring on the vectors above cruise ships.
  • Blue-footed booby (Sula nebouxii) - Along with the Nazca booby and the red-footed booby, these curious creatures are most notable (obviously) for their strikingly colorful feet and their fascinating mating dance.
  • Waved Albatross (Phoebastria irrorata)- Espanola Island is home to almost all of the world’s 12,000 mating pairs of waved albatross.
  • Humpback whales (Megaptera novaeangliae) - They pass through the Galapagos during their mating season in June.
  • Rays & Sharks - In fact, the Galapagos Islands are home to the highest population of sharks in the world.

So how did they get here?

It might seem obvious that the marine species swam and the birds flew, but what about the plants, reptiles, and sea lions? That’s where geography comes in - since the Galapagos Islands are just 600 miles from mainland Ecuador, at the confluence of three major currents, scientists assume that the first seeds were blown to the islands on the wind.

Once a solid base of vegetation had been established, rafts of plants that drifted on the currents from continental South America made landfall in the Galapagos with a few reptiles riding them. While it’s likely that only a few of these reptiles survived the journey, that’s all that it would take for life to boom.

Sea lions and penguins probably arrived by riding the underwater currents - like the Humboldt Current - jetting along the Pacific Coast of South America.