Galapagos Tortoise Facts

The Galapagos Tortoise, together with the Blue Footed Boobies and the endemic iguanas, are Galapagos especies known worldwide and the main attractive for tourist visiting the archipielago. The Galapagos Islands are famous for their wonderful beaches, but also for the unique endemic species. Charles Darwin got inspired by the differences between the endemic species of each island to develop The Theory of Evolution. 

Let us tell you more about this wonderful animals, their behaviour and the different subespecies in the islands. It might help you to identify them when visiting Breedeing Centers or if some of them pops up in some during a walk through the islands:

galapagos tortoise facts

Galapagos Tortoise: the biggest tortoise in the world

Chelonoidis nigra is the scientific name that refers to the Galapagos Tortoise specie. But there are 15 subspecies of the Galapagos Tortoises. The Galapagos Tortoises develop differently in size, shell shape and neck lenght, in order to adapt to the different enviroment and weather of each island.

The species main features are its big size, comparing to othertortoises especies, and for being the tortoises that lives longer.

In past times, the Giant Tortoises could be found in other warm regions of the world. Nowadays this has change due to furtive hunting and their difficulty to find food, and most of them are extint. Except the tortoise species from the Galapagos Islands. However, the survival of the Galapagos tortoise in the islands has not been easy either. Goats spreading in the mid part of the sXX put the especie in danger, and volcanic activity also make it difficult for them to survive. But thanks to the Galapagos National Park, within the last  30 years the Galapagos species have recovery greatly in the Breeding Centers, and most of them have come back to their original habitat.

Frequently asked questions about the Galapagos Tortoise

How long do Galapagos Tortoise live?

Most of the Galapagos tortoise live more than 100 years. The Galapagos Tortoises are animals which live most in the world. Can you imagine living as long as them? I can´t, but they surely appreciate it due to they take everything with a lot of calm and slowliness.

The long-lived record is own by the Giant Tortoise Harriet, Charles Darwin Tortoise in Galapagos, which lives as loing as 175 years!

How much do the Galapagos Tortoise weight?

The adjective Giant is not  casual in the  Galapagos Tortoises. Due to their big size, and the hardness of their shells, they can weight as much as 400 pounds (250kg), depending on their food habits.

Galapagos Tortoise feeding habits

Galapagos tortoises are omnivorous animals and have a large appetite, which leads them to eat almost 80 pounds of food a day.

Among his favorite foods are berries, cacti (very common in the Galapagos), herbs, leaves and lichens. Marine Tortoises can also feed on crustaceans and algae.

They eat very slow and their metabolism is not particularly fast, so they take a long time to digest food.

Galapagos Tortoise Habitat

Galapagos tortoise enjoy living in places close to ponds or lakes. They spend the day between the water or  mud lakes and the land,  having a sunbath or looking for plants to eat.

They have developed specific characteristics for their survival, in order to adapt to the different environments of the islands. Hence, there are different types of tortoises registered in the Galapagos Islands. On hilly islands with more vegetation, turtles have a rounded shell and a shorter neck, due to it is easy for them to find aliments. However, on the more arid islands, due to food shortages, they have developed a longer neck, and the shell is open at the front, to allow them to reach higher vegetations, such as cactus.

In the main Galapagos islands such as Isabela, Santa Cruz and San Cristobal we will find several breeding centers focused on the conservation of the species where we can see them in their natural habitat.

Why the islands took the name from the Galapagos Tortoise?

The Galapagos Tortoise was the most spread specie in the archipelago, and from which the islands take their name. The islands were discovered accidentally by the Spanish sailors, and gave them the name of these reptiles that were very numerous on the islands. Galapagos comes from Latin and is synonymous with tortoise.

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Galapagos Tortoises Species

There are 15 species of the Galapagos tortoises. Isabela Island, the largest island in the archipelago, is the one with the largest number of species. Up to 5 species have been counted, around each of the island’s volcanoes (Sierra Negra, Wolf, Alcedo, Darwin and Cerro Azul). In Santa Cruz, which is the second largest island, two different species are also observed, those of Santa Cruz Island, and another descendant of Pinta Island, which were the largest specie and to which the Solitaire George belonged. Scientists believe that Pinta Island Tortoises are found  in Santa Cruz, because pirates left some specimens due to they could not carry the excess weight. In the rest of the islands, specimens with different characteristics have also been found.

Each of them has been adapted to the habitat of each island and they have variations in their morphology, size and shape of the shell. For this reason, tortoises from the Española, Santa Fé, Fernandina, Floreana, Santiago, Pinta and Pinzon islands are considered differentiated species. Of these, those on Pinta Island were the first to become extinct due to poaching by pirates. Also the Fernandina, Santa Fé and Floreana tortoises have become extinct, due to volcano activity or lack of vegetation.

Isabela Island Galapagos Tortoises

On Isabela Island, there are different species of tortoises, characteristic of each of the island’s regions, marked by the areas surrounding the volcanoes: Sierra Negra, Alcedo, Cerro Azul, Darwin and Wolf. However, the differences between these species are sometimes not easy to distinguish at first, since many of the subspecies are very similar. The two main species of Isabela tortoises, and their features, are the following:

Isabela Galapagos Tortoise – Chelonoidis vicina

The shell of the Isabela giant tortoise is thick, heavy, domed, and not previously narrowed. Males are larger; females have more dome shape.

The species inhabits two thirds of the southern part of Isabela Island, and it is estimated that there are currently around 2,500 specimens. You will be able to see several specimens in freedom on the way to the Wall of Tears

Santa Cruz galapagos tortoise
galalapos tortoise
bicicleta galapagos, galapagos bike

Wolf Volcano Galapagos Tortoise – Chelonoidis becki

Galapagos Tortoise Wolf Volcano Isabela

The shell of this galapagos tortoise has a grayish color of about a meter in length and more rounded, as it feeds on low vegetation. Its natural habitat is on the slopes of the Wolf volcano, and within its crater.

They have a life expectancy of 60 years. The thick and arid vegetation of the area has provided them with food, as well as protection against humans and other invasive species. They are considered a species derived from two species of giant tortoises that inhabited this Isabela Island volcano: one on the north face and one on the south face.

Currently there are about 2,000, although historically it is estimated that there were 25,000 tortoises.

San Cristobal Giant Tortoise – Chelonoidis chathamensis

Galapagos Tortoise San Cristobal

It has a shell of greater height and flattened in its upper part, with the front part elevated to be able to feed on elevated vegetation. They are estimated to have a life expectancy of between 100 and 150 years.

The species, which reached 25,000 specimens, suffered a brutal extermination during the 17th and 19th centuries, until its population was reduced to 800 specimens in the early 1970s.

Currently about 1,800 specimens inhabit the northeast part of San Cristobal Island.

San Cristobal is an arid island with less vegetationdue to dry weather , and this is why the shell of the giant tortoise is more open at the front, in order to expand the range of plants to support. It allow them to take the fruit of cactus and higher bush that are part of San Cristobal vegetation.

Isla Pinta Galapagos Tortoise- Chelonoidis abingdonii (extinct)

They are characterized by having a longer neck, and by the special shape of their shell, with the front part being narrower and slightly raised, while the back part is wider and rounder.

This allowed him to reach the bottom of the cacti, which were the basis of his diet. The appearance of goats on the island, which fed on the same vegetation, and their capture by sailors who frequented the island, led to its extinction.

Solitaire George was the last specimen of its kind. Despite several attempts to reproduce the species, George’s sexual apathy did not allow the species to be saved.

Opposite to Solitaire George was the case of Diego Tortoise, which history will tell  you below

Santiago Island Galapagos Tortoise – Chelonoidis darwini

galapagos tortoise santiago

The island’s tropical vegetation gives its shell and skin the darkest color. The species suffered invasion by goats and pigs, as well as poaching.

In addition, the appearance of invasive vegetation (avocado, naranjilla and blackberry) much thicker than the endemic, made it difficult for them to move around the island in search of food.

After being reduced to around 700 specimens in studies carried out in the 1970s, currently around 250 specimens are bred in the Santa Cruz breeding center.

Since the eradication of goats and pigs in the late 1990s, tortoises  once again breed in the wild, and can easily be found throughout the island.

Santa Cruz Galapagos Tortoise – Chelonoidis porteri

Santa Cruz galapagos tortoise
galalapos tortoise

The Galapagos Giant Tortoises inhabits the western part of the island, known as La Reserva. Until 2015, all the tortoises on the island were considered the same species, but since 2015 this species was separated from those on the eastern part, named from that moment on Chelonoidis donfaustoi in honor of its discoverer.

The upper part of the island is inhabited by males, and as we descend we can find the young and females of this species.

They are characterized by their black and oval shell, just over a meter long, with a domed shape higher in the center than in the front, and open at the front.

In Santa Cruz, there is the El Chato reserve, which is the best place on the island to see them up close. In this center you can find turtles of species from different islands, since it is responsible for the breeding and protection of various species, until they breed a sufficient number of specimens, which return to their natural habitat.

You can visit Chato on the Highlands tour, which you can do with our tour upon landing in Baltra, on the way to Puerto Ayora.

Highlands Tour



Pinzón Island Giant Tortoise – Chelonoidis duncanensis

Pinzon Island Giant Tortoise has their own features as well. The front of the Galapagos Giant Tortoise shell is narrower and slightly raised, while the back is wider and rounder.

This evolutionary development of its shell is due to the dry and tall vegetation of the island, mainly made up of high thickets and cacti.

This shape allows it to reach higher vegetation than other species. Like most species, it was strongly affected by the invasion of the island by the black rat.

Its eradication in 2012 has allowed the population to grow again, especially thanks to the breeding centers, which have repatriated more than 200 turtles since 2015.

Española Island Giant Tortoise- Chelonoidis hoodensis

Like all species on the island, it has been the result of stealth. To such an extent that in the study carried out in the 70s only 14 specimens remained, of which only 2 were male and too old to reproduce.

It seems the extinction of this specie of Galapagos Giant Tortoise, but then … Diego appeared! He was in a zoo in San Diego and was repatriated to the Galapagos, where he stayed Santa Cruz breeding center. Diego got down to work and since then some 800 turtle specimens have been repatriated to Española Island !! Quite a phenomenon Diego. If you visit Santa Cruz Island do not forget to visit it in Puerto Ayora, and pay your respects XD.

Fernandina Giant Tortoise – Chelonoidis phantasticus

This species was believed to be extinct for more than a century due to the characteristics of Fernandina island, with high volcanic activity, and very arid, making vegetation very scarce.

However, in a 2013 study, traces were found that may contradict this opinion. The difficult access and movement throughout the island did not allow an in-depth analysis of the island to be carried out until 2019, when an expedition managed to find a specimen of the species, and transferred it to the Santa Cruz breeding center for its care.

Floreana Giant Tortoise – Chelonoidis niger

At the beginning of the 19th century it is estimated that there were about 8,000 specimens, but they were ravaged by sailors voraciously, so they died out in the mid-19th century.

Turtles were highly prized by sailors for their tasty meat, the ease of transporting them on ships, and the ability to produce oil for birth with them.

When Darwin visited the island in 1835, he found no specimen. However, subsequent studies have found specimens around the Wolf volcano that are considered hybrids between this species and that of the Wolf volcano.


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By |2020-07-07T19:17:29+02:00July 14th, 2018|Galapagos Animals|0 Comments

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