Composed of 58 volcanic islands, the Galapagos archipelago in Ecuador is known for its biodiversity, extreme exuberance and unique Galapagos Islands animals. This is explained by two factors.
The Galapagos Islands are at the encounter of several oceanic currents resulting in an abundance of nutrient availability which offers a range of habitats and wildlife.
In addition, the isolation of the islands in the Pacific Ocean delayed the arrival of civilization which halted the introduction of exotic and invasive species, allowing the native fauna to evolve separately from the rest of the world.
Don’t leave home without: Lonely Planet Ecuador & the Galapagos Islands (Travel Guide)
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Population growth, overfishing, pollution, and unbridled tourism have been threatening the ecosystem and the Galapagos Islands animals. The island population grew by 300% in just two decades and the number of visitors quadrupled, so has been pushing for its sustainable preservation.
The government has been trying to decrease such hazards by limiting visitor numbers. For the lucky ones that get to go there, besides the observation of the animals, the islands offer caves, volcanoes, beautiful beaches and diving options as attractions.
However, it is important that every visitor understands the sensitivity of this environment, and experiencing its uniqueness is a way to educate and increase environmental awareness. In order to help to preserve the ecosystem of the Galapagos Islands, visitors can take action by collecting their own rubbish and respecting the Galapagos Islands animals by avoiding contact.
Ecological Importance and Conservation
The Galapagos Islands present some of the highest levels of endemism in the world, which means most species can be found nowhere else on earth. About 80% of the land birds, 97% of the reptiles and land mammals, 30% of the plants and 20% of the marine species are endemic.
It, therefore, holds high scientific importance as the place of so many endemic animals and species endangered with extinction. In fact, this is where Charles Darwin’s Theory of Evolution (1835) was envisioned so is why many people associate the Galapagos Islands with Charles Darwin and the Natural Selection.
Here, we highlight some of the unique Galapagos Islands animals.
Marine Iguanas are the only lizards in the world that live both on land and at sea. However, they use the sea only to feed, diving to depths of up to 10 meters (32 ft). Marine Iguanas can be found pretty much in every rocky shoreline of the Galapagos Islands and live in large groups.
While they seem a bit off-putting at first, we actually learned to like seeing these little guys. They are so resourceful, adapting from land creatures to sea creatures in one generation. They also vary in type depending on the island you are visiting.
While they are known to be all black, it is possible to see varieties of Marine Iguana that feature red, pink and green skin along with the black undertone. This makes them fun to spot as you’re touring the islands.
There are three species of Land Iguanas in the Galapagos Islands. The Yellowish Land Iguanas are native to six islands of the Galapagos archipelago and the other two are only found at Isabela Island and Santa Fe Island, individually.
Land Iguanas share a symbiotic relationship with the Galapagos birds, who find a source of food in the parasites that live on the Iguanas’ skin. Like the Marine Iguana, it is possible to see some variety in the Land Iguana. Some are bright yellow with reddish accents, some bright yellow with brown accents and some are a light khaki color.
One of the most iconic Galapagos Islands Animals and essential for the balance of the ecosystem and ecological restoration are the Giant Tortoises. These giant slow animals can go for a year without food or water, this helped them survive their near extinction back in the years of whalers and pirates.
The Giant Tortoises started their colonization in the Galapagos archipelago in the Easternmost islands of Española and San Cristobal. Eventually, they dispersed throughout the archipelago, establishing at least 15 separate populations on ten of the largest Galapagos Islands.
The best place to see them is on the islands of Santa Cruz and San Cristobal. Both have Giant Tortoise breeding and research centers where you can get up close to this unique animal. In addition, there are a couple of different private farms on Santa Cruz that maintain their land to attract wild, free-roaming tortoises.
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Terrestrial Galapagos Birds
Galapagos Short Eared Owl
Many species in the Galapagos Islands suffer from lack of food, but this has not happened to the Galapagos Short Eared Owl. Their population has remained healthy and large since 1980. One of the reasons for this is that they learned how to feed on storm petrels, which are abundant in the lava fields.
Their main territory is Genovesa Island, located on the northern outskirts of the Galapagos Islands, where they share habitat with many other Galapagos birds. We had an exceptionally lucky day of viewing owls when we sailed to Genovesa, spotting three of them during the day.
There are four species of Mockingbirds among the Galapagos Islands Animals and they are all endemic. They are also the first animals the visitors see when arriving at the archipelago. Three of these species are island endemics and the fourth one is present in three or four islands.
Galapagos Mockingbirds are found in Genovesa Island and the most fascinating natural exhibitions are the confrontations among mockingbirds from different breeding groups. That aside, they are an insanely curious bird and you will find the variance of species on many of the islands you visit on a Galapagos cruise.
Galapagos Hawks are dangerous predators given their excellent vision and broad wings. Due to human disturbance to their natural habitat, these birds have been extinct in several islands of the archipelago.
Nowadays, Bartolome, James, Santa Fe, Hood, Isabela and Fernandina Islands are the prime islands to see these Galapagos birds. We had sightings on both Santa Fe and Fernandina during our two-week luxury Galapagos cruise. They are regal birds with little to no fear, meaning if you are quiet and patient, you can capture some beautiful photos of them during your visit.
The Darwin Finches compose a group of about fourteen species of passerine birds distributed in the archipelago. What brings them together is their remarkable diversity in beak form and function.
Finches demonstrated an extreme diversification between and within the islands, which gave Darwin the connection between the process of speciation and natural selection, represented by differences in feeding and habitat occupied by each species.
Marine Galapagos Birds
There are six species of boobies in the world, three of which can be found in the Galapagos Islands and compose the group of the most seen seabirds in the archipelago. These Galapagos birds can be found on most of the islands but not all species of booby can be found in the same place. Overall, these three species present different breeding and nesting behavior.
With awkward and clumsy movements, the Blue-Footed Booby has an unusual flirting ritual in which the male dances to attract the female. These are also the favorite Galapagos birds among tourists and birders and watching their humorous behavior is a highlight in the Galapagos Islands.
They are also the easiest ones to spot living in small colonies distributed all over the islands. However, to see large concentrations of the Blue-Footed Booby, be sure your itinerary includes a visit to North Seymour or Isla Lobos.
The Red-Footed Booby represents the most abundant of the three living among huge colonies but oddly enough, spotting them is not easy. For most cruisers, you won’t have a chance to observe the Red-Footed Booby. However, for an almost guaranteed sighting, be sure to book an itinerary that includes a visit to Genovesa Island.
Here, you will have the opportunity to see both mature and juvenile specimens. If you’re lucky, you may even catch a glimpse of a white Red-Footed Booby. Only 5% of the population will be white versus the more common brown. Both have bright red feet and multi-color beaks.
Although the Nazca Booby lives in less frequent colonies, they are easily distinguished for being the largest boobies with an almost black area of featherless skin. They nest on the ground and it is not uncommon to be following the marked path and come across a Nazca Booby nest on some islands.
While they can be seen on several islands, the highest concentrations are Genovesa, Espanola, and Santiago. If you have your heart on seeing them, make sure your itinerary covers one of these islands.
Galapagos Penguin is the only species of penguin in the Northern Hemisphere and the second smallest penguin in the world. 95% of its population is concentrated in the Fernandina Island and Isabela Island, but they can also be found in the Bartolome and James Islands and the northern coast of Floreana Island.
The best way to appreciate their agility is to snorkel with these Galapagos birds. We had a chance meeting with the above Galapagos Penguin while snorkeling along the shore of Chinese Hat island. He stayed with us for a long time, swimming with us and playing.
The Waved Albatross breed only in Española Island and unlike other Galapagos birds, they mate for life. This species is primarily found on one island, and evidence shows that it has recently seen a large population decline due to fisheries, particularly long lining. One of the world’s most graceful flying birds, the Waved Albatross can spend years at sea without touching land.
At certain times of the year, you can bear witness to the highly comical mating rituals of the Waved Albatross. These rituals include strutting around while waving the head from side to side, a frantic practice of clicking beaks with each other in a back and forth fashion and displays of wide-open mouths, like above.
There are two species of Frigatebirds among the Galapagos birds. These birds have tiny bodies with enormous wings, and because they lack the ability to take off from water, they simply fly for days in a row.
Frigatebirds can be seen anywhere in the Galapagos and often ride the front of weather systems, so a sudden influx of these Galapagos birds can be a sign that a storm is on the way. They also like to ride the wind tunnels of the sailing cruise boats. We would spend hours sitting on the top deck at sunset while the Frigates soared overhead.
The Flightless Cormorant is endemic to Fernandina and Isabela Islands and represents an adaptation many insular birds acquire around the globe. These birds do not have the ability to fly simply because they never needed to.
The lack of predators resulted in the swimming ability being more valuable since their main source of food in the ocean. After centuries of evolution, Galapagos Cormorants have only vestigial wings but very strong legs. They are also notable for their breeding dances and beautiful sapphire eyes.
Sally Lightfoot Crab
Sally Lightfoot Crabs are probably one of the funniest animals among the Galapagos Islands animals. These quick and agile crabs are among the most colorful inhabitants of the Galapagos Islands.
The Sally Lightfoot Crabs are special because they can run extremely quick, leap, and almost fly to elude predators, they can out-maneuver almost anything. They can be found close to the Marine Iguanas on rocky shorelines.
Most islands in the world do not have a large community of mammals because of the distance and difficulty of the journey there from the mainland. The Galapagos Islands animals include six native mammals, two of which are terrestrial and rarely seen by visitors (rats and bats).
On the other hand, Galapagos Sea Lions and Galapagos Fur Seals are a sure thing to encounter there. There are also two species of dolphins that are quite abundant and easy to spot (Bottle-Nosed Dolphin and Common White-Bellied Dolphin).
Depending on the time of year of your visit and your luck, you might see whales, such as Humpback Whale, Sperm Whale, Killer Whale, and Pilot Whale.
Galapagos Islands Animals
Of course, this is in no way a definitive guide to all the animals you can encounter during a visit to the Galapagos Islands. It is one of few places in the world that is jam-packed with life around every turn, both under and above the water.
Besides the animals, the Galapagos Islands offer an unparalleled opportunity to experience the beauty of nature amongst islands that are known for so much more than sunbathing.
The Sea Star Journey Experience
We spent 14 days sailing the Galapagos Islands on the Sea Star Journey with Latin Trails. Everything was arranged for us including flights from Quito to the Galapagos Islands, accommodation in Quito pre and post-trip, as well as our bookings with the Sea Star Journey. When we landed in the Galapagos Islands our experienced national park endorsed guide Hansel was there to met us with arms wide open and ready to show us all of the animals. He was our guide throughout our whole trip.
If you seek attentive customer service and a crew of people that love what they do, then you’ll get no better service elsewhere. I can, without hesitation, recommend Latin Trails and the Sea Star Journey for an unforgettable way of experiencing the Galapagos Islands.