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Visiting the Galápagos Islands: 10 unique animals to see

As Chandler Bing would say, could the Galápagos sea lions BE any cuter! While these sea lions may look just like the Californian sea lions found lying around San Francisco’s Pier 39, they have actually been proven to be a distinct species. How can you tell the difference? Well, Galápagos sea lions are smaller and differ slightly in behaviour and skull morphology. For example, the degree of sexual dimorphism (i.e. the disparity in male and female appearance) appears to be less in Galápagos sea lions than in Californian sea lions.

While they might look lazy spread out on the beach shores, swimming with the Galapágos sea lions is sure to be a highlight of your entire trip. As soon as they enter the water, they turn into what can only be described as marine puppies as they swim around blowing bubbles in your face and body-surfing the waves. And if you are out kayaking beware, you might find your kayak overtaken by these guys if you leave your kayak unattended for even a second.

Blue Footed Booby

Unique Galapagos Animals - Blue Footed Booby

With their fabulous feet and energetic dancing style, I like to think of the Blue Footed Booby as the Gene Kelly of the Galápagos. These birds are known for their courtship display where the males lift their feet and wave them in the air as if competing in a dancing contest. Explaining the origin of their unique name is easy. The name “booby” comes from the Spanish word bobo, which means clown. Explaining the origin of their blue feet is a little more complicated.

The causal reason for their blue feet is that carotenoid pigments obtained through their diet are concentrated in their feet, giving them a blue appearance. The concentration of these pigments determines the intensity of the colour, with higher concentrations producing bluer feet.  However, Interestingly, carotenoid pigments also act as antioxidants and stimulants for their immune system. Therefore, incorporation of pigments into the feet means that they cannot be used for immunity or detoxification. Research has shown that the ‘blueness’ of a male boobies feet is a reliable indicator of their health, with bright feet signifies that an individual is strong and healthy and can ‘afford’ to use more carotenoids for foot coloration. With this, bluer feet became a  sexually selected trait as males with bluer feet are more successful at securing a mate than those with dull feet.

Darwin’s Finches

Unique Galapagos Animals - Darwin Woodpecker Finch

While the Giant Tortoise may be renowned as the symbol of the Galápagos Islands, Darwin’s Finches are undeniably the symbol of Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection. Darwin’s Finches refer to 13 different species of small birds that can be found among the Galápagos Islands. Whilst the different species of Darwin’s Finches have a similar body type and colouring, the size and shape of their beaks are markedly different.

The different species are believed to have descended from a common ancestor, with their present differences evolving in response to each species needing to feed off different types of food supply on each island. For example, on the islands where the food supply for the finch was small seeds that needed to be picked out of cacti, the finches developed beaks that were small and thin. Meanwhile, on the islands where the food supply for the finches are large, hard-shelled seeds that fall to the ground, the finches developed beaks that were large and powerful. It is Darwin’s pondering on this diversity among the species of Darwin’s Finches that is said to have led him to formulate his famous theory of evolution by natural selection.

Galapagos Tortoise

Unique Galapagos Animals - Galapagos Tortoise

If you were playing a word association game and the word ‘Galápagos’ came up, chances are that your response would be ‘Giant Tortoises’. The Giant Tortoises have become a symbol of the Galápagos, such that even those unfamiliar with the islands are likely to be able to make the association. The Galápagos Islands were actually named for the giant tortoises. The Spanish word ‘Galapago’ means saddle, which was a term that early explorers of the archipelago used for the tortoises due to their saddle-shaped shells. While giant tortoises once inhabited many of the world’s continents, today the Galápagos tortoises represent one of only two remaining groups. The other group lives on the Aldabra Atoll located in the Indian Ocean. That said, the Galápagos Tortoise is the world’s largest tortoise, growing up to 5 feet in length and 550 pounds in weight.

Did you know that these incredible creatures have a life span that averages over 100 years? Although unlikely, this means that as you wander the islands you may just cross paths with a tortoise that was a hatchling when Darwin visited back in 1835.

Frigate Bird

Unique Galapagos Animals - Frigate Bird

With their long scimitar wings and forked tails, the first time I saw a frigate bird I was 100% sure that dinosaur cloning had been successful and I was actually seeing a real-life pterodactyl. Despite their sinister appearance, watching these birds has an incredible calming effect as they hang like kites in the wind. Unlike most other bird species, Frigate birds are not able to take off from water. This is because  they have a tiny preening gland, which means that they are not able to secrete enough oils to waterproof their feathers. Therefore, instead of diving underwater to catch prey, they snatch up fish from the water surface with their hooked beaks. Moreover, as they lack the ability to take off from water, these birds often simply soar for days or even weeks on end!

Sally Lightfoot Crab

Unique Galapagos Animals - Sally Lightfoot Crab Forget having the moves like Jagger, I want to have the moves like the Sally Lightfoot crab! Watching these creatures dance effortlessly among the lava rocks as the waves of the Pacific crash down on them is akin to watching a ballet performance. The crab species is actually thought to have gotten it’s name from a Caribbean dancer, who shared the crabs’ agility and light-footedness.

Another feature that makes the Sally Lightfoot Crab popular for animal-lovers is their remarkable bright red and blue colour that stands in complete contrast to the white sands and black lava rocks that they inhabit. How can a species with so many predators afford to be so exposed? The key is in the hardness of their shell. As the crabs mature, their shell becomes not only harder but also brighter. Baby crabs begin with only a few small red spots on their shells. Every time that they molt their shell however, the spots become larger until they have completely taken over the shell. By this time, their shell is so hard that they are virtually predator free and so sexual selection becomes their priority.

Galápagos Hummingbird

Unique Galapagos Animals - Hummingbird

Whilst the Galápagos Finches may have served as the basis for Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection, it was the diversity he observed between the mockingbirds from different islands that “first thoroughly aroused” his attention to the unique species distribution of the Galápagos Islands. Four species of mockingbirds can be found across the islands however, it takes a trained eye to differentiate between the species. Alike for Darwin’s Finches, all four mockingbird species look largely similar, with their primary difference being in their beak shape and size. Another thing that sets them apart from the other birds on the archipelago is their curiosity. Unlike most birds who will fly away when you approach, the Galápagos Mockingbirds tend to be more inquisitive than frightened and will likely approach you curiously.

How you can help protect these unique animals.

When you do arrive on the Galápagos Islands, it’s important to remember that this is not a zoo and these are wild animals just trying to survive. Along with illegal fishing and the introduction of non-native species, the demands of more than 160,000 tourists each year place enormous pressures on this irreplaceable ecosystem. Don’t ever get too close to any of the animals, take care of your litter and do not – I repeat DO NOT – try to touch any of the animals. Moreover, be sure to declare any kind of organic product in your possession. A mere seed attached to your clothing could launch an a foreign species invasion that could threaten the endemic species with extinction. When it comes to protecting the flora and fauna of the Galápagos, it’s better to be safe than sorry.

If you want to learn more about why we need to stop letting animals be abused for tourism and how you can help stop it click here.

Elle Kirsten This is Yugen