Galápagos: Iconic Animals

Adapted from pages 94-117 of Galápagos:

Male dome-shaped Galápagos
Tortoise in the highlands of
Santa Cruz Island

Although Galápagos: Life in Motion is primarily organized by types of habitats and behaviors, several animal species or groups are so iconic and representative of the Galápagos that they call out for special recognition: Galápagos Tortoises, mockingbirds, finches, and boobies. Beyond being visually striking, each of these types of animal has played an important role in shaping evolutionary theory, both in Darwin’s time and in our own.

The Galápagos Tortoises are perhaps the most iconic of Galápagos animals. Widespread among many of the islands, these massive grazing reptiles fi ll many of the same niches that herbivorous mammals fill on the mainland. Depending on their source of food, Galápagos Tortoise carapaces (the upper part of the shell) are said to be dome-shaped, saddleback-shaped, or intermediate in shape. Domed tortoises have rounded carapaces, shaped something like a helmet. The scales around their necks (the cervical scales) are pointed forward and downward, giving them easy access to food on the ground.

San Cristóbal Mockingbird on San Cristóbal Island

Mockingbirds are what “first thoroughly aroused” Darwin’s attention about the distribution of species on the archipelago, according to his book The Voyage of the Beagle. At first, he simply noticed that the mockingbirds in the Galápagos Islands differed from those from mainland South America. Later, he came to appreciate that the mockingbirds on different islands looked different from one another. How could islands so close together have similar birds with different morphologies? Darwin came to see this as what we now call adaptive radiation, in which natural selection shapes different populations of the same type of animal to the particular environments in which they live.

Male and female Small Tree Finches displaying full breeding plumage, highlands of Santa Cruz Island.

For many people, the Galápagos is synonymous with Darwin’s finches—the species of ground, tree, and warbler finches that are part of the subfamily Geospizinae. Although Darwin himself did not at first appreciate their significance, they represent a remarkable instance of adaptive radiation and are frequently used as an example of the phenomenon in biology textbooks. The most significant differences among the finches are in their beak size and shape. These differences allow them to eat different kinds of food: small soft seeds, large hard seeds, insects buried in the bark of trees, and so forth. They have also provided scientists with one of the most detailed studies of evolution in action. Over 40 years, scientists Rosemary and Peter Grant have closely observed the Medium Ground Finch and the Cactus Finch of Daphne Major Island, showing how changing climatic conditions led to small changes in the size and shape of the beaks of these birds.

A very rare observation of a Blue-Footed Booby with three eggs (they normally lay two), Punta Pitt, San Cristóbal Island

Unlike Galápagos Tortoises, finches, and mockingbirds, boobies are not endemic to the Galápagos; they are found in other places. But like the other animals, they display a remarkable set of behavioral adaptations that are particularly evident in the Galápagos. Blue-footed Boobies live in flat open areas, and they fish by diving into the water near the coastline. Red-footed Boobies nest in the branches of trees and fi sh far off shore. And Nazca Boobies live on cliffs and fish in areas between the islands.

Galápagos: Life in Motion
by Walter Perez & Michael Weisberg

The Galápagos Islands are home to an amazing variety of iconic creatures, from Giant Tortoises, Galápagos Sea Lions, Galápagos Penguins, and Ghost Crabs to Darwin’s finches, the Blue-footed Booby, and Hummingbird Moths. But how precisely do these animals manage to survive on—and in the waters around—their desert-like volcanic islands, where fresh water is always scarce, food is often hard to come by, and finding a good mate is a challenge because animal populations are so small? In this stunning large-format book, Galápagos experts Walter Perez and Michael Weisberg present an unprecedented photographic account of the remarkable survival behaviors of these beautiful and unique animals. With more than 200 detailed, close-up photographs, the book captures Galápagos animals in action as they feed, play, fight, court, mate, build nests, give birth, raise their young, and cooperate and clash with other species.

Watch male Marine Iguanas fight over territory and females; see frigatebirds steal food and nesting materials from other birds; witness the courtship dance of a pair of Blue-footed Boobies; go underwater to glimpse a Galápagos Sea Lion pup playing with its mother; and observe a baby Pacific Green Turtle enter the water for the first time. These and dozens of other unforgettable senes are all vividly captured here—including many moments that even experienced Galápagos observers may never be lucky enough to see in person.

Complete with a brief text that provides essential context, this book will be cherished by Galápagos visitors and anyone else who wants to see incredible animals on the move.

This post is part of a series, explore additional posts here<< Galápagos: The Islands’ EnvironmentGalápagos: Courtship, Mating, and Birth >>