Galapagos Endemic Animals

February 11th, 2011

Visitors to the Galapagos Islands will hear their guides talk about three different sorts of animals and plants. The terms used to describe them are endemic, native and introduced. What’s the difference? Endemic animals are only found in Galapagos: the marine iguana is one example. Native animals are found naturally in Galapagos and elsewhere: the Frigate bird is a good example. Introduced species are found in Galapagos because they were brought there by humans, either intentionally or not. The goat is an example of an introduced species. For obvious reasons, it’s the endemic species that people come to see! Here’s the scoop on endemic Galapagos species.

How did endemic species get to Galapagos?

Human visitors to the Galapagos currently have four different touring options to visit the islands, but the story unfolds differently for the Galapagos wildlife: Every endemic Galapagos species took a different path to the islands ages ago. Animals such as iguanas, rice rats and tortoises are generally thought to have come from the South American mainland. The usual scenario that is pictured goes something like this: in a rough storm, some animals get flooded out of their homes and into a river, where they cling to a fallen tree or some other clump of vegetation. The river washes them out to sea, where they miraculously survive until they wash up in Galapagos. Birds and bats could, of course, fly to the islands, and it is thought that marine animals like sea lions and penguins were brought there by freakish storms that took them so far away from their homes.

Why are there so many endemic reptiles and so few endemic mammals?

The answer has to do with how hard it is to get to Galapagos. A reptile, like a snake or a lizard, needs much less food and water than a mammal (at least short-term) and is less sensitive to strong sunshine. Therefore, if a storm washes an iguana and a cat out to sea, both clinging to the same dead tree, which one do you suppose will last longer? Because Galapagos is so far away from the mainland, only the hardiest species can survive the journey. Once on the island, the reptiles took the environmental niches usually reserved for mammals: giant tortoises are large herbivores because animals like goats and horses do not naturally exist there.

What do endemic species have to do with evolution?

They have everything to do with evolution! Endemic species are ones that evolved from something else. Take the marine iguana. Ages ago, some South American iguanas were washed out to Galapagos somehow. South American iguanas generally live in trees, eat plants and do not swim unless they have to. Once on the islands, the iguanas came out of the trees, developed the ability to swim and hold their breath and now eat algae. Something similar happened with the 13 different species of finch in the Galapagos, all of whom are descended from a common ancestor. Each finch evolved to fill an available environmental niche!  Further information about evolution and the important role Galapagos Islands played in this important theory can be found by visiting.

What are some of the more famous Galapagos endemic species?

There are many of them, so it’s hard to choose. The most famous reptiles include the Giant Tortoise and the three iguana species as well as lava lizards and snakes. Special birds include the Galapagos Penguin, Waved Albatross, Galapagos Hawk and Flightless Cormorant. The most famous endemic mammals in the islands are the Galapagos sea lions.

Do the endemic species get special treatment?

Endemic species, by their nature, are considered at-risk. Some endemic species, like the Galapagos petrel or Floreana Mockingbird, have such low numbers that researchers count individuals. The Galapagos pink iguana only lives on one volcano on Isabela Island: should that volcano erupt, the population might be wiped out. Endemic species are therefore protected with a number of programs: sea lions are monitored, penguins and cormorants are counted every year, hawks are tagged, etc. Scientists and park rangers are doing their best to preserve endemic species.

Visitors to Galapagos also get special treatment in the islands, and your dream vacation to see all of these amazing endemic species can come true today!


About galapagosexpert

A free lance writer, diver, photographer and citizen of the world, based in the Galapagos Islands.
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