14 Unique Animals of the Galapagos Islands

Distinctive wildlife

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With a treasure trove of endemic species, the Galapagos Islands are renowned for natural wonders and unique wildlife. Darwin's studies of the plants and animals there played a pivotal role in the development of his theory of natural selection. Traveling to the Galapagos Islands is on every amateur naturalist's bucket list, and here are many of the reasons why: check out some of the unique animals that reside there.

Galapagos tortoises

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These giant tortoises are so iconic that the islands were named after them ("galapago" means "tortoise" in Spanish). They are the largest tortoises in the world and among the longest living vertebrates, with potential lifespans in excess of 170 years.

In the absence of any major predators, adult tortoises evolved a docile demeanor, which unfortunately made them easy to exploit by early human settlers. It has been estimated that a population in excess of 250,000 once existed on the islands as recently as 200 years ago, but there are about 20,000-25,000 alive today.

The good news is that intense conservation efforts have been successful for most of the subspecies, and the islands' tortoise populations are, for the most part, on the rebound.

Marine iguana

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This incredibly unusual species of iguana is the only extant (or still existing) marine lizard on Earth. It likely evolved its marine lifestyle because of the sparsity of nutritious vegetation on land, opting instead for seaweed. To filter out the excess salt that it consumes, this iguana has specialized nasal glands that filter the salt and expel it from the nostrils.

Flightless cormorant

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A candidate for the most unusual endemic species on the Galapagos, the flightless cormorant is the only cormorant in the world that has lost the ability to fly. As a result, it has also been able to grow rather large; it is the heaviest cormorant species in the world.

Because this species does not fly, it is susceptible to predation from introduced predators such as dogs, cats, rats and pigs. Today only around 1,600 of these special birds exist.

Galapagos finches

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Since they played such an important role in the development of Darwin's theory of natural selection, the remarkable finches of the Galapagos are among the most famous animals on the islands. Around 13 different species exist, though they all evolved from a single ancestral species. Each species is most easily distinguished by differences in beak size and shape.

The evolution of the finches of the Galapagos illustrate an ideal example of adaptive radiation, in which organisms diversify rapidly.

Galapagos penguin

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One of the smallest penguins in the world, the Galapagos penguin is also the only penguin in the world that lives north of the equator. It can only be found in the Galapagos.

Like many species of penguin, these creatures form monogamous pair bonds and typically mate for life.

Galapagos fur seal

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There are few endemic species of mammal in the Galapagos, but the Galapagos fur seal is one of the exceptions. They are the smallest eared seal in the world.

These creatures are also one of the most land-loving seals in the world, spending around 70 percent of their time out of the water. Their raucous, charismatic barks are a familiar sound to anyone who has ever visited the islands.

Blue-footed boobies

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The funny name almost matches these creatures' funny look. Blue-footed boobies are most easily recognized by their signature feet. The birds' mating ritual is also an entertaining affair, as males lift their feet up and down in a strutting display for the females.

Interestingly, the blueness of their feet is also an indicator of a bird's health, since the color comes from pigments obtained from a diet of fresh fish.

They are not found exclusively on the Galapagos Islands, but about half of the world's population breeds there.

Galapagos hawk

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As the only diurnal raptor to inhabit the islands, the Galapagos hawk is hard to miss. Though it mostly preys on small animals such as locusts, centipedes and lizards, this raptor is a top predator and has been known to swoop down on iguanas and giant tortoise hatchlings.

Despite being a top predator, the hawks' population is not particularly high, with an estimated 400-500 adults and 300-400 juveniles. Hunting by humans — the hawks also enjoy farm animals, like goats — and its small pool of prey has kept the population from growing.

Lava lizards

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One of the most common animals found on the Galapagos are the islands' small lizards, often affectionately referred to as "lava lizards." There are at least seven recognized species, each with unique traits. Like with the Galapagos' finches, the variety of species of lava lizards represent a remarkable example of adaptive radiation.

Magnificent frigatebird

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There are few birds easier to recognize than male magnificent frigatebirds. They have a giant red throat pouch which makes for a bright, stunning display when fully inflated. It's almost comical to see them puff up. Of course, the brighter the pouch, the more attractive they appear to females.

Though magnificent frigatebirds are migratory birds found across the Atlantic Ocean and Central and South America, the colonies that inhabit the Galapagos are thought to be genetically distinct, not having bred with mainland counterparts for several hundred thousand years.

Large painted locusts

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These beautiful colorful locusts, endemic to the Galapagos Islands, typically grow to around 8 centimeters in length. The large painted locusts are an important part of the food chain on the islands, serving as principal prey for lava lizards and the Galapagos hawk.

Waved albatross

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The largest bird found on the Galapagos is the waved albatross. It's also the only species of albatross found entirely in the tropics. Though the species soars over long distances, it breeds exclusively on the Galapagos Islands.

These beautiful birds mate for life, and have one of nature's more charming mating rituals. They clack their beaks together in rapid circles, almost like a clumsy form of kissing. Between “kisses,” they raise their bills skyward and let out a "whooo-ooo" call.

Galapagos mockingbird

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The finches of the Galapagos get much of the credit for the formation of Darwin's theory of natural selection, but the Galapagos mockingbird may have been the first example of adaptive radiation that Darwin encountered on the islands. This common bird was the first one Darwin found that showed distinct adaptive differences from island to island.

Though they can fly, Galapagos mockingbirds are also known to hunt by running after prey, which occasionally gets them compared to roadrunners.

Sally Lightfoots

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Though these colorful crabs can be found along most of the Pacific Coast of the Americas, the population in the Galapagos exhibit a distinctive behavior. They are often observed in symbiosis with the islands' marine iguanas, cleaning ticks from the lizards' skin.

The beautiful, rainbow-like coloration of the Sally Lightfoots understandably makes them a popular target for photographers who visit the Galapagos.