The galapagos tortoise, also called the galapagos giant tortoise, for good reason, lives only in the Galapagos Islands, which are about 600 miles west from the coast of Ecuador in South America. These gentle galapagos giants are vegetarians. Because they can store food and water so well, these animals are thought to be able to go a year without eating or drinking!
These tortoises can sometimes grow up to 6 feet (1.8 m) from head to tail, and weigh a huge 500 pounds (227 kg). That’s as long as an average adult is tall! These tortoises are the largest species of turtles and tortoises. Females are smaller and often weigh only half as much as the males. Currently the largest living galapagos tortoise is an 880 pound (400 kg) captive male living in Florida. Despite their large size, they are very, very slow with a top speed of .16 miles per hour (.25 kph). This means that it would take these tortoises 6 hours just to go one mile (or 4 hours to go one kilometer)! Although these tremendous tortoises were made with thick legs to support their big body, they often lie down (as much as a tortoise can) to conserve energy.
There are two different “types” in this species: ones with domed shells, and ones with saddle-backed shells. The one in the above picture is a saddle-backed tortoise. The main difference between these two types is the shape of the shell or carapace. In saddle-backed tortoises the edge of the shell right next to the neck is curved up, but in domed tortoises the shell does not curve. It has been observed that tortoises living in regions with lower vegetation have domed shells and individuals living in regions with the vegetation higher off the ground have saddle-backed shells. These tortoises may have been created so that the tortoises living in regions with higher plants are able to reach these plants easier. Not as much of their body weight comes from their shell as you may think. While this protection of theirs may seem like it is solid, it is actually formed by many honeycomb-like structures which surround pockets of air. Their already heavy body would be much heavier if these shells were solid.
If one of these tortoises feels threatened, it will pull its body into its shell with a hiss. This hiss is not made on purpose but is actually air going out of the animal’s lungs to allow room for the new temporary inhabitants of the shell: head, leg, leg, leg, and leg. Sometimes fights break out among the male tortoises, but these fights are not violent. The contests will face each other and open their mouths. Then they will raise their heads as high as they can, and the tortoises that is able to raise its head the highest wins despite body size. These fights are used to decide many things including who gets to eat certain food, who owns a territory, and who can mate. The picture right above this shows one such fight.
In between the age of 20 and 25 years, these tortoises begin to mate. The mating season starts in January and goes all the way to August. During this eight month period, dominant males will “attack” females and force them to mate. The eggs, up to 16 of them, are laid in hole which the females dig. These holes are around 12 inches (30 cm) deep and are dug in dry, sandy soil. Four to eight months later, the young hatch and, if they are lucky, survive for up to 200 years, making them the longest living vertebrates.
The Galapagos Islands were actually named for the galapagos tortoises and not the other way around. The name Galapagos may have come from the Spanish word “galapago” meaning “tortoise” or from a similar older Spanish word meaning “saddle” referring to these tortoise’s saddle-backed shells.
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- Smithsonian Handbooks Reptiles and Amphibians. Mark O’Shea and Tim Halliday, Smithsonian Institution, ISBN: 978-0-7566-6009-3
- Animals of the world. Tom Jackson, ISBN: 978-1780191089
- Animal: The Definitive Visual Guide. David Burnie and Don E. Wilson, Smithsonian Institution, ISBN: 978-0-7566-6002-4
- Galapagos tortoise: Wikipedia user: mtkopone
- Galapagos tortoises fighting: Flicker user: lightmatter
- Mystery animal:Wikipedia user: Bartus.malec