Galapagos Diary: The Story of a Tortoise

Huge Creatures Making Slow Come Back

A giant Galapagos tortoise, the size of an old-fashioned bath tub, sat in the morning shade at the edge of a muddy pond in the highlands of Santa Cruz Island. It pushed its angular head slowly out of its thick dark shell. It put its face into the water and drank.

“A tortoise of this size can live up to a year without eating or drinking,” said Washington Paredes, a Galapagos National Park guide who was watching the tortoise that morning. The tortoise inched forward across the scruffy Galapagos field, paused and started again . Its heavy body scraped along over the mud and grass and scrub brush. It chomped on grass . When someone got close, the tortoise hissed .

The giant tortoise is a survival expert, perfectly suited to the arid climate of the Galapagos Islands, in the Pacific , 600 miles off the coast of Ecuador. The more than a dozen islands of the Galapagos are a province of Ecuador.  The tortoise is a symbol of the islands. It images are on brochures and posters and on official entry documents to the Galapagos.

The Spanish word galapago means tortoise. The tortoise feeds on cacti, grass, leaves and fruit. It especially likes a poison apple called the manzanillo that can be fatal for people. Sometimes, the famous Galapagos finches that were so important in Charles Darwin’s research on evolution twitter around the tortoises .

Galapagos tortoises often live more than 100 years and grow larger than all other kinds of tortoises. It is not unusual for Galapagos tortoises to get to be five feet long and weigh up to 700 pounds. The next largest tortoise is the Aldabra giant tortoise that lives in the Seychelle Islands in the Indian Ocean, 500 miles north of Madagascar. Aldabra tortoises weight an average of 550 pounds. The largest Galapagos tortoise weighted in at 880 pounds.

Galapagos tortoises are among the most powerful animals in the islands. But they are vulnerable when they hatch. They are so small they can fit in the palm of your hand. And Galapagos hawks snatch them up and make a snack of them as they often do with Galapagos marine iguanas .

Tortoises lay clusters of eggs and many of the eggs are eaten by rats and dogs. Tortoises that survive their first four years go on to live for decades. At four years of age they are often two feet in diameter. Nothing in the islands can hurt them – except people. And, according to the law, people have to leave them alone.

In the great days of sailing ships, pirates and seamen captured hundreds of tortoises in a single day. They threw them in the hold of their ships, upside down on their shells. The tortoises could live like that for months. When the sailors wanted fresh meat, they slaughtered a tortoise.

When people began living on the islands in 1832, giant tortoises were a favorite meal. The tradition carried on into modern times. Fausto Cartagena, a 59-year-old Galapagos National Park guide, grew up in the islands. He says he ate tortoises as a child .

“They are delicious,” he said. “They don’t taste like any other meat.”

It was not illegal to kill tortoises until 1970. Scientists estimate that at their peak there were 250,000 giant tortoises in the Galapagos.

Carl Winge
Carl Winge

By the time their slaughter was outlawed, experts say, about 3,000 tortoises were left. After decades of work to restore the tortoise population, the Darwin Research Center on Santa Cruz island estimates that their numbers have grown to about 25,000. The restoration work continues and it seems to move as slowly as the tortoises themselves. One insurmountable problem: it takes 25 years for tortoises to reach sexual maturity and be able to produce more tortoises. At one point, wild goats were endangering the tortoises by eating their favorite foods, grass and scrub brush. The government went on the hunt and killed thousands of goats.

That morning on Santa Cruz Island, another big tortoise dragged itself over the muddy ground in a thicket of cedar trees near the pond. It lifted its hulking body just clear of the ground and deliberately pushed itself forward with its right rear leg and reach forward with its left front leg. Then it pushed forward with it’s left rear leg and gripped the ground with its right front leg. It kept going like that. Lunge. Lurch. Pause. Lunge. Lurch .

Leaves and grass crunched under the tortoise .

When someone approached, the tortoise drew back its long, flabby neck and angular head into its shell. Sometimes it hissed like a frightened tomcat .

A good-sized papaya had fallen to the ground near the tortoise. The tortoise chomped into the fruit, took a mouthful and dropped the rest. Over the next half hour it finished off the fruit .

Further along, another tortoise was munching on little round passion fruits that looked like yellow tomatoes. Paredes, the National Parks guide, had seen it all before. But he said he never tires of watching the tortoises . “The tortoise cannot climb trees,” he said, “so it is happy when it finds fruit on the ground.” #

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One response to “Galapagos Diary: The Story of a Tortoise”

  1. Tony Tassoni says:

    The hissing of the tortoise is caused by the exhalation of the it’s lungs. Once the lungs have deflated the tortoise can withdraw its neck fully into the shell. When they do this suddenly, this usual means the tortoise is frightened and is in protection mode.