7 facts about Galápagos giant tortoises you definitely didn’t know
Galápagos giant tortoises can live to over 150 years old? That’s old news! Zookeeper Charli Ellis shares her top seven facts about Galápagos giant tortoises that we bet you didn’t know
1. The tallest tortoise is in charge!
Dominance is decided by who can stretch their neck and head the highest. Galápagos giant tortoises will stand facing each other and compare heights to decide who gets dibs on the best food, resting spots and basking areas. In our group of three females, Dolly is slightly taller than Polly and Priscilla, just enough to give her the edge!
2. They are the very big brother of the tortoise world
Galápagos giant tortoises are approximately 100 times bigger than their closest living relative, the Chaco tortoise from South America, and certain species can weigh over 300kg – that’s the weight of almost 70 domestic cats or almost four washing machines!
3. They might look tough, but they have a sensitive side
The surface of the shell or carapace is full of blood vessels and nerves, making it very sensitive to touch. It’s also a made of a honeycomb-like structure and is relatively light, allowing the tortoise to be able to walk around. The bottom of the shell, or plastron, is more solid and protects the bottom of the tortoise form any bumps and scrapes when moving over rocky ground. Galápagos giant tortoises can’t walk out of their shells like you see in cartoons either! The ribs and backbone of a tortoise are fused to the bones in its shell.
4. It’s thought that giant tortoises evolved to fill the ecological niche on islands that large herbivores (like deer or rhino) would normally fill
Sadly, outside of the Galápagos Islands there is only one remaining giant, terrestrial tortoise species in the world, the Aldabra tortoises of the Seychelles. Others have gone extinct in the Canary Islands, Mauritius and the Caribbean – often due to hunting or the introduction of invasive species, both by humans.
5. Which makes our Dolly, Polly and Priscilla even more special!
Galápagos giant tortoises are considered a conservation success story because of their continued recovery from the brink of extinction. They were almost wiped out by whalers and buccaneers, who stopped at the islands and collected the tortoises for food on long sailing expeditions. They also brought animals with them, like pigs and rats, who ate the tortoises’ eggs, or donkeys and goats, who ate the tortoises’ food. Thankfully, reintroduction programmes, efforts to help the tortoises breed, habitat restoration and the removal of invasive predators have made a real difference, helping the Galápagos giant tortoise populations on Española and Pinzón to recover.
6. Galapagos giant tortoises disappear until they are around five years old
Baby Galápagos giant tortoises hatch out of tennis ball sized eggs, laid underground in a nest dug by the female, but nobody knows what they get up to next. It’s a mystery that’s referred to as ‘the lost years’ by conservationists, and the tortoises don’t turn up again until they are around five years old and 50cm long. Which is just big enough that the tortoise’s only native predator – the Galápagos hawk (above) – can’t carry them off! Conservationists are working hard to find out what they get up to during the lost years.
7. They have very green fingers
Giant tortoises are considered the ‘gardeners’ or ‘ecosystem engineers’ of the Galápagos Archipelago. They trample vegetation and create permanent trails, dig holes for their nests, consume vegetation and disperse seeds and nutrients across the islands in their poo!
Gold members receive articles like this one three times a year in our Wild About magazine. To get your paws onto the next edition, and to visit the Galapagos tortoises as often as you like, become a Gold member today.
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