Blue-footed, Red-footed and Nazca Boobies on Galapagos Cruises

The Galapagos Islands harbors three species of boobies, seabirds from the family Sulidae; the red-footed booby, blue-footed booby, and Nazca booby. All three breed and forage in and around the Galapagos Archipelago, often overlapping, however none are endemic to the Galapagos Islands. Our Galapagos cruise visits breeding colonies of all three species.

Red-footed boobies, Sula sula, are found in all tropical oceans around the world. They display the most variation in seemingly arbitrary color phases. In Galapagos the majority are of the brown morphotype, the entire body covered in a warm brown plumage. Apart from the unmistakable red, webbed feet, the face is the most outstanding feature of this beautiful bird. The bill is of a sky-blue coloration from the tip to the eyes, with a pink flush between the eyes and around the chin. These boobies are the smallest of the three species found in the Galapagos Islands and feed out at sea primarily on squid and flying fish. Their colonies found on the most remote outer islands, are the most numerous of the three species of boobies in the Galapagos Islands with an estimated population of over a quarter-million individuals. They nest in trees, grasping branches with their prehensile, webbed feet. This makes them unusual among the predominantly ground-nesting members of the Sula genus; they lay only one egg and breed annually.

The most recognized and famous of all are the blue-footed boobies, Sula nebouxii, with their unbelievably bright blue feet. Foot color is structurally (collagen arrays) and pigment based and in two days of food deprivation-experiments, foot color became duller and brighter when they were re-fed with fresh fish, suggesting that carotenoid-pigmentation is a good and honest signal of health and is the preferred foot color during courtship (Torres, Velando, 2003). Blue-footed boobies are called “opportunistic breeders” meaning they do not restrict themselves to specific times of year for breeding. Rather, they can take advantage of out-of-season fish abundance to raise a brood if possible and will normally lay up to three eggs, although more are possible on years of unusual fish abundance. Blue-footed boobies fish close to shore, and there is a slight size variation between males and females which helps in the division of resources, as it allows males to dive in even shallower water than females. On our Galapagos cruises we visit several of the largest blue-footed booby colonies in the Galapagos Islands.

The Nazca booby, Sula granti dactylatra, was formerly regarded as a subspecies of the masked booby but in 2002 was recognized as a separate species. The two populations differ in regard to ecological and morphological as well as mtDNA cytochrome b sequence data. The Nazca booby foraging and breeding range extends over the Nazca tectonic plate (therefore the chosen name), but co-occurs with the masked booby on Clipperton Island, where they may rarely hybridize. This largest of all the Galapagos Island boobies has breeding colonies on many islands and off-shore rocks around the archipelago. On your next Galapagos cruise, you may often see them foraging between the islands in deeper waters. Their plumage is considered to be the “whitest white” in the natural world, and is accentuated by dramatic black primary feathers on the wings and a small band across the eyes. Nazca boobies have been studied intensively by Dr. Anderson, of Wake Forest University, and he has described new and unusual behaviors previously little understood about this species. Nazca boobies are often seen on our Galapagos cruises as we Zodiac past rocky outcrops and coastlines in the archipelago.

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