The Galápagos Tortoise Is The Ultimate Conservationist

Drawing on their large reserves of water and fat, Galápagos tortoises can survive an incredibly long time—up to a year—without fresh nutrients. While this adaptation has undoubtedly helped over centuries, sadly, it’s also hurt: their efficiency made them stowable provisions for pirates and whalers on long journeys in the 18th and 19th centuries, vastly depleting their numbers in Galápagos. Today, after decades of work by conservationists, they’re on the rebound.


For more incredible facts about the history of this rarified reptile, read on!


Ecosystem engineers. The tortoises’ resurgence bodes very well not only for human visitors, but the native wildlife of Galápagos, too. As natural migrators between high- and low-lands, the tortoises trample brush to create pathways for other animals to enjoy, disperse seeds, and perform other crucial tasks. They even help the islands’ mockingbirds and finches by allowing them to feed on insects hidden in the folds of the skin in their necks.


Bigger was better. Survival itself is what appeared to make the Galápagos tortoises so extraordinarily large, with many surpassing 500 pounds. These tortoises lived on mainland South America millions of years ago, and when they floated about 700 miles to Galápagos some two or three million years ago, the large ones—with their ability to hold their heads high above the water—would have had a better chance to make it.


Then there were two. While they used to thrive on many continents, giant tortoises only remain in two remote archipelagos: the Galápagos and the Seychelles in the Indian Ocean. But they’re actually two separate species, with the Galápagos group once migrating from mainland South America and the Seychelles tortoise related to an extinct species from Madagascar.


What’s her secret? A famed Galápagos tortoise at the Australia Zoo, Harriet, lived to be more than 170-years-old before dying in 2006. It’s unknown if her age is truly a record because these giants live far too long for us to tell. Luckily, because of tagging and conservation efforts, future generations will have a better answer than we do.  


Mounting a comeback. Galápagos tortoises were under attack for centuries, not only by pirates for their low-maintenance meat, but also by invasive species like rats who targeted their eggs. Since the population dropped to about 3,000 in the 1970s, humans have stepped up by eradicating nuisance species, protecting egg nests, and starting captive breeding programs. While tortoises are still considered vulnerable, it’s estimated that the population has climbed to over 20,000. 


JOIN RUSS MITTERMEIER NOV. 16, 2018 aboard National Geographic Endeavour II


Travel with Russ Mittermeier, Chief Conservation Officer of Global Wildlife Conservation and board member of The Turtle Conservancy, on a 10-day unrivaled, active exploration of the Galápagos. Hike, kayak, snorkel with sea turtles, and have up-close encounters with giant tortoises in their natural habitat.



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