#LoveSpecies nominee: Galapagos giant tortoise Nominated by: Ecology Project International
Why do you love it?
How can you not love that long, wrinkly neck, its grandpa face, and friendly shuffle? If that doesn’t do it for you, the Galapagos giant tortoise has had such an impressive impact on history, science, and its ecosystem that it’s sure to win over hearts around the world. Endemic to the Galapagos Islands off the coast of Ecuador, this tortoise is one of only two distinct populations of giant tortoises remaining on the planet. Large and slow, giant tortoises are considered to be the oldest-living vertebrates in the world, with one who lived to the impressive age of 152.
The Galapagos tortoise shares its name with the islands it inhabits, but it was the islands that were named after the tortoise, not the other way around. Sixteenth century Spanish explorers who visited the islands named the islands after the word “galápago,” a Spanish term for “saddle,” after the shape of some of the tortoise’s carapaces. The Galapagos tortoise has no natural predators and thus has evolved to be large, slow and calm. Unfortunately, this made the gentle giant an easy and long-lasting meal for explorers, sailors, and eventually, local inhabitants.
Though all giant tortoises that inhabit the Galapagos Islands are the same species, Geochelone nigra, 15 subspecies have been recorded varying in size and carapace shape. These morphological differences are believed to be the result of the varying habitats and subsequent environmental pressures that exist across the islands. The Galapagos Islands with their many endemic species and varying subspecies, including the Galapagos giant tortoise, are famous for being the inspiration for Darwin’s theory of natural selection, a driver of evolution.
What are the threats to the Galapagos giant tortoise?
Each of the 11 living subspecies of Galapagos giant tortoise fall under the Vulnerable, Critically Endangered, or Endangered classifications on the IUCN Red List, and several have already gone extinct. The main causes for their decline are historical harvesting for food and oil, habitat loss due to farming and agriculture, and the introduction of larger mammals like pigs, dogs, cats, and rodents that prey on young tortoises and eggs, as Galapagos tortoises have no natural predators.
Estimates claim about 250,000 tortoises inhabited the islands before major human interference. Population estimates dropped as low as 3,000 in the late 20th century. Current estimates put the number of living tortoises somewhere around 20,000.
What are you doing to save it?
Since 2003, Ecology Project International (EPI) has engaged 3,225 local Galapagos youth and visiting U.S. students in giant tortoise field science and conservation education. Both local and visiting students learn ecology and biology firsthand while performing field research on giant tortoises with world renowned scientist Dr. Stephen Blake. While collecting data on this keystone species, they also perform service work, helping to remove invasive plants and restore native habitat to ensure the survival of Galapagos’ wildlife and the protection of its vulnerable ecosystems. Pre-course and post-course programming provides additional leadership skills to local youth that build critical thinking skills, a personal conservation ethic, and an awareness of environmental issues facing the Galapagos.
Additionally, in a unique partnership with the Galapagos National Park, EPI provides a year-long conservation education degree program to all Galapagos high school juniors. Approved by the Ecuadorian Ministry of Education, this program engaged 50% of all Galapagueño students (age 14-15) within the first year. These students are the next generation; they hold the key to long-lasting conservation efforts of the Galapagos giant tortoise, and of many other species, on these incredible islands.