Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Reptile Haven

Lava Lizard Male
Mammals rule the world, right? Everywhere you go, mammals are the top land beings, and that's the way it's been for a long time, right? Think about the Galapagos islands - 600 miles off the coast of South America and never connected by land to any other place. Everything living there had to arrive by swimming, flying or floating. By and large, mammals can't swim, fly or float 600 miles across the ocean without water or food. Only two species of bat and one species of rat are native to the islands.

Hawksbill Turtle
Reptiles, on the other hand, negotiated long ocean crossings with no fresh water to establish themselves on islands. The Galapagos are one of the rare ecosystems where the top herbivores are reptiles. They rely on external heat sources, so the equatorial sun is ideal, and they use it to control their body heat. There are 23 species of reptiles in the Galapagos, plus some marine visitors and some introduced species. For the most part, they are endemic to the archipelago, and sometimes endemic to only one island.

Galapagos Tortoise - Santa Cruz Island
The most well known reptiles are the giant tortoises. In 1835 when Darwin arrived, the governor said he could tell which island a tortoise came from just by the shape of its shell. Whalers and pirates found little fresh water, but took many of the tortoises as a living meat source, since they didn't need to be fed or watered before slaughter. For lots of facts about them, check out Wikipedia. Most species reach sexual maturity at 20-25 year, and are estimated to live for at least 150 years!

Galapagos Tortoise - Santa Cruz
We saw them on Santa Cruz, where they grazed in the grass like large cattle. When finished dining, they strolled over to the stream, where they look like rocks sitting in the water. If you get too close, they hiss at you! The island of Pinta has only one surviving member of the subspecies there, and Lonesome George now lives at the Darwin Research Center on Santa Cruz.  They've brought him other tempting females, but no luck in breeding more of his kind.

Land Iguana Female
Ah, but the iguanas are fascinating! There are two species of land iguanas, the Conolophus subcristatus, the most common, and the Conolophus pallidus, only found on Santa Fe. Of course, I realized none of this while we were there, I just enjoyed the yellow, smiling iguanas!  This one is a female...

Land Iguana Male
...while the male has large yellow spines. She can't resist anyone as handsome as this! When Darwin visited in 1835, he had trouble pitching his tent owing to the large number of iguana burrows. Their numbers have been reduced by man and man's introduced animals - dogs, pigs, cats and rats. Studies indicate they live as long as 60 years. They eat the pads and fruit of the Opuntia cactus (a large prickly pear), but will also eat other plants and insects when available.
Marine Iguana Sunbathing
The seven races and subspecies of marine iguana are the only sea-going lizard in the world, and their appearance varies from island to island. This is the classic pose, sprawled out flat on a rock or sand to soak up the sun. When warm enough they swim out to sea to dive up to 30 feet deep eating algae, before returning back to the hot rocks. The grey stuff on their heads is likely to be salt, as they can remove it from their systems and snort it up in the air.

Marine Iguana Cooling
To avoid fatal overheating, they turn to face into the sun, reducing the amount of skin being warmed, or they prop up on a rock so cooler air can reach more skin. This is the Espanola marine iguana, easily identified because of the red skin.

Marine Iguana at Sea
Long strong tails help them swim out to sea, and they can remain submerged for 10 minutes or more. How long can you hold your breath? When El Nino comes and the algae die in the warm water, iguana numbers are sharply reduced.
Lava Lizard Female
The first creatures we saw in the islands were some little lava lizards at the airport on Baltra, and they showed up on every island we visited. The females have red on their face and throat, while the male usually has more patterns on his back. Again, there are seven different species of lava lizards, with those on Floreana and Espanola being endemic to those islands in all the world. Their colors tend to blend in with the rock on whatever island they inhabit.

Lava Lizard Territorial Dispute
On North Seymour, we chanced upon two males along the beach, and as we watch, they whipped their tails around, whapping each other in the face several times. Obviously, some serious territorial dispute was in process.
Lava Lizards - coup de grace
After a minute or two of quiet, we started to walk away, when they both leaped forward, taking a big bite on the other, turning in circles while gnawing away! Not interested in a fight to the death, one finally gave up, let go and ran away.
Striped Galapagos Snake
The field guide lists several species of geckos, which we did not see, but only two species of snakes. We were fortunate enough to find the striped Galapagos snake, which resides on only four of the islands.

Any time we rode in the panga, someone would call, "Sea turtle!", and by the time I looked it had gone back under, but we usually found green turtles while we snorkeled. This green (Galapagos black) turtle explored a mangrove swamp called Black Sea Turtle Cove, where we also tracked the hawksbill turtle pictured earlier in this post. They have beautiful star-burst designs on their shell, making them really easy to identify.

Although reptiles are the most common, there still aren't that many species, many are limited to one island and have endangered status. But reptiles here at home run away when people show up, and these take no interest in you at all. How wonderful!

1 comment:

Mary Howell Cromer said...

Oh my, I love all of these, all so very fascianting always, but knowing you are actually there, taking these splendid images, makes it really nice. If I could choose just one, I have always thought the Marine Igauna were neat, and you ahve some splendid captures~