Monday, 14 December 2009

Where the Giants Roam .......... Very Slowly.

In my last post, one of the ugly creatures of the Galapagos raised its unsightly head and snorted salt water all over the place. Since not all is cute and furry on these dry and desolate islands, I have a few more members of to introduce to you. The first is a close relative of the marine iguana and, to quote Charles Darwin, they are "ugly animals, of a yellowish orange beneath, and of a brownish-red colour above: from their low facial angle they have a singularly stupid appearance." Now, Darwin is probably the world’s most famous biologist, but it seems to me that he was not much of an animal lover, unless we are talking about eating it - despite their hideous appearance, the land iguanas of the Galapagos are considered good food, apparently. I suppose if you have been stuck on a boat for months on end eating weevil infested biscuits, pretty much anything starts to taste good.

The Galapagos land iguana (Conolophus subcristatus) belongs to the same family as the marine iguana. It appears to wear a baggy overcoat in hues of yellows and orange that is ten sizes too large. Its snout is not as flattened as its sea faring cousin, due to the fact that the land iguana does not have to scrape seaweed off the surface of rocks and boulders. Instead, our saggy friend prefers to consume vegetation, in particular the prickly pear cactus. This is, of course, covered in very sharp spines, but the land iguana deals with these by rolling the vegetation around in their mouths to remove the spines. I guess the insides of their mouths are as tough as their scaly hides! They will also consume the odd insect and a touch of carrion. On this not so mouth watering diet they can reach lengths of four to five feet and can live to a ripe old age of 50 years.

Life on the Galapagos can be tough for a land iguana. Water is often scarce, but these lizards can satisfy much of their water needs by eating the prickly pear cactus. When it comes to mating, the males have to defend a territory and fight off other males that encroach too closely. The females tend to choose a male with a good territory and a nice burrow that has enough room to provide shelter from the blistering sun. No matter how nice the burrow, even if it has a suitable floor plan, is on a nice quiet cul-de-sac and has an ocean view (can you tell that I am house hunting at the moment?), the female does not hang around. She needs to find a suitable place to lay her eggs and to do this means finding fine, damp soil into which she can dig a deep burrow. Apparently, the female is very picky about where she is going to lay her eggs and some lizards will walk over 15 km, up into the crater of a volcano to find exactly the right conditions for her eggs.

Land iguanas, whose cracked and creviced skin drapes over their bodies like the folded and wrinkled lava flow that cover the islands themselves, are not abundant. Not only do they have to contend with the harshness of everyday island life, but they also have to endure the trials thrown their way by humans. In the past, they were hunted by humans for food and entertainment and now they face loss of habitat, loss of eggs to pigs, dogs, cats and rats and loss of food to goats. Happily, a small population was maintained on one of the smaller, uninhabited islands, and individuals from this population are now being used in a captive breeding program that is reintroducing these fascinating animals back into the wild.

We can now move on to the last of the land dwelling Galapagos creatures that are making a guest appearance on this blog – the giant tortoises (Geochelone nigra). I left them until last because I knew that they wouldn’t stray very far while they were waiting for their turn in the spotlight. These behemoths can only be found in the wild on the isolated islands of the Galapagos and the Seychelles. They belong to an ancient group of reptiles that appeared over 250 million years ago, but only made it to the Galapagos approximately one million years ago – well, they are tortoises, after all. How fast did you think they would get there? They are best known for their size, reaching weights of over 300kg (660lbs) and their longevity, living well into their second century. Harriet, the oldest recorded tortoise, died in 2006 at a ripe old age of approximately 175. I guess you lose count once you pass 100.

I am sure that many of you, as you have been reading these posts, have wondered where the name Galapagos came from. You haven’t? Oh well, I am going to tell you anyway. The shape of the shell of some of the islands tortoises reminded early Spanish explorers of a saddle known as a "gal├ípago" and so the archipelago got its name. The shape of the tortoises shells were also an important influence on the thought processes of Mr. Darwin. He was informed that the island’s inhabitants could distinguish which island they were on by the shape of the tortoises shell. As with the finches, it would appear that an ancestral tortoise arrived on one of the islands. Its descendents spread to the surrounding islands and they slowly adapted to life on their particular island. Some of the islands are wetter than others and have an abundance of grass and other low vegetation. These tortoises grew to larger sizes with a nicely domed shell. On the drier islands, the vegetation is sparser and the prickly pear cacti grow taller. The tortoises on these islands grew longer necks and shells that turn up at the front, allowing them to stretch up higher and higher to reach the succulent cacti on which they feed. There are now at least 12 recognised subspecies of Galapagos tortoises, 11 of which still survive.

Now, you would think that our slow moving friends here would be easy targets for a photographer, wouldn’t you? And yet, this was not actually the case. While they do move very slowly, with an average speed of around 0.3km/h, they are very determined and once they get going they don’t like to stop. It is not as though they need to stop and have a rest to get their breath back, is it? Another issue is the whole “I have had enough of this, now sod off and leave me alone” thing, which inevitably ends up with a photograph of a shell sans head. Once a tortoise has gone to shell, a bit of peace and quiet is required before the head will reappear. Now, this would be fine if it was just me and the tortoise, but, alas, the irksome tourists kept flouncing by. Just as my tortoise would start coming out of its shell, another tourist would stick her face right into its and announce to the world and George, her husband, that it really is very ugly and could he get a photo of her and the turtle. Grrrrr on so many levels. If looks could kill, the bodies would have been piling up on Santa Cruz that day.

The tortoises of the Galapagos used to roam the islands in the thousands. Today, many of the islands have lost all of their tortoises and they only survive in captivity. This precipitous decline in numbers can be attributed, once again, to humans. Before the islands were colonised they were regularly used by seafaring vessels as a base for restocking on food and water. The tortoises were considered an excellent source of fresh meat, since a tortoise can survive for over a year without food or water. According to Darwin, the young tortoises make very good soup and the breast plate roasted with the flesh on is very good. As a bonus, their diluted urine can be used as drinking water – how lovely, I am sure that it goes very well with weevils and land iguana, with a spot of booby. In more recent times, habitat loss and the introduction of feral animals have further depleted their numbers. There is now an active breeding program at the Darwin Research Centre, where the different subspecies are breed and their offspring are returned to their native islands once they are large enough to fend for themselves.

Well, that is pretty much me done. I shall leave you with a couple more animals that at first glance might appear ugly, but if you take your time to really look at them .......... no really look ........... get closer ........... even closer. There, you see, they really are gorgeous, aren’t they? The first is a little lava lizard, Tropidurus albemarlensis. These gorgeous little guys are to be found skittering around all over the apparently dead and lifeless lava fields, scurrying away just before your foot meets rock, avoiding the very flat lizard between a rock and a hard place scenario. Once you got your eye in, you could find these lizards everywhere and each one seemed to have its own little colour scheme. This one has opted for the red and electric blue look, quite spectacular in its own little way.

The second is the Sally Lightfoot crab, Grapsus grapsus. These crabs dance around the rocks on their tiptoes, easy to see, but difficult to catch. As you walk across the black, desolate rocks, you will find a wave of brilliant orange and flashing red fanning out before you as these crabs skitter and scurry ahead of you, always one step ahead. It is said that they are named after a nineteenth century night club dancer, who captivated, teased and tantalised her audience with a swirling red and yellow dress. Hmmm, I am not entirely sure that I would want a crab named after me.

If anyone is interested, my Galapagos trip was on board the MV Flamingo I, one of the boats operated by Ecoventura. I can highly recommend them and my guide, Edwin. He may look like a bit of an idiot in this photo but, to be fair, he is explaining to us how the waved albatross has to exercise its wings as a juvenile before taking off to spend its life roaming the open ocean. If anyone would like any details about this trip or any of my other South American excursions, please feel free to email me and I would be more than happy to pass on any information that I can.


Cortes said...

Exceptional! Another great story with very dramatic photos. I do like the tortoises, and was amazed with the ones I saw in Palau. They are quite ungainly, but somehow endearing.

I do think the Iguanas are overly wrinkled, and a bit on the scaly side but such is life! Great post. Now I can look forward to the underwater shots! I can hardly wait, as it has only been a year. Keep up the great work my friend!

Suldog said...

I rather like the iguana. Looks contented and warm.

Jay said...

Great post - as usual! Most interesting about the shape of the tortoises' shells and food supply. I'm a bit concerned about your ongoing lack of facial features though. You haven't been scraping seaweed off rocks with your teeth, have you?


Kate said...

Tortoises are lovely creatures aren't they - when I was quite small we had two small ones as pets and they were so sweet - they lived for years....

Sistertex said...

Sally I agree maybe not to big on having a crab named after me. However, the photos are fantastic. Thanks so much for this very enlightening tour of an area I may never get to see otherwise.

Another excellent post!

Don't Bug Me! said...

Cortes: The next post is all yours - better late than never!

Suldog: I like his smile.

Jay: My dentist would not be best pleased if I did that. He seems to think his veneers are a work of art.

Kate: I remember the Blue Peter tortoise and how they put him in a box of straw every year to hibernate.

Sistertex: Thank you! You are always so kind.

Kate said...

ours were put into boxes and packed carefully in the shed until spring - they were so sweet - my brother and I held races (?) up the garden - mine usually won but only because my brother gave up!
They were called Thunder and Ligtning!!!

Kate said...

I was going to say exceptional too. Fab post, images clear and classy. Thank you!

Baino said...

Aww I don't think they're ugly at all. The iguanas look like they're smiling and I'm a sucker for a big tortoise! Very informative as usual. I had no idea how the islands were named. As for soup, seems cruel and unusual. We still allow certain aboriginal people to harvest sea turtles because whilst they're protected, they are also a traditional food source for particularly the northern and Torres strait people. It doesn't seem right though when these people have access to food other than bush tucker.