The giant tortoise is one of the biggest living reptiles, and they have the longest life from all vertebrates, living more than 100 years. The oldest tortoise known on record was 152 years. No reliable data exists to tell the age of a tortoise; however, fungi found in the carapaces, together with blood tests can help determine an approximate age. There are now only 11 species, 4 less than when Darwin visited the islands. Currently, they live in 7 different islands of the archipelago. They have struggled through volcanic eruptions, fires, hunting and introduced species threats. There are about 15 thousand tortoises living in the islands.

Their first ancestor is thought to have first arrived in San Cristobal Island. All the species were before considered subspecies of Chelonoidis nigra, but today each one are plain species. Darwin noticed the difference in the shell shapes of the tortoises according to each island, reaching to the conclusion that they all changed from one single ancestor to the different environments of each island, although the saddle backed shape is thought to have evolved independently from the others.

How did the giant tortoises arrive and establish in the islands? The theory states that these giant reptiles were transported by massive floating platforms that were built naturally by heavy rains on the amazon that put down and stocked many trees together. Tortoises most likely walked on these platforms to cross a river, or to feed, or maybe by mistake and then later got carried with the river currents to the ocean and then to the Galapagos in a long journey in which most animals died. These tortoises were better prepared for the environment of the Galapagos and this journey than many other animals, having the ability to survive without much food or water. This allowed them to reproduce and spread around.  Once on the islands, after consecutive similar events happening many times during a long period of time, they started developing adaptations to feeding and walking around the isolated different islands of the archipelago.

There are two carapace shapes: the dome, and the saddle-backed. All tortoises have adapted to the vegetation and landscape of their surroundings. Males are bigger than females, and also have a longer and thicker tail where they have their reproductive organ.

They can weight to 300k (660lb), are as large as 1.50m (5ft), and reach sexual maturity at the age of 20 to 25 years. They are herbivores and feed on more than 50 kinds of plants including a poisoned apple tree, endemic guava, opuntia and fruits. It takes them from 1 to 3 weeks to digest their food, and have inefficient digestive tracks. Their slow metabolism and water reserves allow them to live up to around one year without food or water. They spend more than 15 hours a day resting.

They reproduce at any time of the year, but prefer the wet season. Turtles lay from 4 to 15 eggs in the warm grounds of the lowlands. Hatching occurs mostly in the months of December to April. They can be seen usually in the highlands of the islands, taking refreshing mud baths and nesting in the lowlands on a hot day.

Where to find them

They populated 7 of the islands (Española, Fernandina, Pinzón, San Cristóbal, Santa Cruz, Santa Fe and Santiago), and can be easily seen in the highlands of Santa Cruz, Isabela, San Cristobal and Española.

The icon of the Galapagos Islands: Lonesome George

A native of the Galapagos Islands has turned into a world-renowned icon.   About 100 years old, this giant tortoise is the symbol of the islands and he is a story of the importance of the preservation of species.

Lonesome George was a giant tortoise from the island of Pinta in the northern regions of the Galapagos Archipelago. As throughout the rest of the islands, Pinta tortoises were over-exploited by whalers, seamen, and others in the 1800s.

The Pinta tortoise was thought to be extinct in the early part of the 20th century. However, in 1971, József Vágvölgyi, a Hungarian scientist, and his wife saw a tortoise on the island – the Lonesome George.  The American media began to refer to the tortoise as Lonesome George – after George Gobel, an American TV comedian.

In the spring of 1972, the Galapagos National Park rangers brought the tortoise to the Charles Darwin Research Station on Santa Cruz Island, for its protection, and for further studies.

There was the hope, that a female giant tortoises would be found in zoos around the world or in Pinta Island, in order to reproduce them with George and save the species.  However, after many years of search and even monetary rewards offered; a female of the same genetics was never found.

Lonesome George was put in a natural environment in the Charles Darwin Station and lived with two female tortoises of similar species.  With luck, he would reproduce with them and we could save at least 50% of his genetic material.  However, time passed and he mated several times, producing infertile eggs.

The giant tortoise, prehistoric-like animals are only found in two places on the planet and one of them is the Galapagos Islands.   They played a very important role in Darwin’s Theory of Evolution. They started developing adaptations to feeding and walking around the isolated different islands of the archipelago. He observed that the tortoises had different shapes in their shells, thus, concluding their adaptation to the specific environment they lived in.

There are now only 11 species, 4 less than when Darwin visited the islands. Currently, there are populations in 7 different islands of the archipelago. They have struggled through volcanic eruptions, fires, hunting and introduced species threats.

After a long life, Lonesome George died the 24th of June, 2012, with approximately 100 years of age.  Ecuador realized the importance of Lonesome George to the humanity and took the leap of faith to freeze his remains and send him to the Museum of Natural History in New York City to be studied and to find out answers.

Lonesome George preservation technique was thoughtfully studied and after careful consideration, the best option was to freeze his remains to be taken to New York City. At which point it was taken back to his natural shape and went through a process of partial reconstruction and he was painted.


Giant Tortoise Lonesome George  Giant Tortoise Lonesome George

The preservation work was carried out by the museum’s the world renowned taxidermist George Dante, with the input from scientists to ensure that the best preservation technique would be performed. He was displayed between September 2014 to January 2015 in New York City.

Giant Tortoise Lonesome George

Photo Credits: Museum of a Natural History


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