When thinking or talking about Galapagos fauna, most everyone will tend to mentally envision blue footed boobies, frigate birds, iguanas, sea lions and the most common and iconographic species like the giant tortoises which give the islands their name…
However the Archipelago’s fauna is also made of a variety of other creatures, whether birds, reptiles, mammals or invertebrates, which have their own peculiarities and uniqueness too. This is the case of the little known and even less popular Galapagos snakes…. No extensive studies have been made of them, so there is no abundant data on their population or other statistics… Galapagos snakes are found on many islands, even though, following a generalized trend, some species only occur on certain islands and not at all on others…. The Galapagos snakes, of course “endemic” or exclusive to the islands, belong to one same genera, known as “Dromicus”, and have several species of it across the archipelago…. They are not very big in size, the longest individuals recorded not exceeding two meters of length, neither they are thick, mostly they are rather thin…. Galapagos snakes are not of the poisonous types so they present no hazard at all for human beings, in fact they are very elusive and shy, in contrast with most of the native fauna, known for their lack of fear and somewhat friendliness with human residents of visitors.
Their feeding technique is basically by suffocating their victims by wrapping, like constrictors around them. Needless to say, the snakes are a natural predator and they predominantly feed on live animals: small marine or land iguanas; lizards, small birds, unattended eggs and rodents. It is very rare to observe scavenging behavior on them.. They scurry smoothly creeping over the rocky or sandy terrain, trying not to evidence their presence on clear open spaces where they can be easily detected by their prey or by their main predators: the Galapagos hawks and occasionally the owls.
Their color is dark green with brownish patches and, on some of the species, dark lateral lines…. As all reptiles they dig relatively deep burrows on soft sandy terrain (hardly ever on beaches, though). They lay several, dove sized eggs which, once laid and placed on cleverly devised natural incubation chambers, are left to hatch naturally after several weeks (if not found, dug out and eaten by introduced feral animals).. Their populations are not known to be large in numbers but their constant presence on several identified locations, makes evident that they remain reasonably stable…
The natural fauna of these islands has a predominance of reptiles over mammals, the reason being the fact that reptiles, cold blooded and slow-metabolism creatures, are more apt to survive the 600 miles oceanic voyage across the Pacific, floating on natural rafts of vegetation carried by the marine currents…. This is the case with the snakes, as well as with tortoises, iguanas, lizards and geckos which inhabit Galapagos.
Galapagos snakes often stage dramatic sights either when seen capturing marine iguanas and rapidly wrapping around them to suffocate the victim or when Galapagos hawks descend over them and with extremely fast movements pick them up and airlift them to be ripped open and eaten alive…. The life and deeds of Galapagos’ natural predators have their slightly dramatic or impacting elements, nevertheless they always exert also the magic and uniqueness which is the main characteristic of the islands fauna…
The Galapagos Flora sets the pace
Most likely the flora of the islands started this way:
1. With spores and seeds carried by the winds and "stopped" by the newly formed islands.
2. By seeds stuck to feet and plumage of migratory birds, or passed through their digestive system.
3. Via chunks of vegetation rushed to the sea by overflowing rivers and conducted throughout the ocean by the marine currents.
It happened then, it happens now. Not all seeding can "fuse" with the rocky land. Only those with simple germination necessities can adapt to the barren environment to survive and evolve in forms growing every day.
Going from shores to highlands, it has been agreed to define five zones of vegetation life in Galapagos:
1. Coastal. The sea borders are apt to salt water plants like the Red Mangrove, with its typical aerial roots and the Beach Morning Glory abundant in Santiago and other islands.
2. Arid. Cacti territories! Among a good variety, the big and famous Opuntia Cactus, (prickly-pear) in many places the only source of food and moisture for reptiles; and the graceful Candelabra Cactus. Among the newer black lavas you find Brachycereus Cactus (or aptly called lava cactus). Another typical of the zone, and common on all large islands, is a Bursera Tree of light bark called Palo Santo (holy wood), after the reddish sap that bleeds from wounds. High number of endemic plant species.
3. Humid. Epiphytes like orchids, mosses, ferns and lichens thrive in this zone's constant moisture and ornate trees and shrubs with color and charm. Typical at this degree of humidity are the Scalesias and Pisonias. Not much is said about the highlands of Galápagos, but in reality this is an amazing cloud forest with unique features.
4. Miconia. Particular to San Cristobal and Santa Cruz, this zone is named after the ever-present Miconias that require high humidity.
5. Pampa. In the populated islands this is farmland or Pampas. The temperature is low and grass is abundant; good to cultivate commercial products and raise cattle.
BIRDS: THE LARGEST BIRD IN THE ISLANDS
The Waved Albatross is found around the East Pacific. With a wingspan of 11 feet (3.5 m.) an albatross can follow wind currents for days. Their only home in Galapagos is Española (Hood) Island where spectacular courtship-displays amaze any visitor. Albatrosses depart their lovely grounds by early January and return by early April. They follow the cold waters back to the coast of South America. When the southeast trade winds come back, they not only bring cool nutrient-rich waters, but the albatrosses as well. Among the many interesting features of the waved albatross is the feeding mechanism of their young: fish oil! What an adaptation for long-feeding trips in the ocean.
The only ones with prehensile feet. They nest on Palo Santo trees or bushes. A precocious group, red-footed boobies start mating when they still have their juvenile plumage (which may explain the healthy size of the colony.) Most abundant in the "bird island" of Genovesa (Tower). Worth mentioning: red-footed boobies are the most numerous of all, but the least seen of all. Reason: their nesting colonies are found along the peripheral islands of Galápagos.
Fearless divers -- from 100 feet (30 m.) or more -- and picturesque dancers with their beaks pointing up to the sky, while stomping the ground with their huge bright blue webbed feet. Favorite nesting islands are: Española, the Daphnes, Isabela and North Seymour. Look for their courtship display: pelican dance and sky pointing. Their loud calls will get your attention: males whistle, while females honk. Look carefully at their eyes: it seems one has a larger pupil than the other one. Which is male, which is female?
Females seem to have larger pupils because more black pigmentation is present around their pupils. Did you guess right?
(formerly Masked Boobies)
They are the largest of the three species. Big nesting colonies are found in Genovesa and Española. Usually, they lay and hatch two eggs, but if so, the younger chick is left out, and the older one is raised in better survival conditions. This is known as sibling murder. Check this out: eggs are laid five days apart, and so they hatch five days apart. If you happen to see this, you'll notice an incredible size difference between the two chicks. Scientists wonder why such high investment of energy ends up in the loss of one of the two chicks. Natural selection at work!
THE GALAPAGOS (FLIGHTLESS) CORMORANT
Lives in the westernmost islands, Fernandina and Isabela, where there is plenty of food and nesting habitat for this unusual seabird. In islands with plenty of food and safety, the cormorants had no practical use for their wings and, simply, by means of natural selection, became flightless. In fact, it is the only cormorant in the world that does not fly. You can even count the number of feathers on each wing!
The Frigate birds, also called Man O'War, are sea birds that are virtually not waterproof! What a contradiction! They are large (almost 6 feet/1.8 m. wingspan), lightweight and have a long, hooked beak to catch fish without getting wet. Frigates have an easier way to get food: stealing from other birds, specially red-footed boobies (this is, naturally, a survival strategy). And when it is time to raise a family, they settle in others' nests, or abscond with some sticks.
Male frigates have shiny green or purple plumage (depending on the species) and a resplendent scarlet pouch, which is displayed in courtship. There are two species of frigates in Galapagos: The Magnificent Frigate Bird and the Great Frigate Bird. Their main nesting colonies are found in Genovesa (Tower) and North Seymour Islands.
THE MOST NORTHERLY OF ALL PENGUINS
The Galápagos Penguins congregate along the rocky lava shores of Isabela, Fernandina, Santiago, and Bartolome, islands cooled off by both the Cromwell and Humboldt currents. The Humboldt Current is the one that brought them all the way up to these tropical latitudes. Want to analyze a movie that talks about this? Watch Walt Disney's "The Three Caballeros". Funny. Look carefully for crevices in the rocky lava shorelines for penguins nest inside them. Small lava tubes are favorite places too. Dare to see a torpedo in the water? Jump in with the penguins and watch these graceful, but rocket fast birds, fly through the water like an arrow.
GRACEFUL AND FAST
The Red-billed Tropic Bird is a fanciful vision when it zips by into the horizon, or dives straight at a breakneck speed into the waves. Like albatrosses, this is a pelagic feeder. Pelagic comes from the Greek word pelagos, meaning oceanic-going. These birds easily travel 40-50 miles away from their nesting colony for feeding purposes. Dressed in pure white plumage, a long graceful tail and a bright red bill, the tropicbird is one of the unforgettable memories of Galapagos. Look for spectacular and loud air shows at Española, and Genovesa Islands.
PINK AT SEA
The Greater Flamingo arrived from the Caribbean and is the most impressive and colorful of all the lagoon and shore birds. It is also one of the endangered of the species in the islands. Introduced carnivores, like cats and dogs, can easily feed on the chicks.
Flamingos love privacy: They do not tolerate disturbances when breeding; their nests consist of mounds of mud. Flamingos feed on crustaceans and plants, and live in Floreana, Isabela, Rabida, Santa Cruz, and Santiago. Did you know adults flamingos feed their young with something known as "pink milk"? Did you figure out how flamingos are kept pink