The Galapagos Tortoise also known as the giant tortoise average over 100 years in their lifetime. The oldest one on record lived hundred fifty-two years. At one time there were 15 different types of the giant tortoises there are now only 11 types remaining all of which are in Galapagos. These awesome animals over the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries have been hunted by Pirates, merchantmen and whalers to be sold as food. They killed off over 100,000 tortoises with only about 15,000 remaining to date. These wonderful gentle creatures were not only used for food but also for the oil that could be used for lighting the lamps of Quito. Humans are not the only enemies that these animals have their eggs and hatchlings are ravaged by pigs, rats and hungry ants. There food source is also threatened by local goats and other large animals that graze in the area.
In 1970 the Ecuadorian government put in place strict protection for the now endangered giant tortoises. They are now doing captive breeding with positive results because of the Charles Darwin research station. These giant tortoises were discovered by Spanish sailors in 1535 naming them gallopago which comes from the Spanish word for tortoise. There are actually two different groups of giant tortoises those in Galapagos, and those living in Aldabra Atoll in the Indian Ocean. These beautiful giant turtles lay in the sun and sleep about 16 hours a day. Their menu consists of grass leaves, fruit and cacti.
The island of Galapagos got its name from the Spanish word Galapagos which translates to saddle, which is the shape of the shells on the giant tortoises that the island is named after. The small Chaco tortoise is the giant turtle's closest relative these unusual small turtles come can be found in South America. It is believed that some two million to three million years ago the very first tortoises traveled over 600 miles from South America to Galapagos possibly on vegetation rafts or swimming on their own.
There are many shapes and sizes found among the Galapagos tortoises with two dominant shapes those being the saddle backed and the domed carapace's. The major difference between these two shapes is that the domed carapace is much larger than the saddle backed carapace shells. These differences dictate the areas where these animals can best survive the domed tortoises tend to live in a more humid area on the higher islands which provide a much larger area for feeding purposes. Saddle backed tortoises are more likely to be found in the arid islands and have the ability to raise their heads higher to feed on cactus pads and vegetation that is found off the ground. It is amazing that the tortoise is capable of surviving for about a year with no food or water.
The Giant tortoise normally breeds between January and May however they have been known to breed anytime during the year. The female tortoise will migrate to more arid areas to lay her eggs where the female will dig a hole using her hind feet and lets the eggs drop into their nest she often sets up between one and four nests per season; after the eggs are dropped she uses her hind feet and seals in the whole. The Saddleback tortoise will usually produce between two and seven eggs while the domed tortoises often have between 20 and 25 eggs per nest. The average incubation for these eggs average between 110 and 175 days and the baby turtles do not leave their nest for several weeks when they leave the nest it is through a small hole located near the nest cap.
Female tortoises do not make any noise at all; the male tortoises however during mating make a sound that is very similar to a loud cows moo. The male tortoises will compete for females. They will face each other with open mouth and stretch necks, the tortoise with the highest head in most cases is the winner, the loser withdraws submissively back into the bushes. The males are larger than the females, weighing between 600 and 800 pounds. Females weigh in between 300 and 400 pounds.
The shells of the tortoise are unique in nature because the shell itself is attached to the ribs providing a strong protection to the skeleton of the animal. Each tortoise has a unique pattern that remains with the animal its entire lifetime. When the tortoises threatened they pull their legs, neck, head and forelimbs into the safety of the shell. The front legs of the tortoise have five claws, with only four claws on their back legs. Their legs are short and fat and are covered with hard scaly skin. These wonderful animals can be seen at several zoos throughout the country and are still considered endangered.