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Description: The Galapagos Tortoise is the world’s largest living tortoise. Adults can measure up to four feet in length and weigh over 600 pounds. The most noticeable feature of the tortoise is its massive carapace (shell). The tortoise can withdraw into its shell when it feels threatened. There are actually 11 sub-species of Galapagos Tortoises, each with different characteristics and shapes to the carapace. Forested islands feature tortoises with dome-shaped carapaces. The drier islands feature tortoises with saddle-backed carapaces and the Volcanic region of Isabela Island features tortoises with flat ‘table-top” carapaces. Tortoises with dome-shaped carapaces tend to be the largest of the sub-species. All populations of tortoises are brownish in coloration. Males are larger than females. Although these tortoises are among the slowest-moving large animals on Earth, studies have shown they can travel distances of several miles per day.
Habitat/Range: The Galapagos Tortoise is endemic to the Galapagos Islands, off the coast of the South American nation of Ecuador. In fact, the islands themselves were named for these tortoises by early Spanish explorers. Different sub-species inhabit different habitats including forests, arid grasslands and volcanic landscapes.
Diet: The Galapagos Tortoise is an herbivore. Cactus, leaves, grass, roots, and fruits make up the bulk of the tortoise’s diet. Tortoises acquire most of the water they need from their herbivorous diet and can go long periods of time without actually drinking water.
Breeding: While breeding can occur at any time of the year, it peaks between January and August. A Male tortoise vies for dominance and mating rights with a female by rising up on his legs against another competing tortoise. The smaller tortoise will usually back down. To attract a female, a male tortoise will bob his head and bellow loudly. After mating, the female migrates to her nesting grounds in a sandy area. Digging the nest hole sometimes takes several days before two to sixteen eggs are deposited. The young hatch in about four or four and a half months, only a tiny fraction of their future size. Once they hatch, it may take them several days or even weeks to dig from the sand to the surface. Unlike sea turtles, baby tortoises have few predators (besides native hawks). Tortoises grow very slowly and reach reproductive age at about 20 or 25. Tortoises are fully grown by the time they are 40. Life expectancy of a wild tortoise is estimated to be 150-200 years.
Status: Populations of Galapagos Tortoises are currently stable, although the estimated population is far less today than it was in the 1700s and 1800s when there were thought to be hundreds of thousands of these animals roaming the islands. The Galapagos tortoise was extensively hunted by pirates and whalers.