Vampire finches & tortoises back from the dead: the weird & wonderful world of Galapagos


Related links

Image: Hybrid iguana on South Plaza © John Bendon

During the seven years that I spent at Mundy Cruising, I was lucky enough to visit many amazing places, with the Galapagos Islands firmly at the top of that list. Since joining the Galapagos Conservation Trust in 2022, my fascination with these famous islands has only grown. I thought I was pretty clued up on the wildlife and history of Galapagos, but the last couple of years has been a lesson in how little I really knew about the islands and the seas that surround them…

New Galapagos Island discoveries

Ever since Charles Darwin published his theory of evolution, inspired in part by his findings on the Galapagos Islands, the archipelago has been a source of fascination for scientists around the world. The biology and ecology of the Islands have been extensively studied over the years, and yet if you speak to any researcher working in Galapagos, they will tell you that this place has the constant capacity to surprise you.

Just in the last few months, expeditions have discovered hitherto unknown hydrothermal vent fields teeming with life; pristine deep-sea coral reefs; and a nursery site for smooth hammerhead sharks, a species rarely observed in the Galapagos Islands.


Get your free Galapagos guide

Get your complete guide to cruising the incredible Galapagos Islands.

Back from the dead?

'Lonesome George' was famously the last of the Pinta Island giant tortoises, a poignant symbol for the conservation movement globally. Decades of attempts to mate George with tortoises from other Galapagos subspecies were unsuccessful, and he sadly died in 2012 without any offspring to carry forward his lineage. But there is a fascinating coda to his story. Just a few months after George's death, evidence emerged of the presence of hybrid tortoises with Pinta ancestry on Wolf Volcano, on the island of Isabela. Researchers also found individuals with Floreana tortoise genes, another subspecies that is extinct on its home island. These hybrids are likely to be the offspring of tortoises that were taken for food by whalers during the 19th century, and subsequently stashed or dumped on Isabela.

This raises two tantalising possibilities: firstly, that there may still be some pure-bred Pinta or Floreana tortoises on Isabela (though none has been found); and secondly, that we could use these hybrids as a source population for the reintroduction of tortoises to islands where they are currently extinct - which is exactly what is about to happen on Floreana.

Lonesome George © David Eyles

Deep connections

Situated 600 miles off the coast of mainland Ecuador, surrounded by the Pacific Ocean, the Galapagos archipelago was described by Darwin as 'a little world within itself'. But increasingly we are learning about the ways in which Galapagos is intimately connected to the rest of the world. The role of ocean currents in creating the conditions for marine life to thrive has long been understood, but sadly we are now seeing these same currents bringing plastic pollution to Galapagos. Across the Pacific, islands are having to expend huge sums of money on cleaning up the world's trash, money that then can't then be invested in conservation or the local community.

Recent research has also revealed other connections below the water, such as the existence of the Cocos-Galapagos 'Swimway', a migratory route that connects Galapagos with Cocos Island in Costa Rica. Species such as whale sharks, sea turtles and scalloped hammerheads use the Cocos Ridge, an underwater mountain range, as a navigational aid when travelling along this route. This discovery was key to Ecuador's establishment of the new Hermandad Marine Reserve in 2022, which aims to give marine life more protection from industrial fishing vessels operating outside the existing Galapagos and Cocos Marine Reserves.

Green Turtle entangled in plastic credit Jonathan Green

Green Turtle entangled in plastic © Jonathan Green

Bizarre behaviours

One of the marvels of Galapagos is the way in which visitors are able to observe the behaviour of wildlife at such close quarters, with the animals utterly unbothered by the presence of humans. However, tourists are unlikely to witness some of the most gruesome behaviours. The 'vampire finch', found only on the northernmost islands of Wolf and Darwin, has evolved to feed on the blood of seabirds such as Nazca boobies. And Nazca boobies exhibit a disturbing habit of their own, known as 'obligate siblicide'.

Females will lay two eggs a few days apart, meaning that the first chick is larger and stronger than the second. In nearly every case, the smaller sibling is killed and removed from the nest, even when there appears to be sufficient food for both chicks. A brutal example of nature red in tooth and claw, and a behaviour which isn't fully understood.

Nazca booby and vampire finch credit Simon Pierce

Nazca booby and vampire finch © Simon Pierce

Hybrid iguanas

Visitors to Galapagos are pretty much guaranteed to see marine iguanas, the world's only sea-going lizard, and there is a good chance you will see their terrestrial cousins, the Galapagos land iguana. But there are actually four species of iguana in Galapagos. The Santa Fe land iguana, found only on the island from which it takes its name, is paler in colour than the Galapagos land iguana, with a longer, more tapered snout and more pronounced spines on its back. The Galapagos pink land iguana is confined to an even more limited range, found only on the slopes of Wolf Volcano on Isabela. With only 200 left, it is one of the most vulnerable species in Galapagos.

Most surprising of all, on South Plaza island there are hybrid iguanas, a cross between land and marine iguanas. These hybrids have a distinctive colouration, a blend of dirty yellow and dark grey, and they appear to be infertile, so they will never give rise to a new subspecies or species. It is also not clear why they only occur on this one island - another Galapagos mystery yet to be solved.


Mundy Adventures is proud sponsor of Galapagos Day 2024, which takes place on Thursday 10 October at 1 Wimpole Street, London. The focus of this year's event is Galapagos Conservation Trust's work to tackle plastic pollution in the Eastern Pacific, and we have a limited number of complimentary tickets available. Call us on 020 7399 7630 for more details.

Meet the author

Tom is a Communications Manager at the Galapagos Conservation Trust and former Marketing Manager at Mundy Adventures

Sign up for our email newsletter

Get the latest expedition cruise news and offers direct to your inbox every fortnight.