Become encompassed in the world-famous living laboratory of the Galapagos Islands, among the feathered nests of blue-footed boobies and trolling feet of the giant Galapagos tortoise, and along the way you will doubtlessly come across animals that, although they don’t have such big names, are just as spectacular.
When Charles Darwin visited the Galapagos in 1835, he introduced the world to birds that had lost their ability to fly and a finch that had evolved at an exhausting rate into approximately 15 species. Nevertheless, beyond these species there are a multitude of others that you would never expect to find, that have moved outside of their comfort zone to overcome the daily battle of survival, and as a result have developed stunning alterations and adaptations entirely unique to this archipelago.
The American (Galapagos) flamingo
The picturesque American flamingo isn’t the first animal tourists expect to see arriving to these equatorial islands (and it likely won’t be- they are more shy around humans than most Galapagos fauna). The American Flamingo, also known as the Caribbean flamingo, is otherwise almost exclusively found in the West Indies and Yucatan, but here, almost two thousand miles south, the American Flamingo has also made itself at home, and has done so exceptionally.
The American flamingo is already known to be the brightest flamingo species in the world, but those found in the Galapagos may very well beat them all. The gorgeous pink color for which flamingos are known is obtained from the crustaceans and algae that they eat; however, Galapagos Flamingos are even more brightly colored than their northern brothers due to the brine shrimp that make up a large part of their diet.
The Galapagos penguin
The presence of the Galapagos penguin in the archipelago is perhaps even more unusual. Penguins are typically associated with cold and snowy climates, and in fact, their presence in the Galapagos makes this the only penguin known to cross the equator, and also one of the rarest in the world. In the fight to survive, the Galapagos penguin has had to adapt to temperatures that reach up to 104 degrees Fahrenheit under scorching sun rays while swimming in waters as cold as 59°F.
In order to live in such a difficult climate, the Galapagos penguin has developed multiple physical and behavioral adaptations that center around its ability to dispel heat. Its small size, at an average of just 2 kilograms, is important in releasing heat from its body as efficiently as possible, and the penguin also has less body fat and feathers than those found in colder climates. However, all penguins have a layer of delicate feathers that complicate life under strong sun rays. So, unlike most other species, the Galapagos penguin moults twice a year to keep its feathers healthy. The Galapagos Penguin also walks with an amusing hunch to release heat from below its flippers and to shade its feet.
The Galapagos hawk
Ruling over the Galapagos kingdom is an unlikely figure. The Galapagos tortoise is widely known to be the largest reptile in the islands, the flightless cormorant as the bird that has lost its ability to fly, but few even know about the Galapagos hawk, let alone that it is the apex predator of the Galapagos Islands.
This unlikely king is endemic to the islands, with its ancestors arriving approximately 300,000 years ago. Yet, in this short amount of time, its complete lack of predators has granted this bird an extremely rare trait among raptors: a fearlessness of humans. Tourists are asked to keep at least 3 feet from all animals on the islands so that the presence of humans is felt as little as possible.
The Christmas iguana
If you have not done your research before going to the Galapagos Islands, you will certainly be in for a surprise with the Christmas iguana. This miniature dragon has a stunning trick it reserves for the winter holidays (also mating season for this iguana), in which it turns a beautiful array of red and green. However, the Christmas iguana is also sea dwelling, an extremely rare trait among lizards and specific to those residing in the Galapagos Archipelago. Over the last 5.7 million years (approximately), the marine iguana has drastically changed its physical and behavioral characteristics to best exploit the marine environment and gain an advantage over the competition.
The unique variety of traits specific to these marine iguanas are too numerous to list here, but they are stunning proof of the extensive evolutionary processes these animals have undergone to survive. For example, many tourists are confused to see these reptiles sneezing – and frequently. This is an important adaptation that allows them to release copious amounts of salt that accumulate in their bloodstream while feeding underwater, and is then concentrated in special glands located near their nose. The marine iguana is also the only known species in the world that, as an adult, is able to shrink its body during times of scarcity and then regrow once food becomes more abundant. Experts believe that the iguana actually consumes a small percentage of its bone mass to stay alive.
The Galapagos fur seal
The Galapagos fur seal is not commonly considered by tourists to the Galapagos Islands, and is even less commonly seen, as it prefers more isolated beaches; however, this heavily coated and highly territorial animal has found its own unique way of adapting to life in this subtropical archipelago.
In order to stay healthy, the Galapagos fur seal must maintain a body temperature of close to 37.7°C, something that can be quite a feat under a thick coat and scorching sun rays; thus, it has made several adaptations to survive. From a young age, fur seals are taught to regulate their body temperature by bathing in tidal pools and protecting themselves in the shade of rocky cliffs. Yet their bodies have also physically adapted to the Galapagos heat. Their cardiovascular system is actually able to regulate the amount of blood that flows through their flippers. During warm periods, their blood flow increases so that they can dispense more heat from their bodies. On the other hand, if the fur seal becomes too cold, it will direct the blood away from its flippers to avoid losing heat.
Adrián Peñafiel is Corporate Commercial Vice-President at Metropolitan Touring.
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