Since the "discovery" of the islands in the 16th C, the Galápagos have intrigued and inspired visitors. Named for the giant tortoise which inhabits the island, the Galápagos Islands are home to a unique ecosystem and offer an exceptional opportunity for wildlife viewing.
With the nearest continent 960 km (576 mi) away, life on the islands has evolved in relative isolation.The Galápagos are volcanic in origin, with the earliest islands rising up from the ocean floor four to five million years ago. Today the area is one of the most active volcanic regions in the world and the formation of the islands is still in progress.The Galápagos are currently home to approximately 17,000 people and growing rapidly. Of the 13 large islands, six smaller islands, and 42 islets which comprise the Galápagos, only five are inhabited.In 1959 the Galápagos were declared a National Park, with the park covering 97% of the total land mass. Visitors must have a guide to tour the islands and go to visitor sites. There are only very few areas where visitors are allowed to be without a guide.In addition to the wildlife viewing on land, the waters around the Galápagos are popular with scuba divers. Diving conditions in this area are considered more challenging and may be more suited to experienced divers.
The Galápagos islands attract hoards of birders who come to see the various resident and migrant species. There are 28 endemic species which, apart from those in captivity, can only be found in the Galápagos.
The Galápagos have a number of distinction vegetation zones which correspond primarily to elevation. Included in these are the Coastal Zone, Arid Zone, Transition Zone, Scalesia Zone, Brown Zone, Miconia Zone, and the Pampa Zone.The Coastal Zone supports species at the low land or sea level which have a strong tolerance for salt. Plant life here includes mangroves, vines, grasses and shrubs.The Arid Zone is a semi-desert area with deciduous trees and shrubs, as well as a variety of lichens.The transition zone contains attributes of both the lower arid zone and higher Scalesia zone but still maintains distinct species. This area is more dense with deciduous trees.Dominated by evergreen Scalesia forest is the Scalesia Zone. It is only found on islands with higher elevations.The Brown Zone, which has been mainly destroyed by man, appears brown in the dry season. It is a transition area between the Scalesia and Miconia Zones. Open forests with moss covered trees and ground are the main characteristics.The Miconia zone is found only on the southern slopes of San Cristóbal and Santa Cruz. There are no native trees which grow in this shrubby area.The Pampa Zone is the highest elevation zone and void of trees and shrubs. The most common vegetation in this area are the Galápagos Tree Fern and Liverworts.
Most of the reptiles in the Galápagos are endemic. Twenty-four species have been recorded in the islands from five families.The giant tortoise (tortuga gigante, galápagos / Geochelone elephantopus) for which the island is named, is endemic. There are 14 subspecies although three are extinct and others are on the brink of extinction.Of the marine turtles, the pacific green sea turtle (tortuga marina / Chelonia mydas) is the only resident. They nest on many of the islands.Three species of iguanas inhabit the islands, all of which are endemic. The marine iguana (iguana marine / Amblyrhynchus cristatus) is unique in that it is the only seagoing lizard in the world. The Galápagos land iguana (iguana terrestre / Conolophus subcristatus) and the Santa Fe land iguana (iguana terrestre de Santa Fe / Conolophus pallidus) are similar in appearance, although the Santa Fe iguana is found only on the island of Santa Fe.There are seven species of lava lizards (lagartija de Lava / Tropidurus), all of which are endemic. Nine species of Geckos also survive on the islands.Snakes on the island include the Galápagos snake (non-poisonous), as well as three species of the Alsphis family and another species known as Philodrys biserialis. The snakes are not commonly seen by visitors.
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