The giant tortoise is probably the most well-known of all the animals that inhabit the Galápagos Islands and even gave the archipelago its name. 'Galápago' translates to tortoise in Spanish and may derive from the word for saddle, referring to the distinctive saddle-like shell of some of the tortoises.


The population of tortoises was decimated between the 17th and 19th centuries, when hundreds of thousands were killed for their meat by buccaneers, whaling ships, and merchantmen. Later, early settlers hunted the tortoises for their meat and cleared large areas of the tortoises’ habitat for agriculture. In addition, they introduced domestic animals to the islands, many of which had a disastrous effect on the tortoises.


The Galápagos tortoise is thought to belong to just one species, with 14 different sub-species, three of which are believed to be extinct. Today, it is estimated there are approximately 15,000 of these creatures left in the wild. The tortoises at Brookfield Zoo belong to the Geochelone nigra vicina sub-species found around the Cerro Azul volcano ridge on Isabela Island. Only about 700 of this sub-species remain in the wild.


In addition, the Galápagos tortoise is listed on Appendix I—a list of the most endangered animals and plants threatened with extinction—of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), which prohibits international trade in specimens of these species except when the purpose of the import is not commercial.


Galápagos tortoises have a huge body supported by strong, thick legs that possess large scales, which serve as protective devices when they withdraw into their shell. The Galápagos tortoises at Brookfield Zoo, also known as Iguana Cove tortoises, have a typical domed shell. In the wild, they are found primarily in the highlands, where there is plenty of vegetation to support their immense size. They are active during much of the day, spending most of their time feeding. Their lower jaws are covered by horny ridges with serrated edges that help them cut through tough plants. Tortoises can store food and water very efficiently and for a very long time, allowing them to go without eating or drinking for up to one year.