The Galapagos Islands are home to some of the world’s most unique and rarest of species. Because they are endemic to the archipelago, when visitors have a chance to see them, it adds up to the magic of this already-magical place. From the only penguin that lives north of the Equator – and therefore the only one that inhabits the tropics – to the biggest tortoise on Earth, animals in the Galapagos marvel kids and adults alike. A favorite one, and especially during this time of the year, is the one and only Christmas iguana! Part of the Galapagos BIG15, the Christmas iguana – a subspecies of the marine iguana – is a sight to behold, not due to its incredible adaptive capabilities, but thanks to its beautiful colors as well! Their vivid hues of green and red and mark their bodies remind us of that time of the year when we celebrate both peace and joy. And what better way to celebrate the festivities than by journeying aboard an amazing Galapagos expedition vessel while admiring the rare and amazing Christmas iguana? Read on to learn more about this unusual species that is sure to bring out your most festive side!
Marine iguanas were actually terrestrial when they first got to the archipelago millions of years ago. But they eventually had to adapt in order to survive to the islands’ harsh conditions. It was after developing their marine adaptations – a reduced heartbeat, constriction of blood vessels to avoid temperature loss, tricuspid teeth to facilitate foraging algae and a supersized supra-orbital gland (just like marine birds) that allowed them to sneeze out the excess salt in their bodies – that they spread throughout the Galapagos, which is why they can now be found on virtually every island.
Maybe it’s a millennial thing, but one thing’s for sure: ugly Christmas sweaters are a thing and Christmas iguanas know it. Not that they were ever ugly, to begin with! While Mr. Charles Darwin did “lovingly” refer to marine iguanas as “imps of darkness,” it is possible that he might not have laid eyes on one the most colorful of specimens. Much like their reptile cousins that are the Galapagos giant tortoises, marine iguanas evolved differently from island to island; with the size and color of their scales functioning as distinctive features from one species to the next.
Six subspecies of marine iguanas can be found in the Galapagos and each belongs to a different island. The ones on the islands of Isabela and Fernandina are some of the largest ones. Even though they are black most of the time, it is actually only males that change the tone of their skin and only during mating season. The variation in coloring is different for every subspecies: Santa Cruz marine iguanas turn red and black; Fernandina marine iguanas sport a dark green and terracotta red: and Española marine iguanas turn bright red and green, which has earned them the nickname “Christmas” iguanas. Coincidentally, Christmas iguanas only show these shades during this wonderful time of the year.
As is the case with many species in the animal kingdom, the color of skin, feathers, or feet are physical properties that offer a sexual advantage. It is usually the ones with the brightest colors that are selected by females. So, in a way, it’s like marine iguanas don their prettiest “ugly Christmas sweater” to be more attractive to the ladies. Their amazing shades are a beautiful surprise not only for female marine iguanas but also for visitors who happen to encounter them during their Galapagos excursions.