Skip to Main Content
San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance logo
San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance Library logo

Galapagos Giant Tortoises (Chelonoidis spp.) Fact Sheet: Distribution & Habitat

Historic Distribution

Galápagos Giant Tortoises

  • 1600s-early 1800s
    • Abundant on the Galápagos Islands (MacFarland et al. 1974)
    • Estimates of up to 300,000 tortoises (Linda Cayot citing James Gibbs' unpublished data, personal communication, 2016)
  • Once found on at least nine Galápagos Islands (Edwards et al. 2014)
    • Human-caused extinctions on a few islands
      • Some human-mediated reintroductions beginning in 2010s (Cayot 2015a)

Giant tortoises (all species)

  • Once widespread on all continents, except Antarctica (Powell and Caccone 2006; Hansen et al. 2010; Blake et al. 2015a)
    • Until the late Pleistocene, < 1.8 mya
  • “…extant giant tortoises are not island oddities, but rather the last examples of a once widespread lineage” (Blake et al. 2015a)
  • Once common on islands in the Indian and Pacific Oceans (McDougal 2000; Standford 2010; Blake et al. 2015a)
    • Overhunting by humans was main driver of their extinction
    • Only surviving giant tortoises
      • Galápagos and Aldrabra Giant Tortoises (near Seychelles, Indian Ocean)
        • Not particularly closely related (Powell and Caccone 2006)
        • Independently evolved gigantism (Powell and Caccone 2006)

Current Distribution

Galápagos Giant Tortoises (GGTs)

  • Approximately 20-25,000 GGTs in the wild (Cayot 2015a;
  • Recent reintroductions to islands where GGTs were driven to extinction (Cayot 2015a)
    • Now, about 9-10 islands with GGTs
  • Most major islands with a single GGT species (Poulakakis et al. 2012)
    • Isabela and Santa Cruz have more than one species
  • Elevation range
    • Adults: 0-429 m (0-1,407 ft) (Blake et al. 2015a)
    • Juveniles remain in lowlands; not found at high elevations (Blake et al. 2013)

The Galápagos Islands

(Poulakakis et al. 2012; Blake et al. 2015a;  c1992-2016, except as noted)

  • Chain of volcanic, oceanic islands
    • Never been connected to mainland South America
  • 960 km (597 mi) west of Ecuador
  • 129 islands, islets, and rocks
    • Official names for 13 large (over 1 km2) islands, 6 smaller islands, and over 40 islets
  • Approximately 8,000 km2 (3,088 mi2) of land over 45,000 km2 (17,375 mi2) of ocean
  • Volcanic activity is ongoing (Caccone et al. 1999)
  • Climate
    • Hot, wet season: January to May
    • Cool and dry the rest of the year
  • Oldest islands
    • San Cristóbal: emerged ~4 mya
    • Española: emerged ~3.5 mya
  • Younger islands to the west
    • Youngest island: Fernandina
      • Began forming less than 70,000 years ago
  • Four islands inhabited by humans (National Census of Ecuador, 2010; Orenstein 2012)
    • Human population: 25,000-30,000
    • Santa Cruz
    • San Cristóbal
    • Isabela
    • Floreana
  • 1535: First record of humans visiting the islands
    • Fray Tomás de Berlanga, Bishop of Panama, names the islands “Galápagos”
      • From galapagos (Bonin et al. 2006)
        • Old Spanish word for chelonians (turtles and tortoises)
  • 1959: Terrestrial areas declared a National Park
  • 1978: Named a UNESCO World Heritage Site
  • 1986: Galápagos Marine Reserve created
  • Also see History


  • Varies with species
  • Humid uplands (Bastille-Rousseau et al. 2016)
    • Lots of grass and vegetation
  • Moist, volcanic craters (Bonin et al. 2006)
  • Arid lowlands (Bastille-Rousseau et al. 2016)
  • Dry, grassy or dry, rocky areas (Bonin et al. 2006)
  • GGTs prefer areas of high cactus density, where cactus is available (Gibbs et al. 2014)
    • Avoid woody plants, which limit movements

Distribution Map

Galapagos Tortoise distribution map

Giant Galápagos tortoise distribution.

Adapted from
Click here or on map for detailed distribution from Wikipedia.

SDZWA Library Links