Millions of years ago a regular South American land iguana floated the 600 miles of ocean waters to the Galapagos Islands aboard debris or driftwood. From that species emerged two distinct types, the Galapagos Marine Iguana and the Galapagos Land Iguana. Darwin called the marine version “hideous looking…clumsy lizards” and the little godzillas manage to convey a gentle malevolence that belies their carefully tuned and incredible evolutionary adaptations. They became marine reptiles, exclusively feasting on underwater algae and seawater during the morning, warming themselves on the lava rocks the rest of the day. Their long claws give them purchase on the craggy underwater rocks during fierce underwater tides, while their spiky dorsal extrusions – coupled with their flattened, narrow tails – allow them to gracefully glide underwater. While their dark complexion is designed to better absorb the sun’s rays after a dive in the frigid waters. Even their stubby face is tuned, allowing them to quickly bite off algae with a series of sharp teeth on either side of their face. Prompt meals are a must, after 10 minutes of diving in cold Galapagos waters, their muscles will lock-up. But the best part is the unique nasal glands that allow them to expel the salt that gets ingested into their blood during underwater meals and produces what sounds like a sneeze followed by a torrent of salt water ejected from their nasal cavity. The salt blowing out of their noses gives them a distinct white coloration on the top of their heads. Imagine a field of the laconic, sluggish monsters slowly warming up on the rocky shore, silent except for the regular punctuations of streams of saltwater sneezes blasting themselves and their jumbled up neighbors. No question, they were my favorite.
The yellowish-brown Galapagos Land Iguana is largely vegetarian, living in arid regions of the islands and eating the prickly pear cactus. Due to the introduction of feral dogs and rats, they were rendered extinct on some islands during the last 60 years, however reintroduction efforts have been largely successful. Despite being two distinct species from different genera, marine and land iguanas can interbreed when sharing territory, however, the hybrid offspring is typically sterile.