Research

Galapagos Week: Marine Iguanas

One of the most unique inhabitants of the Galapagos Islands is the marine iguana. These reptiles live in colonies of thousands and subsist entirely on marine algae. Smaller iguanas are intertidal feeders, grazing on green and red algae when it is exposed near low tide. But the largest iguanas feed near midday by swimming out and diving to feed on richer pastures. 

The iguanas are surprisingly good swimmers, even though marine iguanas exhibit little extra specialization for it compared to other iguana species. They swim both at the surface and underwater with an undulatory motion driven by their tails. The iguana also streamlines its body somewhat by tucking its legs along its sides. Although the marine iguana is a much slower and less efficient swimmer than a bony fish of equal size, swimming is still a good choice for getting around. The marine iguana expends only 75% as much energy per distance swimming as it does walking. The big challenge is staying warm in the cold Galapagos waters. Small iguanas are both less efficient swimmers and lose body heat faster. This is why you’ll only see the biggest iguanas feeding underwater. (Image credits: N. Sharp; research credit: K. Trillmich and F. Trillmich; J. Videler and B. Nolet; G. Bartholomew)

This is the first post of Galapagos Week here on FYFD. Check back every day for new Galapagos-themed posts!

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