Thursday, April 8, 2010

Ugly Iguanas?

Snorkeling in the Galapagos, I see a strange sight. A big lizard is swimming around underwater. Wait, that’s not a lizard, it’s an iguana. What’s it doing in the water? It clings to the rocks with his claws, fighting the current while munching on seaweed!

This is the amazing Marine Iguana endemic to the Galapagos. It may have arrived floating on driftwood from the mainland, but since then it has evolved into a vegetarian creature that eats seaweed. But the problem with this theory is that the species is older than the islands. The iguana dives into the cool waters of the Galapagos to eat the plentiful seaweed and returns to land spending much of its time warming up its body in the hot equatorial sun before its next feeding dive.

They have a reputation for being ugly. Charles Darwin called them "hideous-looking" and "disgusting". Personally I think their look grows on you...I certainly wouldn't call them cute and cuddly, but they do have a dignified and fearless look about them. Most of the year they are black or gray in color, which allows them to blend in with the rocks. Several times we’ve almost stepped on them while walking to or from the dinghy dock. They’ll lumber away in time, often with a snort of salt water out of their noses. Watch out, don’t get sprayed with iguana snot! Perhaps it's this habit that led to Darwin to label them "disgusting", though I've seen many a human jogger with similar habits. During mating season, January to March, the males turn different colors on some of the islands. Here they’ll turn a greenish brownish color, while on Floreana they’ll turn red, green, and blue. They all get white markings on their heads which are actually salt from the excess salt water they snort out of their noses.

During mating season the males will stake out a desirable section of beach, fighting off any other males and mating with any females that choose to enter their domain. This is an exhausting time for the males as they will often go long periods without eating in order to hold onto their turf.

The females dig holes in the sand to lay their eggs. We see this all happening on the rocky islands of the barrier reef where we are anchored. We’re at the end of their nesting season and there are many young iguanas running around the beach and rocks.

1 comment:

Ramona said...

I'm afraid that I have to agree with Charles Darwin about the ugly, disgusting part, Tim, but that probably only reveals my narrow, human perspective. I'm sure that the iguanas know among themselves which of them are the cool cats and which are the hopeless dweebs. Good story though. I'm glad to know that someone is busy cleaning up the seaweed. MMM

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