31202The Curious Galapagos Lava Lizard

For those who travel to the unique group of South American islands on a Galapagos holiday, opportunities to make the acquaintance of the diverse, much-studied wildlife arise at every turn. From the slow-moving Giant Tortoises and comical Blue-footed Boobies to the world’s only Marine Iguanas, there is perhaps no place on the planet that nature and wildlife enthusiasts find more fascinating.

An Abundance of Reptiles

While it’s normal for mammals to be the predominant wildlife in many places, the reptilian species are the most abundant throughout this archipelago. Of these, members of the genus Microlophus are most commonly seen, as seven of its species – known as the Lava Lizard – are endemic to the Galapagos.

Where to See Lava Lizard

The lizards are found on all of the islands throughout the archipelago, with the exception of Wolf, Darwin and Genovesa. They’re easy to spot and often congregate in large groups along the rocky coastline to take in the sun. The Galapagos Lava Lizard makes its home on ten of the islands, while the other six species are at home on a particular island (and are named accordingly). The islands where the different lizards can be found are: San Cristobal, Pinta, Pinzon, Floreana, Espanola and Marchena.

Physical Appearance

While their size varies across the species, the lizards are generally quite small, ranging from around 15 to 30 centimetres. Their markings can vary greatly from animal to animal, and they have long, tapered bodies and pointy heads. The males may have bright yellow specks or stripes, and females may have a red throat and/or head. All lizards are most often coloured to offer the best camouflage against the substrate of their surroundings, with their base colour varying from light grey to brown or black.

Once they reach maturity, the males develop a crest of spiky scales along the ridge of their back, which are used to great effect in their displays. Females are much smaller than males and do not have any spikes.


Although the lizards are omnivores, their main food source is small insects, snails, ants, spiders and beetles. They are very territorial; their most striking behaviour is displayed when they’re defending themselves against perceived intruders. They perform a series of push-ups with their front legs, which become more and more vigorous as the threat approaches. Males defend a territory of around 400 square metres, and are particularly busy during breeding season. Both males and females perform the push-ups, although males are far more energetic in their defensive behaviour – often adding some tail slapping and even biting. Interestingly, scientists have discovered that the aggressive displays differ between each species.

The lizards have the ability to change colour to blend into their surroundings. They are also able to “drop” their tail in an emergency if captured by a predator. The downside of this is that while the tail grows back, it’s never as long as the original one. This has ramifications on breeding, as potential mates are attracted to longer tails.

See Darwin’s Theories in Action on Galapagos Holidays

While research on Lava Lizards is not as high profile as that concerning the finches and Giant Tortoises of the island, they are a perfect example of Darwin’s theory of natural selection: each island’s species differ slightly in size, colour and even behaviour. For those visiting the islands on organised Galapagos holidays, encountering the Lava Lizards of the archipelago is yet another way of observing our fascinating natural world in motion.

Marissa Ellis-Snow is a freelance nature writer with a special interest in the unique wildlife of the Galapagos Islands. Marissa chooses the expert-led Galapagos holiday itineraries organised by Naturetrek, which have brought her unforgettable sightings of a wide range of wildlife in one of the most spectacular regions on Earth.

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