The iconic species of the Galápagos, in photos

A new book from Penn’s Michael Weisberg and naturalist Walter Perez showcases the fauna eating, fighting, mating, and interacting with humans.

Fish near Santiago Island, Galápagos (©Walter Perez)
El Niño of 2015-2016, which warmed the surface waters of the Pacific Ocean, was then the strongest such event in almost two decades, according to NASA. But when El Niño ended, the cold waters around the Galápagos returned, bringing with them loads of nutrients, fish populations like this one near Santiago Island exploded. (©Walter Perez)

The species of the Galápagos Islands—Blue-footed Boobies and Giant Tortoises, Lava Lizards and Land Iguanas—are iconic. Some are found nowhere outside the boundaries of the archipelago. Walter Perez, an Ecuadorian and naturalist guide, has been photographing the fauna there for more than a decade, and about four years ago, he met Michael Weisberg, professor and chair of the Philosophy Department at the University of Pennsylvania

“You can’t enter the park without a naturalist guide,” explains Weisberg, who has been conducting research on the Galápagos for the past four years. “They are extremely well-trained guides who handle the people but are also experts in the natural history.” Perez took Weisberg around and the two became friends. 

Weisberg quickly began to understand that through his camera’s lens, Perez had been creating a remarkable documentary of the islands’ animals. “Walter is really interested in animal behavior, the action shots, as opposed to taking the ‘glamour’ closeups,” Weisberg says. 

Eventually the two collaborated on a project called Galápagos: Life in Motion, which was published by Princeton University Press in August. The book features 200 photos of dozens of species mating, fighting, feeding, and interacting with humans. Fifteen of the photos are featured below. 

A Marine Iguana and a Galápagos Lava Lizard, Galápagos (©Walter Perez)
Six Penn undergrads, led by doctoral student Jesse Hamilton, consulted with small businesses on the Galápagos. Two were tourism companies that bring people to see the islands’ fauna, including the Marine Iguana seen here with the Galápagos Lava Lizard on its head. (©Walter Perez)


A female Pacific Green Turtle on the central Galápagos island of Santa Cruz (©Walter Perez)
On the central Galápagos island of Santa Cruz, on Las Bachas Beach, a female Pacific Green Turtle covers her nest with a crowd of onlookers in the background. This species can lay as many as 200 eggs at once. Then when mom leaves them to be incubated, temperature will determine the hatchlings’ gender, with warmer temperatures leading to more female babies. (©Walter Perez)
A Pyramid Sea Star near Champion Island, Galápagos (©Walter Perez)
The Galápagos are home to thousands of land- and sea-dwelling invertebrate species, like this Pyramid Sea Star, which actually has an extra arm. Perez took this shot near Champion Island, which sits just off the northern coast of Floreana Island, in the southern part of the archipelago. (©Walter Perez)


A Brown Pelican and a Galápagos Shark (©Walter Perez)
A Brown Pelican and a Galápagos Shark, seen in the shadows below the surface, hunt the same school of fish off the coast of North Seymour Island, which is just north of Santa Cruz. (©Walter Perez)


Immature Red-footed Boobies on Genovesa Island, Galápagos (©Walter Perez)
Red-footed Booby populations are the largest of the three booby species found on the islands, yet they tend to be the least-spotted. The young birds above on Genovesa Island in the northeast of the Galápagos don’t yet have the signature bright-red feet; that characteristic develops as the fledglings mature. (©Walter Perez)


Galápagos Land Iguanas (©Walter Perez)
Galápagos Land Iguanas, like the yellow males above on Santa Cruz Island, fight to gain territory. The more and better land they have, the better their chances of successfully mating. These prehistoric-looking creatures can get big, too, stretching to three feet and weighing as much as 30 pounds. (©Walter Perez)


A young Nazca Booby in the ocean waters between the islands of Fernandina and Isabela (©Walter Perez)
Here a young Nazca Booby floats in the ocean waters between the islands of Fernandina and Isabela. Unlike the adults of this species, which are bright-white with a masked face and brown wing stripes, immature Nazca Boobies are brown with a white under-belly. (©Walter Perez)


A male dome-shaped Galápagos Tortoise (©Walter Perez)
Galápagos Tortoises may be the most iconic species of all, with individuals like Lonesome George, who died in 2012, making headlines as symbols of conservation efforts. The islands themselves were even named for the giant reptiles. Above, a male dome-shaped Galápagos Tortoise on Santa Cruz Island. (©Walter Perez)


Galápagos Sea Lion (©Walter Perez)
About 50,000 sea lions live in and around the Galápagos, and on many of the islands, they co-exist with the humans, making for a sometimes-complicated relationship, one Penn Today featured in a piece about Weisberg’s research last January. Above, a Galápagos Sea Lion catches and eats a fish in Tagus Cove, near Isabela Island. (©Walter Perez)


Young Pacific Green Turtles (©Walter Perez)
Female Pacific Green Turtles lay their eggs at night on the beach, and then the sun acts as an incubator for almost two months. The babies, like the three here, then hatch simultaneously to increase survival as they leave the cover of the sand and make their way to the sea, all while trying to avoid birds, crabs, and other predators. (©Walter Perez)


A Great Blue Heron and an Española Lava Lizard, Galápagos (©Walter Perez)
Española Lava Lizards make great food for birds like the Great Blue Heron above and other top predators like Galápagos Hawks and owls. They’re plentiful, and different species of the lizards live throughout the Galápagos. To escape from predators—a fate the lizard here could not manage—the reptiles have the ability to detach from their tails, which eventually re-grow. (©Walter Perez)


A Sally Lightfoot Crab and a Santiago Lava Lizard, Galápagos (©Walter Perez)
According to the Galápagos Conservation Trust, Sally Lightfoot Crabs are said to be named for a Caribbean dancer, as well as for their agility in jumping and scaling rocks. Their diet is diverse, ranging from the Santiago Lava Lizard visible in the photo to sea lion placenta. Their blue-and-red coloration comes with age; younger crabs having darker shells and red spots but no blue. (©Walter Perez)


A Galápagos Sea Lion pup and mother (©Walter Perez)
Baby Galápagos Sea Lions, called pups, stay with their mother for as long as three years. When the mother ventures out to find food, the pup sticks with others in a nursery, often cared for by a single adult until the other parents return. The baby seen here, photographed near Champion Island, is playing and interacting with its mother. (©Walter Perez)


Sally Lightfoot Crabs perched on the backside of a rock near Santiago Island, Galápagos (©Walter Perez)
Perched on the backside of a rock near Santiago Island, Sally Lightfoot Crabs take shelter from the splashing waves and turbulent waters. A boat sails past in the background. The Galápagos Islands just celebrated 40 years as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and stringent rules about tourism are in place to protect the unique ecosystem. (©Walter Perez)


Three Blue-footed Boobies (sitting) and a a Swallow-tailed Gull (©Walter Perez)
Three Blue-footed Boobies sit on a cliff in the moonlight as a Swallow-tailed Gull flies by. Though the gull looks similar to other gull species, it’s mostly nocturnal, with distinct eyes useful for its nighttime, sea-focused foraging. (©Walter Perez)

Michael Weisberg is professor and chair of the Philosophy Department in the School of Arts and Sciences at the University of Pennsylvania

Galápagos: Life in Motion was published by Princeton University Press in August 2018.