Photo: A marine iguana basking in the sun

Found only on the Galápagos Islands, marine iguanas often wear distinctive white "wigs" of salt expelled from glands near their noses.

Photograph by Rob Stewart/Animals Animals—Earth Scenes

Map

Map: Iguana range

Marine Iguana Range

Fast Facts

Type:
Reptile
Diet:
Herbivore
Average life span in the wild:
5 to 12 years
Size:
4 to 5 ft (1.2 to 1.5 m)
Weight:
1 to 3.3 lbs (.5 to 1.5 kg)
Protection status:
Threatened
Did you know?
Marine iguanas sneeze frequently to expel salt from glands near their noses. The salt often lands on their heads, giving them a distinctive white wig.
Size relative to a 6-ft (2-m) man:
Illustration: Marine iguana compared with adult man

The much-maligned marine iguanas of the Galápagos Islands are so famously homely, even Charles Darwin piled on, describing them as "hideous-looking" and "most disgusting, clumsy lizards."

It's true, they're not pretty, with their wide-set eyes, smashed-in faces, spiky dorsal scales, and knotty, salt-encrusted heads. But what these unusual creatures lack in looks they make up for with their amazing and unique ecological adaptations.

Scientists figure that land-dwelling iguanas from South America must have drifted out to sea millions of years ago on logs or other debris, eventually landing on the Galápagos. From that species emerged marine iguanas, which spread to nearly all the islands of the archipelago. Each island hosts marine iguanas of unique size, shape and color.

They look fierce, but are actually gentle herbivores, surviving exclusively on underwater algae and seaweed. Their short, blunt snouts and small, razor-sharp teeth help them scrape the algae off rocks, and their laterally flattened tails let them move crocodile-like through the water. Their claws are long and sharp for clinging to rocks on shore or underwater in heavy currents. They have dark gray coloring to better absorb sunlight after their forays into the frigid Galápagos waters. And they even have special glands that clean their blood of extra salt, which they ingest while feeding.

Their population is not well known, but estimates are in the hundreds of thousands. They are under constant pressure from non-native predators like rats, feral cats, and dogs, who feed on their eggs and young. They are protected throughout the archipelago and are considered vulnerable to extinction.

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