The Galápagos Tortoise, or Galápagos Giant Tortoise (Chelonoidis nigra,) is the largest living species of tortoise and the 13th-heaviest living reptile, reaching weights of over 400 kg (880 lb) and lengths of over 1.8 meters (5.9 ft). With life spans in the wild of over 100 years, it is one of the longest-lived vertebrates. A captive individual lived at least 170 years.
The tortoises have a large bony carapace (shell) of a dull brown colour. The plates of the shell are fused with the ribs in a rigid protective structure that is integral to the skeleton. Lichens can grow on the shells of these slow-moving animals. Tortoises keep a characteristic scute (shell segment) pattern on their shell throughout life, though the annual growth bands are not useful for determining age because the outer layers are worn off with time. A tortoise can withdraw its head, neck and forelimbs into its shell for protection. The legs are large and stumpy, with dry scaly skin and hard scales. The front legs have five claws, the back legs four.
The tortoise is native to seven of the Galápagos Islands, a volcanic archipelago about 1,000 km (620 mi) west of the Ecuadorian mainland. Spanish explorers, who discovered the islands in the 16th century, named them after the Spanish galápago, meaning tortoise.
The tortoises are ectothermic (cold-blooded) and therefore bask for 1–2 hours after dawn to absorb the sun's heat through their dark shells before actively foraging for 8–9 hours a day. They travel mostly in the early morning or late afternoon between resting and grazing areas. They have been observed to walk at a speed of 0.3 kilometres per hour (0.2 mph). On the larger and more humid islands, the tortoises seasonally migrate between low elevations, which become grassy plains in the wet season, and meadowed areas of higher elevation (up to 2,000 ft (610 m)) in the dry season. The same routes have been used for many generations, creating well-defined paths through the undergrowth known as "tortoise highways". On these wetter islands, the domed tortoises are gregarious and often found in large herds, in contrast to the more solitary and territorial disposition of the saddleback tortoises. Tortoises sometimes rest in mud wallows or rain-formed pools, which may be both a thermoregulatory response during cool nights, and a protection from parasites such as mosquitoes and ticks. Parasites are countered by taking dust baths in loose soil. Some tortoises have been noted to shelter at night under overhanging rocks. Others have been observed sleeping in a snug depression in the earth or brush called a "pallet". Local tortoises using the same pallet sites, such as on Volcán Alcedo, results in the formation of small sandy pits.