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Galapagos Vegetation Zones

Owing to the extraordinary nature of the Galapagos archipelago, the islands boast several vegetation zones, which all show a wide variation from one another and from the landscape on mainland Ecuador. The vegetation zones occur because of the archipelago, different flora and fauna are found at different elevations and at different distances from the coast. Each vegetation zone shows signs of community organization between the flora and fauna, which has made the islands an area of special interest to biologists, geographers, zoologists, and horticulturalists, even more so considering that over 30% of Galapagos flora are found only on the islands and nowhere else. When scientists make a map of the Galapagos Islands, they highlight three main vegetation zones in the archipelago: the arid zone, the humid highlands, and the coastal zone.

Galapagos Plant life – vegetation zones mapping

The arid zone covers the largest area across the islands and often surprises tourists, who were expecting more lush forest. The plants here are highly adapted to the environment, and so can survive in drought-like conditions that plants from the coastal and humid zones could not survive in. The flora commonly found here are leafless shrubs, flowering only during the short rainy season, and cacti, but as the arid zone boasts the largest numbers of flora, there’s plenty to interest even the most enthusiastic biologists.

The humid highland zones can only be found on the larger islands with higher elevation, and because most of the Galapagos Islands don’t feature elevation higher than the arid zone, the humid zones are a rarer sight as they only located above the arid zones. The lush, leafy and green humid zones are populated by large numbers of Scalesia trees, which form dense forest areas in which mosses and smaller plants can be found, using the trees as a habitat.

The coastal zone, occupying a narrow area by the shoreline, is notable for its many plant species, which are tolerant to the highly salty conditions caused by the sea. Mangrove trees are extremely common in this zone and play a crucial part in the breeding of many bird species, including frigate birds and pelicans, as they choose the trees as the location to breed in. The shade offered by the trees also attracts sea lions and iguanas, for which shade is necessary to prevent deadly overheating. Many of the plants found here have adapted to sea dispersal, owing to their proximity to the sea.

Visit Galapagos on a tour and discover the different plant species that have adapted and populated the islands allowing the unique wildlife to strive in otherwise harsh conditions.

Plantlife in the coastlands of the Galapagos archipelago

Coastal zone Galapagos

This evergreen zone is based on salt tolerance abilities of certain Galapagos green zone species at the land/sea interface. The type of vegetation found varies greatly. The mangroves form forest in coves, while on beaches there are vines, grasses, and shrubs. Many plants in this zone are adapted dispersal by the sea and few are endemic because of the unstable nature of the environmental and high immigration rates.

The lowest life zone on the island is the coastal zone. Those plants that exist on the edge of the sea can be divided into two portions the Wet Coastal Zone or Mangrove Zone and the Dry Coastal Zone or Beaches and High Tide Areas.

Mangroves live in the Wet Coastal Zone. These salt-tolerant trees and shrubs thrive in shallow and muddy saltwater or brackish waters. In the Galapagos there are 4 Galapagos the dry coast varieties of Mangroves including the Black Mangrove, White Mangrove, Red Mangrove, and Button Mangrove.

The Dry Coastal Zone is made up of the dry sandy area from the sea to the high water line. This area supports low lying spreading plants which are able to retain water including the Sesuvian Portulacastrum an herb whose stem turns a bright reddish color during the dry season.

Desertic lowlands flora of the Galapagos Islands

Lowlands zone Galapagos

Is the most extensive vegetation zone. It is a semi-desert forest dominated by deciduous trees and shrubs. The plants have adaptations to withstand drought. There are great numbers of endemic species. Lichens are abundant in this zone because they are tolerant of dry conditions and are capable of absorbing moisture from the occasional garua mist.

As an island slopes from the beach to an elevation of about 197 ft (60 m) elevation an arid desert-like zone occurs. This region is home to the many Cactus that live in the Galapagos including the Prickly Pear Cactus, Lava Cactus, and Candelabra Cactus. Vine plants also make their home in the Arid Lowlands. The endemic lava morning glory and endemic passionflower can be found in this zone.

At the top of the Arid Lowlands, the silvery-leafed Palo Santo Tree with its collection of lichens can be seen.

Galapagos Islands plantlife – transitional zone flora

Transitional Zone Galapagos

It is intermediate in character between the scalesia and arid zones but dominated by different species than either of the adjacent zones. The forest is still mainly deciduous. It is much more dense and diverse than the forests of the arid zones and it is often difficult to say whether any species is dominant.

Rising up the island plants become more frequent. In the Transition Zone plants from both the Arid Lowlands and the Upper Moist Zones occur. This zone is home to a variety of small trees or shrubs including the endemic Pega Pega Tree and the endemic Guayabillo, which produces a small white flower that develops into a fruit similar to its cousin the Guava.

The Galapagos Tomato, endemic to the islands is a salt-resistant tomato that has been used to create a hybrid, which is capable of growing in the salty soil around the world

Scalesia forest zone of the Galapagos Islands

Scalesia zone Galapagos

The transition zone merges into the evergreen scalisia forest, Galapagos Native scalesia treeswhich is lush cloud forest, dominated by scalesia pedunculata trees. This type of forest occurs only on the higher islands and, being the richest zone in terms of soil fertility and productivity, has been extensively cut down for agricultural and cattle ranching purposes. The scalesia forest is diverse and has many edemic species.

Humid. Epiphytes like orchids, mosses, ferns and lichens thrive in this zone’s constant moisture and ornate treesGalapagos ornate tree and shrubs with color and charm. Typical at this degree of humidity are the Scalesias and Pisonias. Not much is said about the highlands of Galápagos, but in reality this is an amazing cloud forest with unique features.

The lowest of the “humid” zones this zone is named for the daisy tree that grows between 970-1970 ft (300 – 600 m) elevations. The Scalesia is one of the few trees in the Aster Family and grows to heights 16 – 50 ft (5-15 m) in height. Its trunk and branches are covered with moss and lichens. This area is humid and has the essence of being in a rainforest.

Scalesia Trees have been greatly reduced in numbers since humans arrived in the islands. With them came pigs and goats, which devour the young plants and feed on older plants. People also introduced the Guava, a plant whose dense growth patterns steals nutrients and eventually makes it impossible for competing plants to survive.

Brown vegetation zone

Brown Zone Galapagos

The Brown Zone is named after the brown coloration the flora within this zone become during the dry season, making it stand out from the other Galapagos Island plant life. Only found on the island of Santa Cruz, it’s a truly unique area with a fascinating community of Galapagos flowers and plant life but unfortunately the zone has been almost completely destroyed by human activity and habitation in the area.

The area acts as a transition zone between the Scalesia forests of the humid highlands and the Miconia zone flora. The forests in the Brown Zone are different in appearance from the Scalesia forests, as they’re more open and less densely covered. The trees and ground of the Brown Zone are covered in various mosses, lichens and liverworts, giving the zone its unique appearance when compared with the other vegetation zones on the Galapagos Islands. The endemic (meaning it’s only found in one place) shrub Tournefortia Pubescens along with Cat’s Claw, a vine commonly found in the jungles and rainforests of South America, dominate the landscape here.

Tournefortia Pubescens has characteristic white flowers and dark-green, egg-shaped leaves. It can be found on the Galapagos Islands of Fernandina, Floreana, Isabela, Pinzon, San Cristobal, Santa Cruz, Santiago and Wolf. Little is known about the biology of the plant, but observations of a closely related plant, Tournefortia rufo-sericea, have shown that many of its flowers self-pollinate to create fruit, suggesting that Tournefortia Pubescens could use the same method, although this has not been proven. The plant, whilst considered endangered, is not considered to be facing any specific threats for the time being, but due to human activities and invasion of foreign plants onto the Islands and the fact that T. Pubescens is only found on the archipelago, it does have to be monitored.

The true beauty of the islands, and especially the Brown Zone, is that there’s nothing else in the world like them. With the large-scale destruction of the Brown Zone, the unique way of life for Galapagos flowers and all of its plant life in the zone, and the way they coexist with one another, really is something that has to be seen before the zone is completely eradicated. Whether you’re just interested in seeing something different, or you have a real interest and enthusiasm for biology and biodiversity, the wild variations between the Galapagos Islands plant life in different zones really is something to behold.

Throghout this website we offer information on planning your visit to the Galapagos Islands.

Tropical rainforest in the Miconia highland zone of the Galapagos

Miconia zone Galapagos

The unique flora and plant life of the Galapagos Islands lives in very specific zones, something that often helps visitors to identify the shrubs, trees and flowers they discover.

The lowlands are covered by mangrove swamps, the arid lowlands are characterised by their prickly pear cacti. There are some areas of tropical rainforest too. Higher up the slopes you will find scalesia trees, that provide a canopy like that of a tropical rainforest. However, it is higher up still, above the scalesia zone that you will find the miconia zone.

It’s on the southern slopes of San Cristobal and Santa Cruz where this dense shrubby belt of miconia flourishes. This shrub is endemic to the islands and lends its name to the flora zone where you’ll find it.

Although now vastly depleted thanks to the actions of man and non-indigenous animals, this striking plant has large leathery leaves with veins forming distinct patterns on the upper surface. The leaves are usually yellow or reddish towards the edges. It is also characterised by purple flowers that cluster in branches up to 18 cm long.

The Miconia Robinsoniana grows to heights of about three or four metres at altitudes between 600 and 700 metres. There are no native trees present here but you can find more liverworts than anywhere else on the islands.

Above the miconia zone, further up the slopes, you can find the pampa zone, where there are virtually no trees or shrubs of any kind. This wet grassland is subject to low temperatures and is the highest elevation on the Galapagos Islands where any kind of vegetation can grow.

The unique tropical rainforest and vegetation zones of the Galapagos are just another reason why the natural environment here continues to enthral and enchant. The unique plant species rivals the animal life and all adds to the mystique and aura surrounding this incredible part of the planet.

Pampa vegetation zone in the Galapagos

Pampa Zone Galapagos

There are virtually no trees or shrubs, and the vegetation consists largely of ferns, grasses and sedges. This is the wettest zone, specially during the garua seazon, receiving as much as 2.5 m of rain in some years.

In the populated islands this is farmland or Pampas. The temperature is low and grass is abundant; good to cultivate commercial products and raise cattle.

On islands with elevations over 3000 ft (900 m) the highest vegetation zone in the Galapagos can occur, the Fern-Sedge Zone or Pampa Zone. The appearance of this zone depends on the amount of moisture it receives. The tall Galapagos Tree Fern and Liverworts are commonly found in this zone.