The Galapagos Islands are a bucket list must see travel adventure for anyone with an interest in natural history, specifically me. As a child, The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau and Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom featuring Marlin Perkins sparked the passion for learning about life all over the planet. My first fossil (a trilobite), given to me by my brother Neil, made me wonder about life in deep time and how it is all connected with everything alive today. The distribution of animals and plants on islands around the world (island biogeography) has a prominent role in the development of evolutionary theory. The great adventurer, Alfred Russel Wallace developed his theory on the origin of species while studying life on the islands of Indonesia. The Galapagos Islands are a centerpiece Charles Darwin’s evolutionary theory of natural selection. The idea of adventure around the world and seeing things never seen by others was (and still is) an exciting prospect. It is why paleontology was a strong calling card when choosing a direction in my life. I was born too late to be the first to see an island but finding an 80 million year old fossil allows for a bit of that excitement without the general risk to life and limb that many of the earlier explorers faced. As an undergraduate studying both biology and geology I had the opportunity to study evolution from both a perspective of ecology and genetics as well as that of the fossil record. Both paths led back to Charles Darwin and his Voyage on the Beagle. The idea of taking the opportunity to add to our knowledge of the evolution of life is why I chose to pursue a PhD in paleontology. The opportunity to travel to one of the places featured prominently in Darwin’s travels and critical observations is one I have always dreamed of.
The Galapagos Islands are unique in that they are extremely isolated from both South America and other larger island chains. This has resulted in the unique evolution of the parent species that arrived on the islands long ago and can be found nowhere else on the planet. The most famous of these include Darwin’s finches and the giant Galapagos tortoises. The thermophysiology of the giant tortoises was an important jumping off point in my graduate research on dinosaurs. I have always wanted to see them in their natural environment. The currents from the Antarctic and North Pacific cool the climate of the islands that just happen to straddle the equator. Thus you will find penguins on the islands as well as the Galapagos fur seal (the smallest eared seal in the world). Flightless cormorants and the marine iguana are endemic there and fully half of the world’s population of Blue-footed boobies breed there. National Geographic specials are wonderful however this trip to the Galapagos Islands will be the adventure of a lifetime.
As a paleontologist, geologist, and evolutionary biologist, the Galapagos Islands are my Graceland. Charles Darwin’s original studies of the rocks and animals on the Islands changed science and changed the world, and the subsequent century and a half (plus) of research continues to refine our understanding of speciation and evolution. To get to go to a place that has such a huge impact on me personally and professionally is a dream. And to get to share that with others, makes the experience even more special. My career is built on education, and this trip provides a unique combination of getting to further my own education while sharing my knowledge and passion with others.
Islands in general are biodiversity hotspots, and the Galapagos Islands are no exception – especially since they are surrounded by cool, nutrient-rich upwelling waters. I am most excited to see the vast diversity of plants and animals, in their natural habitats, that I have read about so much. Birds and sharks of are particular interest to me, and the Galapagos have exceptional populations of both. I have also spent time studying modern penguins, so having the opportunity to see wild penguin populations is amazing! Considering the rate at which animal and plant species are going extinct, and unique environments are being destroyed, it is important spread appreciation, understanding, and conservation ideas of such habitats while they are still here.