GEOL 388 Field Studies II:
The Natural History of the Galápagos Islands

Introduction: In Darwin's Footsteps


by Thomas R. Holtz, Jr.
Director, College Park Scholars - Earth, Life & Time Program
Department of Geology
July 10, 2002

Life, in the form of a lava cactus, finds a toehold on a fresh lava flow at Punta Espinosa on Fernandina.

Charles Darwin was one of the most influential thinkers of the last two hundred years. His theory of evolution by means of natural selection not only transformed humanity's concept of the origin of species and the history of life, but also produced a new understanding of our place in the natural world.

The location that most profoundly inspired Darwin's hypothesis, among all the places he visited on the voyage of the H.M.S. Beagle, was the Galápagos Archipelago. Although he was only in the islands for five weeks in late 1835, the diversity of the wildlife and their adaptations to the local physical environment made a great impression on the young naturalist:

The islands are the home to a vast array of land and sea bird species, land and marine iguanas found nowhere else, lava lizards and giant tortoises, as well as a diverse and unusual flora. Each species reveals suites of physical and behavioral adaptations to its own particular local environment.

As important as it was for understanding the concept of biological evolution by natural selection, the Galápagos also demonstrate important aspects of the Earth Sciences. Plate tectonics (the greatest geological discovery of the 20th Century) produced the archipelago in an unusual combination of a mantle plume and an oceanic spreading center. These particular set of circumstances is manifested in the various volcanic flows, cones, and other structures that form the framework of the islands. Wind, rain, and waves have produced new landforms via the process of erosion.

Oceanographically, the Galápagos Islands are situated in an interesting meeting point of great ocean currents: the rich cool water upwelling in this region supports a diverse community of fish, marine turtles and mammals, and many invertebrates. The annual cycles of wet and dry seasons on the islands are interrupted on occasion by the El Niño phenomenon.

Sunset from the summit of Bartholomé.

Although most famous for Darwin's investigations in 1835, during the past centuries the Galápagos Archipelago was also home to pirates and whalers, prison colonies and failed utopian communities. In the middle of the 20th Century a new appreciation for the conservation of wildlife led to the establishment of the Charles Darwin Research Station, and ultimately to the transformation of the islands into a National Park of Ecuador and a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

There are few other places on the planet where evolutionary biology, geology and other earth systems sciences, natural history and human society are so obviously integrated. It was for this reason that in the summer of 2002 the directors of the College Park Scholars - Earth, Life & Time program returned to the Islands to follow up on the success of their Summer 2000 field course. This time, the class consisted of a team of eleven students, who investigated these various aspects of the Galápagos Archipelago. We visited eight of the islands in the Achipelago while travelling on board the M/V Ambasador I.

The M/V Ambasador I receives passengers at Baltra.

This website represents the results of their own experiences, observations, and investigations, created to provide an educational resource on these diverse topics. We offer this information so that teachers, students, and explorers of all ages can benefit from our experiences on these Enchanted Islands.

A proud marine iguana on Española.