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Every biologist's dream

Barry McNamara
03/22/2011
Two years after Monmouth College celebrated the 200th birthday of Charles Darwin, a team of biology majors and faculty from Monmouth College gave themselves an early birthday present, spending Spring Break on the Galapagos Islands, where they retraced the steps of the famous evolutionist.

Led by biology faculty members Ken Cramer and James Godde, the 12-person travel party included eight MC students and two alumni, Kiel Krause ’07 and Jean Peters Witty ’88. Two of the MC students – Kendra Ricketts and Victoria Green – had also been part of Godde’s biology-based Amtrak trip to California last summer.

On March 4, the group flew, by way of Miami, from Chicago to Quito, Ecuador, where they enjoyed a traditional day for tourists, highlighted by an opportunity to see firsthand the unique effects of being right on the Equator. Shown that water drains clockwise when placed just north of the Equator, counterclockwise on the south side and straight down on the Equator itself, the group was able to balance an egg on the head of a nail.

“We had to get acclimated to the altitude,” said Godde. “Quito is the second highest capital in the world. It’s almost twice the height above sea level of Denver.”

The real purpose of the trip began to unfold the following day when the Monmouth group reached its ultimate destination after another flight and then short trips by bus, ferry and bus to Puerto Ayora. There, on the middle point of the archipelago of volcanic islands, it toured the Charles Darwin Research Station.

“It’s the dream of every biologist to see what Darwin saw,” said Godde.

“It was a trip I’d dreamed of making since I was a biology student in John Ketterer’s ‘Comparative Vertebrate Morphology’ class in the late 1980s,” agreed Witty, who kept in touch with her students back home at Glenbrook North High School through a daily blog. “From him, I first learned the power of natural selection and evolutionary change over time.”

She said she fondly remembered Ketterer climbing up on the table to demonstrate the rotation of the tetrapod limb that occurred as animals transitioned from living in the sea to living on land.

“He brought such energy to each of his lectures, and the marine iguanas we saw at the Galapagos are fantastic representations of his example living today,” she said.

Unlike the Amtrak trip, during which Godde and his students collected several samples, “this was not a scientific exploration,” he explained. Instead, it was images that were collected, as the group took hundreds of photographs of the islands’ endemic flora and fauna, which included giant tortoises, marine iguanas and the finches made famous by Darwin in his book, “On the Origin of Species.”

“The whole point is that while the species might be similar to what is found on the mainland, they are unique to these islands and, in many cases, unique to each specific island,” said Godde.

Witty elaborated on that point.

“We had the experience to walk where Charles Darwin walked on the islands of Isabela and Floreana. Both islands are amazing examples of geologic forces in action, as both were shaped by volcanic activity. The similarities and differences between the islands were profound. As Darwin noted, we also observed many similar creatures living in different habitats on each island, each creature with structural features that allow it to best survive in its often harsh environment.”

“I particularly enjoyed the Galapagos penguins,” said Cramer. “They are small, about 18 inches tall, and they are the northernmost species of penguins. They don’t breed with any other type of penguins, so there aren’t any of the kind of big penguins you’d see on ‘Happy Feet.’”

Cramer also commented on the woodpecker finch, which “has a really long bill”; the marine iguanas, which “had a lot of personality”; and the porpoises that “swam alongside our boat for about 15 minutes – the students really enjoyed that.”

“They have the last of a certain tortoise species called ‘Lonesome George’ that they are attempting to breed to continue the species,” said Ricketts. “After seeing the facilities and the true passion the people at the Darwin station feel for their projects, it opened my eyes to what really goes on in a conservation effort.”

She added, “Being on the Galapagos Islands really highlighted to me the damage the colonizers did in different areas by introducing species that then wiped out native species because they did not know how to cope.”

The group spent a total of three days on the islands, seeing different ones each day, then headed back to Ecuador for two additional days. A highlight was a bus trip to Cotopaxi, one of the tallest active volcanoes in the world.

“I like high-altitude stuff – that kind of habitat resonates with me,” said Cramer. “It was very open, and you could see a long way. It was like a high-altitude desert, dominated by shrubs. We had lunch by a high-altitude lake, and we all enjoyed watching the various ducks and gulls.”

Regarding cuisine, Godde observed that Coke and Sprite were readily available, but “it was hard to find diet soda.” Breakfast often consisted of fresh tropical fruit such as papaya and pineapple, and most meals featured rice and beans, along with a main dish of chicken, fish or beef.

There was at least one unusual offering, and most of the group volunteered to be guinea pigs when it came to eating, well, guinea pig.

“All but two of us tried it,” said Godde. “It was really greasy, with a fishy flavor. I’m glad I got to try it once, but the guinea pigs back here are safe.”

The explorers flew home on the morning of March 11. The 8.9 earthquake near Japan had occurred only a few hours earlier, so they were not aware of it. Later that day, tsunami waves reached the Galapagos Islands, doing minor damage.

“It was the opportunity of a lifetime for the students who went,” observed Godde. “To a person, they all had an amazing experience.”

Ricketts said that would have been true even if the Monmouth group had been less concerned about education.

“It was absolutely gorgeous – clear, turquoise waters, beautiful weather and friendly people,” she said.

“The biggest thing was the amount of wildlife you could see, even though you weren’t at a zoo,” said Cramer. “It was special to be where Darwin was and see the diversity of the creatures he encountered. Seeing it, and not just reading about it, helped you to think about what Darwin was thinking about when he was there.”

With two major biology trips under her belt, Green believes she is now ready for almost anything.

“These trips have allowed me to see parts of the world I may have never seen otherwise. They have also given me skills by facing challenges and pushing me out of my comfort zone. I feel that I have become a more confident, capable person because of these trips.”

Ricketts said her eyes have been opened to different research opportunities.

“I could work with things as small as the thermophiles collected on our train trip, or I can work with animals as large as a giant tortoise,” she said. “I’ve found new interests that I didn’t ever consider before the trips, such as working in a conservatory or a microbiology lab. Before these trips, I basically had been in western Illinois my whole life. I want to expand my experiences in different cultures and embrace every opportunity that I can.”

“I was thrilled to observe the professionalism and personal touch of our professors as they interacted with our students and to see the growth of our students firsthand as they were exposed to a portion of the greater world that has now become part of their Monmouth experience,” concluded Witty.

Cramer was one of few members of the travel party who had previously been to South America, and it won’t be long before he returns. The Associated Colleges of the Midwest has initiated a new exchange program in Brazil, and Cramer will return to the continent in April to learn more about it. Especially intended for students with an interest in environmental science, the program will expand on an existing one already under way at ACM member Colorado College.