The Galapagos. Every biologist knows about it, dreams about it. It is a sacred site to multiple disciplines, functioning as Jerusalem does to Christians, Jews, and Muslims. It was here where observations of biodiversity lead to the most important work in evolutionary biology, Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species. Unlike Jerusalem, making a pilgrimage to the Galapagos is much more difficult; it is more like Mecca due to the restricted access. In order to preserve the archipelago, which is a National Park, the Ecuadorian government limits the number of tourists who can enter, and many islands must be vacated by a certain hour each day. Of course the Galapagos has changed a lot since Darwin arrived there, but Ecuador is doing a great job preserving this UNESCO world heritage site and as a result visiting the Galapagos remains a dream.
But through the generosity of the National Evolutionary Synthesis Center (NESCent), which is devoted to diversifying the field of evolutionary biology, Aide Macias Munoz (a 1st-year Ph.D. student in Dr. Adriana Briscoe’s lab at UC Irvine) and I recently had the privilege to attend the III World Summit on Evolution, hosted by the Universidad de San Francisco-Quito and held on San Cristobal Island in the Galapagos.
The conference is held every four years and draws participants from throughout the world, although the majority of the people come from South America. The conference had 5 sessions on topics ranging from the RNA World to Evolution and Society. There was also a large poster session where students like myself were able to present our work. One thing that made this conference stand out to me, compared to some of the other ones I’ve attended, was the large student presence. And I’m not just talking about graduate students, but also undergraduate and high school students! These young minds were active participants in all sessions, asking great questions to some very impressive scientists. Coming from a country where we are still debating whether evolution should be taught in high schools, it was refreshing and promising to see these youths discuss evolution so eloquently.
It goes further than the academics though. The local people understand the importance of their home, and they are proud that it holds a place in history. When I picked up a keychain at one shop the owner approached me to point out Charles Darwin, who had a prominent place in the middle of the carving, surrounded by the charismatic endemic fauna.
There is a commitment to research on the Galapagos, as evidence by the creation of the Galapagos Academic Institute for the Arts and Science (GAIAS) and the Galapagos Science Center (GSC). We toured this newly built facility and met some of the researchers who are working there, studying everything from microbiology to sharks.
Midway through the conference we had a field trip, where we visited the giant tortoise breeding site la Galapaguera, saw the crater lake Laguna el Junco (the largest freshwater lake in the Galapagos), and went snorkeling. I was excited to see the tortoises and they did not disappoint; they start off so small when they are young!
Hands down, the highlight of the day had to be the snorkeling trip. Perhaps it’s because I study island biogeography, but I tend to be fonder of what’s below sea-level than most terrestrial biologists are. And given my fondness for lizards, my mission was to see a marine iguana in action.
If you talk to a herpetologist, you’ll know that most of them have dreamed of swimming with marine iguanas at least once in their life.
I jumped off the boat into the ocean, with its choppy waves pushing me around as I tried to adjust my mask. The water is a bit cooler than I like but fortunately I have a wet suit. There are lots of fish and sea urchins, I marvel at them as I try to catch up with the rest of our group, who are gathered around a rocky area closer to shore. I am battling the ocean and fins from other snorkelers propelling through the ocean, hoping that I don’t kick them (or even worse, a sea lion). The sea lions are little cute devils that will swim right up to your face and around you, beckoning you to play with them, but I am wary of their games; on land they are not as friendly. I proceed cautiously and I hear a lot of commotion, but my head is mostly in the water so I don’t know what’s going on exactly. I stop to catch my breath and ask the girls around me what did they sea, because they sound very excited.
"There was a marine iguana."
"OH! WHERE?" I said (probably squealed).
They point in the direction and I don’t see anything, but I make my way over there anyway. And then I see it. It’s little, probably a juvenile. Most of its body is in the water wading, not awkwardly like me although it does look awkward like me, its long tail perpendicular to the ocean floor. It was so serine, so beautiful, making its way back to the rocks, probably to warm up under the sun. That was what I wanted to do.
We saw many more iguanas on land. On the last day of the conference we went to Las Loberias, where I had hoped to fulfill my childhood dream of swimming with sea turtles. Well nature had other plans and the waves were way too large for us to comfortably swim let alone snorkel, so I was restricted to land. That’s okay though, because I found about 10 iguanas, just relaxing under manchineel trees! I knew better than to go bush-wacking, but I was able to get some good photos of them, and there was one very calm one that I got within 2 feet of; I probably could’ve gotten closer, but the claws are threatening, even if the demeanor is not.
The conference itself was amazing, but it took on an even more significant meaning due to its location and constituents. It was both humbling and invigorating to see such a diverse group of scientists—diverse in nationality, age, and research interests—convene together in a place known for being a cradle of diversity that birthed one of the most important scientific documents ever written.
I am thankful to NESCent for providing us this amazing experience in the Galapagos, and all the friends we made (human and non-human) while there! I hope to go to the next World Summit, which promises to be even grander!