PhD students Elisabeth Grey (Department for Health), Becky Mead and Dana Buchan (both Department Biology & Biochemistry) are doing evolutionary related research at the University, and have just returned from a trip to the Galapagos Islands.
Dana and Becky’s projects are investigating the teaching of evolution in schools as part of the GEVOteach (Genetics & Evolution) teaching project, whilst Elisabeth is looking into how evolutionary messaging can be used in diet and health advice.
Their trip to Galapagos was arranged and fully funded by Bath alumnus Dr Jonathan Milner, who is already funding their PhDs and has just donated £5 million to the University to establish the Milner Centre for Evolution, the first evolution science centre in the UK.
You can read the accounts of their life-changing trip below.
We are lucky enough to have the Evolution Education Trust (EET), headed by Jonathan Milner, as our PhD scholarship sponsor. The EET was formed to promote a greater public understanding of evolution, and as such it is also involved with the Galapagos Conservation Trust, an organisation that supports scientific, educational and cultural initiatives aimed at conserving Galapagos (the famous archipelago that was an inspiration to Darwin’s theory of evolution). Dr Milner was keen for us to see the fantastic work of the GCT and arranged for us to join them on a 2 week trip to Galapagos.
The first week of our trip was spent visiting several of the eastern islands in the archipelago. This was a fantastic opportunity to see the great variety of environmental conditions on the different islands and how this is reflected in the species that inhabit them. Many of the animals we saw are unique to Galapagos, including, of course, the famous finches. It was possible to get very close to a lot of the animals since, having no natural predators, they are relatively unfearful of humans. Swimming side-by-side with wild sea turtles, was a particular experience we’ll never forget!
This tour also introduced us to some of the threats to these unique islands. We saw many invasive plants, such as blackberry, which have been introduced by man and are fast eliminating the endemic vegetation on which certain animals have come to depend. The sea-life is also at risk: among our fellow travellers were a couple of marine biologists who conducted bio-surveys of the sea water in different locations. In all the samples we found a high number and range of vital plankton, but also many microplastics.
Elisabeth Grey is completing a PhD Research Programme in Health
Every moment spent in the Galapagos was mesmerising, thought-provoking and life-changing. As soon as we arrived we were inundated with wildlife that showed no fear (and often took no notice) of humans. On landing at San Cristobel Airport I initially thought I had flown back through time: in the sky a huge, black, almost pterodactyl-like bird was circling above us. I was to see many other frigatebirds during my two week stay on Galapagos.
To follow in the footsteps of Charles Darwin and visit the Galapagos had been a distant dream but, thanks to the overwhelming generosity of Jonathan Milner and the Evolution Education Trust, I have just returned from the trip of a lifetime. Along with two of my PhD student colleagues from the University of Bath I joined the Galapagos Conservation Trust’s (GCT) Supporter Cruise and spent time on Santa Cruz Island learning about GCT-funded education projects.
Life on board the Majestic was truly wonderful. We sailed by night, visiting a different island each day. Every island was unique with its own spectacular landscape and fascinating flora and fauna. I soon became accustomed to marine iguanas hiding among the black volcanic rocks, sea lions basking in the sun, Sally Lightfoot crabs with their startling orange shells bright against the dark coastal cliffs, and the finches, mockingbirds and lava lizards which all appear similar, yet vary between islands. It is easy to see how Darwin’s visit here helped shape his views on evolution.
I have so many amazing memories, but those prehistoric-looking frigatebirds really encapsulate the wonder, mystery and magnificence of the islands for me. Seeing the male frigatebirds on Genovesa Island, their mating calls reverberating through their enormous red throat pouches, is something I shall never forget.
I learnt to snorkel in the brilliant turquoise ocean. I entered a new world where I immediately became engulfed in schools of fish and then found myself the centre of attention of curious sea lions playfully darting around me. Snorkelling around Kicker Rock we were treated to turtles, sea lions, rays, sharks, an octopus and - somewhat tingly! - jellyfish. But perhaps the most poignant moment was seeing a turtle eating a plastic bag. Even in these glistening, remote waters, the impact of humans is inescapable.
On Santa Cruz we visited a school and an eco-club. I felt honoured to participate in a teacher workshop which included tortoise tracking in the highlands. I was impressed with the dedication of the teachers and trainers to the environment and sustainability. I was particularly encouraged by the positive attitude of teenagers at the eco club who viewed conserving nature as their responsibility. It gives me lots of hope for the future of these islands and really highlights why funding from organisations such as the GCT is vital.
I have been so inspired and motivated by this incredible adventure. I am very grateful to my sponsor, everyone at the GCT, those on board the Majestic, and those who I met during my time on the islands: you all made me feel so welcome and opened my mind to new ideas and ways of thinking. I hope I can use this experience to improve my research into how evolution is taught in UK schools, and I look forward to working with the GCT in the near future to develop teaching resources.
Becky Mead is completing a PhD Research Programme in Biology
The Galapagos education system currently serves just over 5,200 primary and secondary students through a network of 20 public and private schools on the islands of Santa Cruz (9 schools), San Cristóbal (6), Isabela (4), and Floreana (1). Some of these schools are extremely small and isolated.
During my second week in the Galapagos Islands I was extremely privileged to visit Tomás de Berlanga School on the Island of Santa Cruz. This fee-paying school offered bilingual primary and secondary education to approximately 130 students in a rural forest setting.
The school was situated four miles from the centre of town on the road to the highlands. Children and staff were bused in and out from the fairly remote site every day. The school itself was made up of several single story blocks integrated into the forest. The blocks (pairs of classrooms, art, administration/reception, canteen, toilets, music and library) were separate but close together and linked by crushed lava pathways lined with trees and shrubs.
The classrooms were fairly basic by UK standards, just desks and chairs, a white board and a few posters on the walls. There was no air conditioning, just fly screens in the windows. Resources seemed to be very limited but were reported to be much better than most other schools on the Islands. As a consequence of the school’s location the constant dampness meant that paper resources perish quickly. There was no evidence of any science equipment or lab in the school and so probably only taught in theory.
I was given access to 24 students in two classes (grades 6 and 7) ranging from 10 to 12 years old, who had not been taught about evolution. Evolution education in Ecuador is carried out in the 9th grade (13 years old). This is comparable with the students in the UK before the changes in the Primary National Curriculum were introduced in September 2014.
Both classes were given the same translated questionnaires I intend to use to collect data from year 6 students in the UK. The questions were selected from a large scale American study, part of the AAAS Project 2061 (Flanagan and Roseman, 2011). This research will form part of my thesis and allow me to compare the evolutionary knowledge of children from the Galapagos Islands, the USA and UK.
Dana Buchan is completing a PhD Research Programme in Biology