In the Light of Evolution

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In the Light of Evolution
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In the Light of Evolution
Credit: Courtesy of Alice Michel

For several students, the trip was their first time traveling out of the country. "Every day, we were busy from sunup to well-past sundown, hiking and snorkeling twice a day," says Bobby Sanchez, a rising senior in geophysics. "I was really surprised by the diversity and ubiquity of life on the islands." Pictured is a lone flamingo the students encountered during a hike.

Credit: Courtesy of Alice Michel

A Sally Lightfoot crab climbs an outcrop of rock. During the trip, students were encouraged to celebrate moments of silence, spending several 10-minute periods throughout the trip in total silence, observing their surroundings.

Credit: Courtesy of Alice Michel

A forest of Scalesia trees, a genus endemic to the Galápagos. "I can think of no better way to reinforce Darwin's theory of evolution through natural selection than to be completely immersed in the wilderness of the Galápagos," Orphan says. "The proximity of the islands and sheer density and uniqueness of the animal and plant life residing on each makes it possible for the students to experience the full diversity of habitats supported in the archipelago—from giant tortoises in the forested mountain highlands of Santa Cruz to the endemic Galápagos penguins on the rocky basaltic coastline of Isla Isabela."

Credit: Courtesy of Alice Michel

Saint James Bay after sunrise. "I had never traveled before, and I didn't think I was a person who likes to travel," says Sanchez, who is from Riverside, California. "Now I feel like there's so much adventure out there, and I've got a small taste of it. In addition to being a huge educational experience, the trip changed my philosophy about traveling and finding adventure."

Credit: Courtesy of Nicholas Schiefer

Most college students do not have the opportunity to live on a boat for nine days. "You get used to it really quickly," says Alice Michel (BS '16). "Being in such a small space means everyone has a lot of time for discussions." Phillips hoped that the immersive experience would allow students the opportunity to "behave as naturalists and kindle the naturalist instinct," he says.

Credit: Courtesy of Alice Michel

The students frequently encountered pods of dolphins, such as the common dolphin seen at left, which was a member of a pod made up of hundreds of dolphins. "In addition to these, we saw bottlenose dolphins, which came over and bowsurfed alongside the boat," says Michel.

Credit: Courtesy of Alice Michel

An octopus blends in with its surroundings. "We learned how to make the world our classroom and lab bench," says Ariel O'Neill, a senior majoring in biology. "No one had internet access, so I learned to value the knowledge of these around me. I stopped saying, 'I'll Wikipedia it later,' and started asking, 'Can you tell me more?' It's a habit I hope to never lose." 

Credit: Courtesy of Alice Michel

A sinkhole on Santa Cruz island. "The Galápagos felt like a world without human interference," says junior Kristie Yu, biology major. "The trip sparked my appreciation for the relationship between geological formations and the organisms that live there."

Credit: Courtesy of Alice Michel

A blue-footed booby. "For the study of evolution, there is no better place to cultivate observant eyes or a curious mind than the Galápagos Islands," O'Neill says. "I now have a strong respect for field naturalists," says Sanchez.

Credit: Courtesy of Alice Michel

A pile of marine iguanas. The unusual ocean temperatures of the recent El Niño year hit the iguana population particularly hard, and many died of starvation. "The iguanas sneeze salt through their noses, causing the white coating on their heads," Yu says. "When organisms like these iguanas evolve in such isolation—the next nearest landmass is about 500 miles away—they evolve these unique behaviors."

photo of Galápagos giant tortoises
Credit: Courtesy of Nicholas Schiefer

Galápagos giant tortoises. The Galápagos is one of two places in the world where giant tortoises exist. In the wild they can live over 100 years. "As a biologist, getting an outdoor, hands-on experience gave me an appreciation for our greater ecosystem," Yu says. "I study gut microbes, and this class changed my perspective on microbes' relationship with the environment."

Credit: Courtesy of Victoria Orphan

Snorkeling with endemic Galápagos sea lions. The students snorkeled several times a day while on the trip. "The experience of snorkeling and being out in the ocean completely changed my mind about my career path," Sanchez says. "I am now doing my senior thesis in oceanography and I want to become a physical oceanographer."


"Remember—'Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution,'" says Rob Phillips to a group of Caltech undergraduates, as they step out of a small plane onto the Galápagos Islands. Phillips, the Fred and Nancy Morris Professor of Biophysics and Biology, is quoting biologist Theodosius Dobzhansky, whose 1972 essay "Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution" inspired Phillips and Victoria Orphan, the James Irvine Professor of Environmental Science and Geobiology, to create an evolution course at Caltech. The biannual class, founded in 2014, culminates in a nine-day field trip to the Galápagos—where Charles Darwin first collected evidence for his revolutionary theory of evolution.

"The idea is that evolution is a hinge for all of biology," Phillips says. "But many biologists and bioengineers don't get to take an evolution course."

The 10-week course combined traditional lectures with laboratory exercises—such as the famed Luria-Delbrück experiment that revealed the nature of genetic mutations in microbes—and local field trips, such as to Occidental College's Moore Lab of Zoology where students measured variations in beak sizes for several species of birds. During the spring break trip to the Galápagos, Phillips, Orphan, and their students lived on a 22-meter boat for the entirety of the trip. Guided by naturalist Ernesto Norero, who has lived on the islands for over 20 years, the students spent their days hiking, snorkeling, and observing nature.

"Learning about evolution was our primary goal, but it's also very important that Caltech students get the opportunity to get out in the world, express a sense of wonder, and appreciate the magnitude of human impact on the planet," Phillips says.

"There is no place quite like the Galápagos for demonstrating the intimate connection between the geosphere and biosphere," Orphan says. "The students arrive in the Galápagos freshly primed with evolutionary facts, equations, and hypotheses, and leave enriched with a deeper understanding of the big picture and how it all ties together."

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