Galapagos Islands

Students from Temple High School will take a scientific immersion trip to the Galapagos Islands, above, in March.

The Galapagos Islands are perhaps best known for the beginnings of Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution, but currently, Darwin’s finches aren’t the most popular animals on the islands.

“The Islands were actually named for the giant tortoises that live there,” said Jodi Bollinger, an International Baccalaureate and Advanced Placement biology teacher at Temple High School.

She and Michael Marek, an advanced environmental science and chemistry teacher, are chaperoning 18 students on a scientific research and immersion trip through Ecology Project International to the Galapagos. Marek’s group leaves March 5. Bollinger’s group travels out on March 12.

“Our students will experience ecology from a truly holistic perspective — they will examine the unique interactions that take place between the organisms and their environment in the Galapagos through scientific, historical and cultural lenses,” Bollinger said.

The students will work side-by-side with scientists in Galapagos National Park. Conservation efforts to protect the tortoises from the effects of human exploitation have continued since 1959.

Giant tortoises species’ dwindled as humans explored, settled and manipulated their habitat.

Most of the species were endangered, if not already on the brink of extinction, according to galapagos.org.

“Habitat restoration is crucial for the environment, especially in the Galapagos, because it allows us to provide a natural environment for many species that are endangered or (whose) habitats have been destroyed,” said Senior Caitlin Householder.

Bollinger explained that part of their efforts would include removing invasive plant species brought to the islands years ago.

“These plant species, including blackberry and quinine, are harmful because they compete with the native vegetation that makes up the tortoises’ diet,” she said.

At the beginning of their trip, the group will hike to join Galapagos National Park scientists at a new research site located in the highlands of the Santa Cruz Island. There, they’ll work directly with species of giant tortoises. They will track, locate and monitor adult tortoises in their habitat.

Some of the tortoises can live to be more than 100 years old; Lonesome George, the famous, last known survivor of the Pinta Island tortoises, was estimated to have lived for more than a century. His death four years ago signaled the extinction of his species.

Other species survived thanks to longevity. It’s an evolutionary advantage for the tortoise. Their large stature and armor serve them well, too.

“By embarking on this journey, I hope to experience the same feeling that Darwin did when he discovered evolution and the beauty of the Galapagos Islands,” Junior Zoe Wong said.

Undoubtedly, she will.

The Galapagos still portray magic; the creatures that ignited Darwin’s ideas still adapt to survive and thrive.

Darwin’s finches and the tortoises have a mutualistic relationship, according to galapagos.org. It’s not odd to see the birds perch on a tortoise’s shell. And it’s not odd to see them buzzing around their big buddies, eating ticks that hide in the folds of the tortoise’s skin.

The $5,795 cost per person didn’t deter the students. Bollinger said the group did everything they could to afford the opportunity to help research and restore the islands.

Students washed cars, sold organic coffee and tea, hosted fundraisers and sold T-shirts.

Local donors contributed as well.

They raised nearly $19,000.

“(Students) will walk away from this trip experiencing the interconnectedness that exists between the environment, living organisms and all forms of human knowledge and experience,” Bollinger said. “This perspective will undoubtedly inspire and influence the scope and direction of our students’ future studies.”