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Evolution and Conservation in Galápagos

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The tiny remote islands of Galápagos have played a central role in the study of evolution. Not surprisingly, they have also been important to theory and practice in biodiversity conservation. The fascinating adaptations of organisms to the unusual, isolated ecosystems of the archipelago have left them particularly vulnerable to perturbations and introductions from the outside. Drawing on lessons learned from Darwin's time to the present, this seminar explores evolution, conservation, and their connection among the habitats and organisms of Galápagos. Using case-study material on tortoises, iguanas, finches, Scalesia plants, penguins, cormorants and more, we will explore current theory and debate about adaptation, speciation, adaptive radiation, sexual selection, and other topics in evolution. Similarly, we will explore the special challenges Galápagos poses today for conservation, owing to both its unusual biota and to the increasing impact of human activity in the archipelago.

Mother and baby seal in Galapagos.

This course includes, at no additional cost to students, an intensive eleven-day expedition to Galápagos, provided that public health conditions permit. The goal of the expedition is both to observe firsthand many of the evolutionary adaptations and conservation dilemmas that we have read about, and to look for new examples and potential solutions. A chartered ship from Lindblad Expeditions, with the highest levels of COVID protection protocol, will serve as our floating classroom, dormitory, and dining hall as we work our way around the archipelago to visit eight different islands. For this portion of the class, undergraduates will be joined by a small group of Stanford alumni and friends in a format called a Stanford "Field Seminar." Because our class time on campus is limited to one week before travel, students will be required to complete all course readings over the summer.

The course emphasizes student contributions and presentations. Students will be asked to lead class discussions and to carry out a thorough literature review of some aspect of the evolution and/or conservation of one or more Galápagos species. The final assignment for the seminar is to complete a seven- to ten-page paper about that review and to present its main findings in a joint seminar of undergrads and alumni as we travel in Galápagos. 

Important Logistics 

Students will arrive on campus on Labor Day and will be housed at Stanford until we leave for Galápagos. Travel to Galápagos will be provided and paid by Sophomore College (except incidentals and personal expenses) and is made possible by the support of the Stanford Alumni Association Travel/Study Program and generous donors. We are scheduled to depart for South America on September 16, and to return to campus early afternoon on Monday, September 26 (the first day of Autumn Quarter). Please note that you may thus miss some classes on the first day of Autumn Quarter. This late return date is due to the boat calendar set by the government of Galápagos, Ecuador. Application to the class signifies that you accept this possible complication. 

Application Alert!

This course uses interviews as part of the application process—keep a close eye on your email after the deadline passes.

COVID Caveat

If pandemic conditions do not allow us to travel to the Galápagos, the course will still be given with the same units and class requirements. A series of excellent videos, including hours of 3D viewing, will take the place of the expedition, and students will still be expected to present their research findings to the class. 

Meet the Instructor

William Durham

Bing Professor in Human Biology, Emeritus

William Durham and parrot

Bill Durham received his Ph.D. in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology from the University of Michigan before joining the Stanford faculty in Human Biology and Anthropology. His current research focuses on ways to work with communities to promote conservation and sustainability in and around national parks and protected areas. Winner of the MacArthur Prize and other awards for research and teaching, Bill’s publications include Coevolution: Genes, Culture and Human Diversity, Ecotourism and Conservation in the Americas (co-editor), Exuberant Life: An Evolutionary Approach to Conservation in Galápagos, and “Anthropology and Environmental Policy: Joint Solutions for Conservation and Sustainable Livelihoods” co-authored with Susan Charnley. He served 16 years as editor of the Annual Review of Anthropology and was Co-founder and Co-director of the Center for Responsible Travel for a decade. He is currently Co-Director of the Osa and Golfito Initiative (INOGO) in Costa Rica for Stanford’s Woods Institute for the Environment.