Preserving the Galapagos

Global Scientific Community Comes Together to save Darwin's Island Laboratory
June 24, 2015
matt james at the cal academy

Sonoma State University geology professor Matt James is passionate about the Galapagos Islands' importance to the scientific community. But he's not just telling his students about it--James organized an international symposium to ensure the birthplace of the theory of evolution continues to yield important discoveries for future generations.

The three-day symposium brought researchers and conservationists from around the globe to San Francisco State University and the California Academy of Sciences at the 100th meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) Pacific Division last week.

"Almost all the talks contained data that had policy implications for the Galápagos National Park Service and the Charles Darwin Foundation," said James, an expert on the California Academy of Sciences' 1905-06 research expedition to the Galapagos. "The Galápagos symposium was a huge success and supremely productive, and it certainly exceeded my personal expectations in several ways."

Five of the archipelago's islands are inhabited by humans. One of the biggest threats facing the Galapagos today is the introduction of non-native species and the impact of humans themselves.

"The scientific community wants to keep the islands as virgin as possible," said Robert Tindle, professor emeritus at the University of Queensland in Brisbane, Australia. "This symposium brought everyone together who has an involvement, and they come to the table to discuss the best way of managing the islands."

Jen Jones, project manager of the Galapagos Conservation Trust in London, agreed. She gave a talk about conservation of the island's natural resources, and says having such a diverse group in one place leads to a holistic approach. "We can find solutions to problems that we couldn't find separately," she said.

The symposium included a tour of the Cal Academy, which many of the researchers were visiting for the first time.

James' research and presentations about the 1905-06 trip puts history into perspective and shows how far scientific inquiry has come. The 1905-06 expedition lasted 17 months, returning to San Francisco with over 70,000 biological specimens. Those new specimens became invaluable for rebuilding the museum at its present location in Golden Gate Park after the original downtown San Francisco site had been destroyed in the 1906 earthquake.

"We conduct science to learn about ecological interactions right now, or evolutionary events in the past," said James. "As historians we write about what specific people did in the past and what those actions mean to us now."

The way scientists would previously study animals had been to shoot them and bring them back to the lab for research. James' research and presentations about the 1905-06 trip puts history into perspective and shows us how far scientific research has shifted. "The emphasis has changed now on the way science is done to study more in the natural habitat," said Tindle.

After organizing a two-day symposium on the Galapagos for the AAAS meeting in 1999, James said he was glad to hear about new research, and get updates on long-term research projects from established workers.