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In Darwin’s Footsteps

It’s one thing to learn about Darwin’s theories in a classroom. It’s quite another to join him on his journey.
But that’s what Hofstra University’s trip to the Galapagos during the January session does.

According to the session director, Professor Bret Bennington, “We’re trying to help the students see the world through Darwin’s eyes. So they arrive in the Galapagos…a completely new place, to them, and we take them to the places where Darwin went and we get them to think about how did this place impact Charles Darwin? How did what he seeing influence what he was thinking about the question of how are species made? Where do species come from?

“Darwin started out his voyage as a creationist. He started thinking that animals and plants had been created specially by God and placed on the Earth, and what he saw on his five year voyage did not support that idea and his thinking evolved very quickly. We raise the question of what are the things that Darwin saw that caused him to question the accepted world view at the time and start thinking in a different direction.”

Students leave the frigid New York area for the Galapagos with their faculty mentors in January for an intense three-week trip. From sunrise to sunset every day, the students are on the go, the natural environment their classroom, according to Bennington, “Once we get to the Galapagos, we are in the water snorkeling within two hours of landing. Every morning we get up and we either get on a boat or go hiking right from where we are or we get on a bus and we go someplace and we walk.”

on the side of the boat
studying in the Galapagos

The trip explores the variety of environments that life on the Equator offers. From snorkeling with penguins and sharks to climbing barren volcanic landscapes and boating down a rain forest’s river, students learn about biodiversity, about human influence on the environment and the geology of these places firsthand.

“They’re learning a lot about the connections between geology, the environment, ecology,” explained Dr. Bennington. “They’re learning about animal behavior, they’re learning about how animal behavior ties in to evolution, how evolution is controlled by the physical context of the environment.

“Basically, we’re channeling Charles Darwin. We’re pretending that we’re all Charles Darwin on the voyage of the Beagle. Like Darwin, the students keep notebooks and the notebooks are a combination of scientific observations and a travel log of what they’re experiencing and what they’re seeing on the trip which is very much what Charles Darwin did on the voyage of the Beagle.”

On why Darwin’s theories came about from the Galapagos:

“When So Darwin arrived at these islands, he realized he was seeing a place that was newly made - he says in his notebooks how you can see that these islands are recently pushed up out of the ocean - and he saw completely new species of plants and animals in this new place. So we try and get the students to appreciate how that impacted his thinking. We spend a lot of time watching the animals and the birds to understand how their behavior fits in and how they’re adapted to this particular unusual set of environments.”

in the Water
J. Bret Bennington

On an example of evolution in the Galapagos:

“The best example of how the environment of the Galapagos affects the evolution and the adaptation of the species is the flightless cormorant which, unfortunately, Darwin never saw a flightless cormorant. He wasn’t on land in the right places in the western islands when the Beagle circumnavigated the Galapagos. The cormorant is a sea bird that feeds on fish. They’re found all over the world and only in the Galapagos Islands are they flightless. They have these stubby little wings. It’s a wonderful question that why out of all the places in the world is the Galapagos the only place where cormorants are flightless.

You have to start thinking about when it is advantageous to be able to fly and when is it not. It’s advantageous to be able to fly of other animals are trying to eat you or trying to eat your eggs. So birds have exploited flight to allow them to get off the ground and to nest in trees where it’s difficult for predators to get to. But in the Galapagos, there are no land based predators - no naturally occurring dogs or cats or bears. But, if you’re trying to dive down into the ocean to catch fish, wings are a big problem because they try and make you float. So in an environment where you don’t have a compelling reason to fly, but a very compelling reason to reduce the size of your wings to make you a better diving bird to catch fish, natural selection reduces the size of the wings.”

After spending half the trip in the Galapagos, the group heads for the rain forests of Ecuador. After taking a motorized canoe on a day-long journey down a rain forest river, the group ends up at a remote village.

“When we did our first visit to a village, we realized that the students got more out of that than just about anything that we did. It really had a huge impact on them to see how these people lived and to experience a little bit of their daily life.”

In the rain forest
in the Andes

On life in a remote rain forest village:

Students learned from one of the village elders how to make bread from the yucca plant. “When we got to the village, we went to her house – meaning an elevated platform with an open palm leave roof. We learned how to make bread from yucca. We marched out to the edge of the forest, chopped down a yucca tree, dug up and peeled the roots, which look like a big potato. Yucca is one of the most common sources of starch in the world. You grind the yucca root into a pulp using this sharp-nubbed bark. Then you pile the grinds in a cloth, tie off one end of the towel to the rafter and twist to squeeze the juice out so you end up with a relatively dry, pulpy material and that’s essentially the flour. Then you put it into a frying pan, making a big pancake and you cook it out over an open fire and what you end up with is a like a matzo, which you eat with whatever you have: oil, jam, sardines, peanut butter.”

Trekking into the Andes

The group concludes its trip but travelling high into the Andes, up to twelve thousand feet where there air is very thin for those who live at sea level. “The Andes are fascinating because you have a completely different ecosystems, the paramount ecosystem with plants and animals that are adapted to live at really high altitude. Just the experience of moving around at high altitude can be very challenging. The landscapes are absolutely magnificent. To see the little villages and the Ecuadorian people that live and farm up in the Andes is fascinating. The market, like the one at Otavalo, is quite an experience, people selling all kinds of hand crafted goods, and alpaca and llama parkas and blankets and ponchos and all kind of different indigenous musical instruments and different kinds of produce and food.”


On the value of study abroad on the Equator:

“Besides just learning about these really unique places, students take away self-confidence. Half of the students have never been snorkeling - and they jump in the water and they learn how to snorkel very quickly with sea turtles and sharks. It’s not an easy thing to throw yourself at an activity like that out in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Travelling to another country when people speak a different language and challenging yourself physically and mentally is a growth experience. There’s also just the experience of people a way of life that’s completely different from yours and it’s not just the Ecuadorian culture but it’s also island culture. Islands are very isolated places and to go to a place where there are no supermarkets, there are no department stores, where most of the restaurants are, once you get away from the touristy area, are just people barbecuing stuff on the sidewalk and folding tables and things. To see that there are other ways of living life, I think is a very important experience.”

Hofstra in Galapagos