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Study information

Galapagos Islands Field Course

Module titleGalapagos Islands Field Course
Module codeBIO3418
Academic year2023/4
Module staff

Professor Andy Russell (Convenor)

Duration: Term123
Duration: Weeks



Number students taking module (anticipated)


Module description

On 15 September 1835, the extinct volcanoes of San Cristobal were spotted from the Beagle. After just five weeks exploring the Galapagos Islands, the young Charles Darwin was indelibly marked by their biogeography, and this experience would prove central to his deduction that life on Earth evolved from common ancestry by natural selection. Today, the Galapagos Islands are an experiment in action – where locals, eco-tourists, national parks and scientists attempt to build a better future together. A typical field course to San Cristobal in the Galapagos Islands will introduce you the fauna of four key biomes: oceanic, coastal, lowland/urban and highland. In each, we will introduce you to the interplay (which is often positive) of science, tourism and the local economy. To this end, we will aim to:

  • visit offshore sea stacks, where interactions with marine mammals, pelagic seabirds and snorkelling with rays and sharks are a real possibility;
  • examine interactions between tourists/locals and coastal wildlife (including fish, marine iguanas, aquatic birds and sea lions) when snorkelling versus on foot;
  • understand the effects of invasive plant and animal species on endemic wildlife, including miconia plants, giant tortoise, Galapagos petrel and Darwin’s finches;
  • provide a 21st century insight into species and speciation, supplementing contrasts of phenotypic traits with finger-printing techniques and phylogenetic analyses in Darwin’s finches.

You will gain first-hand experience of the methods used to study the plights of island flora and fauna through a series of guided tours, practical sessions, discussions and seminars by faculty from the Universities of Exeter and San Francisco, Quito, as well as staff from national parks. You will then have the opportunity to conduct your own group-led research projects in ecology, conservation, animal behaviour and/or evolution – enabling the opportunity to answer big questions with newfound theoretical and practical knowledge. 

Note that this field course is based in the tropics, where the sun is strong, temperatures and humidity are always high, and that accommodation is bed & breakfast/dinner-style with local families. Students with medical or dietary conditions, or severe allergies, should seek advice from the module co-ordinator, but usually there is no problem. Anyone choosing this module will need a reasonable level of fitness in order to be able to undertake the expedition.

When participating in field courses, you will be required to cover the costs of getting to the Galapagos. You will also need to provide your own specialist personal equipment appropriate to the field course destination, eg. walking boots, rucksack, binoculars. For further details see

Climate Statement: There is no hiding the fact that travelling to the Galapagos is going to result in each person contributing ~4 tonnes of carbon to the atmosphere. Given that this approximates one’s upper stipulated annual allowance, if we are to avoid a breakdown in the climatic status quo, we need to make compensating changes to lifestyle and contributions to carbon capture projects. We encourage all students who choose this module to: (a) think about reducing carbon production in daily lives (e.g. reduce unnecessary electricity and gas use, meat consumption and travel); and (b) think of ways of raising awareness and/or money for projects that turn private land into protected forest reserves (we have a number of options for this and these will be discussed).

The module leaders have implemented a number of steps aimed at reducing carbon consumption on the fieldcourse, including: (i) making the course fully residential with no flights or boat rides to neighbouring islands; (ii) maximising days walking and minimising vehicular use (no private vehicles are used and buses are used briefly on just a handful of days). (iii) home-stays which bolsters the local economy reducing the need to go fishing and avoids carbon-expensive hotels; (iv) banning ecologically damaging shrimp and carbon-expensive salmon from the menus of families; and (v) encouraging local host families to use markets that sell local produce and that do not use plastic bags. Finally, we are engaging with Galapagean and Ecuadorian NGO’s to invest in habitat restoration and protection

Module aims - intentions of the module

This module aims to develop your scientific knowledge and understanding within four main areas: ecology, conservation, behaviour and evolution, and to do so across a diversity of biomes. We will cover:

  • introduction to the key biomes of the Galapagos Islands, the natural history of their animals, and the interactions among scientists, tourists and locals in each
  • field-data collection methods (observations, transects, measurements), and molecular lab skills (DNA extraction and fingerprinting techniques)
  • group research projects on an aspect of ecology, conservation, behaviour and/or evolution within coastal, lowland/urban or highland biomes; data synthesis/analysis; communication of science to a wide audience
  • acquisition of skills required to pursue a career in ecology, conservation, behaviour, and/or evolution.

The skills and experiences you gain from interacting directly with locals, fieldwork, teamwork, working in unfamiliar conditions, and working well beyond the customary 9-5 time period will all facilitate your transition from student to employee. Transferable skills include:

  • appreciation of cultural differences,
  • problem solving (linking theory to practice, responding to novel and unfamiliar problems, data handling),
  • time management (managing time effectively on your own and as part of a group),
  • collaboration (taking initiative and leading others, supporting others in their work),
  • self and peer review (taking responsibility for own learning, using feedback from multiple sources),
  • presentation skills and audience awareness (presenting ideas effectively in multiple formats).

Furthermore, you will be taught by scientists with direct research interests and experience in the topics covered, including sea-bird ecology (Russell); host-pathogen co-ecology and evolution (Bonneaud), genetics and phylogenetics (Chaves) and invasive plant ecology (Rivas).

Intended Learning Outcomes (ILOs)

ILO: Module-specific skills

On successfully completing the module you will be able to...

  • 1. Outline the key biomes of the Galapagos Islands and the salient issues facing each from a perspective of conservation, tourism and sustainability
  • 2. Explain how one measures human impact in each biome, and challenges facing conservation of endemic wildlife
  • 3. Understand that successful conservation and sustainability requires an understanding of animal behaviour and evolution, including how animals respond behaviourally and evolutionarily to exploitation, and the species concept

ILO: Discipline-specific skills

On successfully completing the module you will be able to...

  • 4. Describe in detail and analyse essential facts and theory across a sub-discipline of biosciences
  • 5. Analyse and evaluate independently a range of research-informed literature and synthesise research-informed examples from the literature into written work
  • 6. Identify and implement, with limited guidance, appropriate methodologies and theories for solving a range of complex problems in biosciences
  • 7. With minimal guidance, deploy established techniques of analysis, practical investigation, and enquiry within biosciences
  • 8. Describe and evaluate in detail approaches to our understanding of biosciences with reference to primary literature, reviews and research articles

ILO: Personal and key skills

On successfully completing the module you will be able to...

  • 9. Devise and sustain, with little guidance, a logical and reasoned argument with sound, convincing conclusions
  • 10. Effectively communicate arguments, evidence and conclusions using a variety of formats in a manner appropriate to the intended audience
  • 11. Analyse and evaluate appropriate data and complete a range of research-like tasks with very limited guidance
  • 12. Evaluate own strengths and weaknesses in relation to graduate-level professional and practical skills, and act autonomously to develop new areas of skills as necessary
  • 13. Reflect effectively and independently on learning experiences and evaluate personal achievements
  • 14. Work in a small team and deal proficiently with the issues that teamwork requires (i.e. communication, motivation, decision-making, awareness, responsibility, and management skills, including setting and working to deadlines)

Syllabus plan

A preparatory lecture in term 1.

A typical field course will take place towards the end of the first week of January, with 11 nights on the Galapagos Islands. The course will be run exclusively on the island of San Cristobal, the most easterly of the Islands, where the University of San Francisco, Quito has a research station. 

The course will be run primarily in groups of ten students for the first five days, then as the full class for 2-3 days, and then in project groups of 4-6 students for the remainder. It is expected that each group will experience:

  • an offshore excursion to sea stacks, taking in marine mammals and seabirds, as well as an opportunity for deep-sea snorkelling;
  • excursions to the highlands, with a view to comparing endemic versus invasive habitats;
  • mist-netting of Darwin’s finches, taking morphological measures and blood sampling for later DNA extraction and fingerprinting;
  • a visit to a tortoise breeding facility;
  • at least one visit to beaches offering opportunities for snorkelling, photography and bird watching.

Most excursions will be accompanied by a guide from national parks, and all will involve impromptu discussions on natural history, conservation, sustainability, and data sampling, amongst other topics. Further, there will be more formal seminars on some afternoons/evenings, as well as lab sessions. Finally, research projects can focus on behaviour, ecology, conservation or evolution and may be conducted in coastal, lowland/urban areas of the highlands.

During the course you will, in your groups, provide a brief (1-2 min) presentation of your project. The mark awarded for this will comprise both individual and group-level performance (see ele for further details).

Learning activities and teaching methods (given in hours of study time)

Scheduled Learning and Teaching ActivitiesGuided independent studyPlacement / study abroad

Details of learning activities and teaching methods

CategoryHours of study timeDescription
Scheduled learning and teaching1Pre-field course lecture to prepare you academically and practically for the course
Scheduled learning and teaching100Field-based tutoring from members of the Centre for Ecology and Conservation in biodiversity, behaviour, ecology, conservation, evolution and other biological topics
Scheduled learning and teaching9Discussions led by in-country experts (researchers and national parks staff)
Guided independent study190Additional reading and research and preparation for module assessments

Formative assessment

Form of assessmentSize of the assessment (eg length / duration)ILOs assessedFeedback method
Short answer questions during the field courseOngoing throughout the moduleAllOral
Seminars and discussionsContinuous assessment during the field courseAllOral

Summative assessment (% of credit)

CourseworkWritten examsPractical exams

Details of summative assessment

Form of assessment% of creditSize of the assessment (eg length / duration)ILOs assessedFeedback method
Pre-field course factsheet301 side of A4 (Size 12 font)1, 3-5, 8-14Feedback sheet
Project presentation during field-course308 minutes inc questionsAllFeedback sheet
Essay401500 words1-5, 8-11Written

Details of re-assessment (where required by referral or deferral)

Original form of assessmentForm of re-assessmentILOs re-assessedTimescale for re-assessment
Pre-field course factsheetFactsheet1, 3-5, 8-14August assessment period
Project presentation during field-course (8 minutes including questions)Project presentation (8 mins including questions)AllAugust assessment period
EssayEssay1-5, 8-11August assessment period

Re-assessment notes

Deferral – if you miss an assessment for certificated reasons judged acceptable by the Mitigation Committee, you will normally be either deferred in the assessment or an extension may be granted. The mark given for a re-assessment taken as a result of deferral will not be capped and will be treated as it would be if it were your first attempt at the assessment.

Referral – if you have failed the module overall (i.e. a final overall module mark of less than 40%) you will be required to sit a further assessment and/or re-submit a further factsheet and/or poster. The mark given for a re-assessment taken as a result of referral will be capped at 40%.

Indicative learning resources - Basic reading

  • Weiner J (1995) The beak of the finch, Vintage
  • Nicholls H (2007) Lonesome George, McMillan  
  • Nicholls H (2014) The Galapagos, Profile Books
  • Grant PR & Grant BR (2016) 40 years of evolution. Princeton.
  • Tourist guides to travelling in Ecuador and the Galapagos Islands
  • Field guides on any plant and animal group in the Galapagos Islands

Indicative learning resources - Web based and electronic resources

Key words search

Behaviour, biome, conservation, ecology, evolution, identification, island biogeography, island endemism, plastics, reserves, sampling and surveying

Credit value30
Module ECTS


Module pre-requisites

BIO2426 Analysis of Biological Data

Module co-requisites


NQF level (module)


Available as distance learning?


Origin date


Last revision date