Travelling to the Galápagos without Leaving Europe

(March 1st, 2013) For those of you who dream of travelling to the Galápagos Islands but don’t have the money or time for it, the Zoological Museum at the University of Zurich is offering the next best thing.

Dragon-like iguanas jumping into water and diving to the ocean floor to find their food can only be observed on the Galápagos. Like these unique marine lizards, many other animals and plants that colonised the archipelago a few million years ago have evolved exceptional abilities to survive on these remote volcanic islands in the Pacific. When Darwin arrived there, he was amazed by these “aboriginal beings”. As we all know, his observations during that trip played an important role in the later development of his evolutionary theory.

Now, 177 years after Darwin’s visit, the Galápagos Islands are an icon for evolutionary biology. Its very special natural history has inspired many other scientists. For example, Lukas Keller, evolutionary biologist at the University of Zurich and also director of its Zoological Museum, which is now hosting a special exhibition dedicated to the Islands. One of Keller’s main aims with the exhibition is to share with the general public the relevance of this paradise, both for its notably biological uniqueness and its importance for the field of evolutionary biology. Keller himself has been doing research on the Galápagos for about 15 years. He is currently involved in a project related to the reintroduction of mockingbirds on the Floreana Island, with which he collaborates by doing genetic analyses.

Given his relationship with the region, he decided, in 2007, that he would stage this exhibition. He reveals his two main motivations to Lab Times. One was to protect the Galápagos in the long run, “Not the next 10 or 20 years but really a lot further down the road”, he clarifies. “For this, we need to be aware that the place needs very special protection. That takes money but it’s not just that. We need to globally understand that this is part of our world heritage and that it is very important.”

“Our goal was really to bring these islands closer to the minds and the hearts of people here in Europe. We wanted to sensitise people to these islands, to what it means to be an isolated oceanic island,” Keller adds.

The extremely important influence these islands had on Darwin was the second motivation for realising the exhibition. “In evolutionary biology, to this day, people associate Darwin with the Galápagos or the other way round.” Keller believes that, in the history of biology, they are incredibly important. “That’s why Darwin has a relatively important role in this exhibition. But it’s not a Darwin exhibition, it’s a Galápagos exhibition.”

Five years after first deciding to start this project, the exhibition opened in December 2012. It tackles a variety of diverse topics: the geological origins of the islands, their colonisation by living beings and its current amazing biodiversity, the role it has had in scientific research and the conservation actions that need to be developed and maintained, in order to keep the biological and historical value of the islands. It also addresses the human effects on the archipelago in the last decades.

The exhibition shows specimens representing the life found on the Galápagos, amazing photos, games for children (and adults, for sure!) and videos, which were one of my favourite parts. Keller explains that they did quite a lot of filming specifically for this project, both on Galápagos and in Europe. Most of the work was done by the museum team but they also worked with outside people. For instance, they hired an Equatorian filmmaker to interview Mrs Emma Cruz, member of one of the first families successfully settling on Floreana Island. It is an amazing interview, where Mrs Cruz, now more than 80 years old, tells the story of their arrival.

An additional attractive feature is a guide for following the exhibition. It is a bilingual book of around 260 pages with exactly the same information in both German and English. I have to say that it is definitely much more than just a guide to the exhibition; it is a very complete introductory text for anyone interested in these islands. The brochures are available and may be used for free within the exhibition but should you feel like taking one home (I did), you can buy it at the museum shop for a very reasonable 15 CHF (ca. €13).

Keller explains why they decided to write this guide. “One problem that all museums have is that your visitors have very different backgrounds. We have kids, we have professional biologists and everything in between and you can never satisfy everyone.” Moreover, people have very different desires for the depth of information they want. “Some are interested in reading a lot and some others are not interested in having so much information. If you put text on the wall, then you define the amount of detail that your audience is going to get. This is our attempt to allow people to choose the level of detail.”

Fortunately, for those who are not close to Zurich, Keller confirms that this will be a travelling exhibition. Another two museums have already agreed to take it: one more in Switzerland and the other in Germany. But they hope for it to be shown in more countries. “The fact is that usually, with all our travelling exhibits, people only sign up once they’ve seen the exhibits. And, because it just opened recently, not many people have seen it yet. We hope that the exhibition will be around on the road for about five years or so”.

But if you are around Zurich during the next few months, don’t miss the amazing trip! The entrance is free, by the way.

Alejandra Manjarrez

Photos: Zoologisches Museum Zürich

Last Changes: 04.11.2013