Zoology Major Studies Abroad in Ecuador and the Galápagos Islands

After graduation, Kent State Zoology major Riley Burton would like to work with exotic animals or in the field conducting research. Participating in the Study Abroad Trip to the Galápagos program was an important step forward in her journey toward this goal.

Study abroad activities and places of interest

This faculty-led education abroad program took Riley to Ecuador and the Galápagos Islands, the birthplace of Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution.

Under the guidance of Dr. Sangeet Lamichhaney, students on the program were able to observe species in their habitats, learn about conservation efforts, and conduct field projects. They also visited local research stations such as the Galápagos Science Center and the Charles Darwin Research Center.

  • Tip! Visit our Education Abroad page and search for programs by country, term or major to find your ideal study abroad experience.

Bringing textbooks to life while doing field research in Latin America

For Riley, the field project was one of the best parts of the program.

She completed an observational study, doing a survey of the different reptiles she encountered such as tortoises, lava lizards, and marine iguanas. Riley had taken a herpetology course during the spring semester, so this project truly brought the course content to life.

“In this little cove, there was a bunch of lava rocks and the marine iguanas were all sunning themselves, and doing all the things I had learned in my herpetology class in the wild.”

Riley was also able to observe the results of evolution in the differences between land and marine iguanas. Riley described how their evolutionary tree diverged around 45 million years ago.

“The land iguanas stayed on land and their coloring is this yellow-orange [while] the marine iguanas adapted to the water, so … they’re black to hold in heat. And then they also have developed a salt gland which allows them to retain water, but expel the salt … It looks like they’re blowing snot out of their nose, but it’s just excess salt that’s coming out … It was just cool to see them doing that in person, not a video. It was right in front of me, so it was really cool.”

While she was able to see many of the marine iguanas, the land iguanas were more elusive.

“They’re only on one part of one of the islands that we were at. And it was right before we got on to the airplane to get off the island that we saw two of them and I was freaking out, like, ‘Oh my, this is so exciting!’”

A marine iguana sitting on a rail.

Seeing biodiversity conservation efforts first-hand while studying abroad

Another highlight of the program was the opportunity to see biodiversity conservation efforts in action.

The program visited several giant tortoise breeding centers. There, Riley learned how rats and other predators had traveled to the islands with humans and had, unfortunately, begun to feed on the young Galápagos tortoises.

“So at the breeding centers, they have to be a certain size before they’re released into the wild, so that they will not be eaten by feral cats, rats, or dogs.”

Similarly, at the Charles Darwin Research Center, the students were given a presentation about vampire flies and their predation on endangered species such as Mangrove Finches and Darwin’s Flycatchers.

“Female adult vampire flies will lay their larvae or lay their eggs in a nest, and then at night, these vampire larvae will feed on the baby chicks … So the presentation was about how they study it, how they’ve captured it, how they’ve bred it in a lab so that they can figure out how to … dispose of it. And then they showed us the different solutions that they’re trying to do to keep the Galápagos endemic species protected from this invasive species.”

A Galapagos tortoise

Studying abroad helps shape career choices

When first exploring her education abroad options, Riley had hoped the trip would be a confirmation that her desire to work with animals and conduct field research was the right career for her.

She explains, “I went into the trip kind of wanting to see if field research, traveling abroad, going into national parks or going into nature and seeing animals in their natural habitat” would be the right path. 

Riley did not leave Ecuador disappointed.

“This kind of cemented that yes, this is what I want to do. I want to work with animals. I want to see them in the wild.”

Learn more about the benefits of studying abroad, or check out Kent State’s Study Abroad Trip to the Galápagos!

The group of Galapagos students and faculty at the airport waiting to depart.
POSTED: Wednesday, July 5, 2023 03:08 PM
Updated: Monday, July 8, 2024 01:09 PM
Desiree Dube, Education Abroad Advisor