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Destination: Galapagos Islands Cyber Field Trip

More Galapagos Classroom Activities

The following activities are featured on the Destination: Galapagos Islands poster, which was distributed to educators in the Journey to Mars (Show 902) teaching guide.

Create a Galapagos Islands Field Guide
Identifying Organisms with a Taxonomic Key
Studying the Galapagos Across the Curriculum

Create a Galapagos Islands Field Guide

You can learn more about the unique flora and fauna of the Galapagos Islands by preparing your own field guide. Here's how:
  1. Form five teams with each team being responsible for preparing a field guide for one of the five major Galapagos islands: Isabela, Fernandina, San Cristobal, Santiago and Santa Cruz.

  2. Assign members of your team to research topics to include in your field guide. Research hint: This website is a great place to find background information and related links to Galapagos sites. You can also read Q & A's with members of the expedition team.

  3. Here are a few suggested topics to include in your field guide (you may think of more):
  • A description and illustration of the island's physical habitat and how it was formed.
  • Photographs or illustrations of the island's plants, mammals, birds, insects and reptiles.
  • An overview of any ways species have adapted to their habitat.
  • Current research being conducted on the island.
  1. When your field guide is complete, present your findings to the rest of the class. Look for instances of how species vary from island to island in the Galapagos and discuss any variations the teams' reports uncover. Can you come up with theories or explanations to account for these variations?

  2. Take advantage of the cyber field trip archived on this site to update your field guide with information and photos sent back by the expedition team on many species it encounters.

  3. Think about endemic species versus introduced species. What plant and animal species are endemic to your geographic area? Which species are introduced?

Identifying Organisms with a Taxonomic Key

Suppose you found a species of animal that you had never seen before. How would you identify it? Scientists use a tool called a taxonomic key to determine an organism's identity. A key uses a set of statements that describe an organism's appearance to help identify the organism.

Most taxonomic keys are dichotomous, which means they offer only two choices for a specific feature. You select the most correct possibility and are directed to another statement. Eventually, you create a route through a series of statements that ends at the correct name of the unknown organism.

The best way to understand how a dichotomous key works is to try using one. The key below can be used to distinguish between four finch species found on the Galapagos Islands. Use this tool to identify the birds shown below. As you can see, the identification is based upon the features of the birds' bills. Choose one of the finches pictured below and work through the description sets provided to reach a positive identification.

Key to Representative Finch Genera
Four Finch Beaks Taxonomic Key Illustration

      Finch Identification
1. a. The beak is relatively long and slender. arrow Certhdea sp.
  b. The beak is relatively stout and heavy. arrow Go to set 2
2. a. The bottom surface of the lower bill is flat and straight. arrow Geospiza sp.
  b. The bottom surface of the lower bill has a bend arrow Go to set 3
3. a. The lower edge of the upper bill has a distinct bend. arrow Camarhynchus sp.
  b. The lower edge of the upper bill is mostly flat. arrow Platyspiza sp.

Challenge: Examine the animals that are pictured on this website. Write down several identifying characteristics of each organism. Create a dichotomous key that can be used to discover the identity of each animal. To create your key, start with more general descriptions (e.g., the creature is a mammal) and work toward specific characteristics. Exchange keys with a friend. Test these identification tools. Can your key be improved? If so, how?

Extended Key: Visit the Wildlife of the Galpapagos Islands section of this website to learn about the animals encountered during the expedition. Select several different animals (from any of the islands) and describe the distinguishing characteristics of each. Use this information to create a dichotomous key that can be used to identify each species. Add the information to the field guide you already created (see previous activity).

Studying the Galapagos Across the Curriculum

Use these activities before, during or after the cyber field trip to extend students' learning about the Galapagos Islands.


  • Charles Darwin was the most famous visitor to the Galapagos Islands. Ask students to research Darwin's life and they will discover how a routine landfall at the Galapagos in 1835 to collect tortoise meat for the voyage led Darwin to a lifetime of research. Ask students to find out why Darwin's book The Origin of Species, published 24 years after his trip to the Galapagos, was considered the most controversial book ever written.

  • Encourage students to read Darwin's own words about his work. His classic works, Voyage of the Beagle and The Origin of Species and others are available online.

  • Darwin forever changed the history of science. Challenge students to discover how other scientists have supported Darwin's theory in the decades since his groundbreaking work.


  • The Galapagos Islands are one of most active oceanic volcano areas in the world with 53 eruptions recorded from eight of the Galapagos volcanoes. Ask students to find out why this area sees so much volcanic activity. A trip to Volcano World at may help them find answers.

  • View slides of the Fernandina Volcano compiled by researchers from the University of Hawaii at

  • See if your class can stump a volcanologist! Come up with your best question about Galapagos volcanoes and send it to Ask a Volcanologist at


  • Herman Melville, author of the American masterpiece Moby Dick, visited the Galapagos Islands during the whaling era. Students may enjoy reading Melville's allegorical sketches of the Galapagos, "The Encantadas," from the collection of short stories The Piazza Tales, which reveal nature to be both enchanting and horrifying.

  • Recommend the book The Beak of the Finch: A Story of Evolution in Our Time, by Jonathan Weiner (Knopf, 1995) to your students. This superb account of evolution and science has been compared to reading a thriller -- and it won the 1995 Pulitzer Prize for nonfiction.

  • Study of the environment and intriguing species of the Galapagos Islands can provide inspiration for creative writing projects. Have students research and write a poem or descriptive essay about the islands, a (fictitious) first-person account in a travel journal, or a letter home from a visitor to the islands.

Environmental Issues

  • Natural events like El Nino have far-reaching effects on species of the Galapagos, and Frontiers investigates these consequences during the expedition. Ask the class to brainstorm how the warmer waters caused by the 1997-98 El Nino would affect the islands. Then visit the Charles Darwin Research Station for a report on the situation. You'll also be able to read about how the 1982-83 El Nino event affected the islands.

  • Although the Galapagos Islands may seem like an untouched paradise, the area is subject to a variety of pressures that threaten its status as a global scientific resource. These include population pressures, tourism, introduced species, poaching and illegal fishing. Ask students to choose one of these threats and research how it affects the islands and what steps are being taken to protect the Galapagos.


Scientific American Frontiers
Fall 1990 to Spring 2000
Sponsored by GTE Corporation,
now a part of Verizon Communications Inc.