Read the original story at the Temple Daily Telegram.
Volcanic rocks bathed in the equatorial sun, creating obstacles for Jodi Bollinger, an International Baccalaureate and Advanced Placement biology teacher at Temple High School, and a group of students hiking to track and collect data on tortoises in the Galápagos National Park.
The hike, Bollinger said, lived up to its name: ‘El Fatal.’
“Despite the difficulty of the hike, we helped each other push through, and the students collected data on three new giant tortoises — one juvenile and two adults,” she said.
Bollinger and Michael Marek, an advanced environmental science and chemistry teacher, chaperoned 18 students on a scientific research and immersion trip through Ecology Project International to the Galápagos. Bollinger’s group returned last week. Their work helped scientists in an ongoing research project in Galápagos National Park. A lot of the work centered on the giant tortoises that call the islands home.
“It was particularly exciting that these tortoises were members of a new species identified back in October,” Bollinger said.
As students located new tortoises, they measured their shells — the top (carapace) and the bottom (plastron) — as well their weight.
“Students also collected seeds from tortoise scat to help determine the tortoises’ role as seed dispersers on Santa Cruz Island,” Bollinger said.
They recorded the GPS coordinates of each tortoise’s location and tagged the tortoises as part of the project, she said.
Park scientists handed junior Matthew Clark a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity: telemetry equipment to find a baby tortoise — around three months old, named Julia — that had been released in the park. He found her hiding between two rocks. The students recorded her measurements and returned Julia to her hiding place.
“It was interesting and shocking to see how small they are, about palm sized, when they are babies, and can grow for over 100 years and become so large,” said senior Rylan Mikeska.
Locating the infant tortoises is a crucial part of the research effort at the park.
“Tracking these baby tortoises is important because scientists don’t know what happens to them during the 20 to 30 year time period required for them to become reproductively mature,” Bollinger said.
The information the group collected on the tortoises will become part of a large data set maintained and analyzed by researchers in the park, she added.
And while students’ work helps protect these creatures, invasive quinine trees threatening native birds’ resting sites on the highlands of Santa Cruz Island met boots, shovels and, ultimately, their demise.
Each day brought the group closer together and taught them life lessons.
Arianna Gonzales, a senior, said the islands opened her eyes to the vastness of the world — the things to explore and the people to meet. It’s also showed her how much people miss in a digital environment.
“It’s very heartbreaking now to look around and see people constantly on their phones as if it’s a part of them,” she said. “They are really missing out on all the beauty the world has to offer.”
Far from their normal lives, the students acquired stories that will stay with them forever.
Gonzales and Mikeska told of snorkeling and looking down to see sharks passing below, “which for me was very awesome,” Mikeska said.
Gonzales looked at it a bit differently.
“I immediately started freaking out,” she said.
Mikeska said the snorkeling topped her list of adventures.
“ … (I) was later surprised by a penguin that swam right past me,” she said.
Gonzales said she was amazed at how the animals reacted to them.
“It was like we didn’t even exist,” she said. “The penguins would swim up to you and the sea lions weren’t affected at all by our presence.”
Philip Lynch, a senior, said he’d never forget a hike up a mountain that provided a 360-degree view of Isabela Island.
Other stories weren’t so glamorous as the snorkeling and sightseeing.
“So I got bitten by a donkey on this trip,” said junior Megan Babowicz.
But that didn’t ruin her time. The tortoises astounded her.
“… The adults were enormous, easily twice my size. That really surprised me,” she said. “And I can’t say I really had a favorite part; it was all incredible,” she said.
She added that her journey inspired her to continue pursuing a dream she has to volunteer with animal rescue.
The students weren’t the only ones learning on the trip. Bollinger said she gathered new teaching strategies from the group’s Latin American instructors.
“As a teacher, there are few experiences more rewarding than to be able to share your passions with the next generation and help to ignite within them a desire to affect change, especially when the world is, quite literally, at stake,” she said. She added that she didn’t think anyone came back from the trip unchanged.
“Going to the Galápagos as a traveler and researcher gave me a whole different perspective on the trip. As a tourist, taking pictures and viewing scenery is often taken for granted,” said sophomore Mary Kate Montgomery. Bollinger said Montgomery’s view sums it up.
They learned what it meant to be travelers of the world.