Skip to Content

The Galapagos

Nancy A. Schiller
University Libraries / National Center for Case Study Teaching in Science
University at Buffalo
Clyde Freeman Herreid
Department of Biological Sciences
University at Buffalo


Using problem-based learning and role-playing, students analyze the geological origins of the Galapagos Islands, their colonization, species formation, and threats to their biodiversity in this story of a graduate student caught between local fishermen and government officials fighting for control of the islands’ natural resources. The case was designed for an introductory biology course where the focus is on evolution. It would also be appropriate for courses in ecology, conservation biology, and natural resources management. [Please note: no answer key is available for this case, although further details are provided in the teaching notes.]


  • To examine the geology and the formation of volcanic islands and how they are colonized.
  • To consider the process of species formation on islands and island biogeography.
  • To study the process of adaptation.
  • To consider how competition leads to character displacement and resource partitioning.
  • To compare the effects of natural selection and sexual selection with genetic drift as driving forces in evolution.
  • To learn how DNA technology is used to develop a species phylogeny and individual genealogies.
  • To grapple with questions of extinction and our obligation to preserve biodiversity.
  • To evaluate the impact of people on fragile ecosystems and examine how the competing interests of people can determine whether a habitat will survive or be destroyed.


Galapagos; volcanic islands; evolution; species formation; natural selection; adaptation; genetic drift; Charles Darwin; biodiversity; Peter Grant; Rosemary Grant; finches; birds; tortoises; sea cucumbers; extinction; ecotourism; South America; Ecuador

Educational Level

High school, Undergraduate lower division, Undergraduate upper division



Type Methods

Problem-Based Learning, Role-Play, Jig-Saw, Dilemma/Decision



Subject Headings

Evolutionary Biology Biology (General) Ecology Earth Science Environmental Science Natural Resource Management

Date Posted


Teaching Notes

Case teaching notes are password-protected and access to them is limited to paid subscribed instructors. To become a paid subscriber, begin the process by registering.

Teaching notes are intended to help teachers select and adopt a case. They typically include a summary of the case, teaching objectives, information about the intended audience, details about how the case may be taught, and a list of references and resources.