U-Idaho Professor Takes on Leadership Role in Global Effort to Preserve Biodiversity

Wednesday, April 4 2012

By Donna Emert

MOSCOW, Idaho – Dennis Geist, professor of geology at the University of Idaho, has been studying the volcanoes of the Galápagos Islands since 1981. This January, he was named President of the Charles Darwin Foundation, which is dedicated to research in support of conservation in the Galápagos Islands.

“Dennis is the Board’s only PhD and practicing scientist,” said Darwin Foundation Board Member, Barbara West. “He has a strong commitment to the Galápagos and the critical conservation science it needs.”

West also cited Geist’s considerable knowledge of the science being conducted on the islands and his ability to work with multiple stakeholders, including the Ecuadorian government, as essential to conserving the islands’ environment and biodiversity.

A volcanologist and petrologist, Geist also has worked in Iceland, Greenland, Antarctica, Idaho and elsewhere around the globe. He was invited to become a member of The Charles Darwin Foundation in the 1990s, joined the foundation’s board of directors 2008 and was unanimously elected president of the board in January.

“It is an enormous honor,” Geist said of the appointment. “The Charles Darwin Foundation is a world-renowned institution and has an international presence. The Foundation is dedicated to saving and protecting the unique biodiversity of the Galápagos.”

Geist is a member of a global community of scientist who work to make a difference in the Galápagos, the archipelago that Charles Darwin visited before he wrote his seminal work, “On the Origin of Species,” which explains the process of natural selection and established the science of evolutionary biology.

Between 1835, when Darwin explored the islands, and the 1960s, when conservation efforts were initiated, many species were lost.

“The Darwin Foundation works with the Ecuadorian government and the residents of the Galápagos to preserve the islands. As a consequence, the Galápagos is believed to have had fewer extinctions than any other tropical archipelago,” said Geist. “But a variety of human-related activities threaten many species. Our work is really important to saving the unique biota.”

The Darwin Foundation operates the Charles Darwin Research Station, which has a full time scientific staff who perform research on Galapagos wildlife. It also supports the work of visiting scientists who conduct research forwarding conservation efforts in the Galápagos. Currently, the greatest threat to the islands’ unique biota are introduced invasive organisms.

Geist’s research focuses on volcanoes, including, “Why they are where they are, how they erupt, and the effects of volcanic eruptions, especially big eruptions,” he said.

Over the past decade, his research interests have expanded in an effort to develop an understanding of how geological processes affect biological processes. His studies include observations on an enormous eruption in the Galápagos about 100,000 years ago that caused near extinction of one of the giant tortoises the region is famous for. Geist also has studied and compared the history of when the islands emerged above the sea, and the impact of the islands’ formation on biodiversity and speciation--the evolutionary process by which new species arise.

As public interest in the islands’ natural history has grown, ecotourism on the islands also has increased. One attraction near the Darwin Station is a venerated resident named Lonesome George, a tortoise from the Island of Pinta. Lonesome George is the only surviving Pinta tortoise, and a living cautionary tale:

“When he dies, the Pinta tortoise will be extinct,” said Geist. “So in some respects he is the rarest organism on earth. He’s kind of emblematic of humans on the Galápagos Islands, where first, human impacts led to extinctions, and now humans, through conservation, are trying to preserve the natural history. The tortoises are only one example, because there are now dozens of challenges to figuring out how humans and nature can coexist in the islands.”
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