Dolph Schluter

Evolution and Ecology

Completing Darwin's work on evolution by unlocking the mysteries of how natural selection drives the origin of new species.

"The diversity of life is the most astonishing thing to happen in the universe since the Big Bang, and we need to understand it better if we hope to preserve it."

Dolph Schluter stands atop the craggy outpost of a twenty-metre high clifftop, his gaze intently focused on the waves below him. From his vantage point, he can see the fishing boat that has come to take him off Los Hermanos, a remote island in the Galapagos archipelago. But it's not much use. The seas are too rough and the steep shoreline of the jagged volcanic rock would smash to pieces any boat that attempted to dock.

Behind him, two of his colleagues are frantically packing data books — their most precious cargo — into airtight plastic bags. Everyone is hungry. They've run out of food, and after one failed attempt to get off the island the day before, they can't afford to wait any longer.

Days earlier, Schluter, his fellow PhD student Trevor Price, and their field assistant Steven "Spike" Millington came to Los Hermanos to study small, brown birds called finches. Upon landing, Schluter and Price swam ashore when a huge surge of water picked them up and knocked them flat on their backs. Price walked away with a few nicks and scratches, still with his rope in hand, but the wave dragged Schluter along the barnacle-covered shore, scraping up his back pretty badly. He still has the scars to prove it.

Even with his banged-up back, Schluter knew he had a job to do. He and Price scrambled to the clifftop, high above a small rocky ledge at the water's edge below. Price handed the rope to Schluter, offered a little nod, and leapt into the waters below. From the ledge, Price unpacked the boat and tied up all the equipment they would need, including mist nets, data books, binoculars, and even a do-it-yourself surgery guide in case of an emergency, such as a ruptured appendix. Along with the gear, was several days' worth of food rations: tinned wieners, crackers, tea bags, drinking water, and a box of eggs. Schluter hauled this all onto the island even though his back was in a terrible state--and he didn't break any of the eggs.

Now, after a successful period of research on the island, Schluter stares down at the choppy seas. The memory of that painful landing is fresh in his mind, and the healing wounds sting in the salty air as he gauges how he'll get down off the cliff. The scratching sounds of the calling finches ring in his ear, and he's concentrating feverishly. Price, however, has no time for calculated thought. He takes a running start and throws himself off the cliff once more, plunging with a splash into the white-capped waves below. "Trevor is a maniac," Schluter mutters to himself.

Schluter and Millington quickly lower all the equipment and the invaluable data logs down from the cliff, but by now the small ledge is awash. Price dangles the data books and binoculars on the ends of bamboo mist net poles, and extends them as far as he can, just managing to reach the waiting arms of the boat's hired fishermen. All the other gear, though, Price tosses as far as he can, and the fishermen scramble frantically to bring it all aboard. Everything is soaked; everything that is, except for the data books, thankfully. Now, with all the equipment aboard the boat, not much remains: just Schluter and Millington.

"Do you want to jump first or shall I?" asks Schluter, with a slight tremble in his voice.

"I can't jump," whispers Millington. "I don't know how to swim."

"There might be no other choice," says Schluter, resignedly.

If he has to jump, Millington doesn't want to break his glasses. So he hands them to Schluter, who ties them up, eases them down towards Price below, and then tosses the rope as well. Millington, however, is now in no state to jump. Schluter realizes he's going to need the rope again to help Millington descend from the cliff, and he yells to Price to swim ashore once more. No small feat in the turbulent seas, but the daredevil Price doesn't bat an eyelash at the idea. With the rope once again in hand, Schluter ties up Millington, and, together with Price, they lower their half-blind field assistant down to the awaiting boat below. Now, only Schluter and Price are left on the island.

"Last one in the water is a rotten egg," shouts Price, as he hurls his body off the cliff for a third time. From the waters below, he then starts taunting Schluter, the lone remnant of human life on Los Hermanos, to jump. Schluter is nervous. All the fishermen below are waiting for him, watching, and they're growing impatient to leave the dangerous, choppy waters of the island's edge.

Not wanting to be outdone by Price, Schluter tightens his body, stretches out his arms, and dives head first, breaching the turbulent seas with barely a splash.

As a young scientist ...

Dolph Schluter grew up in Dorval, in the southwestern part of the island of Montreal. His parents immigrated to Canada from the Netherlands, though he says his roots are a mixture of Dutch with German, French, and English. Even as a young child, Schluter was keen to study animals. He remembers summers spent camping in northern Vermont where he would stalk the long grasses trying to catch jumping mice. His very first "experiment" was to set up a baited box with a piece of string to trap birds, "just to get up close and be able to watch them," he says.

In his teen years, Schluter maintained a small beetle collection, and was a keen birdwatcher. At school, Schluter collected leftover rat skeletons from his biology classes and repeatedly dissected and reassembled them to understand how all the bones fit together. He even saved up enough pocket money running a paper route to buy a small fishing boat, and he spent the summers of his youth fishing on Lac St-Louis off the west coast of Montreal.

Schluter could read before he was old enough to start kindergarten, so it was always assumed that he would go to university, even though no one in his family had ever done so. Because of his interest in animals, he decided to attend Guelph University, as it had the best veterinary school in the country. At Guelph, however, he became more interested in his natural history and biology classes, and quickly switched his degree to wildlife management.

To fund his studies, Schluter spent his summers working for his undergraduate mentor, Ron Brooks, a wildlife biologist who studied snapping turtles in Algonquin Park. After graduating in 1977, Schluter had a job lined up to survey mammals in the Albertan Athabasca tar-sands. He was all ready to go, but just before leaving Guelph he went to a talk given by Bob Montgomerie, now a professor at Queen's University, about the foraging behaviour of hummingbirds. "I was blown away," he says. "I was fascinated by the idea of really working on big ideas, rather just studying the basic biology of a species."

He abandoned his surveying job, and began graduate studies with Peter Grant at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. His PhD research involved studying the Galapagos finches to understand how competition for food shapes the evolution of beak size differences between finch species. After graduating in 1983, Schluter held short post-doctoral positions, first at the University of California, Davis, and then at the University of British Columbia (UBC). Ever since, he's worked as a professor of zoology at UBC, and now holds a Canada Research Chair and is a Fellow of the Royal Societies of London and Canada.

In 2005, Schluter spearheaded the construction of a new Biodiversity Research Centre at UBC, where he served as director until 2007. The centre supports more than 50 researchers and houses a public museum dedicated to the study of biodiversity.

Writer: Elie Dolgin

The Science