125 Stanford Stories

NO. 121
Looking Back

‘Rarest of Darwin’s finches’

In the 19th century, two Stanford biology undergrads blazed a trail for significant student research

The mangrove finch C. heliobates, often called the “rarest of Darwin’s finches,” is key to the study of speciation and conservation biology. It was found not by Charles Darwin but by two Stanford undergraduates at the turn of the 20th century, Robert Evans Snodgrass ’01 and Edmund Heller ’01.

The mangrove finch, Camarhynchus heliobates, discovered in 1898-99 by Robert Evans Snodgrass, '01, and Edmund Heller, '01.
The mangrove finch, Camarhynchus heliobates, discovered in 1898-99 by Robert Evans Snodgrass, ’01, and Edmund Heller, ’01.

Snodgrass and Heller went to the Galápagos Islands in 1898-99 thanks to Stanford benefactor Timothy Hopkins, patron of the Hopkins Marine Station. The work they did there continues to be cited today.

Their trip typifies how Stanford has from the beginning offered undergraduates the chance to conduct significant research with world-class faculty. It also reveals how a Stanford education can move young lives onto startling and unexpected paths.

Like many early Stanford students, Snodgrass and Heller were of modest means and were drawn to Stanford because it then charged no tuition. Snodgrass had to study on his own for the entrance exam in biology, because his high school refused to teach Darwin or evolution. Yet the pair quickly won the respect of university President David Starr Jordan, a biologist, and Stanford’s life-sciences faculty.

Sailing to the remote and arid Galápagos, the two undergrads lived on salt beef and hardtack biscuit. On the volcanic islands, they painfully crossed newly cooled lava beds that Snodgrass said later made him think of being “a spider or an ant crossing a cinder path.”

Their close observations yielded, among many other discoveries, a finch that looked and behaved differently than the 12 Galápagos finches already known. They named the bird heliobates – their Greek coinage for “disliking the sun” – because it lived in mangrove swamps. (This specificity helps account for how rare the birds are.)

“They are not timid or wary,” the pair marveled, “but simply … prefer the denser and more shaded parts of the swamps.”

Snodgrass and Heller collected, stuffed and shipped a C. heliobates type specimen – in zoological terms, the individual that defines the characteristics of the species – to the Leland Stanford Junior Museum on campus, which for decades held natural-history specimens as well as art. They published their findings in the Proceedings of the Washington Academy of Sciences.

Snodgrass augmented his biology income with cartoons like this 1911 one in Life magazine.
Snodgrass augmented his biology income with cartoons like this 1911 one in Life magazine.

In the 1970s, the specimen became part of the collections of the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco. Its DNA continues to inform research into how the species has fared since its discovery more than a century ago.

Both Snodgrass and Heller went on to distinguished careers as naturalists.

Snodgrass became a world authority on insect morphology.

Heller joined the Smithsonian Institution, accompanied Theodore Roosevelt on his African expeditions and co-authored Roosevelt’s Life Histories of African Game Animals. Later, he directed several zoos including San Francisco’s. Paul Birchard plays him in the episode “British East Africa, September 1909” of The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles.

Today, hundreds of Stanford undergrads conduct and present original research each year with support from such initiatives as the Bing Honors College, which convenes each September before fall quarter to help students plan their honors theses.

Words that Snodgrass wrote in 1914 could still guide them:

“The things we do in this world do not count for half so much as those that happen.

“The events we set in motion by preconceived design take us along conventional routes that we expect will lead on to success, while those that fate ordains create all the diversity and give all the excitement that make it worth while to live.”


Learn how Stanford supports undergraduate research today.

Learn how two Stanford undergrads in the 1990s helped train a scientific lens on global warming with their research at the Hopkins Marine Station.