Evolution and Fish Biology in Southern Africa

Students in Southern Africa


Date: June 16 – July 14, 2024

On this program, you will learn about Evolution and Fish Biology through fieldwork and experiences in South Africa and Malawi. In Southern Africa, we will begin our journey on a farm outside the city of Pretoria. We will visit the Sterkfontein Caves, one of the world’s most important archeological sites. This set of caves is known as the Cradle of Humankind, due to the discovery of early human fossils. Next, we will venture towards Kruger National Park. We will stay at the Research Station and view evolution and evolutionary strategies such as sexual and kin selection first-hand in one of South Africa’s largest game reserves. Midway through the program we will fly to Cape Maclear in Malawi and have daily visits to the UNESCO world heritage site, Lake Malawi National Park. This is an underwater park where you will snorkel and do hands-on experiments on how fish biology is performed in the field, specifically focusing on the huge variety of cichlids native to this region.

Language of Instruction: English 

Courses: BIOE-157B Ichthyology (Fish Biology), 7 units; BIOE-157A Evolution, 5 units

Max Enrollment: 17

Faculty Leader: Dr. Giacomo Bernardi (he/him), Professor in Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology

Contact: globallearning@ucsc.edu

Quick Facts

Locations – Pretoria, South Africa; Kruger National Park, South Africa; Cape Maclear, Malawi

Eligibility – Good academic and disciplinary standing, Min Age: 18, 45 units completed at time of departure.

Minimum GPA – 2.3 cumulative GPA or higher at the time of application and every quarter prior to departure

Prerequisites –  Biology Series Courses 20A, 20B, and 20C completed by the end of spring quarter 2024. 

Application Materials 

  • Passport–  A passport valid for at least six months after the program’s end date is required to apply or a receipt indicating that it has been ordered.
  • Financial Agreement – Download, read, and electronically sign the Financial Terms and Conditions document. You will be required to upload it in the application.
  • Meeting – Required meeting with faculty leader prior to program acceptance. A meeting will be scheduled after the online application is submitted.


  • The Sterkfontein Caves and Cradle of Humankind (The Maropeng Visitor Centre)
    • The Maropeng Visitor Centre is an award-winning, world-class exhibition, focusing on the development of humans and our ancestors over the past few million years. Take a journey through time, starting with the formation of the planet and moving all the way through the evolutionary processes that culminated in the world as we know it today. See fossils, learn about how humankind was born, view stone tools that are up to one million years old, and much more. This self-guided, interactive tour allows you to take all the time you need to ponder humanity’s fascinating origin story. The Sterkfontein Caves are world-famous for their fossil finds and are a popular visitor destination. The Sterkfontein Caves are owned by the University of the Witwatersrand, whose scientists have been responsible for the main excavations at this World Heritage Site. They are credited with many of the most notable discoveries in the caves, including the world-famous fossils of Mrs. Ples and Little Foot, the latter being an almost complete Australopithecus skeleton dating back more than three million years. The tours at the Sterkfontein Caves, start above ground and then take visitors deep into the caves.
  • Bothongo Wonder Cave
    • The cave was discovered by Italian miners in 1898. They mined out approximately 15% of the formation and brought them to the surface. The formation consists of calcite which they placed in a self-built oven for 2 weeks at about 1100 degrees. This formed a powder that was taken by ox wagon to Pretoria & Johannesburg to make cement, toothpaste, used to extract gold, and the like. Mining was stopped in 1902 due to the outbreak of war and low productivity. This is the 3rd largest chamber in South Africa, the largest being Cango Caves and the second-largest Sudwala Caves. The cavern is estimated to be 5 to 10 million years old and you will see amazing cave pearls, towering formations up to 15m high, a rimstone pool, stalactites & stalagmites, an amazing animal shadow zoo, old mining activities, the African Madonna structure, and even intriguing ancient fossils! 
    • Note: Bothongo Wonder Cave Entrance – The entrance to the cave goes down 87 stairs at a 45-degree angle dropping 22 meters below the surface. You will then go down an elevator with a drop of a further 18 meters into the cave. 
  • Kruger National Park 
    • Kruger National Park has a history of being the site of research on savanna ecology and adaptive management of ecosystems. The park is part of the  Kruger to Canyons Biosphere, which is an area designated by UNESCO as an International Man and Biosphere Reserve. During our stay at the Research Station, we will be entering the park daily to view wildlife in their natural habitat. 
  • Lake Malawi National Park
    • This particular area in the southern end of Lake Malawi is of notable importance for biodiversity conservation due to its fish diversity. Lake Malawi is one of the deepest lakes in the world, and is isolated from other bodies of water which creates adaptive radiation and speciation in the fish varieties. We will be primarily focused on the cichlid fish, known locally as “mbuna”. All but five of over 350 species of cichlids are endemic to Lake Malawi. We will be snorkeling and observing the water ecosystems and biodiversity for the majority of our time in Malawi. 


Application Fee

  • There is a Non-Refundable $200 UCSC Global Learning Application Fee. It is charged to your UCSC account after March 1, 2024.



South Africa, as the name implies, is the southernmost country on the African continent. It is home to a variety of ecosystems and a long rugged coastline. South Africa also has a vibrant, multicultural population with a complex social history. Learn more about travel in South Africa here. Learn more about identities in South Africa here

Malawi is one of the northernmost countries in the southern Africa region. It has diverse wildlife and dramatic landscapes along the East African Great Rift Valley and Lake Malawi. The Malawian people are known for their warmth and friendliness. Learn more about travel in Malawi here

Weather and Climate

Since both countries are located in the Southern Hemisphere, it will be winter for the duration of our program. South Africa will range between 68 degrees Fahrenheit as a high, and 40 degrees as a low. In Malawi, the climate is warmer, and temperatures will range from 77 degrees Fahrenheit to 74 degrees Fahrenheit. 

Travel Documents Required for US Citizens

Passport required for US citizens. If you are not a US citizen please email globallearning@ucsc.edu to learn about additional travel documents you may need to pursue this program.

A tourist visa is required for entry into Malawi. Instructions for completing the simple visa registration will be shared after acceptance into the program. 

Country Information Resources

South Africa Information Resources

Malawi Information Resources


South Africa: Rand (ZAR)

Malawi: Malawian Kwacha

Official Languages

South Africa: Afrikaans, English, Zulu, Northern Sotho, Xhosa, Southern Sotho, Venda, Tswana, Tsonga, Swati, Ndebele

Malawi: English and Chichewa


Pretoria – We will stay at Rosemary Hill Farms located just outside of the city of Pretoria.  The dorm rooms are shared occupancy. 

Kruger National Park -We will stay just outside Kruger National Park at the Skukuza Research Station in shared occupancy dorm rooms. 

Cape McClear – We will stay at Thumbi View Lodge in shared occupancy dorm rooms. 

Please note that elevators, air conditioners, and other modern conveniences may not be available in all locations.


Most meals are included during the program. They are largely provided by the accommodations though during excursions may be elsewhere.


Global Seminars are generally accessible, though some locations may present unique challenges regarding mobility. These will be addressed as needed and accommodations can be made. Please email globallearning@ucsc.edu to inquire more about if this program is a good choice for you. 

Students with DisabilitiesIf you need support services abroad, notify your UCSC Disability Resource Center (DRC) Coordinator.

Identities Abroad and Away

UC Santa Cruz Global Learning is committed to inclusion and equity in our various program options as well as striving to make everyone’s experiences abroad enriching, positive, and safe.

Learn more on our Identities Abroad and Away webpage.


Course Description

BIOE-157A Evolution (5 units)

This course will cover the fundamentals of Evolution, including Macro-Evolution (the science of the evolution of organisms) and Micro-Evolution (the science of the evolution of populations, within a species). Field observations and field work will be an integral part of the class, where demonstrations and examples will be shown directly in the field. Students will think, write, and report, on projects that will be elaborated and discussed with peers and faculty. The course will be delivered in the field, and in person. We will visit sites of archaeological importance pertinent to human evolution (caves of Sterkfontein, where hominid remains have been discovered), national parks (Kruger National Park, Malawi National Park) where we will observe animal interactions, sexual selection, and kin selection, in the field. Students will write daily journals with observations and reports. 

BIOE-157B Ichthyology (Fish Biology) (7 units)

This course will cover the fundamentals of Ichthyology (Fish Biology), including taxonomy and classification, morphology, physiology, zoogeography and fisheries. Field observations and field work will be an integral part of the class, where demonstrations and examples will be shown directly in the field. Students will think, write, and report, on projects that will be elaborated and discussed with peers and faculty. The course will be delivered in the field, and in person. We will visit streams and rivers to learn about local fishes and use hands-on approaches to study the science of ichthyology. Research projects will be done at Malawi National Park, a site with the greatest diversity of freshwater fishes in the world. Students will write daily journals with observations and reports. 

Course Credit

Students on UCSC Global Seminars earn regular UC Santa Cruz course credit which may be used to fulfill degree, major, minor, General Education (GE) requirements. UC Santa Cruz students can use UCSC Global Seminar courses to fulfill their academic requirements as listed in the General Catalog. Students from other campuses should consult with the academic advisors from their home campuses to determine whether courses taken on our programs may be used to fulfill their specific academic requirements.

Last modified: Feb 23, 2024