Tropical Biology: An Ecological Approach

Program Details

When: May 28 – Jul 8, 2018

Where:OTS Stations in Costa Rica (La Selva, Las Cruces, and Palo Verde), Cuerici, Monteverde and Cabo Blanco

Cost: $2900 OTS member tuition; $7900 general tuition

Duration: 6 weeks

Accreditation: 6 credits

Deadline:Feb 3, 2018; after this date enrollment on a rolling basis

Language: English

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Tropical Biology: An Ecological Approach

The course that started it all! Since 1963, this OTS course has trained ecologists and evolutionary biologists using an active learning approach, which engages students in a fun and fast-paced research environment.

This OTS “fundamentals course” is an intensive, field-based experience in tropical biology for graduate students. With guidance from expert scientists, students will gain experience in critical thinking, research design, data analysis, analytical tools, science communication, ecological modeling, and collaborative research—all in the beautiful tropical setting of Costa Rica.

We guarantee you will come away from the course a better scientist with new skills and ideas to carry into your future research and career.

Following the course, students may visit the Barro Colorado Island (BCI) research station of the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (STRI) in Panama. Transportation and station fees for this trip are covered by STRI. More information about these opportunities will be provided during the course.

Course participants that complete the course successfully are eligible for pilot and research awards. The awards give students the opportunity to conduct research projects at OTS stations. More information on how to apply can be found here.


Program Description

Students will get extensive experience designing and conducting group and individual research projects across a range of tropical ecosystems. A large emphasis will be placed on:

  • Research design
  • Statistical analyses
  • Analytical tools for ecological research
  • Scientific communication and public outreach

Through hands-on activities, students will gain experience with diverse perspectives in ecological research, statistical analyses, and science communication, including:

  • Ecological modeling and spatial analyses
  • Intensive practice in scientific writing
  • Digital video and sound analyses
  • Chemical/elemental analyses
  • Uni- and multivariate statistics
  • Digital and media based communication (blogging, podcasts, and short films)

An example of a film create by a group of students during 2016 course: Beyond Survival and another from the 2015 program: Force Unseen


Our courses are designed to make the most out of the students time with OTS. As such a students´ day during a course will usually begin at 06:00 hrs. with breakfast at 06:00 or 06:30 and a start to the field by 07:00 hrs. Lunch will be at 12:00 hrs. (may be out in the field depending on the circumstances).

Following dinner at 18:00 hrs, we will have a review of the next day's work, usually followed by a lecture and occasional general group discussions or data analysis. The pace can be overwhelming at first, but you’ll be surprised how quickly you get used to it, and by how much you see and learn.

Participants in the graduate courses should not purchase their airline tickets until 6 weeks prior to the start of the course. In the case of low enrollment or other unforeseen circumstances, a course may be cancelled up to 6 weeks ahead of the start date.

Sites Visited

Costa Rica has an incredible diversity of ecosystems. Students will visit field sites representing most of the major ecosystems in the country, ranging from wet forest to dry forest, low elevation to high elevation, and terrestrial to marine habitats. We will spend time at all three OTS field stations (La Selva, Las Cruces, Palo Verde) in addition to a number of other sites described below.

La Selva Biological Station, a large and well-known research station on the Caribbean side of Costa Rica. La Selva has over 1,500 hectares of lowland tropical wet forest and connects to Braulio Carrillo National Park.

Las Cruces Biological Station has a world-class plant collection in the Wilson Botanical Garden and an associated 160 hectare tract of old growth mid-elevation forest. Las Cruces is surrounded by agricultural landscapes, ideal for research on fragmentation and restoration ecology.

Palo Verde Biological Station is in the heart of Palo Verde National Park in the Guanacaste province and is surrounded by semi-deciduous tropical dry forest, an endangered tropical ecosystems. A seasonal freshwater wetland, designated as an international conservation (RAMSAR) site in 1991, lies in front of the station and attracts abundant waterfowl.

Cabo Blanco Absolute Reserve is situated at the extreme southern tip of the Nicoya Peninsula. It encompasses 1,172 hectares of mixed forest, which is classified as moist tropical forest. An additional 18 hectares of the ocean belongs to the protected area of Cabo Blanco and supports abundant and diverse marine life.

Cuericí Biological Station, near Cerro de la Muerte, is a high elevation site containing stunning tropical oak forest and access to the paramó, an alpine tundra ecosystem. The forest is protected as a private reserve and the station is also a sustainable development project and trout farm.

Las Alturas Research Station is a mid-elevation research station (10,000 ha) that is contiguous with the UNESCO Amistad Biosphere Reserve (500,000 ha spanning Costa Rican and Panamanian borders), with highly endemic flora and fauna that is characteristic of the pre-montane forest ecosystem.

Post-Course Opportunities

Course participants are eligible for small grants to support short-term (pilot research) or longer (research fellowhips) research projects at OTS stations. These projects begin either immediately following the course or up to a year after the course end. For more information on this visit our Fellowship page.

Also, following the course, students may visit the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (STRI) Barro Colorado Island (BCI) research station in Panama. Transportation and station fees for this trip are covered by STRI.



The Graduate Field courses are characterized by having two full-time coordinators and a teaching assistant from renowned universities worldwide. This edition of the course will be lead by Jenny L. Stynoski, Ph.D and Patricia Salerno, Ph.D.

Jenny studies the ecology, evolution, development, and behavior of tropical amphibians and reptiles. Her research integrates field work (in Peru, Ecuador, and Costa Rica), behavioral studies, evo-devo perspectives, and next-gen genomics tools to understand how animals live and adapt in their environment. She earned her PhD from the University of Miami in 2012, and has worked with OTS in teaching and administrating undergraduate and graduate field courses in Costa Rica since 2009. Jenny is currently a postdoctoral fellow of the American Association of University Women (AAUW) in the Hoke lab at Colorado State University.

Patricia studies the ecology and evolution of at-risk populations or species around the globe. She uses various molecular tools in projects ranging from the evolutionary origins of high-altitude endemic tropical frogs to the community and genomic effects of a massive flood event in Colorado stream insect communities. She also uses integrative taxonomy approaches to propose species limits in temperate and tropical amphibians and reptiles. She received her PhD from the University of Texas at Austin, and is now a Postdoctoral Research Associate at Colorado State University.

Invited Faculty List:

The course is supported by 15+ faculty from diverse fields in tropical biology and ecology. At each site, four to five invited faculty members will share their expertise and guide group research projects. Faculty led projects give students the opportunity to work alongside experts in a variety of ecological fields. Invited faculty also mentor students on their individual projects. The faculty list for 2017 is:

Please make sure to visit this section in the coming weeks as more faculty will de added to list for the 2017 session.

Financial Aid

Aid for OTS Members: $5000 tuition waiver.

Course costs exceed $7,900 per student. Students from non-OTS institutions are charged $7,900 for tuition, whereas students from OTS-member institutions are charged $2,900 (less a $5,000 OTS scholarship).

Additional scholarships (up to $1,500 additional tuition aid) may be available for students with demonstrated financial need. Cost includes: all lodging and meals, transportation during the course, all course materials. Personal expenses such as laundry, mail, entertainment, international travel, airport tax ($29), insurance, medical expenses, etc. are not covered. Also, students planning additional time in Costa Rica before or after the course should allow $30-40 per day.

Course fees are due in full one month prior to start of course; the first $500 constitutes a nonrefundable deposit.

If you are interested in being considered for a partial scholarship please make sure to include a request for a partial scholarship along with the rest of the required documents. The letter should outline your financial situation, previous scholarships/grants (if any), and the amount you are seeking from outside sources to cover the costs of the course. The letter will help us asses your situation individually and determine you eligibility for a partial scholarship if you are selected for the course.

Please note that the scholarships are awarded and applied only to the tuition/course cost. They cannot be applied in any other way, for example travel expenses. Although we may be able to award a partial scholarship, we recommend that you seek funds for the course outside through you own means, such as applying for grants from your department or organizing small fund raisers.

Application Process

Course enrollment is limited to 22 students. Applicants must be enrolled in, or accepted for, a Ph.D. or Masters level graduate degree program. Selection of participants is highly competitive. Qualified students from OTS member schools will have first priority, and any number of applications will be considered from each OTS institution. Applications from non-OTS institutions are welcome. The course is taught in English; however, Spanish is useful, and participants are urged to develop basic Spanish skills.

Course fees are due in full one month prior to start of course; the first $500 constitutes a nonrefundable deposit.

Students must have health insurance that is valid in Costa Rica.

Please keep in mind that the transcripts from the course may take up to two months to process before they are sent out to your institution. Accepted students are encouraged to consult with their advisor and department what is needed to transfer the credits once the course is over.

How to apply?

The application process is simple.

Click on the Apply Now button on the program page and follow the online instructions to fill out the application on-line.

At the end of the application you will be required to upload the following documents in pdf format.

  • Curriculum Vitae (4 page max.)
  • Transcripts (official)
  • Letter of Interest
  • Letter requesting financial aid (if applicable)


You will be required to request the following:

  • Two letters of reference.
  • A graduate advisory supplement which needs to be filled out and sent to us by your graduate advisor. This form is downloaded from the online application page. After signing, the form must be uploaded to the online application page.
  • OTS Delegate Endorsement (only applies to OTS member institution students). This form is downloaded from the online application page. Once completed the form must be uploaded to the online application page.

Please request that letters of recommendation be sent directly to We will not accept any reference letter, supplement or endorsement that is not sent directly from the referral person.

Prospective applicants from member institutions must consult with one of the two representatives of the OTS Assembly of Delegatesat their institution.

Advice and endorsement by the local representative are a necessary part of the application process. There are two Delegates at each OTS member institution and their names can be found on the Assembly of Delegates page or by contacting OTS Costa Rica Education Program at 
See list of member institutions.

Application fee:

A processing fee of $50 must accompany the completed application (please make out a check to Organization for Tropical Studies, North American Office, Box 90630, Durham, NC 27708 0630). You may also pay via credit card. Please contact if you have any questions.

Prospective applicants from member institutions must consult with one of the two representatives of the OTS Assembly of Delegates at their institution. Advice and endorsement by the local representative are a necessary part of the application process. There are two Delegates at each OTS member institution and their names can be found on the Assembly of Delegates page or by contacting OTS Costa Rica Education Program at . See member institutions list.

Applications should be submitted simultaneously to OTS () and to one of your OTS Delegates a few days before the deadline. Check with your Delegate regarding their timetable. Applicants from non-member institutions should forward their application directly to OTS.

Students are expected to make their own travel arrangements to Costa Rica. The cost of airfare varies tremendously; consult your local travel agent or study abroad office as they may offer reduced fares for students. Advance purchase discounts can be substantial.

Accommodations & Meals

It is important to recognize that the OTS program differs from your typical on-campus life in at least four very important ways.

You will be a guest in Costa Rica, and consequently you will need to be sensitive to and respectful of Costa Rican customs and culture. In general, Costa Ricans (“Ticos” and “Ticas”) are warm, friendly, and courteous. We encourage you to interact with many Ticos, and we hope you will develop some good friendships.

It is important to remember that certain behaviors that are acceptable among fellow classmates at an OTS site may not be acceptable when dealing with non-course participants. For example, Costa Ricans tend to be conservative in their attitudes toward nudity and sex. Thus, states of undress that are acceptable and inevitable in field station dormitories are offensive in public. Also, nudity on beaches, no matter how apparently deserted, is inappropriate.

Costa Ricans tend to be much more tolerant of noise (say, the loud music coming from the neighbor’s house or the children shouting and running in the living room) than many of us are in the U.S. While we ask that you be respectful of Costa Rican ways and customs, we also understand that cultural norms can often be subtle, complex, and even counter-intuitive. If you would like some advance preparation regarding Ticos and their way of life, we suggest you read Biesanz, et al. The Ticos Culture and Social Change in Costa Rica (1999, ISBN 978-1555877378) before coming to Costa Rica. Other sources you should consider are Palmer and Molina´s (2004) The Costa Rica Reader History, Culture, Politics (ISBN 0-8223-3372-4), Baker´s (2015) Moon Costa Rica and Coates' (1997) Central America A Natural and Cultural History (ISBN 0-300-08065-4). Please feel free to ask OTS staff about any questions you have regarding cultural differences and norms at any time.

Though you may have one or two roommates on campus, in Costa Rica you will be living closely with 15-25 other students and two to five professors or field assistants. This means communication and respect will be crucial. All of us need to be as open, honest, and cooperative as possible. We also need to have sincere respect for one another, regardless of different opinions and lifestyles. This includes respect for privacy, respect for rules and regulations, and even respect for the fact that unpredictability is an inherent feature of field-based programs such as ours. Indeed, next to communication and cooperation, flexibility and a good sense of humor are the most important characteristics of a successful student in our program. By living and working with the same people for several weeks, you will undoubtedly develop a number of very close friendships. The combination of uncomfortable (being wet, muddy, and tired), wacky (a bunch of Gringos on the dance floor), wonderful situations (watching iguanas sunning on the bridge at La Selva), and truly amazing (interacting with people from all sorts of social back-grounds in very different settings) creates great images and memories. You will, for sure, share these with your fellow participants well beyond the end of the course.

As OTS students, you must not only be proactive in asking the questions (and finding the answers) that are important to you, you must also be ready to share your own knowledge and experience with the rest of the group.

Passport & Visa Information

You must have a valid Passport to travel to Costa Rica. It is important that the passport does not expire within 6 months of entering Costa Rica. If you are NOT a citizen of a North American or European country, you will probably need a special visa to get into Costa Rica. We recommend that you contact your respective consulate or embassy services to determine if you need a visa to travel to Costa Rica. It is important to take into account the requirements to get a visa approved before you apply for one of our courses. If you are accepted into one of our courses we will provide any information necessary (within reason) to help with the visa application. Please keep in mind that visa application processes can take several months depending on the country of issue. For more information on this topic please visit

U.S. citizens entering Costa Rica are automatically granted a 90-day tourist Visa. Students planning to stay in Costa Rica after the program end date need to take this into account.

Please consult OTS if you have any questions about this.

Health and Safety

OTS is deeply committed to student safety and well-being and does not expose students to unnecessary danger or risk. In cooperation with the Duke University Global Education Office for Undergraduates (GEO), OTS monitors national and international events that might affect our students. Five decades of risk assessment, emergency response, and crisis resolution have enabled OTS to maximize student safety and security. All students participate in an on-site orientation program upon arrival in Costa Rica. For our most current safety information, contact the OTS Enrollment Management staff at