Tropical Butterfly EcologyTropical Butterfly Ecology 2017

Tropical Butterfly Ecology

  • Tropical Butterfly Ecology
  • Tropical Butterfly Ecology
  • Tropical Butterfly Ecology

Program Details

When: Jul 09 - Jul 22, 2018

Cost: $2,100 general tuition $1,400 OTS member tuition

Duration: 2 weeks

Accreditation: 2 credits

Deadline:Mar 17, 2018 after this date enrollment on a rolling basis

Language: English

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Tropical Butterfly Ecology

Tropical Butterfly Ecology is an intensive, two-week field course welcoming graduate students, advanced undergraduate students, and instructors interested in conducting field work on tropical butterflies and looking to expand their knowledge on butterfly ecology and evolution. The course will focus on the Costa Rican butterfly fauna in both Caribbean lowland rainforest and premontane wet forest, at the La Selva, Las Alturas, and Las Cruces Biological Stations. All sites share a diverse assemblage of Neotropical butterflies, including many species that extend well into South America.

Students will take away skills in butterfly collection, sampling techniques, preservation techniques, photography, identification of butterfly adults and early stages, and experimental design for ecology and behavior-based studies. The course material will focus on behavior, diversity, ecological and evolutionary patterns, mimicry, host-plant associations, sensory ecology, and butterfly communication, while giving students the opportunity to enjoy the excitement of conducting research on tropical insects.

Course participants are eligible for pilot and research awards provided by the OTS Fellowship program. Students most complete the course successfully to be eligible. For more information click here


Dr. Susan Finkbeiner (Boston University)

Dr. Ryan Hill (University of the Pacific)

Dr. Adrea Gonzalez-Karlsson (Vocani Research Center, Tel Aviv University)


Program Description

This course will combine lectures with hands-on field exploration, and major efforts on the part of students to understand and apply quantitative observational and sampling procedures in the field. The course will stress developing rigorous natural history questions from field observations. We will spend the first week at La Selva Biological Station exploring the lepidopteran fauna and learning specific skills that will be used the following week during independent projects at Las Alturas and Las Cruces Biological Stations. Students will return home with improved command and understanding of butterfly biology in rich and diverse ecosystems, while having the confidence to conduct independent tropical field work in the future.

An emphasis will be placed on the following:

  • Developing an understanding of issues and topics in tropical butterfly ecology, evolution, and patterns of diversity
  • Studying adult and immature stages
  • Gaining experience in proper data collection and sampling techniques
  • Making and properly documenting field observations
  • Making a voucher collection: how to preserve insects in the tropics and taking vouchers linked to observations and data
  • Learning data entry basics: setting up a database and collecting data in a standardized way to ease data entry
  • Training in experimental design for butterfly-related field studies, including trapping, mark-recapture, predation studies, surveys, and behavioral observation
  • Exercising the Scientific Method by developing a question followed by hypothesis, using appropriate methods with self-designed study, data analysis, and conclusions implemented into a written report
  • Gaining practice with presentation skills and science communication
  • Learning tips on butterfly photography in the field and lab
  • Becoming familiarized with neotropical rainforest field work, travel, and safety


Tropical Butterfly Ecology is designed to maximize students’ engagement with the tropics while learning relevant course material, with full-day schedules. A typical day will begin early with breakfast at 6:30am and a start in the field by 7:30am, which will include collecting and educational hikes focused on a particular field topic described in the curriculum, or independent field work. Lunch will typically be at noon, but may be out in the field in some circumstances. Depending on weather, an additional field outing may directly follow lunch, otherwise a lecture and hands-on laboratory work will follow. We will have a preview of the next day’s work after dinner (6:00pm), typically followed by student and/or faculty research presentations, group discussions, or data analysis. Some evenings may instead include a hike or blacklight collecting. 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.

We will begin our course with five days at the La Selva Biological Station where we will learn many techniques and background information to be exercised later during independent projects. Independent projects will take place at Las Alturas Station, ending the course at Las Cruces Biological Station where independent projects will be written and presented, along with time in the field collecting and exploring during individual or group hikes.

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

La Selva Biological Station. Situated in wet lowland rainforest on the Atlantic slope, La Selva is not only OTS' largest and longest-running station, but also one of the world's premiere centers of tropical forest research. Over 1500 hectares of old- and second-growth rainforest is readily accessible via an extensive trail system. Besides its impressive forest and excellent laboratory and classroom facilities, one of La Selva's great assets is the opportunity to interact with researchers from around the world. In addition to this, the station connects to Braulio Carrillo National Park via a forested altitudinal transect ranging from 30 m to 2500 m above sea level.

Las Cruces Biological Station. Situated in premontane rainforest on the Pacific slope, Las Cruces has a world-class plant collection in the Wilson Botanical Garden and an associated 300-hectare tract of old growth mid-elevation forest. Las Cruces is surrounded by agricultural landscapes, ideal for research on fragmentation and restoration ecology.

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.


Tropical Butterfly Ecology is characterized by having three full-time coordinators and two visiting faculty from renowned universities worldwide.

Susan Finkbeiner, Boston University

susan finkbeinerSusan Finkbeiner is a behavioral and evolutionary biologist with a background in entomology. Her previous research has used Heliconius butterflies to focus on how natural and sexual selection work together to favor the evolution of specific animal phenotypes, how aposematic signaling may drive the evolution of social behavior in the context of visual ecology, and how specialized visual systems coevolve with specialized visual cues. Her current research aims to understand the ecological and evolutionary processes that shape temporal and spatial patterns of Adelpha butterfly biodiversity. Susan received her B.Sc. in Entomology from Cornell University while receiving her Ph.D. in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of California, Irvine. She is currently a postdoctoral research associate at Boston University.

Ryan Hill, University of the Pacific

ryan hillRyan is an evolutionary ecologist with twenty years of experience working in the tropics. His research is focused on clarifying pattern and process across multiple levels of biological organization to explain biodiversity. Ryan has published papers on adaptive coloration, including deflection marks and mimicry, descriptions of immature stages and host plant relationships, systematics, phylogeography and functional morphology. His current research in the tropics is focused on documenting patterns of diversity of Adelpha butterflies to test hypotheses explaining the high levels of species richness in this enigmatic group. Ryan received his B.Sc. in Biology from the University of Oregon, a Masters degree in Zoology at University of Texas, Austin, and completed his Ph.D. at University of California, Berkeley. He conducted postdoctoral work at Harvard’s Center for Systems Biology, and is currently an Assistant Professor at University of the Pacific.

Adrea González-Karlsson, Volcani Research Center, Tel Aviv University

Andrea González-KarlssonAdrea González-Karlsson is an ecologist who has worked with Lepidoptera in the neotropics throughout her academic career. Adrea completed her undergraduate degree in Biology and Spanish Literature at UC Berkeley, her PhD in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at UCLA and she is currently a postdoctoral researcher at the Volcani Center for Agricultural Research and Tel Aviv University in Israel. Adrea’s previous research on ithomiine butterflies focused on intra and interspecific communication using visual and chemical cues and her current work is on sexual selection on female pheromone signals in Pectinophora gossypiella, the pink cotton bollworm moth and Heliothis armigera, the cotton bollworm moth.

Tuition and Financial Aid

Tropical Butterfly Ecology course costs $2,100 per student. Students from OTS-member institutions are charged $1,400 (less a $700 OTS scholarship).

Cost includes: all lodging and meals, transportation during the course, and 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 $50-60 per day.

Course fees are due in full one month prior to start of course; the first $250 constitutes a nonrefundable deposit.

Additional scholarships may be available for students with demonstrated financial need. 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 your 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. 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.

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 need 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 can be downloaded from the online application page.
  • OTS Delegate Endorsement (only applies to OTS member institution students). This form is downloaded from the online application page.

Please request that these documents 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 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 list of member institutions.

Accommodations and Meals

It is important to recognize that the OTS program differs from your typical on-campus life.

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, stages 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). Also, 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 and 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. 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