Tropical plants: identification skills and ecological relationshipsTropical plant identification skills and ecological relationships

Tropical Plant Systematics

  • Tropical Plants Systematics
  • Tropical Plants Systematics
  • Tropical Plants Systematics
  • Tropical Plants Systematics
  • Tropical Plants Systematics

Program Details

Where:OTS Stations in Costa Rica, La Selva, Las Cruces, Palo Verde, Cuerici, San Jose Herbaria

When: Jun 6-Jul 9, 2018

Cost:$4,000 OTS member tuition; $6,500 general tuition

Duration: 5 weeks

Accreditation: 6 credits

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

Language: English

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Tropical Plant Systematics


Tropical Plant Systematics is an intensive, five-week field introduction to the identification, inventory, classification, and phylogenetic analysis of tropical vascular plants. This course is primarily for plant systematists but will also interest ecologists, zoologists, and conservation biologists – anyone whose research requires a broad knowledge of plant relationships and classification.



Amanda Grusz - National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution.

Laura Lagomarsino - Louisiana State University


Program Description

The Tropical Plant Systematics course is designed to build the diverse skills needed for floristic, taxonomic and phylogenetic research on tropical plants. Using a complementary mixture of theory and practice, the course alternates lectures on vascular plant evolution and phylogenetic reconstruction with training in field identification, ecological inventory methods, and specialized workshops on topics such as botanical illustration and specimen preparation.

A main goal on this course is to learn the major families and genera of tropical plants in a phylogenetic context. Thus, lectures and discussion of phylogenetic theory and methodology complement a broad evolutionary survey of the major clades of ferns and seed plants. The principal assignments of the course, a monograph and cladistic analysis of a small group of species, is based on original observations of morphological characters of both living plants and herbarium specimens.


The Tropical Plant Systematics course is designed to make the most out of the students time with OTS. A students' day during a course will usually begin at 0600 hrs. with breakfast at 0600 or 0630 and a start to the field by 0700 hrs. Lunch will be at 1200 hrs. (may be out in the field depending on the circumstances).

Following dinner at 1800 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

The sites visited during the Tropical Plant Systematics course are reached by bus, four-wheel drive vehicle, and occasionally on foot. The field sites throughout Costa Rica have been selected to represent the major tropical habitat types in Costa Rica: lowland and premontane rainforest, cloud forest, montane oak forest, páramo, tropical dry forest, fresh-water wetlands, and mangroves. Sites include:

Las Cruces Biological Station, a mid-elevation location with an associated 216 hectare tract of old-growth premontane rainforest surrounded by younger forests, and the Robert and Catherine Wilson Botanical Garden which houses a world-class collection of tropical plants. These living resources are at our disposal as students build their knowledge of morphological and anatomical characteristics of tropical plant families. While at Las Cruces, students will give a short presentation on their research interests. Here, they will also form research teams organized around particular monophyletic groups of species. For the remainder of the course, the teams will carry out an investigation of phylogenetic relationships within this group of species at all other sites.

Palo Verde Biological Station is in the heart of Palo Verde National Park, in Guanacaste province and is surrounded by semi-deciduous tropical dry forest on limestone outcrops characteristic of the northwest Pacific lowlands, one of the most endangered of tropical ecosystems. A seasonal freshwater wetland, designated as a RAMSAR site in 1991, lies in front of the station and attracts abundant waterfowl.

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.

San José Herbaria. For two days, we return to San José to spend time at the herbaria of the National Biodiversity Institute (INBio) and the National Museum. This enables the students to observe additional taxa and characters needed to complete their phylogenetic analysis.

Cuericí. Cuericí biological station, near Cerro de la Muerte, is a high elevation site containing stunning tropical oak forest. The forest itself is protected as a private reserve and the station is also a sustainable development project and trout farm.


The three full-time coordinators will be joined by five to ten guest faculty from major universities and research institutions in the U.S. and Latin America.

Amanda Grusz is coordinator and will be with the course for its duration. She is currently at the Department of Biology at the University of Minnesota Duluth as an Assistant Professor and Director of the Olga Lakela Herbarium (DUL). Amanda’s research explores the patterns and processes that give rise to plant diversity (especially ferns). By harnessing the power of natural history collections and embracing genome exploration, her work unites traditional and modern techniques to achieve this objective. Amanda was a participant in the 2008 TPS course and has since served as a course teaching assistant and co-coordinator. You can view Amanda’s website at

Laura Lagomarsino is co-coordinator and will be with the course for its duration. She is an Assistant Professor of Biological Sciences at Louisiana State University, where she is also the Director of the Shirley C. Tucker Herbarium. Her research is focused on understanding the impact of geology and biotic interactions, especially between plants and their pollinators, in generating Neotropical biodiversity, with a particular emphasis on Campanulaceae. She integrates alpha taxonomy, molecular phylogenetics, comparative methods, and herbarium study to achieve these goals.

Invited Faculty

Students will have the opportunity to interact, be taught by and participate in group field projects with faculty from many different universities and research interests.

Please make sure to review this page frequently as invited faculty members may be changed or added to the list as the course draws near to the start date.

Financial Aid

Members Aid: Partial Scholarships Available: $4,000 OTS

Course costs exceed $6,500 per student. Students from non-OTS institutions are charged $6,500 for tuition, whereas students from OTS-member institutions are charged $4,000. 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. Not included in the cost is the airfare or travel to Costa Rica, or the airport tax $29. Personal expenses such as laundry, mail, entertainment, international travel, 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.

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.

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 fairs for students. Advance purchase discounts can be substantial.

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. Priority will be given to applicants who have completed at least one university-level plant taxonomy course.

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.

The course is worth 6 graduate level credits.

The credits are awarded by the University of Costa Rica and are transferrable to any university graduate program. 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 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 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 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. 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