Undergraduate Opportunities - Organization for Tropical Studies

Tropical Biology
Summer Program in Costa Rica

  • Tropical Biology Summer Program in Costa Rica
  • Tropical Biology Summer Program in Costa Rica
  • Tropical Biology Summer Program in Costa Rica
  • Tropical Biology Summer Program in Costa Rica
  • Tropical Biology Summer Program in Costa Rica

Program Details

When:May 22 - June 18, 2018

Duration: 4 weeks

Credits: 1 course - 4 credits

Language: English

Deadline: March 1st

Field Notes: Undergraduate Blog

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Tropical Biology
Summer Program in Costa Rica

This program introduces students to some of the most critical issues facing tropical biodiversity and threatened ecosystems and engages them in research addressing these challenges. While traveling to 5 sites in Costa Rica, including the 3 world famous OTS field stations, students conduct research projects led by invited faculty from diverse fields in tropical biology. Students are mentored on short independent research projects individually or in small groups.



The Tropical Biology Summer Program is comprised of one core course. This course is worth 4 credit hours.

Fundamentals of Tropical Biology

This course integrates classroom and field instruction to introduce students to the fundamental principles of tropical biology and the natural history of local ecosystems. The ecological complexity of the tropics, the patterns of species diversity and the types of species interactions that characterize these systems are discussed in detail. Classroom instruction includes lectures given by resident and visiting professors, as well as discussions of assigned readings and selections from the primary literature.


Our program is labor intensive. Though we do give campus-like instruction (assigned readings, lectures, discussion groups, etc.), we also take orientation walks to learn important plants, animals, disease, local customs; perform field projects with long hours; and take field trips to health facilities, towns, indigenous reservations, research facilities, banana plantations, logging sites, etc. There is one rest day per week, usually Sundays. In the field, your typical daily schedule may look like this:

6:30am Breakfast. Rice and beans are a staple diet for Costa Ricans, and this is true even at breakfast! Most mornings will begin with gallo pinto, or rice and beans cooked together with onions, garlic, and other spices. This will often be accompanied by eggs, toast, fruit and coffee, juice or tea
7:30am Field activity. Most field activities take all morning, or in some cases will go into the afternoon. If we plan to be out in the field until, say, 2pm or 3pm, we will take along a bag lunch. (Usually sandwich of your choice, fruit, cookies, and juice; and yes – bean sandwiches are an option!). For field activities, you will often need to wear rubber boots (or snake guards), and will always take water and your field notebook with you. This is the best part of the day – be prepared to get wet and muddy!!
12:00pm Lunch back at the station. Whatever we have for lunch, it will almost certainly be accompanied by rice and beans! 1:00pm Rest/shower time.
2:00pm Lectures and/or discussion sections. Afternoon classroom activities will often be related to morning field activities.
5:00pm Free time. Most students use this space to go running, play soccer, rest, catch up on correspondence, etc.
6:00pm Dinner. (You guessed it, along with other selections, rice and beans!)
7:00pm Lectures, discussions, and/or study time.

Sites Visited

Las Cruces Biological Station

Las Cruces Biological Station is located on the south Pacific slope of Costa Rica near San Vito, only a few kilometers from the Panamanian border. At 1,200 m, Las Cruces is the site of the world famous Wilson Botanical Garden, which houses 10 hectares of native and imported tropical plants, including bromeliads, palms, heliconias, and orchids. The site also protects more than 300 hectares of forest, with a rich diversity of plants, mammals, birds, and other important groups. Near the station, there is a collection of forest patches that have been an important site for research on the biological dynamics of fragments. This is also a very important site for research in restoration ecology. Las Cruces has been formally incorporated into the international Amistad Biosphere Reserve. Nearby San Vito was founded in the 1950s by Italian immigrants, and is reportedly the best town in Costa Rica for Italian food and pizza. The primary economic activity of the region is coffee cultivation. Las Cruces can be rainy and foggy in July, so you will need your raincoat or poncho. This will also be the first place that you are required to use rubber boots in the field, and you will have a chance to purchase them upon arrival in San Vito. Nights can feel cool and damp and although blankets are provided, some people use their sleeping bags on their beds. Services that are available include phone, fax, email, laundry, and hot water.

Las Alturas Biological Station

This premontane site is located in the southeastern region of Costa Rica and serves as a satellite station to Las Cruces Biological Station. The forest at Las Alturas is contiguous with the enormous La Amistad National Park, which is the largest national park in Costa Rica and continues on as a bi-national park into Panama. This is a very rustic site with no internet access, limited electricity, phone for emergencies only, and large shared bunk rooms. It can be quite cool at this site, especially at night, so bring warm clothes. The station is located within a private reserve that also holds a farm that is occupied by a number of members of the Ngobe indigenous group. The adjacent forest includes a hike up the Cerro Chai, famed for an unusual montane cloud-loving flora at its peak.

La Selva Biological Station

Located in the Caribbean lowlands, La Selva is OTS' largest field station and is one of the best-known tropical research sites in the world. The station protects approximately 1,600 hectares of primary and secondary tropical rain forest. It averages 4,000 mm (over 13 feet) of rainfall a year. This lush environment facilitates the existence of thousands of species of plants and animals, making La Selva a great place to see all kinds of wildlife, including toucans, monkeys, ocelots, agoutis, peccaries, and the endangered green macaw. Two major rivers, the Sarapiquí and the Puerto Viejo, border la Selva. These rivers form part of the San Juan River Basin, draining into the Caribbean near Tortuguero National Park. La Selva is connected via an intact forest corredor to Braulio Carrillo National Park, containing 46,000 hectares of forestland and ascending almost 3,000 m in elevation to Volcán Barva, which overlooks the town of Heredia in the Central Valley. La Selva has an extensive trail system, lots of lab space, and is, in general, a pretty busy place (the station can sleep over 100 people!). Important crops grown in the area surrounding La Selva include banana, pineapple, and heart of palm. At La Selva we will work on two important academic goals. First, as in all the sites we visit, we will continue to learn about ecological concepts relevant to lowland forest ecosystems. Second, we will devote time to independent field research projects. This mix of activities makes for an interesting and busy time at this station. Services available at La Selva include wireless internet and phone. Showers have hot water, and students have access to laundry machines, including washers and dryers. Housing consists of small dorm rooms with up to six students each.

Palo Verde Biological Station

Through an agreement with the Costa Rica National Park Service, OTS maintains this field station within the Palo Verde National Park. This reserve, located in the northwestern region of the country, lies on the boundary between an extensive marsh and seasonally dry forest underlain with limestone. It protects part of the lower Tempisque River Basin, the largest river drainage of the historic province of Guanacaste. Palo Verde is recognized internationally as one of the most important wetland habitats for nesting waterfowl. It is also a great place to see monkeys, deer, lizards, and crocodiles. Several trails lead to lookout points with incredible scenic vistas, favorite spots for watching the sunset. The park is currently impacted by rice and sugar cane cultivation in surrounding wetlands. It is also unique among Costa Rican parks in that domestic animals (namely, cattle) have been incorporated into its management program. The field station is rustic. Services available at Palo Verde include phone, fax, email and laundry. Palo Verde is the buggiest of our sites, particularly in the wet season, so be prepared for lots of mosquitoes while we are there!



Scott T. Walter, Ph.D. 


Ph.D. Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, Tulane University

ScottWalter Having traveled far and wide around the world, he is most strongly drawn to the wondrous biodiversity found within the Neotropical ecosystems of Latin America.  Within the U.S., he has studied cavity-nesting birds in the Pacific Northwest (M.S. research), forest ecology in the Appalachian Mountains (U.S. Forest Service research), and seabirds along the northern Gulf coast (Ph.D. and post-doctoral research).  He has also studied rainforest frogs in Australia, worked with natural resource management in Guatemala, studied tropical biology in Costa Rica through OTS, managed a biodiversity research team in Ecuador, and taught a tropical avian ecology course in Panama.  He has taught undergraduate courses in environmental studies, wildlife ecology, and field studies for 14 semesters, and currently teach at Texas State University.  In general, he is interested in learning about virtually all aspects of life, but he is particularly fond of spending time in nature, playing traditional music, and woodworking with hand tools.  He has lived, studied, and worked in Latin America for 5 years, and is very excited to return for the 2017 summer program!  Pura vida!


Tuition and Financial Aid

The course costs are detailed below:

  • Tuition for OTS summer program: $4,388
  • Program fee: $1,795

Tuition and fees cover:

  • Room and board at hotels, and research stations
  • Local travel to program sites
  • Participation of many local and international tropical scientists, and other experts
  • Laundry costs

Tuition and fees do not cover:

  • International travel
  • Independent travel
  • Incidentals
  • Personal spending

Note: Costs for the next school year will be announced in late May of each year.


OTS is committed to providing opportunities to all eligible students interested in participating in our programs. We make scholarship applications available to students upon acceptance into an OTS program and offer limited funding on a rolling basis. Applicants attending institutions that are members of the OTS consortium colleges and universities have priority, but all qualified applications will be considered. We have dedicated a substantial amount of funding to provide partial scholarships to students who need financial support. APPLY EARLY!!!

OTS Scholarships for summer programs are not available for Duke University students.

Application Process

We are developing a new application and will make it available soon.

“Like” our Facebook page www.facebook.com/OTSAbroad to be notified when the application becomes available, and follow us on Instagram, @ots_abroad.

We have a rolling admissions policy, so we will review your application as soon as you complete it. This means that the program may fill BEFORE the application deadline. APPLY EARLY!

To participate in the summer program, you must apply no later than March 1. If you are interested in a summer for which the deadline has passed, please contact us for availability at

Accommodations & Meals

The OTS program differs socially and culturally from your typical on-campus life in several interesting and important ways. First and foremost, of course, you will be living in a small Latin American country. In general, Costa Ricans ("Ticos" and "Ticas") are warm, friendly, and welcoming. You can expect to develop good friendships and not only learn about Costa Ricans but also reflect more on your own culture by comparison. Since you are a guest in Costa Rica, you need to be sensitive to and respectful of Costa Rican customs, but learning how those customs differ from your own is an exciting part of the study abroad experience.

In addition, while you may have one or two roommates on campus, in Costa Rica you will be living closely with 15-25 other students and 2 to 5 professors and course assistants. Again, you can expect to form strong and life-long friendships. The combination of experiences that are uncomfortable (wet, muddy, tired), wacky (a bunch of Gringos on the dance floor), challenging (yes, you can make it through the mangrove forest!), wonderful (watching monkeys while eating lunch), and truly amazing (interacting with people from all sorts of social backgrounds in very different settings) creates great memories that you will share with your fellow participants well beyond the end of the semester. To make this possible communication and respect will be crucial. All of us need to be as open, honest and cooperative as possible. This includes respect for privacy, for rules and regulations, for different opinions and lifestyles, and even respect for the fact that unpredictability is an inherent feature of field-based programs. Indeed, next to communication and cooperation, flexibility and good humor are the most important characteristics of a successful student in our program. Schedule changes can lead to wonderful - or hilarious – experiences in the field!

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 will receive a second 90-day tourist visa when the course enters Costa Rica again following a visit to Panama, and that second visa will last until the end of the program. Remember that according to current immigration laws in Costa Rica, you MUST leave the country for at least 72 hours when your visa expires. Students planning to stay in Costa Rica after the program end date need to take this into account.

Please contact the Enrollment Management team at undergraduate@tropicalstudies.org if you have any questions about this.


OTS' Tropical Biology in Costa Rica summer program is open to all undergraduate students in good standing with their home institution who have at a least a 2.7 GPA. Students must be at least 18 years of age, and must have completed the equivalent of one year of college-level biology. Applicants attending institutions that are members of the OTS consortium have priority, but all qualified applications will be considered.

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 or South Africa. For our most current safety information, contact the OTS Enrollment Management staff at