The way we study animal behavior in the field is changing. What was once a primarily observational and data-poor discipline is rapidly becoming a highly-quantitative field of study through technological advances. In particular, the ability to use consumer-grade camera equipment to record animal behavior and then capitalize on the rapid advances in computer vision and tracking techniques means field experiments can now bridge the gap between the rigor of the lab and the authenticity of the field.
The course will guide you through this modern take on field behavioral ecology, leading you through the scientific process from observation, hypothesis generation, experimental design, analysis, interpretation, and communication of your own field biological experiments, specifically in the context of social and collective interactions in rain forest animals.
There will be a strong theoretical focus on employing machine-vision tracking of animal movement in natural contexts. Students will gain hands-on experience in experimental design, set up camera and recording equipment, perform basic coding in Python to convert video into suitable formats, and be given an introduction into machine learning and animal tracking, which they will implement to automatically track animal groups.
The course will take place at La Selva Research Station in the rain forest of the Caribbean Lowlands of Costa Rica. This region is widely known for its outstanding biodiversity with tens of thousands of insects and spiders. There are over 2,000 plants and 470 birds known from La Selva alone. La Selva is among the most important field stations in the tropics with premier research facilities supporting a range of research initiatives with global partners.
This course is for undergraduate and graduate students. You must have at least one ecology course.
As an OTS student, you must be proactive in asking the questions (and finding the answers) that are important to you, but you must also be ready to share your own knowledge and experience with the rest of the group.
Our courses are designed to make the most out of the students’ time with OTS. As such, a student’s day during a course will usually begin at 6:00 am with breakfast, and the workday will begin by 7:00 am. Lunch will be at 12:00 pm (may be eaten in the field depending on the circumstances), and dinner at 6:00 pm, with lectures/activities after dinner as well.
Some days, where either faculty-led or independent projects are being carried out, you may be out in the field all day, sweaty and covered in mosquito bites, while other days you may spend the entire time in a classroom learning about how to write effective grant proposals for obtaining research funding the or technicalities of making a video/radio segment for communicating science to a general audience. Some days will have a mixture of activities. Expect diversity of activities, and expect unforeseen circumstances and changes in schedule.
Participants should not purchase their airline tickets until six 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 six weeks ahead of the start date.
The full cost of tuition for students from non-member institutions is $2,100. Students from OTS member institutions are charged $1,800.
Additional scholarships may be available for students from member and non-member institutions with demonstrated financial need.
The tuition includes all lodging, meals, transportation during the course, and all course materials.
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 an additional 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 scholarships are awarded and applied only to the tuition/course cost. They cannot be applied in any other way. For example, scholarships cannot be applied toward travel expenses. Although we may be able to award a partial scholarship, we recommend that you seek outside funding for the course through you own means, such as applying for grants from your home department or organizing small fundraisers.
Alex Jordan, PhD., Coordinator
Alex Jordan is a Principal Investigator at the Max Planck Institute Department of Collective Behaviour, sits on the editorial boards of The American Naturalist and Movement Ecology, and maintains a position as Senior Research Fellow at the University of Texas at Austin. Alex studies the evolution of social and collective behavior in animals – the ways single individuals come together to form much larger groups and the behavioral, cognitive, and neuroanatomical mechanisms that need to evolve to facilitate group living. His lab’s research program encompasses field studies at Lake Tanganyika, Jamaican coral reefs, and Panamanian rain forests, as well as lab-based neurobiological and molecular approaches to understand both the mechanisms and the outcomes of social interactions.
Anja Wegner, Ph.D. candidate, Teaching Assistant
Anja is a Ph.D. candidate in Alex Jordan’s lab at the Max Planck Institute of Animal Behaviour. She is interested in the reciprocal relationship between the physical space and the social dynamics of groups of damselfish. With her transdisciplinary project, she combines methods from behavioural ecology with artistic research. She received her B.Sc. and M.Sc. in Life Science from the University of Konstanz, Germany, followed by an MRes in Education and Technology from Université Paris, France.
Housing & Meals
It is important to recognize that the OTS program differs from your typical on-campus life in a few ways. Though you may have prior experience of living with one or two roommates on campus, during the course you will be living closely with 10–15 others. You will share bathrooms and common areas, and it will sometimes be difficult to find personal space. This means communication and respect will be crucial. 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.
Passport & Visa Information
You must have a valid passport to travel to Costa Rica. It is important that the passport does not expire within six 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 the visa application process can take several months, depending on the country of issue. For more information on this topic please visit http://www.migracion.go.cr/extranjeros/visas.html.
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.
Review the requisites about traveling and entering Costa Rica in the following links:
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 onsite orientation program upon arrival in Costa Rica. For our most current safety information, contact the OTS Enrollment Management staff at firstname.lastname@example.org