Quantitative and Computational Methods in Animal Behavior

When:Postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic
Where:La Selva Research Station, Costa Rica
Duration:1 week
Credits:2 Credits
Program Guide:
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SKU: U-SA-AEC-2019-2

Program Overview

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 rainforest 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, setting up camera and recording equipment, 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 rainforest of the Caribbean Lowlands of Costa Rica. This region is widely known for its outstanding biodiversity with tens of thousands of insects and spiders, over 2000 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 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.

Sites Visited

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. Please visit the station’s site for more information: https://tropicalstudies.org/portfolio/la-selva-research-station/

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 workday by 07:00 hrs. Lunch will be at 12:00 hrs. (may be out in the field depending on the circumstances), and dinner at 18:00 hrs., with lectures/activities for 2-3 hours after dinner as well. The pace and intensity of the workload 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, and how quickly you learn about your own

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 within a classroom in its entirety while learning about how to write effective grant proposals for obtaining research funding, or technicalities on how to make video/radio for communicating science to a general audience. Some days will be mixed. Expect diversity of activities, and expect unforeseen circumstances and changes in schedule.

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.


The full cost of tuition for student from nonmember institutions is $1500 per student. Students from OTS member institutions are charged $600.

Additional scholarships may be available for students from member and non member institutions, 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, 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 by March 15, 2020; the first $500 constitutes a nonrefundable deposit.

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 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.



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 behaviour in animals – the ways single individuals come together to form much larger groups, and the behavioural, 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 rainforests, as well as lab-based neurobiological and molecular approaches to understand both the mechanisms and the outcomes of social interactions.




Shoyo Sato, PhD candidate. Teaching Assistant

Shoyo received his B.A. in biology from Boston University in 2016. He continued to teach a semester of neotropical field ecology courses in Ecuador. Now he is a PhD candidate with Dr. Gonzalo Giribet at Harvard University studying the evolution of sociality in spiders. Combining techniques including phylogenetics, comparative genomics, and ethology, he is trying to understand how complex social interactions arose in a primarily solitary lineage of animals.






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 other. 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 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 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.

Please consult OTS if you have any questions about this.

Health & 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 onsite orientation program upon arrival in Costa Rica. For our most current safety information, contact the OTS Enrollment Management staff at graduate@tropicalstudies.org