Tropical Biology: An Ecological Approach (Costa Rica)

When:Summer 2021 (Dates TBA)
Where:OTS Stations in Costa Rica (La Selva, Las Cruces, and Palo Verde), Monteverde and Cabo Blanco
Duration:6 weeks
Credits:6 Credits
Deadline:New dates will be announced
Program Guide:
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Course Overview

The course that started it all! Since 1963, this OTS course has trained ecologists and evolutionary biologists using an active learning approach, which engages students in a fun and fast-paced research environment.

This OTS “fundamentals course” is an intensive, field-based experience in tropical biology for graduate students. With guidance from expert scientists, students will gain experience in critical thinking, research design, data analysis, analytical tools, science communication, ecological modeling, and collaborative research—all in the beautiful tropical setting of Costa Rica.

We guarantee you will come away from the course a better scientist with new skills and ideas to carry into your future research and career.

Following the course, students may visit the Barro Colorado Island (BCI) research station of the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (STRI) in Panama. Transportation and station fees for this trip are covered by STRI. More information about these opportunities will be provided during the course.

Course participants that complete the course successfully are eligible for pilot and research awards. The awards give students the opportunity to conduct research projects at OTS stations.


Students will get extensive experience designing and conducting group and individual research projects across a range of tropical ecosystems. A large emphasis will be placed on:

  • Research design
  • Statistical analyses
  • Analytical tools for ecological research
  • Scientific communication and public outreach

Through hands-on activities, students will gain experience with diverse perspectives in ecological research, statistical analyses, and science communication, including:

  • Ecological modeling and spatial analyses
  • Intensive practice in scientific writing
  • Digital video and sound analyses
  • Uni- and multivariate statistics
  • Digital and media based communication (blogging, podcasts, and short films)

An example of a film create by a group of students during 2016 course: Beyond Survival and another from the 2015 program: Force Unseen


Our courses are designed to make the most of students’ time with OTS. Our days will usually start at 6:00 am with breakfast, and we will begin the workday around 7:00 am. Lunch will be at 12:00 pm and can be in the field, depending on the circumstances. Dinner is served at 6:00 pm, and there can be 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 research funding or the 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.

Sites Visited

For its relatively small size, Costa Rica has an incredible diversity of ecosystems. Students will visit field sites representing most of the major ecosystems in the country, ranging from wet forest to dry forest, low elevation to high elevation, and terrestrial to marine habitats. We will spend time at all three OTS research stations in addition to a number of other sites described below.

La Selva Research 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.

Las Cruces Research Station

This station has a world-class plant collection in the Wilson Botanical Garden and an associated 160-hectare tract of old growth mid-elevation forest. Las Cruces is surrounded by agricultural landscapes, ideal for research on fragmentation and restoration ecology.

Palo Verde Research Station

Located in the heart of Palo Verde National Park in the Guanacaste province, it is surrounded by semi-deciduous tropical dry forest, an endangered tropical ecosystem. A seasonal freshwater wetland, designated as an international conservation (RAMSAR) site in 1991, lies in front of the station and attracts abundant waterfowl.

Cabo Blanco Absolute Reserve

The reserve is situated at the extreme southern tip of the Nicoya Peninsula. It encompasses 1,172 hectares of mixed forest, which is classified as moist tropical forest. An additional 18 hectares of the ocean belongs to the protected area of Cabo Blanco and supports abundant and diverse marine life.

Monteverde Biological Station

In the cloud forest that continues towards the Atlantic slope of the humid Eternal Forest of Children, protecting more than 55,000 hectares, it is the largest extension of private reserves in Central America. The Monteverde region contains eight Holdridge life zones and is the site where the course emphasizes biological conservation.

Las Alturas Research Station

This 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.

Post-Course Opportunities

Course participants are eligible for small grants to support short-term (pilot research) or longer (research fellowships) research projects at OTS stations. These projects begin either immediately following the course or up to a year after the course end. For more information on this visit our Fellowship page.

Also, following the course, students may visit the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (STRI) Barro Colorado Island (BCI) research station in Panama. Transportation and station fees for this trip are covered by STRI.


Course costs exceed $7,900 per student. Students from OTS non-member institutions are charged $7,900, whereas students from OTS member institutions are charged $4,900 (with a $3,000 OTS scholarship).

Additional scholarships (up to $1,500 additional tuition aid) may be available for students with demonstrated financial need. The tuition 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 $30-40 per day.

Course fees are due in full one month prior to start of course; 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 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.



Sofia Rodríguez-Brenes, Ph.D.
Ecology, Evolution, and Behavior, The University of Texas at Austin
sofia.rodriguez@tropicalstudies.orgSofía studied biology at the University of Costa Rica and earned a doctorate in ecology, evolution, and behavior at The University of Texas at Austin. At UT Austin, she studied the spread of a devastating fungal pathogen (better known as chytrid or Bd) in populations of the túngara frog in Panamá and how infections with this pathogen affect the frog’s behaviors and reproductive success. Her continuing research interests are at the intersection of animal behavior, sexual selection, and disease ecology, especially changes in behavior caused by disease. Sofia is also passionate about teaching, especially in the field. Throughout her career, she has taught at high school and university level, in Spanish and English, and with organizations from Costa Rica, Mexico, and the United States. At OTS, she is the Manager of Costa Rica Education Programs, and she also coordinates the graduate course Ecología Tropical y Conservación.

Patricia Salerno, Ph.D.

Patricia is an evolutionary ecologist and biogeographer highly passionate about understanding the origins and maintenance of biodiversity and endemism. She obtained her undergraduate Licentiate in Biology degree in 2006 at Universidad Simón Bolívar in Caracas, Venezuela, and her Ph.D. in Ecology, Evolution, and Behavior in 2014 at the University of Texas at Austin. After spending four years as a postdoctoral researcher at Colorado State University working in various conservation genomics projects with Dr. Chris Funk, she now works as a full-time researcher at the Pontificia Universidad Católica del Ecuador in Quito, where she hopes to train future generations of evolutionary ecologists and science communicators alike.


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.

As OTS students, you must 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 & 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 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.


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