Tropical Butterfly Ecology

Status:Rolling Applications
When:July 17-August 1, 2022
Where:Las Cruces, Las Alturas and La Selva Research Stations
Duration:2 weeks
Credits:2 Credits
Deadline:April 15, 2022 (Extended)
Program Guide:
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Program Overview

Tropical Butterfly Ecology is an intensive, two-week field course welcoming graduate students, advanced undergraduate students, and instructors interested in conducting fieldwork on tropical butterflies and looking to expand their knowledge on butterfly ecology and evolution. The course will focus on the Costa Rican butterfly fauna in both Caribbean lowland rainforest and premontane wet forest, at the La Selva, Las Alturas, and Las Cruces Biological Stations. All sites share a diverse assemblage of Neotropical butterflies, including many species that extend well into South America.

Students will take away skills in butterfly collection, sampling techniques, preservation techniques, identification of butterfly adults and early stages, and experimental design for ecology and behavior-based studies. The course material will focus on behavior, diversity, ecological and evolutionary patterns, mimicry, host-plant associations, sensory ecology, and butterfly communication while giving students the opportunity to enjoy the excitement of conducting research on tropical insects.



Program Description

This course will combine lectures with hands-on field exploration, and major efforts on the part of students to understand and apply quantitative observational and sampling procedures in the field. The course will stress developing rigorous natural history questions from field observations. We will spend the first week at La Selva Biological Station exploring the lepidopteran fauna and learning specific skills that will be used the following week during independent projects at Las Alturas and Las Cruces Biological Stations. Students will return home with improved command and understanding of butterfly biology in rich and diverse ecosystems while having the confidence to conduct independent tropical fieldwork in the future.


An emphasis will be placed on the following:


  • Developing an understanding of issues and topics in tropical butterfly ecology, evolution, and patterns of diversity
  • Studying adult and immature stages
  • Gaining experience in proper data collection and sampling techniques
  • Making and properly documenting field observations
  • Making a voucher collection: how to preserve insects in the tropics and taking vouchers linked to observations and data
  • Learning data entry basics: setting up a database and collecting data in a standardized way to ease data entry
  • Training in experimental design for butterfly-related field studies, including trapping, mark-recapture, predation studies, surveys, and behavioral observation
  • Exercising the Scientific Method by developing a question followed by hypothesis, using appropriate methods with self-designed study, data analysis, and conclusions implemented into a written report
  • Gaining practice with presentation skills and science communication
  • Learning tips on butterfly photography in the field and lab
  • Becoming familiarized with neotropical rainforest fieldwork, travel, and safety

Sites Visited

Las Cruces Research Station, 1100 m elevation. Situated in a premontane rain forest on the Pacific slope, Las Cruces 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. Las Cruces harbors 10 species of lycophytes and 125 species of ferns.

La Selva Research Station, 50 m elevation.  Situated in a wet lowland rain forest on the Atlantic slope, La Selva is not only OTS’ largest and longest-running station but also one of the world’s premier centers of tropical forest research. Over 1,500 hectares of old- and second-growth rain forest 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. In addition, the station connects to Braulio Carrillo National Park via a forested altitudinal transect ranging from 30 to 2,500 meters above sea level. La Selva harbors 13 species of lycophytes and 178 species of ferns.

Las Alturas Biological Station, 1700 m elevation. Situated next to Parque Internacional La Amistad on the slopes of the Talamanca Mountain range, the station has direct access to primary montane forest. The site is extremely rich in ferns and lycophytes.


Tropical Butterfly Ecology is designed to maximize students’ engagement with the tropics while learning relevant course material, with full-day schedules. A typical day will begin early with breakfast at 6:30 am and a start in the field by 7:30 am, which will include collecting and educational hikes focused on a particular field topic described in the curriculum or independent fieldwork. Lunch will typically be at noon, but may be out in the field in some circumstances. Depending on the weather, an additional field outing may directly follow lunch, otherwise, a lecture and hands-on laboratory work will follow. We will have a preview of the next day’s work after dinner (6:00 pm), typically followed by student and/or faculty research presentations, group discussions, or data analysis. Some evenings may instead include a hike or blacklight collecting. 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.


We will begin our course with five days at the La Selva Biological Station where we will learn many techniques and background information to be exercised later during independent projects. Independent projects will take place at Las Alturas Station, ending the course at Las Cruces Biological Station where the independent projects will be written and presented, along with time in the field collecting and exploring during individual or group hikes.


Tropical Butterfly Ecology course tuition is $2900 (member institutions) and $3400 (Non-member institutions)

A lot of partial, but substantial, scholarships are available. Please do not hesitate in contacting us if you need more information regarding this.

Cost includes all lodging and 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 $50-60 per day.

Additional scholarships may be available for students with demonstrated financial needs. 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 assess 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 your own means, such as applying for grants from your home department or organizing small fundraisers.


Tropical Butterfly Ecology is characterized by having two full-time coordinators.

Dr. Susan Finkbeiner – California State University Long Beach

Susan is a behavioral and evolutionary biologist with a background in entomology. Her previous research has used Heliconius butterflies to focus on how natural and sexual selection work together to favor the evolution of specific animal phenotypes, how aposematic signaling may drive the evolution of social behavior in the context of visual ecology, and how specialized visual systems coevolve with specialized visual cues. Her postdoctoral research aims to understand the ecological and evolutionary processes that shape temporal and spatial patterns of Adelpha butterfly biodiversity. Susan received her B.Sc. in Entomology from Cornell University while receiving her Ph.D. in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of California, Irvine with Robert Reed and Adriana Briscoe. She was appointed a postdoctoral researcher at Boston University (working under Sean Mullen), then University of Chicago (working under Marcus Kronforst). She is currently faculty at California State University, Long Beach.


Dr. Adrea González-Karlsson – Hartnell College

Adrea completed her doctoral work on communication in ithomiine butterflies at UCLA with Greg Grether after attending Tropical Butterfly Ecology through OTS.  Adrea has taught field ecology in the tropics in both Costa Rica and Nicaragua with OTS, UCLA and NAPIRE.  Currently, Adrea is faculty at Hartnell College and works in conservation and wildlife management.  This will be Adrea’s second time teaching Tropical Butterfly Ecology with OTS.

Housing & Meals

It is important to recognize that the OTS program differs from typical on-campus life.

Though you may have one or two roommates on campus, in Costa Rica you will be living closely with 15-22 other students and 2 to 5 professors and/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 backgrounds in very different settings) creates great images and memories. You will, for sure, share these experiences 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.

A note on Costa Rican customs and culture:

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, stages 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 if you have any questions regarding cultural differences and norms at any time.

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.