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Tropical Plant Systematics (Costa Rica)

When:Cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic
Where:OTS Research Stations in Costa Rica (La Selva, Las Cruces, and Palo Verde), Cuerici
Duration:5 weeks
Credits:6 Credits
Program Guide:
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SKU: G-CR-TBEA-2018-1

Course Overview

Tropical Plant Systematics is an intensive graduate-level field course focused on the identification, inventory, classification, and phylogenetic analysis of tropical vascular plants. All activities are carried out in Costa Rica over five weeks, during which time the course will be based at research stations and nature reserves.

This course is not solely aimed at botanists who work in systematics. We encourage students from other disciplines (such as agronomy, ecology, and conservation biology), whose research requires a high degree of knowledge of the classification and identification of tropical plants, to apply.

Course participants are eligible to apply for a pilot research grant or OTS thesis support upon completion of the course. More information is available in the scholarship section on our website.



The course is designed to provide a strong foundation in the skills needed for identification, classification, inventory, and phylogenetic comparative analysis of tropical vascular plants. To develop these skills, you will complete several projects and activities. Two projects will shape your research during the course. The group project, produced in collaboration with two or three students, will be a phylogenetic comparative analysis of the Costa Rican species comprising a small group of your choice (usually <15 species forming a monophyletic group or treated as such). The independent project will involve formulating and carrying out a project of your own design. In addition to these projects, you will be asked to collect, press, and label vascular plant species at each site and turn them in for evaluation. Additional exercises will include writing keys and species descriptions, as well as compiling nomenclatural information.

During the course, we spend about half of our time on field walks and participating in labs devoted to identifying vascular plant families and genera. These opportunities provide a foundation for interpreting forest composition and structure anywhere in the Neotropics.

After taking the course, you should know how to:

  • identify the main families and genera of tropical angiosperms, ferns, and lycophytes
  • explain the overall patterns of angiosperm, fern, and lycophyte phylogeny
  • explain the basics of phylogenetic theory
  • run commonly used computer programs for phylogenetic comparative analyses
  • interpret and describe vegetative, floral, inflorescence, and fruit structures
  • construct dichotomous keys and use them to identify plants
  • write descriptions of plants
  • collect and preserve various kinds of plants
  • apply the principles of botanical nomenclature
  • recognize tropical vegetation types found in Costa Rica and their characteristic plants
  • use a common floristic inventory method (the 0.1 ha transect)

With this course, we cover the fundamental aspects of botanical systematic work both in the field and in the laboratory. For this reason, at least half of the time you will have the opportunity to be in the field practicing your recognition of major families and genera of tropical plants, while in the laboratory you will work intensively on the theory and methodology of phylogenetic analysis and botanical nomenclature.

This course is supported by two full-time coordinators and five to ten invited specialists from prestigious universities in Latin America and the United States. These experts offer the opportunity to learn about a wide variety of plant groups from a range of independent perspectives. Some of the topics that will be treated by coordinators and specialists include phylogenetic theory and analysis, as well as broad evolutionary trends in plants. We hope that you can also deepen your study, explore new lines of research, and find common interests with other students and with the invited professors during their time with the course.


You must be a graduate student or young professional with at least a bachelor’s degree in biology, ecology, agronomy, or related fields based in ecology and statistics. In addition, you must have at least one course in plant taxonomy.

Participants who have a doctorate or have worked within their profession for more than five years are overqualified.



Tropical Plant Systematics is a highly mobile course that travels by bus, boat, taxi, and occasionally on foot to field sites throughout Costa Rica. The field sites have been selected to represent the major tropical habitat types in Costa Rica: lowland and premontane rainforest, cloud forest, montane oak forest, paramo, tropical dry forest, fresh-water wetlands, and mangroves.

The course visits all three OTS research stations, including La Selva Research Station, a large research station on the Caribbean side of Costa Rica. La Selva has over 1,500 hectares of lowland tropical wet forest readily accessible via an extensive trail system and connects to Braulio Carrillo National Park via a forested altitudinal transect.

Las Cruces Research Station has a world-class plant collection in the Wilson Botanical Garden and an associated 216-hectare tract of old growth mid-elevation forest. Las Cruces is surrounded by an agricultural landscape, ideal for research on fragmentation and restoration ecology.

Palo Verde Research Station is in the heart of Palo Verde National Park in the Guanacaste province. This station is surrounded by semi-deciduous tropical dry forest on limestone outcrops characteristic of the northwest Pacific lowlands, one of the most endangered of tropical ecosystems. A seasonal freshwater wetland, designated as a RAMSAR site in 1991, lies in front of the station and attracts abundant waterfowl.

San José Herbaria. Once back in San José, students will visit the herbarium of the Museo Nacional (National Museum), enabling students to observe additional taxa and characters needed to complete their phylogenetic analysis.

Cuericí Biological Station, near Cerro de la Muerte, is a high-elevation site containing stunning tropical oak forest. The forest itself is protected as a private reserve, and the station is also a sustainable development project and trout farm.

A brief summary of activities at each site:

Las Cruces. For six days, we will be at the Las Cruces Research Station, near San Vito, Costa Rica, about 15 km from the Panamanian border. It is a midelevation site (1,100 m) with a 216-hectare rain forest and the Robert and Catherine Wilson Botanical Garden that houses a world-class collection of tropical plants. Here you will be put through botanical boot camp. This will prepare you to complete the assigned course projects. The basic training includes topics such as vegetative and floral morphology, key writing, and phylogenetic analysis.

Cuericí Biological Station. The station is located in oak forest at 2,400 m in the Cordillera de Talamanca. Here you can enjoy crystal-clear air, star-powdered night skies, abundant flowers, epiphyte gardens, and beautiful vistas. The station consists of a two-story building that will serve as our sleeping area (upstairs) and dining room (downstairs) with attached bedrooms and showers. The food is good, and the always-available hot chocolate is especially welcome on chilly evenings. Although a homemade hydroelectric plant provides electricity, the buildings are unheated. Temperatures can drop to near freezing at night, so bring warm clothing, including long underwear, gloves, and a warm hat. Good rain gear is critical. We may see a lot of rain, and hypothermia can occur even at moderate temperatures. A good rule is to bring the same clothing you would have on a hike in northern U.S. mountains in the summer. During our stay at Cuericí, we will take a one-day hike through the páramos at Cerro de la Muerte.

Palo Verde.  The biological station lies between an extensive marsh and a seasonally dry forest on rugged limestone outcrops. Opportunities abound here for research. Acacia savannas, semi- and fully deciduous dry forest, riparian forest, successional forest, limestone bluffs, and a large marsh are within easy reach of the research station. This is one of the best sites to see wildlife. On most mornings from the breakfast table, you will see howler and white-faced monkeys. Mosquitoes abound at this site.

La Selva. La Selva is the flagship research station of OTS. It is located near Puerto Viejo in the Atlantic lowlands at about 60 meters. It encompasses over 1,500 hectares of old- and secondary-growth rain forest harboring over 2,000 species of vascular plants. The station maintains a website with images of its vascular plant species. There is also an arboretum, some planted tree crops, and experimental early succession plots. All these habitats are accessible by a well-maintained trail system. The station has everything: electricity, phones, new air conditioned labs, lecture rooms, microscopes, and a herbarium. Many researchers will be there, and several will share their knowledge and experience with us.

San José: University of San José (USJ) and Museo Nacional (CR). We will spend two days in San José for research at these herbaria. This is your chance to examine additional specimens for your monograph and independent projects. You will be surprised at how fast this time goes! On our return to La Selva from San José, we will probably make a three-hour stop at Quebrada González, a 500-meter site, in Braulio Carrillo National Park.

La Selva. Here you will spend the last three days of the course writing up your projects and making oral presentations. Time flies as everyone finishes up. We will have several mini-symposia for oral presentations of projects (usually, these are the results of the group phylogenetic analyses).


OTS courses are designed to make the most of students’ time on the ground. Our days will usually start at 6:00 am with breakfast, and we will leave for the field around 7:00 am. Lunch will be at 12:00 pm and can be in the field, depending on the circumstances. Be prepared to spend all day in the field or working on data analysis and writing scientific manuscripts.

Dinners are served at 6:00 pm. After dinner, we review activities planned for the next day, usually followed by conferences/discussions or data analysis in your working groups. The pace can be overwhelming at first, but you will acclimate quickly.


The full cost of tuition for students from non-member institutions is $6,500. Students from OTS member institutions are charged $4,000 (with a $2,500 OTS scholarship). Additional scholarships of up to $1,500 in additional tuition aid may be available to students with demonstrated financial need. 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 one full month prior to the start of course, including a $500 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.


Mauricio Bonifacino de León, Ph.D.

Botany, Plant biology and Plant systematics, Universidad de la República in Uruguay

Mauricio Bonifacino works at Universidad de la República in Uruguay, where he teaches botany, plant biology, and plant systematics both to undergraduate and graduate students. Mauricio obtained his Ph.D. in 2003 from La Plata University in Argentina and conducted postdoctoral research at Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC (2008). His main interests include systematics, biogeography, and floristics of several groups in the Compositae, mainly those with Andean-patagonean distribution. Mauricio has been involved in the course several times, either as an assistant, invited professor, or coordinator.

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. By living and working with the same people for several weeks, you will undoubtedly develop a number of very close friendships.

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