Course Description

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Field Courses

Each year DANTA offers a number of field courses in various aspects of tropical biology. Typically, the courses are one month long but shorter courses are also offered through our organization. The courses are intended for undergraduates or early graduate level students who have a keen interest in tropical biology and conservation, but have little or no experience of working in a tropical environment.

Birds of Costa Rica

Costa Rica is justly renowned for its extraordinary bird diversity, and for the depth of study that has focused on the life histories of these delightful animals, often so social, colorful and full of song.  We will take advantage of these highlights, with a course designed around the ecology and behavior of some of Costa Rica's most easily seen (and heard) birds, and the biologists who have studied them.  Knowing the history of bird studies in Costa Rica will help us understand these birds more fully, and will also let us see how growth in knowledge of their biology was linked to the vibrant conservation movement that has helped to define this country.

We will base our studies at the remote but comfortable Piro Research Station on Costa Rica's spectacular Osa Peninsula, home to some of Central America's last remaining primary forest and its wildest beaches.  Our Piro studies will focus on four key topics:

  1. Learning to identify birds by sight and sound. While no one can expect to learn all of Costa Rica's birds in 2 weeks, students will become familiar with the most common species found on the Osa in early January, at the start of the dry season;
  2. Methods of collecting and analyzing the behavior of free-ranging birds. Here we will focus on birds easily seen, designing short but focused studies on such topics as foraging, habitat choice, interactions within flocks, and song (we will have access to basic equipment for recording and analyzing song). 
  3. Patterns of species diversity: here we will look broadly, and from an ecological and evolutionary perspective, at what kinds of birds are found in Costa Rica.  Why, for example, are there dozen of species of hummingbirds and flycatchers, but far fewer parrots, pigeons and quail?
  4. Key studies of Costa Rican birds: some of the giants in American ornithology have spent their careers researching Costa Rican birds. We will pick highlights from these studies, gaining an understanding not only of how ornithology is done, but also of what topics emerged from these studies and how they helped shape conservation in Costa Rica.

Students are welcomed from all walks of biology, but a background in biology is not a prerequisite; key is a keen desire to learn more about Costa Rican birds and ornithology.  Physical demands in this course are modest but real; students can expect to walk 2-3 kilometers/day, occasionally in uncomfortable weather (heat, rain). Good binoculars are key to studying birds: students are encouraged to bring their own, but a few loaner pairs will be available to those who don't have them.

Methods in Primate Behavior and Conservation

This two week course is designed to provide students with field experience in primate behavior, ecology, and conservation. Learning experiences fall into four main categories: field exercises, seminars, lectures, and applied conservation. The field exercises and seminars provide instruction and experience in:

  1. Methods of measuring environmental variables, including assessment of resource availability,
  2. methods of collecting and analyzing the behavior of free-ranging primates,
  3. assessments of biodiversity and
  4. techniques for estimating population size.

Lecture topics will cover the behavior and ecology of Old and New World primates from an evolutionary perspective. Selected lecture topics include primate sociality, feeding ecology, taxonomy, rain forest ecosystems and conservation. Service learning is a large component of all our programs. Students will gain experience in applied conservation through participation in Osa Conservation’s reforestation, sustainable agriculture and wildlife monitoring programs (big cat and sea turtle).

Neotropical Bat Biology

This two-week course on bat biology offers an intensive field experience during which students will participate in a number of guided hikes and introductory "bat nights" to gain familiarity with tropical habitats and organisms, to learn to identify Costa Rica's diverse bat fauna, and to practice field techniques used for capturing and studying bats. Students then will carry out field projects focusing on a specific topic in bat biology, including performing laboratory and statistical analyses and presenting their findings to the group. Additional time will be spent in discussions of general ecology, zoology, and issues in tropical biology.

Primate Behavior and Conservation

This course is designed to provide students with field experience in primate behavior, ecology, and conservation. Learning experiences fall into five main categories: field exercises, independent research, discussions, lectures and applied conservation. The first half of the courses is devoted to learning ecological field techniques, while in the second half students design, carry out and present data from their independent research projects. Many of our participants have gone on to present their work at national and regional conferences. The field exercises and seminars provide instruction and experience in:

  1. methods of measuring environmental variables, including assessment of resource availability,
  2. methods of collecting and analyzing the behavior of free-ranging primates,
  3. assessments of biodiversity and
  4. techniques for estimating population size.

Lecture topics will cover the behavior and ecology of Old and New World primates from an evolutionary perspective. Selected lecture topics include primate sociality, feeding ecology, taxonomy, rain forest ecosystems, conservation, climate change and sustainability. Participants gain experience in applied conservation through participation in Osa Conservation’s reforestation, and sea turtle breeding and monitoring programs.

Wildlife Conservation and Sustainability

This course is designed to provide students with field experience, on a range of terrestrial surveying techniques, measuring bio-indicator species: mainly key predators and their prey and butterflies. Students will also gain a a better understanding on the principles of defaunation, sustainable development, and community management and its conservation related issues. The course includes four learning experiences categories: field exercises, seminars, lectures, and applied conservation.

The field exercises and seminars offer instruction and experience on direct and indirect methods of biodiversity data collection, management, and analysis, as well as GPS navigation and research project development. Direct methods include butterfly trapping while indirect methods comprise mammal tracking, or camera trapping. Lectures cover ecology and socio-economic and anthropogenic impacts related to selected bio-indicator groups in the Neotropics, with a particularly in the Osa Peninsula. Selected lecture topics include ecology, taxonomy, and conservation of medium-large vertebrates and butterflies, as well as effects of anthropogenic impacts on population dynamics or defaunation. Topics on community-based management, participatory methods, and socio-economic effects on both conservation and the development of sustainable livelihoods for local communities are also included. Students also gain experience in community outreach and education through involvement in an activity at the Piro Ranch involving Don Miguel Sanchez, one of the remaining few landowners in the area.

Sustainable Tourism: Evaluation and Implementation

In this course, we explore the growing industry of nature tourism and gain an understanding of its benefits and costs. There is obvious educational value gained by tourists seeing wildlife in their own habitat and the mere presence of a tourist operation can provide a level of protection for wildlife species. Income generated by tourism is another major benefit, particularly when those funds are earned at the local level. However, there are many negative impacts of the tourism industry. Operations are often negligent of the needs and rights of local people, interfering with their customs and encroaching on their property. Moreover, pollution, degradation of the habitat, and negative effects on wildlife behavior can add to the costs of tourism. Thus, the term "ecotourism" was born. The "eco" part of ecotourism requires the tourism experience to be conducted in such a way to benefit wildlife, their habitats, and the people who live in and around the tourism site. This requires a careful approach to understanding the wildlife species being visited, protecting the environment, and assuring economic enhancement of relevant stakeholders. In this course, we will explore the impact of tourism on all stakeholders, including tour operators, tourists, governments, local people, and the wildlife themselves. The course will explore several case studies of nature tourism and we will visit a number of tourism sites. Students will work in small groups to develop a hypothetical ecotourism operation as part of the course requirement and develop a tourism assessment tool to be used as a potential accreditation system.

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