BSC 306.08 Regional and Area Studies - Costa Rican Rainforest Ecology Field Trip  (2 hrs)

Fall 2001 Semester Seminar & December 12-22 Field Trip.



Dr. Joseph E. Armstrong, FSA 123, (

Dr. Steven Juliano, FSA 335 (


Tropical Nature: Life and death in the rain forests of Central and South America. 1984. A. Forsyth and K. Miyata. Charles Scribner's Sons, New York. $13

Reference Books:

La Selva: Ecology and Natural History of a neotropical rainforest. 1994. L. McDade et al., University of Chicago Press (paper back ed.)

Costa Rican Natural History. 1983. D. H. Janzen (ed.)., University of Chicago Press, Chicago

General Description:

This class will meet 1 hr a week during the regular semester for a seminar discussion class based on textbook readings and other supplements to provide background on rain forest ecology and natural history, and to begin developing research ideas. Orientation to Latin America and to foreign travel will be provided as well. This class will depart ISU on Dec. 12 for a 11-day field trip at the Organization for Tropical Biology's Field Station at La Selva in northeastern Costa Rica. Investigative activities, natural history, and ecology of rainforest and tropical organisms will be studied.


1. To learn about the rainforest community and the biology of its organisms.

2. To observe rainforest biodiversity and seek examples of important interactions.

3. To conduct an investigative study of rainforest ecology.

4. To learn about the natural history of prominent rainforest organisms.


Rainforest, jungle, the tropics! What could be more exotic to residents of the northern temperate zone or more intriguing to biology students? Rainforest conservation is widely discussed and a common news item. Most biology students are aware of the tremendous biological diversity of rainforest communities. Basically nothing in our temperate zone, agricultural/urban, first-world lives and culture offers any clue about life and biology in the tropics. For biology students, there can be no richer educational experience than studying rainforest.

What % of land surface areas is occupied by tropical rain forests? (3, 7, 11, 15, 21?) What % of all known species are thought to live in rain forest communities? (25, 32, 41, 50, 75?) Further, are you aware that most rainforest areas are in developing, so-called third-world countries beset with high population growth?

For this reason, we have elected to offer a course that will provide this opportunity. Several faculty members of the Department of Biological Sciences have studied and conducted research in tropical rainforests. This course will provide you with an introduction to rainforest ecology and the natural history of prominent rainforest organisms. In addition to observing many of these features first-hand, you will develop and engage in both class and individual investigative activities in a rainforest community.

Tropical Nature relates prominent aspects of neotropical natural history to ecological principles in a very interesting and entertaining manner. For each chapter assigned you will be seeking to determine what general principle of ecology or evolution is illustrated.


Approximately $1500 depending upon airfares, other variable costs, and number of participants. After enrollments are complete a detailed budget will be presented. This includes RT transportation, all meals (except for final evening in San Jose), lodging, field station fees, and CR collecting permit.

Other Requirements:

Valid US passport, or valid foreign passport with Costa Rican visa.

International student insurance policy (included in cost & provided by ISU's International Studies).

Physical examination at ISU Health Center (free, but requires appointment).

Participants must agree to follow travel and safety precautions outlined by instructors.

General Schedule for Discussion Topics and Presentations:

Aug 22 - Organizational meeting, 4:30 pm, FSA 129.

Week of:

Aug 27 - The necessities, red-tape, & course organization.

Sept 3 - Buenos dias, gringo. Latin America history and culture. Deposit $250.

Sept 10 - Climate - What makes the tropics the tropics? Intro to tropical rainforest ecology? (Tropical Nature, Introduction, Chapt. 1)

Sept 17 - Class discussion (Tropical Nature, 2 & 3)

Sept 24 - Class discussion (Tropical Nature, Chapt. 4 & 5)

Oct 1 - Class discussion (Tropical Nature, Chapt. 6 & 7)

Oct 8 - Research presentation - Beetle pollination of tropical forest trees

Oct 15 - Class discussion (Tropical Nature, Chapt.8 & 9)

Oct 22 - Class discussion (Tropical Nature, Chapt.10 & 11)

Oct 29 - Class discussion (Tropical Nature, Chapt. 12 & 13)

Nov 5 - Class discussion (Tropical Nature, Chapt. 14, 15)

Nov 12 - Research Ideas and Questions.  Balance of fieldtrip fees due.

Nov 16 - Research Ideas and Questions.

Nov 26 - Travel orientation: Necessities, planning and packing, schedule.

Dec 3 - Class discussion (Tropical Nature, Chapt. 16, 17)

Field Trip - December 12-22

 Natural History Observations:

When you're surrounded by tropical forest the opportunities to observe natural history, adaptations & biological interactions, abound and are only limited by you own observational skills and experience. In other words you won't see all there is to see. However, neither do your instructors although they are very skilled and well practiced.   Observation is a skill that requires  practice and experience.

Biologists keep records of significant observations in field notebooks because we know we cannot always trust our memory.


The class will conduct at least one group investigative study to help everyone get organized, to develop group cooperation, and to learn some basics of rainforest ecology and study via research. The data and results of this investigation will be shared and recorded by everyone into their journals. Although based on group discussion, the conclusions will be individually written. Students will be expected to develop and execute individual research projects as well. The preparatory discussions and readings will be directed at assisting you in devising possible research projects.


Class participation, field deportment, journal notebooks, and projects will be evaluated to determine a grade. Student knowledge demonstrated in the field will provide additional means of evaluation. Formative evaluations will be made whenever student work fails to meet our standards for Above Average (B).


All participants will be expected to keep a journal/notebook recording (1) personal observations & commentary (optional), (2) natural history observations, and (3) investigative questions, data, analysis of data, and conclusions obtained during the field trip. Famous naturalists like Darwin and Wallace kept exceedingly detailed notes, and of course, they published their experiences as books. Your textbook began as field journals kept by the authors. Rainforests are full of interesting and wonderful things, but they are quickly forgotten if not recorded. You will be expected to devote at least an hour each day to journal entries. You will be expected to record observations of any biological phenomena that catch your attention. After recording these observations, you will seek to determine if anything is known about what you observed (library & reference books). Then you will consider what of interest might be studied. What interesting questions does your observation raise? What would you do to initiate study of such a phenomenon? Thinking like a biologist takes practice.

Investigative studies will be recorded in your journals. The nature of the question, your ideas about solving the problem or answering the question, your actual approach, the data you collected, your analysis of the results, and the conclusions reached will all be recorded in a neat orderly manner. Each item journal entry will be titled with date & time noted. Personal commentary, natural history observations, & investigations will be kept as separate entries.

You will be provided with waterproof  notebooks for recording notes, data, observations (with dates and time) in the field.

Real examples of journal entries

17 Dec. AM - Food (pers. comm., a personal commentary entry)

The food continues to be very different than I expected, but everything tastes OK. Black beans & rice! Can you believe they serve them for breakfast too? New fruits & vegetables at every meal, and only Dr. Armstrong seems to know the names. The most interesting new food so far has been yucca or yuca (yew-ka)? Apparently there are 2 unrelated plants with very similar names & it causes confusion. This is cassava & it looks and tastes something like a potato.

17 Dec, 8:08 am - Tree iguana (nat. hist. - a natural history entry)

A large tree iquana, (Iquana iquana - hard to remember!) is perched on a branch just to one side and above the suspension bridge. He is huge, maybe 1.5 m long, nose to tail. He was raising and bobbing his head displaying a huge colored flap of skin under his chin & throat. This flap is called a dewlap, & males use it to display to attract females & guard territories from other males. Otherwise he doesn't seem to move much. Wonder when they eat? Do they move around & eat at night, returning to a display perch by day? Or do they have such a low metabolism that they just don't do much? Maybe observations tonight will tell. Can we estimate a territory by looking at the spacing of the iguanas in the tree canopies?

17 Dec, 10:05 am - Tree gap investigation 1. (? , a research idea note)

Why are tree gaps important in rainforest ecology? Obviously they let in light & light is important for plants. But how much more gets in? Can we use a light meter to measure sunlight intensity in the open and then under the closed rainforest canopy? They we will measure light across a tree gap & see how it changes. The following data will be recorded in footcandles.

18 Dec, AM - Weather (pers. comm., a personal commentary)

Rain, rain, rain! & just when I thought it couldn't rain any harder, the rain got even heavier. Tropical rains just come straight down, suddenly, but no wind, no thunder, no lightening, and they are warm. This really convinces me that this is a rain forest. Don't know how much rainfall there has been today, but it must be a lot. Some of the trails and low-lying areas are flooded; the streams rise impressively in a very short period of time. Stay out of creeks & such if it rains. Now I understand the rubber boots & umbrellas! Not many organisms around in heavy rain. We will check the rise in water level in the frog swamp later by marking the level & time on a hand rail post.

 Tentative Field Trip Travel Itinerary:

 Sat 12 Dec. - DEP Normal - ARR OHare

DEP OHare - ARR San Jose, Coach to motel.

Sun 13 Dec. - DEP San Jose - 9:00 am - ARR La Selva 11:00 am

Move into dorms; Station orientation - Rules and safety issues, maps & locations; Field study plan - projects and natural history.

13 Dec - 20 Dec - Rain forest ecology & natural history: observations and investigations

21 Dec. - DEP La Selva - 9:30 am - ARR San Jose 11:30 am; PM - Buenos dias, gringo touristas.

22 Dec. - DEP San Jose (very early) - ARR OHare