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Course Syllabus for Tropical Ecology

Fitchburg State University

Spring 2019

Fitchburg State University International Education Abroad, Costa Rica

Title of Course: BIOL 2XXX. Topics in Biology: Tropical Ecology of Natural and Agricultural Systems – 3 credits

Tree frog

Course Description

This course will survey the ecology of terrestrial ecosystems in Costa Rica, including rainforest, cloud forest, dry forest, and agricultural systems. Recurring themes will be similarities and connections between native ecosystems and agricultural systems. The course will meet weekly for 8 sessions before the trip, spend 9 days in Costa Rica (May 19-28, 2019), and have one follow-up meeting in June. 

3 Credits. SMT, GDCN.

  • This is a college-level course, not simply an ecotourist adventure. There will be lectures, readings, and quizzes before we leave, and an independent paper/presentation after we return.
  • The course will include a few strenuous hikes in the rain forest (e.g., one 5-hour mountain hike). Please make sure you are physically prepared for those experiences before enrolling.


Chris Picone, Department of Biology

Office Hours: XXXXX
Phone: (978) 665-3079

Required Readings

  • J. Kricher. 2017. The New Neotropical Companion. Princeton Univ. Press, 448 pages ($20-35 online).
  • Additional readings will be assigned via Blackboard.

Course Outcomes

At the end of the course, students will be able to:

  • Explain how climates and landscapes lead to different ecological communities in different parts of Costa Rica
  • Describe how species are evolutionarily adapted to the particular challenges of tropical ecosystems and include specific examples of interactions among species (competition, predation, parasitism, herbivory, and mutualisms)
  • Contrast the impacts of industrial agriculture with agroecological approaches to producing food sustainably and apply ecological principles to design more sustainable farming systems

Assessment and Grading

Pre-departure quizzes (% TBD)

Several quizzes will be given during the lectures before departure, to encourage students to read, understand, and prepare.

Journal (% TBD)

Suggested journal questions will be provided throughout the course, including cultural reflections, challenges, surprises, etc. At several points during the course, students will sit quietly and alone in an ecological community and reflect on their observations and questions. We will share those reflections as a group.

Journal criteria will be clarified. Under construction...

Independent Paper (% TBD)

Students will focus on one ecological interaction or relationship from the trip that interests them and write a 4-5 page (single-spaced) paper on that topic. The guidelines are deliberately vague to allow you to pursue something that really interests you. The topic must be approved by me by the end of the trip in Costa Rica, and you will have 3 weeks after our return to find sources and write the paper. Everyone will briefly present their project at a final class meeting in June.

Possible topics to consider are below:

  • A particular stress or challenge like insufficient water, too much rain, or poor soil nutrients that affect ecological communities across Costa Rica and the evolutionary adaptations to solve such an abiotic stress. Consider how specific agricultural systems deal with your specific stress.
  • A unique evolutionary relationship between tropical species in which at least one species depends on the other. Discuss why highly specific relationships seem more common in the tropics compared to our temperate ecosystems.
  • A specific pest in a tropical crop system. Discuss how that pest is managed in both conventional and sustainable agroecosystems.
  • Other specific ecological and economic challenges of growing any particular crop. You might focus on a weird fruit that you try on the trip!
  • How the American diet has changed over the last few decades in relation to tropical sources for foods and the ecological and economic impacts on countries like Costa Rica.
  • How effective are carbon-sequestration programs that plant trees?
  • Can an entire country like Costa Rica become carbon neutral and still maintain a modern standard of living?
  • Describe the history of a particular conservation area in Costa Rica. What challenges made it difficult to establish the park, and what challenges remain?

Participation (% TBD)

I seek your help and advice to make an optimal learning environment for everyone. Please let me know the techniques or learning approaches that would make it easier for you to learn. With that goal, we need everyone to attend all classes at Fitchburg State and abroad, to remain engaged in classes and in activities, and to represent Fitchburg State appropriately at all times.

Positive participation improves the class for you and others and includes:

  • Being on time and engaged, asking good questions and responding to questions
  • Helping in field trips, including collection and clean up

Negative participation includes:

  • Missing class without a documented reason.
  • Disrupting class by coming in late or by leaving early
  • Being distracted by technology (e.g., texting during lectures, focusing on a screen rather than an amazing experience around you)
  • Violating the Fitchburg State code of conduct, especially while abroad. A major violation can result in being sent back to the Fitchburg State campus and failing the course.

These standards are to help you develop professional behaviors and to get more out of the experience abroad.

Other Policies

Academic integrity is central to educational excellence. By taking this course, you agree to uphold the University’s policy on academic integrity and dishonesty.

Put simply, the work you pass in must be your own. When you use information from published work, the internet, or even a course handout, always cite your sources. Plagiarism is the use of someone else’s ideas, information, or writing without citing them.

The best learning environment is a comfortable, inclusive environment where everyone feels like they belong. If you have particular pronouns that we should use, please let me know. Also, there are four single-use restrooms on each floor of Condike Science, but none in the lab wing of the Science Center.

If you have a disability or might require special accommodations for lectures or field trips, please inform me as early as possible. This course will occasionally include rigorous hiking on mountain trails and some fieldtrips under uncomfortable conditions (e.g., heat, rain and insects).  Students with learning disabilities must register with the Office of Disability Services for effective accommodation. 

Course Schedule

Pre-departure lectures (8 weekly meetings, 1.5 hours each, starting after Spring Break)

Lectures will include background on tropical ecology, climatic factors of Costa Rica, species interactions, and agricultural systems. We will also address preparation and questions about traveling abroad.

Travel Itinerary

May 19th: Boston to San Jose. Immediate departure for Guanacaste (Estación Experimental Forestal Horizontes).

May 20th: Dry forest ecology and service learning projects. Guided night hike.

May 21st: Santa Rosa National Park. Beach ecology at Cabuyal.

May 22nd: Coffee tour at Plaza del Café. Departure for Pocosol field station.

May 23rd: Guided rainforest hike. Guided night hike.

May 24th: Guided rainforest hike. Tree planting & trail maintenance.

May 25th: Finca Luna Nueva: Organic agriculture and cacao tour.

May 26th: Fertinyc Pineapple farm. Depart for Ciudad Quesada.

May 27th: Free day: Ecotourism options around Arenal to fit your budget.

May 28th: Elevation gradient: hike through Juan Castro Blanco National Park.

May 29th: Depart for Boston.

Follow up meeting: Thurs. June 20 (tentative).

Presentations of independent projects, course wrap-up and evaluations.

What to Bring (Modified from Drew Barton, Univ. of Maine, Farmington)

General Packing

Pack light (think 25-30 lbs.). Bring one bag to check on the plane and one small backpack as a carry-on item. No more. We will use that small pack on day hikes. The larger bag should be soft rather than hard luggage, as we will have to store our bags with us on a small bus.

Focus on a small variety of versatile clothes. Bring light clothes that dry fast that you don’t mind wearing more than once. No hair dryers, no radios, no heavy jewelry.

Any sharp tools (e.g., knives) must be in your checked bag.

If you plan to carry any kind of liquid or gel on the plane, it must be under 3.4 ounces and stored in a clear bag. See TSA details or just put those items in your checked bag.

Items to Bring

  • Your passport! Also make a copy of your passport in case it is lost or store a photo of your passport online (e.g., Google Photos, iCloud, or just email yourself a copy).
  • Your release and medical form.
  • Sturdy water bottle for hikes. Required!
  • Binoculars (at least 8 x 42). We can loan you a pair.
  • Journal, pens and pencils. Some “write in the rain” field books will be provided in case we need to write outside when wet.
  • Money for tips, meals, souvenirs, etc. ATMs are available in cites and many places will accept credit cards.
  • Sunscreen and insect repellent.
  • Shirts: cotton or light synthetic, long- and short-sleeved.
  • Pants: cotton or light synthetic. Bring at least 2 sets of clothes that dry quickly. (Jeans are not recommended as they dry too slowly. Plan to get wet!)
  • Hiking shorts, several pairs.
  • Footwear: Sneakers for town. A pair of shoes for wet, muddy hikes: waterproof hiking boots/shoes are good. We can also buy local rubber boots in Costa Rice which are great for rugged, muddy trails. River sandals (e.g., Tevas or similar) are needed for walking in rivers, and at the end of the day to allow your feet to dry out.
  • Socks: bring extra pairs for wet feet. Wool-blend socks are best to remain spongy even if wet. Pure cotton socks are useless when wet.
  • Rain gear: a really waterproof poncho or raincoat.
  • Sweater, fleece or light jacket (nights can be cool). Fleece is great because it is lightweight and can be layered under your raincoat if you get really cold.
  • Hat(s) with visor for rain and sun protection.
  • Small flashlight or headlamp Can be loaned if requested ahead of time.
  • A few 1-gallon Ziplock plastic bags to store spill-able toiletries, etc.
  • A few plastic grocery bags or a small garbage bag to separate wet clothes or dirty laundry.
  • Extra prescription glasses and medication (if applicable).
  • Small daypack or fanny pack for hikes. This is usually your carry-on item on the plane.
  • Sunglasses.
  • Swimwear (1 set).
  • Small towel.
  • Bandana(s). Useful to block the sun off your neck.
  • Smart phone or digital camera. Make sure there is storage space for photos and bring a charger.

Costa Rica Background (Modified from Drew Barton, Univ. of Maine, Farmington)


Costa Rica is a tiny country in Central America. Costa Rica is bounded on the north by Nicaragua, on the east by the Caribbean Sea, on the southeast by Panama, and on the southwest and west by the Pacific Ocean. Although slightly smaller than West Virginia, it has more species of mammals and birds than the continental United States and Canada combined.  Its flora includes over 3,000 species of orchids alone, world class rivers for rapids, sport fishing on two coasts, and a world-famous national park system.

Area: 51,060 sq km (19,714 sq mi)
Capital: San José. (1.4 million people)
Population: 4.6 million (2012 estimate)


Costa Rica is a republic governed under a constitution of 1949.


Costa Rica has had no standing army since 1948, when the PLN came to power and abolished the army. The only security forces are the 4,500-member Civil Guard and the 3,200-member Rural Guard.


Costa Rica's electricity supply is 110 V AC at 60 Hz (the same as the USA). Most outlets accept two-pronged plugs with flat prongs used in the USA. Three-pronged outlets are occasionally found.

Costa Rica is Safe

Even beyond its political stability and pacifism (the Costa Rican constitution forbids a standing army), Costa Rica is internally peaceful. It is also cultured and clean. There is over 90% literacy in this 150 year-old stable democracy. You can safely drink the water and eat anything that strikes your fancy.

Costa Rica Airport Safety

Juan Santamaria International Airport, located outside the capital city, San José, meets all of the new USA standards recently implemented for domestic airports.

A Bit of History

In 1503 Columbus landed in what is now Puerto Limon, Costa Rica, on his fourth voyage to the New World. He named the area Costa Rica (Rich Coast). Some say this was because of the beauty he found there. Some say it was because he had heard rumors of gold. This was right in the first instance and wrong in the second. It was quickly discovered that there was comparatively little gold, but the natural beauty of Costa Rica has been attracting settlers ever since initial colonization.

Costa Rica was settled by those relatively few Spanish immigrants who valued natural beauty and independence more than riches. Since the rugged mountainous land was not suitable for large plantations, Costa Rica developed into a country of independent family farmers. Even now they are the backbone of the country. This, more than anything else, explains the fact that from independence (1821) on, Costa Rica has been the most stable democratic country in Latin America.


Temperatures in Costa Rica vary from below freezing at night at highest altitudes to the high 80's at sea level. In cloudy weather and rain forests, humidity often hovers around the 100% mark. The Central Valley (altitude 3,000 to 5,000 feet), which includes San Jose, is noted for its eternal spring-like weather with average temperatures in the high 60's F.

Money Exchange

Right now, 1 US $ = ____ Colones

The easiest place to purchase Colones is at your hotels. Hotel rates are usually less than 1% lower than at banks, and the convenience is more than worth it. Major credit cards are generally accepted at hotels. Cash is useful if you visit remote places where you might have difficulty exchanging traveler checks or paying with credit cards. Cash is also useful for tipping.

Most of the major banks have 24-hour ATM's accepting a variety of cards. Aside from credit cards, cards that bear the Plus and Cirrus logos are the most commonly accepted. Withdrawal limits can vary significantly, so look around. Depending on the charges incurred with your card, getting cash from an ATM can be more economical than paying a commission for an exchange of paper money.

Departure Tax

The Costa Rican government charges a $28 departure tax for all foreign nationals leaving the country. This may seem like a lot, but that money goes to tourism development in the country and ecology projects such as adding and improving the National Park System. You can pay with cash or with credit/debit cards.

Travel Guidelines


Part of the fun and, at times, the difficulty of traveling to new regions of the world is trying to adapt to the various environments and situations (hotels, food, transportation, climate, etc.). It is not always easy, especially at first, but look at it as a positive, interesting and exciting experience. Try to understand and witness how the people of Costa Rica—not only animals and plants—have adapted to their own environments.

Tentative Itinerary

We are on a tentative itinerary. We are all at the mercy of varying weather conditions that affect roads, flights, rivers, etc., not to mention the human factors. Be patient and calm. Things may change as the conditions do. If you can have a flexible and adaptable attitude, you will get more out of the experience and have more fun, too.


In rural areas and forests:

More people have ruined their experience because of sunburn than any accident. Your skin is not accustomed to much sun, having just lived through a New England winter and spring. More importantly, the sun’s ultraviolet rays are much more direct and stronger in Costa Rica because it is only 10 degrees north of the equator. Furthermore, many sites you may visit are at high altitudes, which means you’ll burn even more. You may not feel yourself being burned until it’s too late. You can also be burned in overcast conditions. Therefore, use sunblock with minimum protection of 15.

Wear a hat. Wide brim is better than a baseball hat, or add a bandana behind your baseball hat for your neck. Some people prefer long sleeves and long pants. Sunglasses will help protect your eyes: use them.

Although very few tourists are every bitten by poisonous snakes in Costa Rica, snakes do exist in the areas to which we will be traveling. Without becoming paranoid, a few precautions are advisable. Consider all snakes poisonous unless your guide tells you otherwise.

Watch Where You Walk

Rather than step over onto the blind side of a log or rock that is obstructing the trail, step on top of it and look before you step down. Many (not all) of the poisonous snakes have a coloration that blends into the pattern of the leaf litter.

Snakes are, however, usually coiled before they strike. In the back of your mind, connect round with danger. If you even have an inkling that there is something round on the forest floor near where you are walking, stop and step back.

While a snake bite is not a common accident, falling down is. Slipping and falling while walking the steep slippery edge of a trail and trying to avoid a puddle is rather common. In tropical rain and cloud forests, sooner or later you’ll probably get your feet wet. To avoid the suspense—and perhaps a nasty fall—our recommendation is to just walk through the first puddle you see.

In general, much of what is interesting in the tropical forest is up in the trees, and much of what is dangerous is on the ground.

Therefore, for your safety it is important that you remember these three simple rules:

  1. When you’re looking up, don’t move your feet.
  2. When you’re moving your feet, look down.
  3. Do not put your hands anywhere you cannot see.

One reason to look up: coconut palms. Don’t stay too long under one with fruit.

In the City

Statistically, you are safer in San José than in most US cities and most other capitals in the world. On the other hand, crime has risen in San José and worldwide tourists are better victims for theft than local citizens and are often more distracted. Getting in and out of a public bus, entering or leaving a hotel, and being in a crowded market are particularly vulnerable situations.

If you are going to spend your whole trip being paranoid about theft, you may as well stay home. Do take a few simple precautions:

  • Be aware of the people around you.
  • Avoid flashy jewelry.
  • Wear your day pack on your chest rather than on your back.
  • Hold firmly onto your purse. Keep money in front rather than back pockets and do not flash around large amounts of cash.

Local custom is that cars do not yield to pedestrians.


Part of the fun of traveling is to try to communicate with the local people. Whatever Spanish you know, use it. Smile. Be humble and kind.


When we visit a village, home, or group of people on the road, you should interact first with the guide’s help (or professor’s) and then see whether a picture is appropriate. Normally people don’t mind but don’t assume people want their picture taken.