Tropical Ecology: Assignments

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Updated: February 9, 2001


These assignments are an important part of the course. The students who get the most out of the course will be those who put the most into the course beforehand. They will be prepared to understand what they are seeing, hearing and feeling.

If you do no preparation, you will be largely wasting an extremely valuable opportunity.

Assignment #1: Liability Waiver, Survey and Passport

a. I will email everyone a liability waiver. You must sign a copy of this and snail-mail it to me right away. I must have this document for you to go on the trip.

b. I will email you a survey. You can email me the answers. Do this as soon as possible.

c. I need a photocopy of the picture page of your passport. Mail this to me via snail-mail. If you do not yet have your passport, email me to that effect.

My mailing address is: Ron Coleman, 1311 35th Avenue, Sacramento, CA 95822.


Assignment #2: "From Dusk til Dawn"

Due: now and before we go

First of all, I can't believe they actually made a sequel to the first one ("Dusk til Dawn" starring George Clooney). Anyway, this assignment is not terribly difficult and mostly involves sitting in a chair. This can actually be quite hard to schedule what with so many things happening these days; nonetheless, take this assignment seriously, it will strongly influence how you see the tropics.

Many people regard the tropics, and particularly tropical rainforests, as having MORE than the temperate zone: more rain, more plants, more birds, more insects, more everything. I certainly thought that when I was growing up in Ottawa. The tropics were where all the cool stuff was. And, in many cases, this impression is in fact true. But, there are some interesting things missing from the tropics that might not be obvious to you.

Costa Rica is quite near the equator (see maps). Days are pretty much 12 hours long and nights are 12 hours long and there isn't a whole lot of variation throughout the year. What this means is that there are no really short, dark days in winter, but similarly there are no long summer evenings. Dawn occurs almost instantaneously and similarly, when it starts to get dark, it gets dark very quickly (as in a few minutes).

An important part of my growing-up was playing pickup softball or football after dinner in the summer. A Costa Rican child has never known this pleasure. Nor will they know the quiet pleasure of sitting by a lake with an evening breeze as the sun slowly sets. Look at the maps again and see if you can find any lakes in Costa Rica, even if they did have a slowly setting sun to watch. You won't find many. In fact, there are almost none and the biggest one, Lake Arenal, is a man-made dam impoundment.

To fully appreciate this difference, perform the following experiment (I really mean it).

Part A: Set your alarm clock extra early and get up before the first light. (how early is that?) Sit in a chair outside and simply watch the sun rise and natural world begin its day. You can do this in downtown Toronto if you like, but you might find it more rewarding to try it in a park or at a cottage if you get a chance. Try to concentrate on the sounds of what is going on around you and the rhythm of the activity. If you are like most people at the end of the 20th century, myself included, you will find it very difficult to actually sit there for a few hours, but try hard and you can do it. Freeze the image in your mind to compare later with what you experience in the tropics.

Part B: Equally strenuous, do the same thing in the evening. Start well before dusk, say around 6 pm and follow through until it is completely dark. Record how long it takes. Engrain in your mind the feeling of dusk in Ontario -- it is something that many people in the world will never know.

Ideally, do this a couple of times: once right now, and once a little before we leave, when the days are longer.

There is no writeup necessary but keep the information in your mind.


Assignment #3: To Kill or Not to Kill: That is the Question

Due: March 1st

Assume for this exercise that you are in fact a biologist, i.e. a person committed to contributing to mankind's understanding of life on this planet.

Imagine you are walking/snorkelling/hiking/running/driving along and suddenly you see a very unusual organism. Because you have a reasonably good knowledge of the particular group of organisms that you see (e.g., orchids, lizards, birds, etc), you recognize that the individual you see in front of you is very rare, and may in fact be the first one of its kind discovered. What do you do?

By this I mean: do you (a) observe it and take notes but then leave it, (b) collect it, kill it and preserve it for further study, (c) something else?

This is NOT a trivial question by any means. It is not a question limited to the tropics but the odds of finding something highly unusual are greatly enhanced in the tropics where we still have a rather modest understanding of what it is there. In fact, this particular scenario has happened to me twice at La Selva in the past few years. In one case it was a fish, in another case it was a lizard.

Your assignment is to write a one to two page essay on what you would do if faced with this situation. Really think hard about the pros and cons of your actions from as many different viewpoints as you see being relevant, e.g., scientific, moral, etc.

Discuss this issue with your friends.


Assignment #4: Texts and Readings

Due: prior to departure

Get the texts either from a bookstore or from a bookseller like

Read Chapters 1-5 (at least) of Tropical Nature.

Thumb through the La Selva book to get a feeling for what it contains. Pick your favorite group of organisms, and read the chapter on that group, e.g., mammals or birds. You are responsible for having a thumbnail knowledge of at least one group of organisms at La Selva prior to our trip.

Email me which group you are reading about.


Assignment #5: Pick a Theme for your Term Paper

Due: March 15 (by email)

You are to pick a theme about tropical ecology and write me about 500 words about the theme or how you might investigate it at La Selva. I realize that you have never been there; my purpose is to get you to think in advance about the kinds of things you would want to know. If you are starved for ideas, read more of Tropical Nature or send me an email and we can discuss it.

Some typical themes might be: predators and prey; mimicry; competition; defenses; etc.

Some themes which at first appear easy are actually a little harder than you might think. For example, mimicry. If the things you want to study are REALLY GOOD mimics, you won't find them. Think about it. This is why it is important to put a little thought in ahead of time (and to ask me questions if you like).

See Assignment #7 re field notes.

If once you get there, you find that your theme isn't what you are interested in, that is okay; i.e. you can write your term paper on a different theme, however, I encourage you not to change too much. Some people have a difficult time committing to a theme. This needn't be the case. The purpose of the theme is to help focus your observations and to develop a scientific approach to the forest; you are not wedded to this theme for the rest of your life.

Assignment #6: Think about a project

Due: April 1 (by email)

While at La Selva you are going to spend a good deal of your time working on your own piece of original research.

Picking a good project is not trivial. While I do not know everything about every organism at La Selva, I have a good idea of what is there and how workable it is. For example, if you said, "I would like to study howler monkeys" I could tell you right now that while you will definitely hear them, and most likely see them, they make absolutely terrible study subjects because they are difficult to watch closely and they aren't terribly thrilled about having you stare at them. Monkeys have a rather nasty habit of throwing "stuff" at you if they want you to go away. Can you guess what it is that they throw? (It may be cute the first time they do it, after that you won't be so impressed).

Remember, you are only there for about 11 days so don't try to solve all of tropical biology. The best field projects are simple, straight-forward experiments. For example, a comparison of subjects under two different circumstances, etc. {more on this later}.

Because of the restrictions of permits and working in a biological reserve, we are not allowed to do anything blatantly destructive. This is difficult to define overall but relatively easy to assess on a case-by-case basis. For example, you can measure just about anything. You may not capture and kill a bunch of bats. You can fiddle with ants on ant trails. You may not spear fish or cut down trees to examine their rings. You can place a pile of rice (from lunch) in the forest to see who visits it, but you may not place a dead deer in the forest (it could introduce foreign parasites).

Warning: field experiments seldom go as planned. That is part of the challenge and excitement of working in the field. The quality that best marks a good field researcher is how they respond when Plan A fails. Do they have a Plan B? How about a Plan C? I planned and prepared for my first experiment as a graduate student for months. When I got into the field, the fish I was studying took one look at the equipment I had brought and laughed at me. On to Plan B....

We will have access to a minimum of equipment. We will have or can get things like string, rulers, thermometers and even a GPS, but we will not have a mass spectrophotometer unless you bring one yourself.

In the 1999 course, one student was very interested in frog songs and so he brought his own tape recorder and microphone. Of course it broke during the course, but he cobbled things together and fixed it and did a fabulous job in the end. So if there is some piece of equipment that is essential to what you want to do, ask me about it as soon as possible.

The station does have a nice bunch of microscopes and high-quality balances.

Assignment #7: Term Paper

Due: June ?? (by email)

KEY: In writing your term paper, you are to use only observations which are recorded in your field notebook. I don't want to know what other tropical biologists have found. I want to know what YOU found and observed.

The idea is that throughout the course you will be gathering observations, ideas (and possibly sketches, drawings or photographs if appropriate) related to your theme.

You can and should think about your theme before we go, but if you are writing on mimicry, then you can only write about the mimics you actually see while there.

Assignment #8: Project

Due: June ? (by email)

Write up your project as a proper scientific paper (Introduction, Methods, Results, Discussion).


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