This Ohio State course is designed to give students first-hand knowledge of tropical biology and the issues surrounding conservation of biodiversity in a developing nation. It does so in the context of an intensive foreign study tour in Panama, a country famous for its high biological, cultural and economic diversity.  The course includes travel to different tropical habitats, guided natural history exploration, and interaction with local and international economic and ecotourism concerns. Students will develop independent field projects, gain experience writing  scientific reports, present results to their peers, and engage in science communication.  See more information from the Office of International Affairs.

Course structure

The course will be a hands-on learning experience, with most of the time spent outside, rather than in a classroom. In Panama, we will touch on a number of topics (listed below) through a combination of lectures, discussions, readings, guided natural history hikes, talks by researchers, visits to different forest types, trips to the Panama Canal and a local indigenous community, and group research projects. Students will communicate their learning experiences to the public through the maintenance of a student blog and brief video summaries of their projects. In addition to activities taking place in Panama, students will complete two scientific reports of field experiments following their return to Ohio. There will be two mandatory class meetings during the Spring semester prior to our departure for Panama, plus the Office of International Affairs (OIA) Health and Safety Orientation.  See the Carmen website for these dates.

Course Topics:

Tropical diversity & taxonomy

  • Theories of the maintenance of diversity in the tropics: niche partitioning, density/ frequency dependence, disturbance, neutral theory
  • Evolution in the tropics:  mimicry, adaptations to tropical climate (e.g., drip tips, delayed greening), co-evolution (e.g., fig-fig wasps)
  • Identification of major plant and insect families
  • Observations of bird and mammal behavior
  • Survey methods for tropical organisms

Biotic interactions in tropical communities

  • Competition
  • Predation & Parasitism
  • Mutualism
  • Trophic cascades

Effect of the environment on ecological communities

  • Local scale:  treefall gaps, soil moisture, nutrients; canopy vs. forest floor
  • Regional scale: gradients in rainfall (dry vs. wet forest) and elevation (lowland vs. montane)
  • Global scale: temperate vs. tropical comparisons

Humans in the Tropics

  • Indigenous groups and their relationship with the environment
  • Ecosystem services provided by tropical forests and oceans
  • Agriculture in the tropics: shade-grown coffee, cacao, banana plantations
  • Biodiversity loss in the tropics: deforestation, land use change, climate change, diseases
  • Conservation challenges and solutions: role of protected areas and corridors, poverty
  • Careers in tropical biology and conservation

Research in tropical systems

  • Talks and field work with researchers working at tropical research stations
  • Basic statistics overview: t-tests, correlation, regression, ANOVA, diversity indices
  • Independent student projects: project design, data collection and analysis, oral and written presentation of results