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The University of Southampton

BIOL3070 Tropical Ecology Field Course

Module Overview

This module will provide first-hand experience of ecological research in a tropical environment and give you a foundation in a range of topics including biodiversity, community ecology, ecosystem processes and conservation. Tropical forests are some of the most diverse ecosystems on Earth and play critical roles in global biogeochemical cycles and climate regulation. However they are undergoing rapid transformation through deforestation and land-use change. Alongside developing research skills this module will provide an opportunity for students to develop an understanding of how these ecosystems function and an appreciation of conservation and management of tropical forests. The 14-day field course will take place in Belize, Central America at the Las Cuevas Research Station. The field station is located within the Chiquibul forest, which is part of the largest block of intact tropical forest north of the Amazon. Throughout the course there will be a strong emphasis on practical training. Key topics will be introduced during a series of lectures and talks, and then developed through workshops and structured field activities. The first half of the course will be spent learning about ecological and conservation issues and key equipment and field techniques for monitoring and conducting biodiversity surveys. Students will then use the remaining time to design and carry out their own supervised research projects, which will be presented at the end of the course.

Aims and Objectives

Learning Outcomes

Knowledge and Understanding

Having successfully completed this module, you will be able to demonstrate knowledge and understanding of:

  • Describe characteristic features of tropical forests
  • Identify key fauna and flora that are important and/or characteristic to tropical forests
  • Describe the importance of tropical forests as centres of biodiversity and ecological processes
  • Identify current conservation issues, and evaluate ways that impacts may be mitigated
  • Explain the challenges of field research in a tropical location
Subject Specific Intellectual and Research Skills

Having successfully completed this module you will be able to:

  • Apply ecological survey techniques and assessment methods for a range of taxa
  • Use identification keys and field guides to identify unfamiliar taxa
  • Demonstrate knowledge of assessing risk in field environments and write a risk assessment for research project
  • Critically review published literature and experimental design
  • Interact effectively in a group, being prepared to take different roles within a team: leader, contributor and communicator
  • Manage and analyse field data, using Excel, R and EstiamteS
  • Communicate research results as a written paper/report and as a short presentation
Transferable and Generic Skills

Having successfully completed this module you will be able to:

  • Discuss the role of tropical forests in ecological, social and economic contexts
  • Demonstrate creativity and enthusiasm for field work, design of data collections and for qualitative analysis
  • Appreciate the ethics of scientific research in tropical environments


In preparation for the field course, lectures and tutorials will be held to provide: an introduction to the module; an overview of tropical ecology; sessions on critical reading and appraisal of different study designs; travel health and safety and risk assessment for fieldwork. During the field course, the first week will introduce the flora and fauna of the region and develop skills in survey techniques and assessment methods through a series of workshops and group exercises. The second week will be devoted to independent research projects (supervised by teaching staff) carried out in small groups/pairs. These projects will allow the development of investigative and analytical skills alongside data management and analysis, which will be supported by a series of workshops and tutorials. Throughout field course, evening lectures will cover selected topics in tropical ecology, diversity and conservation. On the final day of the course, research projects will be presented as short talks. On the return to the UK, projects will be written up as short reports/research papers.

Learning and Teaching

Teaching and learning methods

Prior to the field course, formal lectures will provide an introduction to the module and overview of tropical ecology, highlighting the key reading material; tutorials will cover key study skills, risk assessments and travel health and safety and risk assessment for fieldwork. During the 14/15 day field course Evening lectures will cover regional biogeography, tropical forest diversity, forest dynamics, biotic interactions, anthropogenic impacts and conservation. Tutorials and workshops will exemplify the theory and allow students to develop skills in ecological survey techniques and assessment methods, taxonomy, measurement of key ecosystem processes, data management and analysis and research communication. The fieldwork component will be split into structured activities and fieldwork during the first week and independent research project work (supervised by teaching staff) during week two. Research projects be presented at the end of the trip and written up as short reports/research papers. Throughout the course students will be required to collate records of species sightings and write a reflective account of activities and experiences in a field notebook.

Practical classes and workshops6
Wider reading or practice47
Total study time150

Resources & Reading list

Trends in Ecology and Evolution. Journal

Barrett, C. B. & Cason J (2010). Overseas Research II: a practical guide. 

Biotropica. Journal

Peh, K.S-H. (2015). Routledge Handbook of Forest Ecology. 

Bridgewater, S. (2012). A Natural History of Belize: Inside the Maya Forest. 

Conservation Biology. Journal

Tropical Conservation Science. Journal

Jones, L. (2003). Birds of Belize. 

Kricher, J. (1999). Neotropical Companion: An Introduction to the Animals, Plants and Ecosystems of the New World Tropics. 

Ghazoul, J. and Sheil, D. (2010). Tropical rain forest ecology, diversity, and conservation. 

Biological Conservation. Journal

Nature, Science. Journal

Reid, F.A. (2009). Field Guide to the Mammals of Central America and Southeast Mexico. 

Frontiers in Ecology and Environment. Journal

PNAS. Journal

Whitmore, T. (1990). An introduction to tropical rain forests. 

Osborne, P. (2012). Tropical ecosystems and ecological concepts. 

Journal of Tropical Ecology. Journal



Individual risk assessment


MethodPercentage contribution
Group presentation  (10 minutes) 30%
Individual project report  (2000 words) 50%
Journal 20%


MethodPercentage contribution
Group presentation 30%
Individual project report  (2000 words) 50%
Journal 20%

Repeat Information

Repeat type: Internal & External

Linked modules

BIOL1001 or BIOL1003 or BIOL2008

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