OTS Costa Rica

Tropical Biology

Study Tropical Biology in Costa Rica

This 4-week, one course undergraduate program provides access to a broad array of tropical ecosystems, including lowland wet forest at La Selva, dry forest, and wetlands at Palo Verde and premontane moist forest at Las Cruces.

BIOLOGY 280LA Fundamentals of Tropical Biology offers students the exciting opportunity to study first-hand the evolutionary ecology of important plant and animal taxa in tropical ecosystems. Course design emphasizes intensive field work and visits all three OTS field stations as well as other sites. Students are thus introduced to a great diversity of tropical habitats, each possessing distinctive biotas that in turn demonstrate unique evolutionary histories and ecological dynamics.

For more details about this program, visit the Organization for Tropical Studies website.

  • Location: 5 sites in Costa, Rica
  • Term: Summer
  • Dates: May 23 – June 19, 2017
  • Application Deadline: March 1
  • Academic Theme(s): Tropical Biology and the natural history of local ecosystems
  • Credit Type: 1 course – 4 duke credits
  • Eligibility: At least a 2.7 GPA. Must have completed the equivalent of one year of college-level biology. Applicants attending institutions that are members of the OTS consortium have priority, but all qualified applications will be considered.
  • Duke Affiliation: Co-sponsored by the Duke Department of Romance Studies
  • Housing: On Campus in Costa Rico. May have one or two roommates.
  • GEO Advisor: Abigail Hall


The Tropical Biology Summer Program is comprised of one core course. This course is worth 4 credit hours and is offered through Duke University.

Fundamentals of Tropical Biology 

Duke University – BIO 280LA

This course integrates classroom and field instruction to introduce students to the fundamental principles of tropical biology and the natural history of local ecosystems. The ecological complexity of the tropics, the patterns of species diversity, and the types of species interactions that characterize these systems are discussed in detail. Classroom instruction includes lectures given by resident and visiting professors, as well as discussions of assigned readings and selections from the primary literature.


Palo Verde Biological Station

Through an agreement with the Costa Rica National Park Service, OTS maintains this field station within the Palo Verde National Park. This reserve, located in the northwestern region of the country, lies on the boundary between an extensive marsh and seasonally dry forest underlain with limestone. It protects part of the lower Tempisque River Basin, the largest river drainage of the historic province of Guanacaste. Palo Verde is recognized internationally as one of the most important wetland habitats for nesting waterfowl. It is also a great place to see monkeys, deer, lizards, and crocodiles. Several trails lead to lookout points with incredible scenic vistas, favorite spots for watching the sunset. The park is currently impacted by rice and sugar cane cultivation in surrounding wetlands. It is also unique among Costa Rican parks in that domestic animals (namely, cattle) have been incorporated into its management program. The field station is rustic. Services available at Palo Verde include phone, fax, email, and laundry. Palo Verde is the buggiest of our sites, particularly in the wet season, so be prepared for lots of mosquitoes while we are there!

Las Alturas Biological Station

This pre-montane site is located in the southeastern region of Costa Rica and serves as a satellite station to Las Cruces Biological Station. The forest at Las Alturas is contiguous with the enormous La Amistad National Park, which is the largest national park in Costa Rica and continues on as a bi-national park into Panama. This is a very rustic site with no internet access, limited electricity, phone for emergencies only, and large shared bunk rooms. It can be quite cool at this site, especially at night; so bring warm clothes. The station is located within a private reserve that also holds a farm that is occupied by a number of members of the Ngobe indigenous group. The adjacent forest includes a hike up the Cerro Chai, famed for an unusual montane cloud-loving flora at its peak.

Las Cruces Biological Station

Las Cruces Biological Station is located on the south Pacific slope of Costa Rica near San Vito, only a few kilometers from the Panamanian border. At 1,200 m, Las Cruces is the site of the world famous Wilson Botanical Garden, which houses 10 hectares of native and imported tropical plants, including bromeliads, palms, heliconias, and orchids. The site also protects more than 300 hectares of forest, with a rich diversity of plants, mammals, birds, and other important groups. Near the station, there is a collection of forest patches that have been an important site for research on the biological dynamics of fragments. This is also a very important site for research in restoration ecology. Las Cruces has been formally incorporated into the international Amistad Biosphere Reserve. Nearby San Vito was founded in the 1950s by Italian immigrants and is reportedly the best town in Costa Rica for Italian food and pizza. The primary economic activity of the region is coffee cultivation. Las Cruces can be rainy and foggy in July, so you will need your raincoat or poncho. This will also be the first place that you are required to use rubber boots in the field, and you will have a chance to purchase them upon arrival in San Vito. Nights can feel cool and damp and although blankets are provided; some people use their sleeping bags on their beds. Services that are available include phone, fax, email, laundry, and hot water.

La Selva Biological Station

Located in the Caribbean lowlands, La Selva is OTS' largest field station and is one of the best-known tropical research sites in the world. The station protects approximately 1,600 hectares of primary and secondary tropical rain forest. It averages 4,000 mm (over 13 feet) of rainfall a year. This lush environment facilitates the existence of thousands of species of plants and animals, making La Selva a great place to see all kinds of wildlife, including toucans, monkeys, ocelots, agoutis, peccaries, and the endangered green macaw. Two major rivers, the Sarapiquí and the Puerto Viejo, border la Selva. These rivers form part of the San Juan River Basin, draining into the Caribbean near Tortuguero National Park. La Selva is connected via an intact forest corredor to Braulio Carrillo National Park, containing 46,000 hectares of forestland and ascending almost 3,000 m in elevation to Volcán Barva, which overlooks the town of Heredia in the Central Valley. La Selva has an extensive trail system, lots of lab space, and is, in general, a pretty busy place (the station can sleep over 100 people!). Important crops grown in the area surrounding La Selva include banana, pineapple, and heart of palm. At La Selva we will work on two important academic goals. First, as in all the sites we visit, we will continue to learn about ecological concepts relevant to lowland forest ecosystems. Second, we will devote time to independent field research projects. This mix of activities makes for an interesting and busy time at this station. Services available at La Selva include wireless internet and phone. Showers have hot water, and students have access to laundry machines, including washers and dryers. Housing consists of small dorm rooms with up to six students each.


Estimates are based on previous years’ programs and the current exchange rate.  All costs are subject to change

Tuition for OTS summer program: $4,388

Program fee: $1,795

Duke lifetime transcript fee: $40 (does not apply to Duke students)