Tropical Rainforest and Canopy Ecology


Dr. Peter N. Lahanas 
Institute for Tropical Ecology& ConservationRainforest buttress tree.web
2911 NW 40th Place
Gainesville,FL 32605
Phone: (352) 367-9128


Dr. Barry Sullender
Institute for Tropical Ecology and Conservation
Phone: 713-771-0166

Bill Maher

Tree Climber’s Coalition
251 Oak Grove Rd.
Dawsonville, Georgia 30534
Phone: (706) 216-2402 or 216-1679


Course Description

This course is designed to provide the student with a sound foundation in ecological concepts and field techniques as applied to tropical rain forest ecosystems. The material covered is equivalent to a university upper level course in tropical field ecology. This course will also provide the opportunity to explore ecological aspects of the rainforest canopy. A certified tree climbing instructor will be on hand to teach climbing and to lead students into the canopy where they may have the chance to experience and observe firsthand this unique subsystem of the rainforest. The climbing instructor will also be on hand to assist those wishing to their independent research projects in the canopy. A tree climbing certification is an option for those willing to go beyond a mere introduction to the canopy. The course is divided into five distinct categories; formal classroom lectures, informal field lectures, readings and critiques, group projects and individual research projects.


Formal lectures will take place in the classroom and will include the use of overhead projectors, chalk boards, and/or slide projector. Topics that will be covered are provided in the “Course Schedule”. Informal lectures will be provided periodically during orientation walks (when you first arrive), during group field projects or in discussion groups. These will cover a wide variety of topics and will generally be prompted by what we encounter in the field, or by the direction taken during group discussions.

Student in tree.web

Student Conducting Canopy Research

Readings corresponding to lecture subjects will be assigned in the text. We will also read and critique papers brought by students and faculty and additional readings may be assigned from time to time. In addition, each student will read, critique, and provide oral reports on published papers brought to Bocas del Toro Biological Station.

Required Text

Kricher, J.C. (1989). A Neotropical Companion. Princeton Univ. Press, Princeton.

Other Important Books on Neotropical Ecology:

Terborgh, John (1992). Diversity and the Tropical Rain Forest. Scientific American Library, N.Y.

McDade, L.A., et al. (eds.) (1994). La Selva: Ecology and Natural History of a Neotropical Rain Forest. University of Chicago Press, Chicago.

Forsythe, A. and K. Miyata (1986). Tropical Nature. Scribners, Inc., New York.

Janzen, D.H. (1983). Costa Rican Natural History. Univ. of Chicago Press.

Group Field Projects and Exercises

These are research or instructional projects designed by the faculty and worked on in groups of five or six students. The purpose of these projects is to familiarize students with an array of field sampling techniques and equipment commonly used in field studies. With help from a faculty member, students set up projects, collect data, and generally (depending on the project), analyze data, present the results to the class, and write a report. Student groups will rotate through all projects and faculty so that all students will have equivalent experiences. On the fourth morning, the group that ends with a particular project will write up and orally present the results to the course. Before each project, student groups will meet at 4:30 PM with their respective project leader to discuss aspects of the project. There will be 6-8 group projects.

Individual Research Projects

Three-toed sloth.web

Three-toed Sloth, Bradypus variegatus


Up to 6 units of credit will be given, 3 for the lecture portion and 3 for the field portion. A letter grade will be assigned based on attendance at lectures, exams, reports, proposals, as well as by less tangibles such as personal attitude, motivation, and contribution to the course. The instructor will provide a break-down of points earned and final letter grade to your academic institution. The student is to provide direct evidence of participation such as syllabus, schedules, handouts, lecture notes, proposals, reports, etc.

Tentative Course Schedule

Day 1 Arrive via flight from Panama City.

Day 2-3 Orientation with the station and trail system, lectures.

Day 4-10 Group research projects, proposals, lectures.

Day 11-12 Optional field trip to Vocan Barú cloud forests.

Day 13-22 Individual research, lectures.

Day 23-26 Analysis and write-up of individual research, lectures.

Day 27 Oral presentation of Individual research, party.

Day 28 Return Home.

Shining honey male.web

Red-legged Honey Creeper, Cyanerpes cyaneus.

Formal Lecture Topics

  • Panamanian history, geology, geography, weather patterns and life zones
  • Primary production, a comparison between tropical and other ecosystems
  • Trophic interactions, energy flow, tropical feeding guilds
  • Extinctions and adaptive radiations in the tropics
  • Nutrient cycles: What makes tropical regions and soils different?
  • Biodiversity hypotheses; why are the tropics more diverse than other systems?
  • Sea turtle natural history; migration patterns determined from DNA analysis
  • Pollination ecology, bugs, birds and bats; seed dispersal mechanisms
  • Neotropical herpetology, systematics, biodiversity and life history strategies
  • Neotropical mammology, systematics, biodiversity and life history strategies
  • Neotropical plants, morphology, forest structure, lianas, epiphytes and epiphylls
  • Plant defensive strategies, or, how not to be eaten.
  • Plant-animal interactions; ant-plants, termites, sloths, leaf-cutter ants, oropendolas
  • Mimicry, symbiosis, fig wasps, Heliconius-Passiflora systems, army ants
  • Historical biogeography: Relationships between Central and South America
  • Population biology, growth, natural regulation and carrying capacity
  • Human population growth; where we were, are and going.
  • Conservation issues in the tropics; deforestation and resource sustainability