Neotropical Herpetology

Poison Dart Frog at Finca Silvestre

Instructor: Dr. Adam G. Clause

Research Associate, Institute of the Environment and Sustainability, UCLA

Phone: 805-807-8792



This course is designed for undergraduate and graduate students, and is equivalent to an upper-level university course in herpetology. Instructional material focuses on the ecology, behavior, biogeography, systematics, and conservation of the amazingly diverse Neotropical herpetofauna. Students will develop hands-on familiarity with most of the major reptile and amphibian clades (groups) of Panama and adjacent Costa Rica; we routinely encounter over 50 species during the course. Students will also practice the scientific method and hypothesis testing using these organisms. Whenever possible, we emphasize the development of practitioner-oriented skills relevant to a broad spectrum of postgraduate biology careers.

The course is roughly divided into four modules, each lasting roughly one week. During the first week, orientation walks will familiarize students with the trail network and numerous ecosystems surrounding the ITEC field station on Isla Colón. Next, we will spend time practicing standard field techniques, completing various group exercises, and identifying an individual research project for each student. Much of the third week will be spent touring mainland Panama, with visits to Pacific cloud forest at Boquete, Pacific dry forest, and lowland Caribbean forest at Finca Silvestre. On returning to Isla Colón, students will collect and analyze data for their individual research projects, and present their results both in written form and orally.


Throughout the four weeks, but particularly in the first half of the course, we schedule classroom lectures (usually in the afternoon and evening) to introduce topics that will be reinforced in the field. Additional, informal lectures will also be delivered periodically during orientation walks, group field projects, and in discussion groups. Lecture topics may include:

  • Evolution of amphibians and reptiles
  • Classification and identification of amphibians and reptiles
  • Historical biogeographic relationships
  • Reproductive strategies and mating systems
  • Reproduction and genetics in marine turtles
  • Island biogeography and color polymorphism in poison dart frogs
  • Life history strategies in amphibians and reptiles
  • Standard herpetological sampling techniques
  • Herp-human mythology and interactions
  • Conservation issues in herpetology

Group Field Projects and Excursions

These projects are designed by the faculty and carried out by groups of two to six students. Their purpose is to familiarize students with the wide array of techniques and equipment commonly used in herpetological field studies. The exercises also necessitate working collaboratively and communicating results, which are key abilities in any biological profession. With help from faculty, students will set up projects, collect and analyze data, and briefly present the results in class and/or write a short report. Topics will depend on what is available and logistically feasible, and may be changed based on student interest/preference. Short half-day excursions to nearby destinations are also scheduled. These trips will expose students to habitats and species absent from the immediate surroundings of the field station, offering further opportunities for experiential study. Group field projects and excursions may include:

  • Forest night hikes
  • Tail flicking behavior in geckos
  • Comparative study of leaf litter herpetofauna
  • Nesting behavior in leatherback sea turtles
  • Canopy herpetofauna using canopy access techniques
  • Herpetofaunal biodiversity analysis
  • Population ecology in poison dart frogs
  • Isla Bastimentos and/or Isla Solarte: dart frog polymorphism
  • Soropta Canal: iguanas, caiman, crocodiles
  • Renacimiento Creek: aquatic anoles and glass frogs
  • Mimbitimbi: cave and riverine herps
  • Isla Pajaros (Bird Island)

Individual Research Projects

With close faculty guidance, students will be responsible for designing and completing an original herpetological research project of their choosing. These projects will be selected and carried out mostly during the second half of the course. Students will have about 7–10 days for data collection, depending on the project. A few days before the course ends, students will analyze their data and write a 5–10 page technical report. All students are also expected to orally deliver a PowerPoint presentation of their work during a station-wide symposium on the last day of the course.


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 exams, reports, proposals, personal attitude, motivation, and participation. Course credit must be arranged at the student’s institution. See Obtaining Credit for details.

Reference Texts:

Vitt, Laurie J., and Janalee P. Caldwell. 2014. Herpetology: An Introductory

Biology of Amphibians and Reptiles, 4th edition. Elsevier Inc.

Köhler, Gunther. 2008. Reptiles of Central America, 2nd edition. Herpeton

Verlag Elke Köhler.

Köhler, Gunther. 2011. Amphibians of Central America, 2nd edition. Herpeton

Verlag Elke Köhler.

Savage, Jay M. 2002. The Amphibians and Reptiles of Costa Rica: A

Herpetofauna Between Two Continents, Between Two Seas, 2nd

edition. University of Chicago Press.

Additional Information

Click here for Neotropical Herpetology syllabus

Click here for ITEC amphibian and reptile checklist

Click here for photographs of ITEC amphibians and reptiles