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Field course

Pipeline Road, PanamaLong Vacation Field Course

Organiser:  Professor Chris Jiggins

Dates:  TBC

We are pleased to announce that the Zoology Department will be running a Tropical Field Course for Part II students from summer 2018.

There are three major reasons why we believe this will be an exciting educational opportunity:

1)      Interaction with researchers. The localities chosen will expose students to research-active field sites and the course will include interaction with biologists, including PhD students, working on current cutting edge research projects. We also aim to involve a small number of local students on the course, so you will gain a better understanding of local concerns and knowledge.

2)      Exposure to tropical ecosystems. The tropics are so much more diverse than temperate regions (e.g. 60 resident species of butterfly in the UK versus 2700 in similarly sized Ecuador). Ecological processes are different, with a much higher incidence of mutualism and more complex species interactions and many more rare species. You will gain an appreciation not just of the extraordinarily high diversity in the tropics, but also the ways in which tropical ecosystem processes differ from temperate regions.

3)      Understanding of conservation issues. Finally, the major focus for conservation efforts in the coming millennium will be the tropics. This is the part of the world with more species and also most economic growth that threatens those species. The tropical field-course will allow you to witness some of the threats to tropical biodiversity first-hand, including habitat conversion and fragmentation. You will interact with different stakeholders first-hand, develop views about the rights and wrongs of habitat change, and explore alternative ideas for reconciling conservation and development.

4)      Independent research project and experimental design. You will spend most of your time in Panama carrying out an independent research project, and will learn techniques of experimental design, data collection and analysis methods. This will contribute towards a short project in Part II Zoology.

The first course will be run in Panama based in the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, with the intention to run it the following year in Sabah, Borneo. We will benefit from a long history of tropical research that has been carried out in Panama which includes geological studies of the rise of the isthmus and the Great American Biotic Exchange. In addition, many iconic ecological and evolutionary studies have been carried out here. These include sexual selection and predation in Tungara frogs and their bat predators; mutualism between leaf-cutting ants and their fungus gardens; debate over the neutral theory of biodiversity, informed by data from the 50 ha plot; Heliconius butterflies and mimicry; fig wasps and their fig hosts, including tests of local mate competition theory and discovery of cryptic wasp species diversity.

Conservation issues that could be touched upon include the role of the Canal in protecting the watershed forest; encroachment on national parks by farmland and hunting; freshwater invasive species in the canal and Chagres river; carbon balance of tropical forests and likely responses to increased atmospheric carbon.

Old Schoolhouse in Gamboa
Old Schoolhouse in Gamboa

The location

Gamboa is located ~1 hour from Tocumen International Airport in the centre of the isthmus and alongside the Panama Canal. Approximately one hour’s drive from either coast, Gamboa lies at the centre of a steep rainfall gradient from dry (Pacific) to wet (Carribbean) forest. It is located in the Soberania National Park, lowland primary and secondary rainforest established to protect the canal watershed.

Possible localities to be visited, all within 1 hour travel of Gamboa:

1)      Pipeline Road, Gamboa, walking distance from accommodation. Known for the ‘most diverse avian fauna in Central America’

2)      Barro Colorado Island. The most intensively studied tropical rainforest site in the world with the long running 50 ha plot. BCI has been the focus of tropical tree ecology studies for 50 years.

3)      Cerro Campana. Cloud forest ecosystem with mid elevation and very distinct forest structure and fauna

4)      Galeta. Mangrove forest on the Caribbean side of the isthmus, a STRI research station

5)      Parque Metropolitano. Seasonally dry lowland forest adjacent to Panama City. Many conservation issues around this highly endangered ecosystem. Forest Canopy Crane for access to canopy research. (A larger crane in wet forest on the Caribbean side would be another possibility).

6)      Fossil localities in cut sites for Canal expansion, where studies of the Great American Interchange have been carried out.


A converted schoolhouse offers dedicated facilities for field trips in Gamboa and includes Wifi access, cooking facilities, a lecture room/lab.

How to apply

The course will be open to students taking Part II Zoology, but there will be limited places available. We will announce the selection process nearer the time, but anticipate that we will give preference to those who have taken relevant courses in the earlier part of the Tripos, notably Part IB Ecology, Part IB Animal Biology and Part IA Evolution and Behaviour and who already have some biological fieldwork experience from field courses or similar opportunities.


We are committed to ensure that no student is deterred from taking the course for financial reasons. We have obtained some limited funding to support the course courtesy of the GCGT Trust. We therefore are aiming for a per student cost of £500 which we hope will be covered in part by your college in most cases. We will be able to provide some additional hardship support for exceptional cases. 

Carbon offsetting

Costs would include carbon offsetting of flights. We will use a well-documented offset project which helps protect biodiversity as well as sequester carbon, and take advantage of this to teach the students about the principle involved.