“Tropical Plant Systematics” (PBIO 369/569)

Instructor information: Harvey Ballard, 406 Porter Hall, 593-4659, ballardh@ohio.edu
Field course duration: Sunday, 29 November – Thursday, 17 December, 2009 (ca. 2.5 wks of in-country class time, with travel days)
Prerequisites: "Plant Systematics & Ohio Flora" (PBIO 309/509); fall quarter prep course, "Special Topics" (PBIO 313/693)

Fall quarter preparation: PBIO 313/693 (2 credits), plus one “Bobcats Abroad” session, are mandatory prior to the field course. This preparation will be part of every student’s fall quarter course load. The two-credit course will meet every week, and will involve a lecture review of vascular plant orders and families from PBIO 309/509 plus additional major groups we will encounter in the Tropics; discussion of assigned readings on Central American plant diversity and tropical ecology; and travel-related workshops on passport info, travel logistics, immunizations/medications, Spanish conversational language, first aid, and packing. The academic content of the fall prep course will culminate in an exam on plant systematic and plant diversity topics.

The region: The "base camp" for the first two weeks of the intersession field course will be the "Institute of Tropical Ecology and Conservation" (ITEC) field station on Isla Colón, situated on the dunes at the northwest end of Isla Colón in the bay of Bocas del Toro in the province of that name. The island has extensive lowland moist to wet evergreen forest tracts, narrow coastal dunes and mangrove swamps, and some super-diverse roadside areas, all in the immediate area of the station and within a 5-30 minute easy walk. The station itself is ca. 45 minutes' taxi or bus ride from the only village, "Bocas", at the eastern end of the island. The last 3 days of the in-country time will be a return to Panama City, using the Hotel Benidorm as our "base camp". We will then make a long day trip to the Soberania National Park with its moist lower-elevation forest next to the canal zone, and a second long day trip to the very different mid-elevation cloud forest at Cerro Campaná National Park, both within an hour's drive of the city. At those two reserves we will study additional plant families and genera we haven't encountered on Isla Colón, to expose you to diverse tropical ecological zones and their divergent floras, as well as noting their different forest structure and diversity patterns.

picPanamanian checklists indicate that the two provinces combined embrace over 4,000 vascular plant species in 1,400 genera of 180 families--nearly twice the number of species found in Ohio! This particular region, comprising the northwestern third of Panama fully contiguous with the southeastern Costa Rican border, encompasses an elevational gradient from sea level to over 3,000 meters and is exceedingly rich and broadly representative of tropical lowland and montane forest communities across Central America and northern South America. The areas around ITEC station and near Panama City together provide an ideal opportunity to study vascular plant diversity in one of the most diverse regions of the Neotropics, and one which spans one of the largest elevational gradients and huge semi-contiguous tracts of tropical forest remaining in Central America.

Winter Intersession field course: This 2.5 week specialized course is an intensive examination of ca. 110 important tropical vascular plant families, within a modern phylogenetic context (ca. 65% family overlap with those in Ohio, building on knowledge and experience learned in PBIO 309/509). Twenty-four plant families that are particularly diverse in genera and species have been selected to receive further scrutiny at the generic and even the species level, with students learning to key and identify some of the most commonly encountered genera and some economically or ethnobotanically important species in those families. Advanced undergraduate and graduate natural science students who have taken the "Plant Systematics and Ohio Flora" course (PBIO 309/509) are eligible; because this is a very advanced course demanding a high initial level of floristic expertise, there will be no exceptions to this prerequisite. You must have taken the OU course prior to fall quarter or have passed an equivalent mid- to high-level course at another university. The mandatory fall quarter two-credit course (PBIO 313/693), with its associated travel workshops, provides an essential overview of the region and its plant life, as well as critical coverage of travel-related and academic issues. The total amount of minimum daily contact hours in lecture/lab equals ca. 12 eight-hour days of instruction, excluding evening reviews, exam days and travel. I will also give you a free day (either Saturday or Sunday, however democracy prevails in the group) for each of the two weeks on Isla Colón. [NOTE: if you won't have taken PBIO 309/509 by this fall quarter, or are more interested in a heavily ecological field course, you should keep in mind that Drs. Glenn Matlack and Christine Fahl expect to offer a "Tropical Plant Ecology" program next fall and winter intersession (2010) at this same place.]

I may not need to say this, but I will: this will NOT be a vacation; this will be one of the most demanding and intensive courses you will ever undertake, if not the most. But I plan to make it also one of the most unforgettable experiences you will have at OU, too. The striking beauty of the locales, the abundant animal life and the charming "sophisticated camp for adults" field station play a big role in this, but the diversity of the flora will really. We will, however, have a great deal of fun doing the course together.pic

The field course will emphasize easily identifiable (commonly vegetative) traits of vascular plant families where possible. Examination of common genera and economically or ethnobotanically important species will usually utilize more technical characters of flower and fruit. No manual exists for the families and genera of the region or of Panama, but I am currently drafting keys from various sources to serve us; keys for half of the 180 northern Panama families have been completed, and some keys to genera in many families are also finished. In the field, we will capture images with high-resolution digital cameras (with and without macro lenses) to supplement the newly drafted and field-tested keys. The ITEC field station has a pretty good plant-related library, but we will also bring down other resources of particular value to us, including electronic literature. Each of us will also bring down a plant press in our luggage, and we'll leave those in a crate for the next time the field course is offered (the station has minimal collecting equipment and no real cabinet but does have a functional plant dryer). A group project during the 2-week field station period will consist of a systematic vascular plant "florula" at a couple of particularly diverse forest tracts not far from the station and visits to a number of other areas on the island. We will collect, process, name and label several hundred plant specimens, a few family-level exemplars staying with the embryonic ITEC field station herbarium and the rest going to the Smithsonian Institution's Bocas branch station to be sent on to Panama City's huge herbarium. We will be entering specimen information nightly into the BRAHMS "Panama Flora" database to generate labels, and will establish image links with those records regularly. The station has a couple of laptops, but some of us will bring our own to use. (Internet is currently NOT readily available at the station, by the way; and as of last winter intersession, electricity was only accessible during 6-10pm each evening, so plan accordingly.) The final database and image collection will be brought back with us to Ohio and immediately made available on the internet from our server for picpublic use, as an invaluable resource for biologists and students visiting that region.

Field course itinerary:
Sun, 11/29—participants fly independently to Panama City; lodge at Hotel Benidorm
Mon, 11/30—group flight to town of Bocas del Toro on Isla Colón, van ride to ITEC field station
Tue, 12/1-Sun, 12/13—field course proceeds at ITEC field station and Isla Colón
Mon, 12/14—fly to Panama City
Tue, 12/15-Wed, 12/16—forest reserve excursions; late afternoon visit to market for souvenirs
Thu, 12/17—independent return flights to U.S.

Course content: We will examine distinguishing traits, ordinal and family relationships, and taxonomic diversity of ca. 110 vascular plant families in a modern phylogenetic context during brief lectures prior to field trips in the area, and will study representatives of these during the field excursions and in lab during evening reviews upon our return each day. We will typically study 9-10 families every day. For 2 of the most generically diverse families that day, we will devote additional time to study 5 or more of the most common and most diverse genera in each family, as well as a handful of economically or ethnobotanically significant species. Thus, over the course of the field course, students will become proficient in sight identification of most of the tropical vascular plant families in Central and northern South America (all of the diverse ones with more than 3 genera) and will learn ca. 120 common genera and a few species in the most diverse families. We will briefly discuss ecological and evolutionary issues throughout the course as examples arise, but the course is heavily focused on plant diversity and identification. During the progress of the “florula” project of a specific site on the island, students will also gain experience in field collection techniques; production of quality herbarium collections; use of published tropical plant floras, monographic treatments and available websites; data entry and extraction of information from a biological collections database; and valuable experience in all aspects of tropical plant diversity studies generally.

Apicctivities: Monday through Friday of weeks 1 and 2, and most of the three days during the mountain cloud forest excursion, are devoted to course activities (full days!!). The group will vote on one day off each of the two weeks on Isla Colón, and the preceding afternoon will automatically be designated exam time. The days off are available for everybody to pursue whatever recreational activities they wish (within a regimented "buddy" system). Generally, breakfast is 7:30-8:00am; lunch at 12-12:30pm; and supper at 6-6:30pm. During weekdays we will have lectures on plant families, common genera and economically or ethnobotanically significant species at 8-9am; field lab at 9am-12noon; second lecture on plants 1-2:00pm; field lab at 2-5:00pm; free time before supper at 5-6:00pm; specimen preparation and data entry after supper at 7-8:00pm; and plant review at 8-9:00pm. Students should anticipate 12 full days of non-stop course-related activities and constant review! I have built in snorkel gear rental and bootie purchase [that’s SNORKEL FOOTWEAR, people] in the "out of pocket" expenses for everybody, so that folks can take an hour or two every couple of days in the afternoons (when we will end a little early before supper) to snorkel the mangrove and reef areas near the station, for fun. During the last 5 days of our time on Isla Colón, professional tree climber Joe Maher will arrive at the station and take small groups of 2-3 students up into the canopies of several different tree species, for us to make intensive studies and comparisons of different epiphyte floras in emergent canopy trees. This will also give you a very different perspective on plant diversity in the upper reaches of the tropical forest canopy.

The field exams will be held in mid-afternoon. The first exam will cover lowland vascular plant families exclusively. The second exam will consist of two parts; the first 66% will represent lowland vascular plant families in the field station area. The second part on the end of the second excursion near Panama City, will comprise the remaining 34% and will focus on new mid- to higher-elevation plant families. The two exams will count up to 100 points for undergrads and 125 points for grads.

Throughout our time at the ITEC field station we will revisit one area of roughly 1/8 mile by 1/8 mile repeatedly (probably at least every other day, if not daily) near the field station, to pursue an intensive "florula", or systematic survey of vascular plants. As we learn new plant families, genera and common species, I anticipate we may collect as many as 500-800 distinct species and up to 1,500 plant specimens (with duplicates of most species) over the two-week period. We will also visit other areas on the island to study and collect plants, but we'll target much of our effort on the "florula" site. (No collecting will be permitted during our Panama City area excursions, but we will study the plants intensively in the field.) This group “florula” project will involve students working in small groups during each visit to collect (ideally reproductive) and tag specimens of every distinct taxon found, press specimens in the field, record ecological and frequency information in notebooks, picacquire high-resolution digital images and latitude-longitude coordinates with a hand-held Global Positioning System. Duplicates will be collected, where possible, for the National Herbarium in Panama City and the Missouri Botanical Garden (for distribution to family specialists). At the end of each field trip on a given day, students will enter specimen data from field notebooks into a BRAHMS “Panama Flora” database created by Dr. Ballard for the ITEC field station herbarium, and will download and link digital images to those records. Specimen labels will be generated from within the database. The database and images will be constantly available for searching and for use in review by the students from the ITEC station computers, and will be instantly publicly available on the internet as well. As batches of specimens are completely dried, some evening time will also be spent by students in mounting specimens on herbarium specimen sheets with labels, for incorporation of specimens into the herbarium. This constitutes an important service learning activity to assist measurably in expanding the field station's meager plant collection. No regional herbarium exists except for that of the field station, and the several hundred anticipated specimens will be an invaluable addition for research purposes and also future field courses. Undergraduates will be responsible for collecting 50 plant specimens, identifying all of them to family, and preparing them for the herbarium, for 50 points; and entering data and images into the database, for an additional 50 points. Grads will be responsible for the same things, but with 75 plants and identifications to genus level, for 75 plus 75 points. The florula project and database component together comprise the "final project" in lieu of a final exam. Review of plant families, genera and common species will be enhanced and reinforced by student engagement in the florula project and in preparing specimens to greatly augment the field station herbarium. In addition, the numerous new plant specimens, and the publicly searchable database with images, will provide valuable internet products to the ITEC field station staff and researchers around the world. Total points possible in the course for undergrads is 300 and for grads is 400.

Program Costs--tentative (subject to minor change):pic

Out of pocket (worst case)*    
  Airfare $800  
  Passport 110  
  Tourist visa 5  
  Meals off-site and incidentals 240  
  Vaccinations & chloroquine tablets 230  
  Hand lens 10  
  Snorkel gear rental 95  
Total student costs Undergrad Grad
  Tuition $1,132 $1,548
  Tech fee 8 28
  Program fee** 1,100 1,100
  Education Abroad admin fee 150 150
  Out of pocket 1,490 1,490
    $3,880 $4,316

*subject to substantial modification based on personal situation
**based on 3 grads and 7 undergrads

picHow to apply:




Last modified by H. Ballard on 2 March 2009.