Behavior & Ecology in the Rainforests and Reefs of Australia



Offered by

State University of New York, College of Environmental Science and Forestry
Faculty of Environmental and Forest Biology

Course Instructors:
Dr. William M. Shields       Dr. Barbara J. Hager 
SUNY CESF                                                                Cazenovia College

This 5 credit course over winter break is intended to provide both undergraduate and graduate students with experience in doing field research on the natural history, ecology, and behavior of organisms living in some of the the world’s most complex and diverse environments. We focus on three habitat types and their associated ecosystems in Queensland, Australia: lowland tropical rainforests (Wet Tropics, near Cairns), upland subtropical and temperate rainforests at Lamington National Park near Brisbane, and offshore coral reefs (Heron Island).  Students meet for 12-14 pre-trip (2 hr.) classes to explore the basic ecology of each ecosystem.  Each student is required to specialize in the literature of at least two taxa; one each from rainforest and reef. Once in Australia, they are expected to integrate pre-trip studies with field observation and brainstorming to design independent and/or collaborative field research projects on topics or organisms of their choice in each of the three regions.  They gather data to test their hypotheses and perform preliminary statistical analyses at each site.  Every student is also required to keep a natural history journal recording their thoughts and feelings about what they discover and experience.  Upon return to the United States, they are expected to complete data analysis and are assigned the responsibility of  preparing papers and poster presentations of their research in Australia.  The estimated fees for the course will change with exchange rates but should run about $4500 USD and cover all transportation, food, and lodging.  Tuition is not included for extramural students and so is added to the final bill to those from other institutions (other than ESF & SU).

Class of 2000-2001 in Thornton Peak Wilderness


    We spend our first 10 days in lowland tropical rainforest and associated habitats (e.g., mangrove forest, estuaries, beaches).  It is warm and very humid. The Cape Tribulation region of the Cape York Peninsula or the forest regions around Mission Beach include some of the oldest and most diverse plant associations on earth.  Virgin rainforest and mangroves abound, and the wildlife is exotic and abundant.

  Amythestine Python                                        Thornton Peak                                        Cooper Creek

The insect, amphibian, reptile, mammal, and bird fauna are extremely diverse and include numerous endemics
not found elsewhere in Australia or the world.

     Green Weaver Tree Ants                                Cassowary                                   Cairn's Birdwing

        Boyd's Forest Dragon                      Dusky Rat Kangaroo                     Cooper Creek Wilderness

Because it is the rainy season, we can afford to stay in a resort, where we live dormitory style. Because few scientists have visited the region, there is much basic ecology and behavior to be discovered.  Our students learn about the identification of many kinds of organism with special reference to the annoying and dangerous.  These include everything from stinging trees along the paths that can irritate for months if touched, to annoying but fascinating green weaver ants that are everywhere, to the numerous deadly snakes, spiders, and crocodiles, on land or freshwater, and equally deadly cone snails, octopi, and box jellies in the Coral Sea.   We always wonder, why would anyone want to go to Oz?  Some of the photos might help to answer the question.  To explore our lodgings in the Wet Tropics, go to:  Sanctuary at Mission Beach

            Coral Coast               Thornton Beach, Cape Tribulation          On the way to Alexandra Falls
We spend our New Years Holiday in Port Douglas or Cairns in the Wet Tropic Region & Gateway to the Reef.  It affords us additional natural history treks as well as the best shopping and entertainment in the region.  Side trips to the Atherton Tableland, Reef Diving, and other possibilities abound.  This year we will stay at a local resort in rooms with cooking facilities.  For a look at the resort go to:   Rihga Colonial Resort

Our second week is spent > 40 km offshore on Heron Island, a coral cay on a large patch (platform) reef at the premier reef field station in the world operated by the University of Queensland.
People at the ritzy resort which shares the island with the field station, pay considerably more to stay on the reef. They also have considerably better food (we cook for ourselves in a food service kitchen at the station).
Everyone on the island must dodge bird excrement from the nesting Black Noddies and are sometimes chased by reef herons.  Both bird species are good study organisms.
          Reef Walk                                  Nesting Black Noddies                     Gray Reef Heron
They also try to sleep through the wailing infant/screaming cat vocalizations of the 10-20, 000 burrow nesting muttonbirds on the island (Wedge-tailed Shearwater).  Some of our students were heard in the middle of the night crying softly, “Please shut up birds. Please”.  There are things about the island that make up for the pain.
    Wedge-Tailed Shearwater                     Front Beach Heron Island                   HIRS  Laboratory
The island is host to from hundreds to thousands of nesting sea turtles each year and the “girls” regularly dig up the beach to lay their precious eggs.
The students also snorkel and walk the reef flat to study the reef fish and numerous invertebrates as well as relax occasionally on the beach.

Numerous reef and island biologists are also in residence on the island doing research.  Most are willing and do give formal and informal seminars on their research for our students.  Everyone gets sunburned and some even wish for rain. Everyone is sad to leave. For more on the station: go to:  Heron Island Research Station, Great Barrier Reef, Australia


The elevation is considerably higher (700 to 1400m) and therefore the temperature is much cooler though the rain is just as persistent.  The forest is taller, but less diverse than in the tropics.  The students come to hate land leeches and cool rain, but love the scenery and brand new flora and fauna.

Everyone is glad to finally see their first “kangaroo”, though the red-necked pademelon is a  bit like a toy kangaroo. There are other strange creatures which inspire scientific and human curiousity as well.

           Red-Necked Pademelon                  Land Mullet (Skink)                      Lamington Blue Cray

By now everyone is more experienced at designing research projects and the incessant rain  keeps people inside doing data analysis and continual laundry when not out gathering data.  The lament here is, What happened to summer? (though the temperature remains in the 60’s most of the time).  The joy here is a new suite of frogs, birds, fungi and insects, unlike those seen at our other rainforest.  Where else could one see bowerbirds and brush turkeys, king parrots and rosellas vying with one another to take food from your hands.

                  King Parrot                            Regent Bowerbird                       Rainbow Lorikeets

    Where else would one share a meal with a ring-tailed possum and a carpet python looking to eat the poor possum.  Where else can you walk in the canopy and dance in a bush dance, play tarzan and be inspired by amazing vistas- all the while doing research on animals that are little known to science? Oz is a place where wishes are granted and dreams come true.

          Leaf-Tailed Gecko                                     Carpet Python                      Orange-Eyed Tree Frog

            Tarzans & Jane                            Leaf-Tailed Obsession                  Carpet Python & Fanatic

For more on our last site go to: Lamington National Park

 But now, after nearly 4 weeks, it’s time to return to the US where we arrive in Los Angeles before we leave Sydney (Think international date line).  Go figure.  Shortly after our return, it's time to prepare posters and the work involved is very intense as we analyze data and prepare the graphics and text needed to make engaging posters.  At the poster session all of the winter international courses present their work for the entire campus to peruse and evaluate.


 We hope that every student is enriched by their experience and that the course leads to the following outcomes:

1. Our students are introduced to the natural history and ecology of some of the unique habitats of tropical and subtropical Australia.

2. Students engage in novel growth experiences: whether hiking in the rainforest (and the rain), identifying the trees, fungi, ants, birds, and lizards, snorkeling on the Great Barrier Reef with sharks and colorful reef fish, or communing with Sea Turtles as they lay their precious eggs in the dunes.

3. Each student writes a journal so that they can reflect on their experience in order to clarify the physical, emotional, and intellectual content of their journey for themselves and share it with others.

4. Each student is required to work by themselves and in collaborative groups to identify interesting scientific issues, design a set of methods to explore the problems or issues, gather data, complete at least 3 research projects, and generate written and graphical material to communicate the results of their studies to others.
5. What we desire most is that our students are infused with a sense of wonder and even awe, such that they become passionate about conserving the reefs and rainforests of the world. Equally important is that they gain the experience and enthusiasm necessary to do the scientific fieldwork needed to understand such ecosystems and their strange and beautiful inhabitants.
Those interested in applying to enroll in this 5 credit course which runs from before Christmas until mid-January can contact us via phone: 315-470-6771, mail Dr. William Shields, SUNY CESF, 1 Forestry Drive, Syracuse, NY 13210 or email.   If you have questions, comments, or suggestions, email us at or

Feel free to right-click on the following icon and click view to see a Windows Media Player Movie (36 minutes) about the course (this is a long download unless you have a wideband or better connection): Rainforest & Reef

Acknowledgements:  Photo Credits: To all the students and instructors in the course and especially: Carrie Lane and Russ Busch, Class of 2000 and Kate Howles and Wellington Guzman, Class of 2001.

Additional Useful Links:

 Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority
 University of Queensland
 Environment Australia Databases
 James Cook University- Tropical Biology and Zoology
 James Cook University- Marine Biology
 Australian Biological Research Network
Wet Tropics World Heritage Area
Australian Museum Online

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