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From Rain Forest to Coral Reefs – the SUNY-ESF Tropical Ecology Trip to Dominica, W.I.

Allan P. Drew
Department of Forest & Natural Resources Management
SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry
Syracuse, New York

ABSTRACT. Tropical Ecology, a 3-credit hour spring semester course offered to undergraduate and graduate students, is taught both on campus and at the Archbold Center field station on the Caribbean island of Dominica, W.I. for 10 days over students’ spring break. Two faculty with complementary backgrounds, such as in terrestrial and aquatic ecology, or in plant and animal ecology, teach the course to ~16 students. Individual or group research outlines are prepared on campus by students for ecological projects to be undertaken on-site at the rain forest field station. Trips around the island include visits to tropical dry forest, montane and lowland rain forest, littoral forest and elfin forest as well as marine coral reefs. A $2,400 course fee covers air travel to Dominica, tours on the island and room and board at Springfield. Upon return to Syracuse, students analyze project data and make oral presentations to the group. The course is a service-learning project that makes educational contributions to individuals and institutions in Dominica.
KEY WORDS. tropical ecology, Dominica, study-abroad, rainforest, coral reefs

International Education

A number of young Americans have never traveled outside the borders of the United States and so have not experienced the enrichment possibilities that such international travel affords. At SUNY-ESF we try to incorporate international understanding in on-campus courses we teach. Study-abroad courses are another way to bring about awareness of other cultures and traditions. Land and resource management issues are different in other countries and the ways of dealing with them differ from strategies employed in the U.S. Thus, the cultural base for ecological study as well as the management of ecosystems differ in an international setting. It is from the perspective that such lessons are valuable to students for the insights they provide, that we approached the design of Tropical Ecology and its study-abroad component. If the enthusiastic views of past students are any indication, then we have been successful in providing for their intellectual and experiential enrichment.

Course Format and Objectives

Tropical Ecology is a 3-credit hour course taught at SUNY-ESF in Syracuse, NY during the spring semester. With on-campus and overseas field components, the course combines academic preparation with on-site fieldwork in the Caribbean. The highlight of the course is the 10 days over spring break that students spend at the Archbold Tropical Research and Education Center (ATREC) in Dominica, W.I. To cover costs of air travel to Dominica, room and board at the field station and travel on the island, students pay a $2,400 course fee. Although most of our students are drawn from SUNY-ESF, some over the years have come from other SUNY institutions, Syracuse University, as well as individuals from outside the university.

Tropical Ecology is dual-listed as an offering of two Departments, Forest and Natural Resources Management, and Environmental and Forest Biology, and is taught by a faculty member from each unit whose respective backgrounds complement each other. Over the years, my background in forest ecology and silviculture has been enriched by colleagues with experience in aquatic ecology and limnology, reptiles and amphibians, nature interpretation and ecology of bryophytes. With this diverse array of instructor background, we have been able to advise students in various field projects covering a wide range of interest. Tropical Ecology is interpreted broadly to include topics as diverse as natural resources management, soils, agroforestry, and tourism as well as traditional fields of basic biology.

The objectives of the tropical ecology course include introducing students to the biotic diversity of tropical ecosystems and comparing them to north temperate systems; giving students an understanding of the interaction of biotic and abiotic factors in a tropical environment; and illustrating the principles of ecology and resource management using Dominica as a model. The course is open to both advanced undergraduates and graduate students with the prerequisites of a year of college biology and a course in general ecology

Research and Study of Tropical Ecosystems

Taught since 1991, Tropical Ecology has benefited from the philanthropy of the late John D. Archbold, owner of the former Springfield and Mt. Joy agricultural estates, who donated his land to Clemson University for use as a 92 ha biological field station where students and professionals might come for research and study of tropical ecosystems. At ca. 1500 ft elevation, the area is now second-growth rain forest with patches in cultivation. The station is administered through Clemson as the Archbold Tropical Research and Education Consortium, a group of institutions which pay an annual fee to use the field station. Dominica, a volcanic island in the Lesser Antilles, is dominated by steep, mountainous terrain. A variety of ecosystems are present along an ascending elevational gradient from the coast which include dry scrub woodland (along the leeward coast), deciduous forest, rain forest, montane rain forest and elfin forest on the highest peaks. Along the windward coast is found littoral woodland; freshwater swamp forest is also present along the coasts as is the offshore marine ecosystem. Dominica also has a diversified agroecosystem. All of these are explored within the context of the field course. Since Dominica is a small island, 15 x 29 miles in size, all these ecosystems are accessible and within several hours driving time of the field station. Freshwater crater lakes, marine coral reefs, abundant rivers and streams, and the largest boiling lake in the world make Dominica an ideal location for the study of tropical ecology.

Students are expected to conduct a field research project while they are in residence at the field station. The project accounts for 70 percent of their final course grade and is reported upon to the class following their return from Dominica. These may be either individual or group projects and we work with each student in advance to prepare a research outline for their project(s) so that time is not taken up with these activities upon arrival. Other requirements are the keeping of a field journal and a midterm exam taken upon their return from Dominica. The field projects have ranged from comparative hummingbird ecology, point-source pollution effects on river ecosystems, agricultural cropping and soil productivity and insect ecology. Participants in the course have contributed to an improved understanding of natural resources on the island.

Recently, the government of Dominica has required us to have up-to-date research permits for our work. We pay a fee for this and receive documents that allow us to conduct our work in the context of the field station course. We stress that we are an educational organization engaged in learning projects rather than a research group interested only in collecting organisms. We send the Division of Forestry and Wildlife a list of students and their projects prior to arrival on the island, then a detailed listing of projects and any collections made such as soils samples for analysis, leaf samples of plants or dead insects which students may wish to export from Dominica. These latter must be approved and permission granted so that endangered or rare species or taxa are not included. We obtain the proper permits from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (APHIS) to bring soils or plant materials back into the U.S. from outside the country.

Reciprocal Understanding

Because Tropical Ecology is defined as a “service-learning course”, students contribute to the ecological and environmental awareness of island residents through their work which is published annually in the form of a bound compendium of research projects and deposited with the Division of Forestry, Wildlife and Parks as well as at the field station’s library. Over the years, our contributions to Dominica have included the initial mapping of the surface and basin of Boeri Lake, a high elevation crater lake (Werner and Raymond, 1996), developing a guide to the Springfield Nature Trail for visitors to the field station (Virgin, 2001), developing a key to the families of trees at Springfield (Drew, 2002), identifying previously unknown species of beetles found near the field station (Cognato and Bright, 1996) and adding to the list of known freshwater fish species found in coastal waters and estuaries (Aureli, 2005; Van Kempen, 2008). The field station’s herbarium, library, laboratory and classrooms support the work we do. Presentations by guest speakers from government and non-governmental organizations in Dominica and lectures by the instructors provide background material for field trips and work in residence.

Understanding of the island’s agroecosystem is stressed as is the impact of humans on ecosystems through various forms of land use. The principal cause of deforestation is clearing of the forest for sedentary agriculture. Students learn about the Dominican culture and people, as well as its natural environment. For example, students visit the only reserve in the West Indies that is home to the Carib Indians, the island inhabitants when the Europeans arrived in the 15th century. A trip to Roseau, the capital, on market day and interacting with Dominicans provides additional cross-cultural insights. Many of our students have never been outside of the United States or to the Caribbean, and so the experience is very broadening in a cultural sense.

Reasons for Success

Tropical Ecology has enjoyed success for a variety of reasons. We conduct the course over spring break when students are looking for a change from the bleakness of snow and cold weather in Syracuse. We keep expenses low by taking advantage of group travel rates on the airlines and by being members of the ATREC. We stay at a fixed base of operations while in Dominica rather than being on the move constantly, contributing to more of a sense of “place.” We attract a mix of undergraduate and graduate students, the latter providing role models for the former out of their maturity, seriousness of purpose and greater experience. We prepare students for the field experience through the weeks on campus preceding spring break. Dominica presents us with an accessible variety of ecosystems from which to learn and explore, a decided advantage when efficient use of time is important. Finally, there is no language barrier to working in Dominica since, as a former British colony, everyone speaks English.

Literature Cited

AURELI, A. 2005. Dominican freshwater fish communities: Species survey and habitat comparisons. Student project report. 20p.

COGNATO, A.I. and D.E. BRIGHT. 1996. New records of bark beetles (Coleoptera: Scolytidae) from Dominica, West Indies. The Coleopterists Bulletin 50(1): 72.

DREW, A.P. 2002. Key to the families of trees and shrubs, Springfield Centre for Environmental Protection, Research and Education, Dominica, W.I. In: Archbold Tropical Research and Education Center Handbook, SUNY-ESF, Syracuse, NY. 47p.

DREW, A.P. and R.G. WERNER. 1996. Teaching tropical ecology in the West Indies. Journal of Forestry 94(3): 28-29.

MAZUMDER, A.H. and A.P. DREW. 1992. Rain forest soils. Tropicalia 3: 3.

VAN KEMPEN, S. A field guide to the freshwater fish of Dominica. Student project report.14p.

WERNER, R.G. and J. RAYMOND. 1996. On the limnology and geochemistry of Boeri Lake, Dominica, West Indies, with observations on two other subtropical crater lakes. Caribbean Journal of Science 32(2): 233-238.

VIRGIN, A. 2001. A visitor’s guide to the Springfield Nature Trail. Student project report. 4p.

About the Author

Allan P. Drew (apdrew@syr.edu) is Professor of Forest Ecology in the Department of Forest and Natural Resources Management, State University of New York, College of Environmental Science and Forestry, Syracuse, NY 13210.


The author acknowledges the support of Clemson University and the late John D. Archbold for bringing the Archbold Tropical Research and Education Center into being and making it available for groups wishing to study and do research in the tropical rain forests of Dominica, W.I. Station manager, Ms. Nancy Osler, and before her, Ms. Mona Dill, have provided invaluable support for our work with groups at Springfield. Mr. Ken Dill, owner of Ken’s Hinterland Adventure Tours and Travel Service (KHATTS) has supported our work with transportation and expert guide service while on the island. The Division of Forestry, Wildlife and Parks has provided staff for field guidance and evening lectures and given us formal permission for our project work in Dominica. Finally, I wish to thank colleagues from the Faculty of Environmental and Forest Biology, Robert G. Werner, James Gibbs, Andrew D. Saunders, Robin W. Kimmerer, and Donald Stewart for their cooperative leadership and support in making Tropical Ecology a successful course.