Tropical Ecology

Tropical Ecology


Maastricht Science Programme

Maastricht University


Coordinator & tutor

  • Roy Erkens



  • Maria José Eischen-Loges
Intended learning outcomes (more on programme level)

A continuation of the course on Introduction into Biology and the course on Ecology.

Learning objectives (course specific)

Rain forests are perhaps the most interesting of all biomes in the popular imagination. However, rain forests on different continents have fundamentally different characteristics that make each of them unique. Also within continents, regions, or overall zones the differences might be quite large. In this course, the students will get an overview of the characteristics and importance of tropical rain forests, study their history and think about their future.


At the end of this course, in terms of knowledge the student should be able to:

  1. Point out where tropical ecosystems can be found and describe what different types of tropical ecosystems exist,
  2. Explain the structure of tropical rain forests,
  3. Illustrate the global patterns in tropical ecosystem biodiversity,
  4. Discuss the theories that explain the patterns in tree species diversity on a continental scale,
  5. Built informed hypotheses on tropical rainforest development and dynamics,
  6. Review the trophic dynamics in tropical rainforests,
  7. Built hypotheses around the biotic interactions and co-evolutionary relationships in tropical ecosystems,
  8. Review the idea that carbon flux and climate change are linked,
  9. Describe the major problems regarding tropical ecosystem conservation,
  10. And illustrate what is known about the phylogenetic history of tropical ecosystems.


In terms of skills and attitudes the student should be able to:

  1. Write and evaluate (scientific) proposals for the conservation of a tropical- ecosystem organism,
  2. Have practiced the use of scientific knowledge in different contexts (scientific, political, societal),
  3. Provide and receive feedback in a positive and constructive manner orally and in written word.
Objective statement (course description)

Tropical forests are amongst the most species-rich biomes of the world. Yet, our understanding of their evolution, functioning and development are far from complete. There are three main tropical rainforest areas, the Neotropics (Central and South America), Africa and Asia, but for this course the students will mainly focus on the Neotropics. They will look at what defines the tropical region, the differences and similarities between the three large blocks of rainforest, and investigate the structure and biodiversity of tropical rain forests.

Also, the students will look at the development of tropical forests, how biodiversity changes over time (ecologically and evolutionarily) and how trophic levels work within these forests. Furthermore, the role of tropical forests in relation to climate change and global carbon cycling will be investigated, and a link will be made to tropical savannas and dry tropical forests. Finally, the students will investigate the IUCN red list and will experience the practices of nature conservation in tropical areas.

Type of course :

Skills and content course

Target group :

Bachelor students

Pedagogical approach:

Problem-based Learning, Project-based Learning


All tutorial sessions are done standing. This creates a more dynamic setting that should aid in the learning process.

Each week is devoted to two major topics in tropical (rain forest) ecology. Additionally there is one guest lecture and the student will do video presentations on the conservation assignment.

During this course there are only three lectures. During the first lecture, the course is introduced and a general introduction to the topic of tropical ecology is provided. Also, one lecture is scheduled about the IUCN Redlist. In the last week of the course, a guest lecturer will talk about his or her research in relation to the tropics practices and a short wrap-up of the course will be provided.


Two useful study techniques

Concept map

Concept maps can aid the students in systematically ordering information about ideas, concepts, theories, etc. On Canvas they can find a concept map that is available for them to fill out. They start with filling out the name or author of the concept (idea, hypothesis, theory, etc.) they are studying. Then they can note the main hypothesis or claim of this concept and two characteristic features. The most important results are good to have in mind as well (or if the concept is relatively young some information on prior history). It is also good to write down data supporting or undermining the concept, and the application of the concept, or its major strength or weakness. Finally, to understand the relation of this concept to other concepts they can indicate a competing theory and how it differs, and a similar theory and how this differs. In this way they can connect the different concepts in the course to each other.

White paper method

Another way to uptake information is the white paper method. This technique starts by the student getting a white piece of paper and a pencil. They then look at the material they want to study (this can be a textbook but also notes from lecture, I will refer to this as the study material). They then find a portion of that study material that they want to work on in their current study session. Look over the study material briefly to get into their mind what they want to study. The next step is to put their notes away and take their piece of white paper. The students then write down everything they know about the topic of their current study session. After this they take the study material again and get immediate feedback on how they have done by comparing their white paper notes to the study material. Then they take a different colour pencil and correct what they have done, so they have a corrected version.

Then comes the hard part: they take that annotated piece of paper and they throw it away. They then take a new piece of white paper and repeat the cycle immediately. They keep repeating this until they have understood and mastered the material they wanted to study during their study session.


Gallery of Endangered Tropical Biodiversity assignment.

In this assignment, the student will practice writing of a proposal for the conservation of a tropical organism. They will also make videos in which they defend their proposal and counter another proposal. This assignment relates to several topics treated in the course, as explained further on in this syllabus. Successful completion of this assignment is mandatory to pass the course.

Today there is much attention for the world-wide decline in biodiversity. Many millions of euros are being spent to protect natural areas and to prevent extinction of species. To map the threats to biodiversity properly good quality information is essential. One of the methods to monitor biodiversity is the IUCN Red List, a list showing the population status of many species (for more information see and This list is based on scientific data and can serve as a database for decision making within the framework of nature conservation. However, the decisions based on these data are often political in nature. This assignment is meant to make the students acquainted with on the one hand the process of scientific data collection on a taxon (and all related obstacles), and on the other hand to teach them to make decisions based on this information in a political setting. The assignment consists of three parts: 1) writing a fact sheet for a tropical organism that according to the student’s needs protection, 2) writing a counter report, describing why an organism does not need protection, and 3) a plenary session to decide which organisms will be protected.


Final exam assignment

This course does not have a standard, written exam at the end of the course. The students themselves can choose how they will show the professor that they have met the learning goals for this course. This means a written report, a movie, a presentation etc. They will carry out this assignment in a group. They are free to choose their partners for this assignment but they must be from the same tutorial group.

They are asked to write a proposal for their own exam assignment.

Assessment of learning:

Three grades will be assigned during this course:

  • group grade for the final exam assignment (60% of final grade).
  • individual fact-sheet grade (including the presentation; 20% of final grade).
  • individual counter-proposal grade (including the presentation; 20% of final grade).


For judging the students’ academic contribution particular attention will be paid to the following points:

  1. How prepared they are for tutorials: they have read the material and they have made notes. They can recall facts, terms, basic concepts, and answers from the texts they studied.
  2. Do they provide scientific references for all the knowledge they bring to class (author, year, journal)? For a higher level performance, the professor expect articles that are not on the ‘suggested reading’ list, to show that the students go beyond the information that is already provided. They can show their intellectual contribution on this by mentioning the references of their sources during the tutorial discussion since this is very important for a 3000 level module.
  3. Do they understand what they are talking about: i.e. can they explain concepts from the texts, draw diagrams etc. rather than simply reading out long passages from their notes (copied from papers). They demonstrate understanding of facts and ideas.
  4. Can they use their knowledge in a new context: they solve problems by applying the acquired knowledge, facts, techniques and rules in a different way. They connect information from different papers together into a coherent story; they can relate information in a tutorial to other tutorials and online modules. They can transfer knowledge from what they already know to a new situation.
  5. Can they make scientific inferences based on an analysis of what they learned: they break down knowledge into constituent parts. They determine how these parts relate to one another and to an overall structure or purpose to support generalisations.

There will be no standard exam in the final week of the course covering all treated study material. In this course, the student will select their own method of examination, to be discussed and agreed upon with the course coordinator.

Effect (witness account, evaluation of the course)

  • Standing up during PBL meetings helped me focus as a student dealing with ADHD. I really appreciated the required use of primary literature so that I could develop my scientific reading comprehension. I also appreciated the organization of this course everything was clear.
  • I really appreciated the setup of the tutorials and the final exam the most. I think other courses should try to structure their tutorials and the final exam more like this.
  • The course encouraged us a lot to participate through standing tutorials and assignments. I love the idea of TBPO, because it was very interesting and gave us an insight also on conservation and not only research.
  • The tasks were fun and always stimulated discussions. Additionally, the assessments were a great break from the usual essays and tests. Although they arguably take more effort to complete, it is much more rewarding and inspiring! I loved the IUCN assignment!
  • The course was extremely well organised which is essential and I’m very grateful for because it allows the student to enjoy the content more and actually pursue what they are interested in rather than have to struggle to obtain information from an unorganised teaching body.
Additional biblio sources

No textbook is required but the students might gain some help from textbooks used in other courses, such as:

Mauseth (2021). Botany, an introduction to plant biology, 7th edition. Jones & Bartlett Learning. (BIO2003).

Smith, T.M. & Smith, R.L. (2015). Elements of Ecology, 9th (Global) edition. Pearson. (BIO2002).

Campbell et al. (2015). Biology: a global approach, 10th edition (international edition). Pearson. (BIO1101).


Some background literature on conservation

Collen, B., Dulvy, N. K., Gaston, K. J., Gardenfors, U., Keith, D. A., Punt, A. E., . . . Akcakaya, H. R. (2016). Clarifying misconceptions of extinction risk assessment with the IUCN Red List. Biology Letters, 12(4). doi:10.1098/rsbl.2015.0843

Halpern, B. S., Pyke, C. R., Fox, H. E., Chris Haney, J., Schlaepfer, M. A., & Zaradic, P. (2006). Gaps and mismatches between global conservation priorities and spending. Conservation Biology, 20(1), 56-64. doi:10.1111/j.1523-1739.2005.00258.x

Krupnick, G. A. (2013). Conservation of tropical plant biodiversity: What have we done, where are we going? Biotropica, 45(6), 693-708. doi:10.1111/btp.12064

McClanahan, T. R., & Rankin, P. S. (2016). Geography of conservation spending, biodiversity, and culture. Conservation Biology, 30(5), 1089-1101. doi:10.1111/cobi.12720

Pienaar, E. F., Lew, D. K., & Wallmo, K. (2017). Intention to pay for the protection of threatened and endangered marine species: Implications for conservation program design. Ocean & Coastal Management, 138(Supplement C), 170-180. doi:

UNDP (2016). The 2016 BIOFIN Workbook: Mobilizing resources for biodiversity and sustainable development. The Biodiversity Finance Initiative. United Nations Development Programme: New York. [last accessed 09-10-2018]

Verspagen, N. & Erkens, R. H. J. (2022). Comprehensive plant IUCN Red List assessments: lessons from the Neotropical genus Guatteria. Plants, People, Planet. doi: 10.1002/ppp3.10309


Some background literature on CPS

Treffinger, D. J., Isaksen, S. G., & Dorval, K. B. (2006). Creative problem-solving: An introduction (4rd ed.). Waco, TX: Prufrock Press.

Syllabus Tropical Ecology 2022