Semester in Wildlife Ecology and Conservation

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Apply cutting-edge field techniques to survey species in the wild and investigate ecological patterns and processes from local to global scales

Semester Focus and Learning Objectives:

Practical, hands-on knowledge of the tools used to survey species and habitats is crucial for conservation managers and practitioners. In this 16-week program, students apply a variety of techniques for the assessment, monitoring and conservation of species and habitats using specific case studies. They will learn how to set management and monitoring goals and assess stakeholders in decision-making processes. They will use a macrosystems ecology approach to understand environmental dynamics across landscapes, and how landscape structure and ecosystem processes influence the presence, distribution, and abundance of species across spatial and temporal scales. The semester concludes with a 4-week independent research experience conducted under the guidance of a conservation mentor.

In this semester program, students will:

  • Develop field skills in surveying plants, insects, birds, fish, herpetofauna, and mammals
  • Evaluate inventory, assessment and experimental designs to monitor different taxa
  • Examine ecological processes and species distributions across spatial and temporal scales and analyze patterns of global environmental change
  • Engage in professional development and synthesize theoretical concepts and current issues in conservation

Typical Topics and Activities:

              • Evaluate bird movement and presence using point counts, radio-telemetry and acoustic monitoring
              • Assess frog and disease presence through non-invasive genetic techniques
              • Detect large and small mammals using camera traps and distance sampling
              • Test water quality and impacts on fish and turtle distribution and abundance
              • Quantify landscape patterns related to fragmentation and loss, and the impacts of land use
              • Apply skills in the use of remote sensing technology and region-wide data networks
              • Develop an analysis of habitat suitability and a proposed protected area for endangered species or habitats


Prerequisites include coursework to demonstrate a commitment to and understanding of conservation-related disciplines, with at least one upper level ecology course (BIOL 308, EVPP 301+302, INTS 401, permission from instructor, or equivalent upper level ecology course from an accredited University or College). Successful completion of the Conservation, Biodiversity and Society semester will also serve as an alternate to an ecology course.This semester is being offered to third- and fourth-year undergraduates and post-baccalaureate students. Students should have completed at least 60 credit hours of undergraduate classes. Students must sign up for all Smithsonian-Mason Semester courses in a given program of study.


In this 15-week program, students attend two core courses (CONS 404 & CONS 405) in succession. In addition, the Seminar course (CONS 400) meets throughout the semester, and the Research course (CONS 496) takes place during the last 5 weeks of the semester.

Biodiversity Monitoring CONS 404 (Weeks 1-5) (4 credits)

Students will practice field techniques for surveying plants, insects, birds, fish, herpetofauna, and mammals. They will also assess biodiversity and habitat quality in forest, grassland, and aquatic systems in order to develop and evaluate a monitoring plan for species or habitats of conservation concern.

Landscape and Macrosystems Ecology CONS 405 (Weeks 6-10) (4 credits)

Students will learn how to characterize landscape and ecosystem patterns and processes across spatial and temporal scales using remote sensing technology and networks of region-wide data collection. They will analyze patterns of global environmental change and propose sustainable landscape-level solutions for threatened species and habitats.

Conservation Seminar CONS 400 (Weeks 1-15) (2 credits)

In this weekly seminar, students will discuss current conservation literature and develop professional skills and conservation career-focused skills such as networking, fundraising, grant writing, written communication in various media, and big data management.

Research in Conservation CONS 496 (Weeks 11-15) (5 credits)

Students will pursue an independent research project under the guidance of a conservation mentor and produce a scholarly work to share with the professional conservation community.