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Yukon-Alaska Field Course

Module titleYukon-Alaska Field Course
Module codeBIO3419
Academic year2020/1
Module staff

Dr Regan Early (Convenor)

Duration: Term123
Duration: Weeks



Number students taking module (anticipated)


Description - summary of the module content

Module description

The Yukon Territory and Alaska are home to some of the largest remaining wilderness areas in the world, amazing wildlife spectacles, and have yielded major research breakthroughs in our understanding of ecology and evolution. In this field course we will explore wilderness habitats starting from the boreal forests, lakes, and taiga of Kluane Lake, through the alpine tundra and icefields of the St Elias mountain range, the coastal rainforest of southern Alaska, culminating in Sitka at the rocky shore and kelp forest of the Pacific ocean. You will study how these ecosystems formed and how they function. Along the way we shall try to spot moose, beaver, grey wolves, Canadian lynx, wolverine, pine marten, ptarmigan, Dall sheep, bald eagles, sea otters, humpback whales, and grizzly and black bears feasting on the migrating salmon. You will encounter key study systems including the coupled population dynamics of lynx and snowshoe hare, the behavioural ecology of Kluane red squirrels, and mountain habitats as indicators of climate change. You will develop your own research skills by undertaking field studies in terrestrial, freshwater, and marine environments, and by developing projects in small groups. Professional researchers, local experts, stakeholders and conservation NGOs will discuss with you the complexities of conserving wilderness given the conflicting interests of foresters, first nations people, trappers and hunters, the mining sector, fisheries, aquaculture, and oil companies. Studying a wealth of habitats at first hand offers the opportunity to gain essential skills for a career in conservation, evolutionary biology, or ecology.

To address the climate emergency and potential impact of this module we will aim for this field course to be carbon neutral. We aim to provide vegetarian/vegan food, use low emission transport wherever possible for internal travel, and encourage students to consider how they will manage their carbon impact over-and-above carbon offsetting. Students will also be encouraged to avoid single use plastics and other avoidable impacts on the local environment and engage in sustainable practices throughout.

When participating in field courses, you will be required to cover any visa costs and, if necessary, purchase anti-malarial medication and relevant immunisations. You will also need to provide your own specialist personal equipment appropriate to the field course destination, eg. walking boots, rucksack, mosquito net, sleeping bag, binoculars. Details of specialist equipment, vaccinations and visas that you must supply at your own expense are provided at

Module aims - intentions of the module

This module aims to develop your scientific knowledge and understanding of the ecology, evolution, and conservation of whole ecosystems. We will cover:

  • The ecological, evolutionary, and environmental processes that have formed the forests, lake, taiga, alpine tundra, coastal temperate rainforest, rocky shore and open water marine ecosystems we encounter.
  • The techniques used to study wildlife in terrestrial, freshwater, and marine wilderness environments.
  • The complexity of real-world conservation in the planet’s last remaining wildernesses, including adaptation to climate change.
  • Group research projects on an aspect of population and community ecology, conservation, or animal behaviour.
  • Communicating science to a wide audience.

The skills you gain from fieldwork in wilderness environments, teamwork, working with unfamiliar biodiversity, and working around the clock, will all stand you in good stead for careers in the environmental sector. Transferable skills to other sectors include:

  • problem solving (linking theory to practice, responding to novel and unfamiliar problems, data handling),
  • time management (managing time effectively individually and within a group),
  • collaboration (taking initiative and leading others, supporting others in their work),
  • self and peer review (taking responsibility for own learning, using feedback from multiple sources),
  • presentation skills and audience awareness (presenting ideas effectively in multiple formats).


  • Due to the fact that this is a field-based unit in difficult environments sometimes far from regular medical facilities it may present a challenge for students with impaired physical abilities or medical conditions. Such students wishing to choose this module should first read the accessibility statement on the module's ELE page, and if they have concern seek advice from the module co-ordinator.
  • Anyone choosing this module will need a reasonable level of fitness in order to be able to undertake the expedition.

Intended Learning Outcomes (ILOs)

ILO: Module-specific skills

On successfully completing the module you will be able to...

  • 1. Explain how major biomes are formed by modern-day conditions, ice-ages, fire, ecological and evolutionary processes, and human activities
  • 2. Describe how habitat use, climate, and interactions with other species determine the population dynamics of a range of flora and fauna
  • 3. Discuss the conservation challenges and successes that have occurred when protecting terrestrial and marine wilderness habitats, given the interests of foresters, first nations people, trappers and hunters, the mining sector, fisheries, aquaculture, and oil companies
  • 4. Identify and survey a diverse range of terrestrial, freshwater, and marine species using a range of census techniques
  • 5. Explain how wildlife has adapted to a strongly seasonal environment, including hibernation, migration, and caching

ILO: Discipline-specific skills

On successfully completing the module you will be able to...

  • 6. Describe in detail and analyse essential facts and theory across a sub-discipline of biosciences
  • 7. Analyse and evaluate independently a range of research-informed literature and synthesise research-informed examples from the literature into written work
  • 8. Identify and implement, with limited guidance, appropriate methodologies and theories for solving a range of complex problems in biosciences
  • 9. With minimal guidance, deploy established techniques of analysis, practical investigation, and enquiry within biosciences
  • 10. Describe and evaluate in detail approaches to our understanding of biosciences with reference to primary literature, reviews and research articles

ILO: Personal and key skills

On successfully completing the module you will be able to...

  • 11. Devise and sustain, with little guidance, a logical and reasoned argument with sound, convincing conclusions
  • 12. Communicate effectively arguments, evidence and conclusions using a variety of formats in a manner appropriate to the intended audience
  • 13. Analyse and evaluate appropriate data and complete a range of research-like tasks with limited guidance
  • 14. Work in a small team and deal proficiently with the issues that teamwork requires (i.e. communication, motivation, decision-making, awareness, responsibility, and management skills, including setting and working to deadlines)

Syllabus plan

Syllabus plan

A preparatory lecture will take place in term 3 of your second year.You will then submit a pre-field course fact sheet (one A4 page) by the end of term 3.

The field course will be based at two main locations:

  • Kluane Lake Research Station, Yukon, CA.
  • Sitka Sound Science Center, Alaska, USA.

The first six days of the course will be spent at Kluane Lake, a glacial lake that is a major stopover for migrating birds, and is at the foot of the St Elias mountain range. The lake is home to the wolf and raven clans of the Southern Tutchone first nations people, and experienced the gold rush in the 1900s. It is also experiencing global change, including changing wildfire patterns, and dropping water levels as climate change causes the glacier that feeds the lake to retreat. You will be introduced to the rich research heritage of the station, and spend daytimes exploring boreal forests, taiga, alpine tundra, and glacial lakes, studying both the ecology and conservation of each. We will spend a day hiking to see the Mount Logan icefields and explore how biodiversity is affected by climate in mountain ranges. In the evenings you will meet research and conservation experts, and discuss their cutting-edge research or the local conservation issues. Once you are familiar with the region you will plan and undertake a group research project, with guidance and support from academic staff.

We will then travel to Haines, Alaska, where we will catch the marine highway overnight to Sitka. Sitka is situated in an archipelago off the south west Alaskan coast, and surrounded by dramatic fjords and ice-capped mountains. The Science Center is on the outside edge of the ‘Inside Edge’ of the archipelago, close to the open Pacific Ocean. From Sitka you will hike through the coastal temperate rainforest of the Tongass region, be introduced to the fishery and aquaculture industries of the region. You will explore one of the most diverse rocky shores in the world, both on the land and in the water from kayaks. We will end with a marine mammal surveying boat session with local whale experts where humpbacks are seen in large numbers on their way to breed in Hawai’i.

On return to the UK you will individually produce a poster based on the results of the project. Posters will be presented to your colleagues in the Centre for Ecology and Conservation approximately three weeks after your return.

Learning and teaching

Learning activities and teaching methods (given in hours of study time)

Scheduled Learning and Teaching ActivitiesGuided independent studyPlacement / study abroad

Details of learning activities and teaching methods

CategoryHours of study timeDescription
Scheduled learning and teaching1Pre-field course lecture to prepare you academically and practically for the course
Scheduled learning and teaching100Field-based tutoring from members of the Centre for Ecology and Conservation in biodiversity, behaviour, ecology, conservation and other biological topics
Scheduled learning and teaching9Discussions led by in-country conservation experts (researchers and NGO staff)
Guided independent study190Additional reading and research and preparation for module assessments


Formative assessment

Form of assessmentSize of the assessment (eg length / duration)ILOs assessedFeedback method
Short answer questions during the field courseOngoing throughout the moduleAllOral
Seminars and discussionsContinuous assessment during the field courseAllOral

Summative assessment (% of credit)

CourseworkWritten examsPractical exams

Details of summative assessment

Form of assessment% of creditSize of the assessment (eg length / duration)ILOs assessedFeedback method
Pre-field course factsheet201 side of A4 (Size 12 font)1-7, 10-12Feedback sheet
Post-field course poster on project30Poster 1-14Feedback sheet
Essay501500 words1-7, 10-12Feedback sheet


Details of re-assessment (where required by referral or deferral)

Original form of assessmentForm of re-assessmentILOs re-assessedTimescale for re-assessment
Pre-field course factsheetFactsheet1-7, 10-12August assessment period
Post-field course posterPost-field course poster1-14August assessment period
Essay Essay 1-7, 10-12 August assessment period

Re-assessment notes

Deferral – if you miss an assessment for certificated reasons judged acceptable by the Mitigation Committee, you will normally be either deferred in the assessment or an extension may be granted.  The mark given for a re-assessment taken as a result of deferral will not be capped and will be treated as it would be if it were your first attempt at the assessment.

Referral – if you have failed the module overall (i.e. a final overall module mark of less than 40%) you will be required to submit a further assessment and/or re-submit a further factsheet and/or poster. The mark given for a re-assessment taken as a result of referral will be capped at 40%.


Indicative learning resources - Basic reading

  • Wolves of the Yukon (Bob Hayes)
  • Ancient Forests of the Pacific Northwest (Elliott A. Norse)
  • Beneath Cold Seas: the Underwater Wilderness of the Pacific Northwest
  • Tourist guides to travelling in the Yukon Territory and Sitka, Alaska
  • Field guides on any plant and animal group in the Yukon Territory and Sitka, Alaska
  • History of the First Nations people and their role in conservation

Evocative fiction, history, and autobiography:

  • Where the sea breaks its back (Corey Ford. Story of Vitus Bering's voyage to Alaska)
  • Call of the Wild (Jack London)
  • Reading the River: A Voyage Down the Yukon (John Hildebrand, a modern account of floating down the Yukon river)
  • Songs of a Sourdough (Robert W. Service, collection of poetry about the Klondike gold rush)

Indicative learning resources - Web based and electronic resources

Module has an active ELE page

Key words search

Behaviour, biome, climate, conservation, ecology, ecosystem, evolution, First Nations people, identification, marine, sampling and surveying, taiga, wilderness

Credit value30
Module ECTS


Module pre-requisites

BIO2426 Analysis of Biological Data

Module co-requisites


NQF level (module)


Available as distance learning?


Origin date


Last revision date