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Northern Spain Field Course

Module titleNorthern Spain Field Course
Module codeBIO3429
Academic year2020/1
Module staff

Professor Tom Tregenza (Convenor)

Duration: Term123
Duration: Weeks



Number students taking module (anticipated)


Description - summary of the module content

Module description

Northern Spain is a fabulously diverse region both geographically and biologically. The rugged coast has rocky and soft sediment shores, with a string of major estuaries fed by rivers flowing from the Cantabrian mountain range. The mountains include numerous peaks of over 2000 metres and form an escarpment to the central Iberian plain, which can be reached in a few hours’ drive. Bears, otters, chamois and numerous birds of prey can be reliably encountered and the ferry journey from Plymouth provides unique opportunities for surveys of pelagic marine species including great whales.

We have developed this course with the specific aim of having a low carbon footprint at the same time as exploring a unique range of marine and terrestrial environments.  We will travel by public transport to Plymouth, and the ferry to Santander is of a modern type which emits less than 1/3 of the CO2 of the equivalent flight and less than travelling to Spain by train.  We will arrive very close to where we will begin the course and road travel in multiple-occupancy mini-buses will be <100km per day.  We will avoid mammal based protein sources as much as possible.  Students will also be encouraged to avoid single use plastics and other avoidable impacts on the local environment and engage in sustainable practices throughout.

This field course will focus on techniques for surveying marine and terrestrial habitats and designing studies to answer questions in evolution, ecology and conservation. You will conduct small group projects to examine behaviour and interactions of animals and plants and quantify characteristics of habitats, conducting observational and experimental studies. The module involves walks, coastal sampling exercises, small-group projects, discussions and presentations. Once back in the UK, you will present an individual poster on your project, and a short video made in a small group on a topic of interest to you.

Since this is a field-based module in remote environments with some mountainous routes and fieldwork on rocky and soft-sediment shores, it may present a challenge for students with impaired physical abilities. Such students wishing to choose this module should seek advice from the module co-ordinator – details of accessibility issues are provided on the module ELE page.

To address the climate emergency and potential impact of this module we aim to make this field course 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 if you are a non-UK or EU resident.  No anti-malarial medication or immunisations are required for the course. You will need to provide walking boots, rucksack, and binoculars (some of which will be available for loan from the teaching lab). Details of specialist equipment, vaccinations and visas that you must supply at your own expense are provided at

Module aims - intentions of the module

The module aims to develop your scientific knowledge and understanding, and in particular your capacity to conduct research within three main areas of biology: evolutionary ecology, behaviour, and conservation, as they apply to both marine and terrestrial habitats.

You will learn and practice techniques for sampling approaches to transect surveys of oceanic wildlife, and for quantifying features of rocky and soft-sediment shores. We will design and execute studies of animal behaviour, considering how to develop hypotheses, to identify exclusive predictions and to maximise the power of our studies.

Independent research projects will form a major part of the module and will be carried out in characteristic regional habitats including both rocky and sandy shores.

The conservation aspects of the field course are driven by research that is currently taking place in Northern Spain, and you will have the opportunity to learn from local experts and researchers and engage in projects of relevance to the environmental challenges faced by the region. These include pressure on fisheries and weighing the benefits of tourism and local interest in charismatic wildlife such as bears and wolves against their need to remain undisturbed.

The teaching contributions on this module involve elements of research undertaken by module staff, such as work on insect behaviour in the wild (Tregenza) and population genetics (Lowe). Moreover, you are encouraged to undertake enquiry-led learning, specifically through practicals we will design as a group and through your research project.

This module will strengthen employability potential, through the application planning and execution skills in the design of your research project, and through skills acquired in the design and execution of your poster and video assignments. It will provide you with skills in ecological sampling and survey techniques beneficial to a career in the environment or conservation. The opportunity to design and carry out your own project is good preparation for future employment in research-led jobs. Overall you will learn transferable skills such as team-working, how to present ideas using a variety of media, and time management skills which are beneficial in most working environments.

Intended Learning Outcomes (ILOs)

ILO: Module-specific skills

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

  • 1. Design and execute a study to test a specific hypothesis about the behavioural ecology, distribution or adaptation of animals or plants in the field
  • 2. Design and execute a marine transect and present and analyse your findings
  • 3. Describe in detail the adaptations and constraints on adaptation of biodiversity across a range of environmental conditions within a single geographical region

ILO: Discipline-specific skills

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

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

  • 9. Devise and sustain, with little guidance, a logical and reasoned argument with sound, convincing conclusions
  • 10. Communicate effectively arguments, evidence and conclusions using a variety of formats in a manner appropriate to the intended audience
  • 11. Analyse and evaluate appropriate data and complete a range of research-like tasks with very limited guidance
  • 12. Evaluate own strengths and weaknesses in relation to graduate-level professional and practical skills, and act autonomously to develop new areas of skills as necessary
  • 13. Reflect effectively and independently on learning experiences and evaluate personal achievements
  • 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

One preparatory lecture in Term 2

This field course will take place in the first two weeks of September, possibly including the last few days of August. It will exploit the ferry journey from Plymouth to Santander as an opportunity to conduct a major marine transect. It will include visits to a number of characteristic marine and terrestrial habitats and conservation areas to learn practical techniques and conduct independent research on adaptations, phenology, ecology, animal behaviour, and conservation.

Indicative plan:

  • Ferry from Plymouth to Santander (four person cabins)
  • hostel accommodation on Cantabrian coast – coastal environment sampling practicals, trip to interior for behavioural ecology practical.
  • hostel accommodation between Picos de Europa national park and coast – group projects.
  • hostel accommodation in Somiedo biosphere reserve bear spotting and discussion of the conservation issues relating to European Brown Bears.

Accommodation will be in hostels and apartments on the island, transport using cars or people carriers driven by staff from the Centre for Ecology and Conservation (CEC). CEC staff will provide leadership and tutoring throughout.

Throughout the module you will participate in practical exercises and discussion groups. There is no summative assessment on the module itself.

On return to the UK you will produce an individual poster based on your project which will be assessed 2-3 weeks after return from the trip. You will also prepare a short video piece as a group which will be presented later in Term 1.

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 Teaching2Pre-field course lectures to prepare you academically and practically for the module
Scheduled Learning and Teaching103Field-based tutoring from members of CEC in taxonomy, behaviour, ecology, conservation and evolution
Scheduled Learning and Teaching10Seminars /discussions whilst on the module
Guided Independent Study185Additional reading, research and preparation for module assessments


Formative assessment

Form of assessmentSize of the assessment (eg length / duration)ILOs assessedFeedback method
General discussion and questions during field courseOngoing throughout moduleAllOral
Contribution to project design4 days of project workAllOral
Presentation during field course8-10 minutesAllOral

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
Post-fieldwork group video153 minutes1-11Written
Post-fieldwork individual poster35Poster1-11Written
Essay501500 words1-11Written on request


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

Original form of assessmentForm of re-assessmentILOs re-assessedTimescale for re-assessment
Post-fieldwork group videoPost-field course press release (individual work)1-11August assessment period
Post-fieldwork individual posterPost-fieldwork poster1-11August assessment period
EssayEssay1-11August 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 essay assessment and/or re-submit the poster, and/or submit a press release in place of the video as necessary. The mark given for a re-assessment taken as a result of referral will be capped at 40%.


Indicative learning resources - Basic reading

  • Sutherland, W J (ed) (2006) Ecological Census Techniques ISBN 978-0521606363
  • Probert (2017) Marine Conservation. Cambridge ISBN: 9781108412629

Indicative learning resources - Web based and electronic resources

Module has an active ELE page

Key words search

Marine biology, evolutionary ecology, behavioural ecology, conservation, biodiversity, field observation, field sampling, experimental design

Credit value30
Module ECTS


Module pre-requisites

BIO1429 Evolution; BIO2426 Analysis of Biological Data

Module co-requisites


NQF level (module)


Available as distance learning?


Origin date


Last revision date