Life in the Sand: Desert Herpetology and Natural History | Field Projects International

Life in the Sand: Desert Herpetology and Natural History

Course Description

In this course, participants will develop an understanding of the natural history, conservation, and defining characteristics of reptiles and amphibians with a strong focus on desert-dwelling species. This course has a broad scope, and we aim explore species interactions within a diverse group of flora and fauna. There will be ample field time in the Chihuahua Desert, where a variety of field methods and techniques will be practiced. Course attendees will also have the benefit of exploring the Chiricahua Desert Museum, located a short distance from our field station, and are invited to take part in the CDM hosted scorpion conference during our stay. Students will be introduced to Herpetological conservation, discussing  program and research proposals, while further exploring career options in this dynamic field. We will also examine the role of chemicals in herpetological research on defense, food capture, tribal use, and modern pharmacology as chemical activity plays a strong role in amphibian and reptile diversity.

The mystique of these deserts have long been portrayed in movies and other media, but they are much more than dry, vast landscapes. This delicate ecosystem is teaming with wildlife, and plays an important role in our natural heritage. This course will also discuss the history and culture of the communities that settled in this region.

Course Details

  • Highlights
  • Topics
  • Faculty
  • Eligibility
  • Documents
  • Food & Lodging
  • Travel
  • Program Costs & Student Aid

    • Visit several unique sites known to offer views of a wide range of species. Bring your camera and ask lots of questions, as we will have many opportunities and photo sessions to ensure you bring home the best possible images of this once-in-a-lifetime experience.
    • The Chiricahua Desert Museum is offering free admission to the museum throughout the FPI Field Course. Students can utilize the museum to work on projects, practice their photography skills in the native garden, or simply explore the many galleries and wonders of the museum in their free time.
    • A late afternoon visit to the famous Sonoran Desert region of Arizona where students will be able to view an array of exclusive flora that define this region such as the saguaro cactus (Carnegiea gigantea).
    • Explore an archeological site! Take a step back in time and discover the diverse cultures and communities of the region.
    • Attend a conference and learn all about scorpions! Mingle with professionals and naturalists and discuss the desert biodiversity. Attendance is optional, you can also take the day to explore on your own, or relax with a good book in this beautiful environment.

This course will provide you with basic field skills and in-depth exposure to the conservation and ecology of desert herpetofauna. Specific topics include:

  • Field ethics and safety
  • Reptile and amphibian taxonomy
  • Reptile and amphibian survey, handling, and identification technique
  • Toxicology
  • Modern data collection and sampling procedures
  • Archeology
  • Natural history and conservation

Jennifer Stabile began her career as the reptile keeper at the Central Florida Zoo (CFZ), and soon developed a long-term partnership with Dr. Rafael Joglar at the University of Puerto Rico to preserve the island’s emblematic coquí through the establishment of captive colonies, staff exchange programs, education, and outreach.  She also worked with the Florida Wildlife Commission Research Institute (FWCRI) on tracking emerging amphibian pathogens, and more recently she was Director of Conservation at the San Antonio Zoo where she helped develop their Research and Conservation Center. While there she also pursued research partnerships with the University of Texas and the Gladys Porter Zoo to assess the relative abundance of the Black-spotted Newt. In 2016, she accepted a role as editor of the conservation section of Herpetological Review, and has been elected to serve as president of the International Herpetological Symposium (IHS). Read her full bio here.

Timothy D. Paine has thoroughly explored many diverse habitats throughout North and South America, from the Mojave desert to the Amazon rainforest, pursuing his lifelong interest in reptiles and amphibians. Having started his journey in the western U.S., his passion for herps has spanned more than 20 years and led him to participate in conservation and education projects, collaborate on surveys, and continually search for rare species in Costa Rica, Perú, Panama, Bolivia, Brazil, Ecuador, and Chile. His herpetological expertise is well complemented by his dual interest in photography, and he has had images featured in gallery exhibits and educational settings, as well as published in small non-profit publications and esteemed scientific journals. Read his full bio here.

There are a few simple requirements to determine eligibility for this course:

  • You must be at least 18 years of age at the time of the course.
  • You must have medical insurance, and provide proof of such insurance to us to complete your reservation.
  • We have no citizenship requirements. Anyone is welcome to apply. You must obtain visas independently if necessary.
  • You do not need any training in biology – our course is structured to accommodate people from a variety of backgrounds.
  • Courses have a maximum capacity of 12 participants. If you are concerned that you will lose your spot, please contact us to confirm how many spots we have left.

  • Course readings: Refer to the syllabus
  • Course syllabus: Available on or after January 1
  • Download our Sexual and Gender-Based Policy: HERE
  • Download our Student Policy Manual: HERE

Lodging for the first night and last night of the course are spent in standard hotels in Tucson, Arizona. Participants share a hotel room with one or two others depending on its size. For the bulk of the course, students are staying at the Chiricahua Mountain Lodge in fully furnished apartments with bathrooms, kitchens, common areas, laundry facilities, and wifi access. Three meals a day will be provided will be prepared by the lodge. It is fairly easy to accommodate dietary restrictions on this course.

If your mood depends on having a private stash of consumable energy throughout the day, then we encourage you to pack your own supply of Cliff, Luna bars, fruit snacks (or the like) to bring with you. We have a zero-tolerance policy for litter, so plan to carry any garbage you produce for the entire day until we reach a waste disposal site.

International Air Travel: Getting to the USA from a different country is accomplished primarily by air. We recommend using Kayak, OrbitzExpedia (or the like) to book your flights online. We normally do not suggest booking flights until 1 – 1.5 months prior to the course start date, but if you require more advanced booking please get in touch with FPI staff who can provide you with updated information on enrollments and overall course status. When booking international travel, make sure that you leave enough local transit time to arrive at Tucson, Arizona, on August 4. Do not book return travel until the afternoon of August 11, at the earliest, as we will only return to Tucson that morning.

Local Air Travel: You may drive, fly, or take a bus to Tucson, Arizona, arriving on August 4, or any day prior.  If you arrive prior to the course start date of August 4, you will be responsible for your own food and accommodation. Do not book return travel until the afternoon of August 11, at the earliest, as we will only return to Tucson that morning.

As with all of our courses, a comprehensive travel document will be emailed to all course participants several weeks prior to the start of the course.

Please see the FAQs below to obtain additional information on travel and how to prepare for this course.

The fee for this course is $2000 and is due in full 6-weeks after online registration or on June 23, whichever comes sooner. The course fee includes the following:

  • Food and lodging for the entire course.
  • Round-trip transportation from Tucson to the field sites.
  • Experienced instructors and field equipment.

This course fee does NOT include:

  • International travel to the USA.
  • Travel to/from Tucson, Arizona, to start or depart the course
  • Travel or health insurance (proof of health insurance is required for course attendance).
  • Boots, binoculars, flashlight, sunscreen and insect repellent (all of which are required to take this course).

There are two ways to obtain financial assistance for attending this field course. You may participate in both of these programs simultaneously as follows:

  • Scholarships: We are offering a single Tab Rasmussen scholarship to participate in this class. For the application details, please visit our scholarships page.
  • Fundraising: FPI can now provide a peer-to-peer crowdfunding platform for all field course students. You will be able to make your fundraising page to share with your contacts and social networks. At the end of the fundraising period, FPI will issue a discount code to you for 100% of the funds that you have raised. You would then enter this code as you make your final course payment. If you raise enough to cover all (or part) of your initial reservation fee, you would be refunded that portion as well. Please note that funds raised in excess of your program fees will be rolled into our scholarship fund. Also, if you withdraw from the course at any time, your donors cannot get a refund. In this case, all of those funds would also roll over into our scholarship fund for other students. To set up this option, please register for a course, first, and then contact us at to set up your fundraising page.

Please read our cancellation policy carefully before applying to a field course:

  • $100 of your deposit made during registration is a processing fee that is nonrefundable under any circumstances. If you do not make full payment of the course fee by the prescribed date, the processing fee is forfeited and you will have to re-register, costing an additional $100.
  • If you cancel your reservation on or before June 23, you will be refunded 40% of your course fee.
  • Course fees cannot be refunded after June 23.
  • If FPI has to cancel this course due to mitigating reasons, a full refund of all fees paid, including the registration fee, will be made available to all participants.
  • Early departures from the field course are not entitled to a refund for any reason.


Frequently Asked Questions

If you don’t find the answers you are looking for below, please contact us.

Course Benefits

Can I get credit for this course?

Participants can acquire credit directly from their universities. You would provide your university with the course syllabus, and the school may decide to accept the instructor’s grade and issue credit for the course. For more details on obtaining credit or deciding if credit is for you, please email us at

I'm an international student, so how about course credit for me?

The United States university system runs on credits – typically 2 to 4 per class. A student needs a certain number of credits to graduate with a bachelors’ degree eventually. However, this system has little to no meaning outside the US itself, and thus, when we offer credits, we are primarily targeting those students within the US to whom this is relevant. Course credit is therefore only available to students in the US, or possibly countries like Canada, who can transfer credits from US Universities to their institutions to apply towards their degrees.

For all other students — and there have been plenty who have attended our courses — you receive many other benefits to taking the course, such as:

  1. A certificate from FPI showing that you attended and completed the course
  2. A detailed report of your performance and your final grade, which you can share with future employers or anyone else in any manner you wish to.

To be clear: You are not required to sign up for credits in the US university system if you come from a country in which this system is itself not recognised. Furthermore, there is no requirement for US students to take this course for credit either. Course credit is an optional item and will incur credit fees from the university in question.

Why else take this course?

Apart from the valuable skills, knowledge, and experience, you will acquire, FPI encourages alumni to network, support, and collaborate with each other after the course is done.  Also, our staff remains available for academic and career advice. Many of our alumni have returned as research assistants, and later even joined us as research collaborators, field team leaders, and instructors.

In addition to the specific training that will benefit those going into many fields, our courses also entail pushing yourself beyond your comfort zone and are challenging both mentally and physically. Furthermore, this is a chance to visit remote field sites across fascinating landscapes, observing and learning about diverse life forms throughout.

Preparing to travel to the USA

Do I need a visa?

Every country has different requirements for visitors, depending on their citizenship. Foreign nationals are required to have a valid passport, visa, or green card to enter the country.  To find out what regulations apply to you, please contact the US consulate in your home country.

What should I bring with me?

Download a packing list here. Please read sections below for explanations for each item as well.
What's the lowdown on footwear?

Durable, breathable, hiking shoes are needed. Closed toed sneakers around field station are fine, but sandals are not recommended.

What kind of luggage should I use?

Suitcases or duffel bags are fine, just make sure you are able to personally carry what you bring without assistance.

What do I need in the desert?

The most important things you need in the field that we will NOT be providing are your daypack, a water bottle, insect repellent, SUNSCREEN, hat, sun glasses, rain jacket/poncho, binoculars, flashlight. Additionally, a laptop or something similar can be extremely helpful, as will be a digital watch with a repeat timer. Check your packing list for more details. Also, some things to consider bringing include a penknife (check it in, don’t hand carry – it will get caught), a bandana, and some energy bars as an extra snack.

What about battery-operated equipment?

You will need to use a battery-operated headlamp with LEDs on this course. This headlamp will be your best friend and is useful since it is hands-free. If you’re interested in seeing wildlife at night, bring one that is bright, and that has a red light option, as the red light scares nocturnal animals a lot less. Headlamps will need batteries, and we strongly suggest that you bring rechargeable batteries with you.  This means that you must also obtain a small battery charger. If you can’t and have to bring regular batteries, please buy energy efficient ones so you use as few as possible, since you will have to take all batteries back with you and recycle them (you cannot leave them at the field station).

Do I need a watch or alarm clock?

Yes. Make sure that you have something extremely reliable as an alarm clock – whether you use your phone or watch is up to you. 

What is the weather going to be like?

The region is known for its warm temperatures, and this course is taking place during the warm monsoon season. Expect to be warm but also be prepared for heavy and unpredictable downpours. It is always a good idea to pack some warmer items, because daily temperature ranges vary and it can get chilly after dark.

What medications should I bring?

The field site and the course does not provide any medications to students. As such, you must bring what you might need.  These items could include:

– A course of broad-spectrum antibiotics (ciprofloxacin is a common and effective one)

– A course of antibiotics for digestive trouble, and a small number of pills of Immodium (to be used in emergencies only)

– Electrolyte/rehydration packs (hint: the juice flavoured ones are much nicer than the medical ones)

– Anti-fungal cream/powder (effective on yeast), particularly if you are prone to these infections

– Anti-itch medication: over-the-counter lotions are ok

– Antacids to comfort your stomach

– Band-aids, tweezers

–  An Epi-pen if you are allergic to anything at all

– Antihistamines to be taken in case of mild allergies (something like Claritin/ Zyrtec)

What vaccinations do I need?

You will have to provide proof of a regular vaccination record (as listed here by the CDC). There are no special vaccinations required for this course.

What about health and safety?

We take the health and safety of all participants very seriously.  We look out for each other and take care of our students. The field sites have stringent protocols on safety procedures in the case of an emergency that we are obliged to follow. For specific emergency protocols, please contact us at

Neither the field station nor Field Projects International will be responsible for costs associated with medical emergencies. Before being accepted to the program, applicants must submit a brief medical history evaluation. This is not meant to discriminate against people, but instead to protect them from being in a situation where they are at a severe or life-threatening disadvantage.

All participants must sign a participation contract, without which applicants cannot participate in our courses or research programs. We make special references to an alcohol policy in our participation contract – we have a zero tolerance policy at this field station. You will also sign a sexual and gender-based misconduct contract (and so will your supervisors). This is not to suggest that this issue is a problem at this field site in particular. However, there has been a large amount of reporting on these matters in the press of late, and we want to assure you that we take any such violations extremely seriously. We want our participants to be as safe and comfortable as possible.

Field Station Amenities

Do I need to bring linens and towels?

The lodge will provide the basics such as bed linens and towells. However, if you have a travel towel it doesn’t hurt to pack it.
How do I care for electronics at the field stations?

We strongly encourage you to bring your laptops on this course, as well as your cell phones. They will come in handy for data entry, entertainment, assignments and for checking email. Due to the intermittent/slow nature of the internet, as well as the need to use Garmin Basecamp software, Chromebooks are not recommended.

Make sure that your electronics will work with USA plugs and standard voltage

Is there internet at the lodge?

Yes, although sometimes it can be slow
Is there phone service at the lodge?


How do I do laundry at the field stations?

There are standard do-it-yourself laundry facilities at the lodge.

Course Information
  • Course Id:2 Credit Equivalency
  • Location:The Chiricahuas, AZ & NM
  • Dates:August 4 - 11, 2019
  • Duration:8 days
  • Deadline:May 15, 2018
  • Language:English
8/4: Arrive in Tucson, visit Sonoran Desert
8/5: Travel to Rodeo, Tour CDM
8/6-8/9: Field activities and excursions
8/10: Scorpion Conference
8/11: Back to Tucson, depart for home

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