Field Studies in Behavioural Ecology: Darwin

Course codes: 

This trip is part of an Honours Pathway Course that gives students hands-on experience of researching the behaviour of free-living animals. Students will work in groups to develop questions and the methods of answering them during a one week intensive on campus and then collect data for their chosen project during a two week field trip to Darwin, Northern Territory. The course emphasises the design and effective reporting of scientific research, and will expose students to the entire process, from identifying a question, designing an experiment, collecting data, interpreting results, and writing the work up in the form of a publishable paper. It provides invaluable experience of the scientific process, but it also introduces students to the fascinating fields of animal behaviour and tropical biology.

Research projects have included: 

  • Anti-predator behaviour in kangaroos
  • Foraging behaviour of antlions
  • Sex differences in bird vigilance
  • Social foraging in seagulls
  • Song and alarm calls in birds
  • Schooling behaviour in fish
How to participate: 

Enrolment in the relevant course is limited and selection will be based on merit. Please fill in an expression of interest form. Application will be opened early in December and closed at the end of March. Students will be notified of the outcome in April. For more information, please email

If you can't participate: 

The field trip is compulsory and makes up the majority of the course. If you cannot participate, please consider other biology courses.

This is a consultation draft based on information for the trip during Winter session, 2020. It has not been approved and should not be relied on for accurate information.
Last updated: 
27 February 2020

Interested in participating? Read on

Participating in trips can be a highlight of your university experience, however it is also important to think carefully about whether it is the right decision for you at this point in time. This page is to help you understand what the trip involves, so you can make an informed decision. The information is accurate to the best of our ability, however please be aware that trip plans can change at the last minute. If this may cause issues for you or you need additional information, please talk to the course convenor.

How we can help you participate

For most of our trips, there are lots of options for flexibility that may make it easier for you to take part. This page will tell you about some of them.  Keep in mind, it is not possible for us to anticipate every individual circumstance, so please contact the course convenor if you have other ideas for how we could help you participate. If you would like support discussing your needs with the course convenor or if your discussion didn't go as you expected, please contact the school accessibility contact.

Course convener

Convener: Patricia Backwell



Activity sites: mangroves, forests and grassland

Data collection will be in reserves in and around Darwin, Northern Territory. Some projects take place in the mangrove forests around Darwin, others are in shaded forest habitats, some are in open grassland. Group discussions and analysis will take place at the research station, which is a quiet campus with large gardens, a swimming pool, a designated smoking area, and outdoor chairs and tables.  Darwin is hot. During the field trip, the temperatures are likely to be 30 - 32°C.  There are public toilets available at the field sites. Ask the convenor for directions.

All areas of the research station are easily accessible (except one house which is upstairs).  Students will be given information about individual projects, so they will be able to select a project that suits their abilities. Some projects require the students to walk fairly long distances, but others require very little walking.  Students will need to walk from the vehicle to the study site (the distance depends on the project selected but at minimum it will be 500 m on a paved path). 

Students who have difficulty with mobility in the field should discuss this with the course convener prior to the trip, even if they can cover the distance described above. The convener will take the students' needs into account if the trip plans change (e.g. due to weather) and in emergency situations. Students with sensory impairments that impact their ability to identify hazards or follow emergency instructions must discuss this with the course convenor prior to submitting an application so we can investigate ways for you to safely participate. Given the remote location of the trip, it may be challenging to do so: the earlier you talk to us, the more likely we are to find an option that works.

Accommodation: to be confirmed

The accommodation is currently being confirmed. Please check back soon for details regarding the venue.

Travel: plane (or alternative) and car 

Students will organise their own travel to and from Darwin, but the university will organise the transport by car once they are in Darwin. 

Students will be expected to arrive on a particular day and (preferably) at a particular time. We will be reasonably flexible with arrival times and lifts from the airport. We will be unable to provide accommodation for students who arrive earlier (or leave later) than the field-trip duration.

If students are unable to fly to Darwin, there are two alternatives: a train service from Canberra to Adelaide and then Adelaide to Darwin; or a bus (although the trip is extremely long and not on a direct route). 

Transport around Darin will be short trips only. If a student needs accessible transport, they should talk to the course convener before the trip so that it can be arranged in advance. 

Food: to be determined 

The food arrangements will be confirmed once the accommodation has been finalised. Students may need to purchase their own food or contribute to preparing food supplied by the university. If you have a very restrictive diet or allergies to the food other people eat, please discuss this with the convenor before applying, so we can investigate the food options available.

Cost: Approximately $550 

The cost of the field trip will be be approximately $550 - the exact amount will be confirmed after the accommodation venue is finalised.  This is in addition to course tuition fees. Students will also have to pay for their own flights to and from Darwin and may have to purchase their own food during the trip.

Health and wellbeing

Look after yourself: two weeks away

Two weeks is a long time to be away from support networks and students are strongly encouraged to think about how they will manage their physical and mental health while on the trip. Students will be asked to fill out a pre-excursion form and it is very important that you report any existing or potential health issues. This information will assist our first aid officers to support you if you require it. If you need assistance storing equipment or medication, you will need to discuss this before the trip. We can also arrange  transport if you need to access medical facilities, however please be aware that the university's insurance policy does not cover pre-existing conditions.

During the course we will be working with animals in the field.  Students will be given a schedule of activities before the trip and need to talk to the convenor before the trip if any may cause a risk to their physical or mental health. We will look for ways for you to safely participate, and if this isn't possible, can develop alternatives that allow you to sit out individual activities. 

You will be living and working in close quarters with other students throughout the trip. For safety reasons, there are restrictions on when you can spend time on your own.  The gardens at NARU are quiet and peaceful; students are welcome to wander around the grounds if they need some time alone. If you need more time alone or to make calls in private, please talk to the course convener and we will try to work something out.

Look out for each other: lots of group work and respecting other students

You will work closely with the other members of your project team throughout the trip. As a group, you will plan your project, collect data and analyse the results. Staff members will guide you through this process and can help resolve disagreements between group members, however some people may find this level of collaboration particularly challenging. If you think this may be the case for you, please discuss this with the course convener prior to submitting an application. 

You will be working and living alongside a small group of people for a considerable length of time. Students must act in a professional, respectful and responsible way at all times during the activity.

Workload: full days in the field

On a typical day, groups of students (4-6 per group) will travel by car to their field site (along with their tutor) and will collect data on their chosen project. There will be opportunities for students to take breaks. If you may have difficulties with physical and/or mental endurance, please talk to the course convener prior to submitting an application. Some projects are less demanding or have more opportunity for flexibility to allow for rest breaks during the trip. 

The amount of time spent in the field, and the time of day spent in the field, will depend on the project selected. As a guide, students will spend four hours in the morning (8am - noon) and three hours in the afternoon (1 - 4pm) collecting data. There will be breaks for lunch and relaxing. 

Clothes: hot weather

Students should wear light clothing (due to the heat). Students should bring their own sunscreen and insect repellent, and apply these on exposed parts of their bodies. When working in the tropics, some people opt to wear long sleeved shirts and trousers to avoid sunburn; others choose to wear shorts and a t-shirt (and apply sunscreen). 

All clothes taken on the field trip should be casual, cheap or old. Fieldwork clothes may get damaged, sun-bleached or filthy.  

Shoes should be open (due to the heat) but strapped to the foot (for ease of walking). Thongs can be worn at the research station, but strap-on sandels are best for the data collection trips. 

Tasks and activities

Observing animals in the field

Data collection will generally involve observations and field experiments. Students with impaired senses can be assisted by other group members. Talk to the convener about the options prior to selecting a project, as there may be greater flexibility in some projects compared to others.

Using equipment to complete projects

Depending on the project they have chosen, students may need to watch animals through binoculars; catch and mark animals; or set up experimental equipment. Students that find it difficult to complete these tasks can be assisted by others in the group.  Students should speak to the convener before selecting a project if they may need assistance with any of these tasks.

Classroom and field presentations and discussions

Group discussions and tutorials will be held at the accommodation. Students will also be required to participate in discussions in a variety of forms (including small group discussions) while working in the field. If you think that you may have difficulty doing this, please discuss this with the course convener before submitting an application so we can investigate ways to help you.

Reading journal articles

Students will need to read the literature on their chosen topic of research, which can be accessed electronically. If you need articles in accessible formats, please discuss this with the course convenor prior to the trip.

Handwritten field notes

Students may be required to take handwritten field notes and/or record data while working in the field. If you think that you may be unable to do this, please talk to the course convenor about alternatives (e.g. using an electronic device, recording verbal observations to write up later).

Statistical analysis and word processing

Students should bring their own laptop computers. They will need to write up reports, including the final report in the form of a publishable paper. The computer programs they will be required to use are: Word; Excel; and a statistical package of their choice (R, JMP, SPSS etc.)

Executing group projects

This course involves students working on a single large project. Students will have the opportunity to choose from one of the project areas identified by the convenor and will plan their project during the pre-trip intensive. They are guided and supported by tutors throughout the process. Most of the work is done in close collaboration with 4-6 other group members. Each student is required to contribute to every stage of the group project (design, data collection, analysis, interpretation), but will work independently to write up the final report. 

All students are expected to contribute equally to the project overall (but not necessarily to each phase of the process). Students with difficulties contributing to any phase of the project will have the opportunity to take on more duties in other phases.

Handling animals

Students have the opportunity to select the project they will work on. If they do not wish to handle live animals, they will have the option of selecting a project that does not require them to do this. 

Some students may find it confronting to experiment on animals. None of the projects involve killing, harming or dissecting any animal. All projects are run on a strictly ethical basis: no harm is done to any animal, no excessive handling of animals or any unnecessary disturbance to animal's lives. All the projects will be run under animal ethics approvals.