students watching the view from the top of Mont-Saint-Hilaire

Ecology & Behaviour

About the Course

Mont St Hilaire
June 10-21, 2024

What To Expect

This is a summer term field course that makes use of the old-growth and successional forest, lake and stream habitats at the Gault Nature Reserve in Mont Saint-Hilaire, Quebec, about 45 minutes outside Montreal. Staff and students live at the field station for two weeks. Arrangements will depend on the public health situation at that time. Two to four professors and a TA are involved in teaching the course. In general the professors represent a mix of experience and interests in ecology and animal behaviour, and in terrestrial and aquatic systems. The primary aim of the course is to provide training in basic methods for the quantitative study of ecological systems and the testing of hypotheses in nature. The course consists of a series of modules in which small groups of students and individual professors together explore a scientific problem in the field.

In the process, students are exposed to the concept of hypothesis testing, experimental design, and basic methods of sampling in the areas of ecology and animal behaviour. During the last 2-3 days of the course, students work individually or in small teams to do a short research project on a problem of interest to them. Help with the development of projects, and their execution, will be given by the professors and TA. The project is written up independently by each individual student. The course mark is based on participation during the two field weeks and on the project report.

The course syllabus will provide information on getting to the reserve and what to bring with you.


The course is open to all students who have taken Biology of Organisms (BIOL 206 or equivalent), Ecology and Evolution (BIOL 215) or their equivalents. Students who have taken ENVR 200 and ENVR 202 in the McGill School of Environment can substitute these courses for BIOL 215, but will still need to have taken BIOL 206 or some other course that teaches basic statistics. If you have taken BIOL 373 or some other introductory statistics course, it is not necessary to have taken BIOL 206. In general this course works best for students starting their U3 year who have had some advanced training in ecology and/or animal behaviour such as BIOL 308 (Ecological Dynamics), BIOL 307 (Behavioural Ecology) and/or BIOL 306 (Neurobiology and Behaviour). It also is useful to have some experience or courses in plant and animal identification, soils, hydrology and the like but these are not requirements. Taking BIOL 331 at the start of your U2 year is possible, but often proves less satisfying than if you wait until you have had more background in advanced courses.

The course instructors for 2024 are Dr. Rowan Barrett and Dr. Anna Hargreaves (Course Coordinators), and Dr. Catherine Potvin. Please contact Dr. Rowan Barrett (rowan.barrett [at] if you have any questions about the course.

Registration and Fees

To register on MINERVA, you must first complete the application form. Once your application and deposit are received, then you will be authorized to register on MINERVA. The course follows the standard MINERVA procedure for fall term courses, but you will not be allowed to register in MINERVA until you turn in your application form and deposit.

Fill out the online application form. The sooner you submit your application form and deposit, the better as spaces in the course are limited. The course fee for 2024 is $688.37. The deposit on the total fee is $200; the deposit is non-refundable after May 1. The course fee covers the costs of providing room and board at the field station. See the application form for details on when the balance of the course fee is due. Note that the course costs do NOT include the registration fees associated with taking the course; these vary with your residency and course load and are assessed through the Student Accounts Office.

If you have any questions regarding the application or registration, please contact susan.gabe [at] (Susan Gabe).

Once your application and deposit (of $200.00) have been submitted, you will receive an email letting you know you have been approved to register on MINERVA. As soon as you receive that notification, please register for the course to hold your place. If for some reason you must withdraw, then immediately inform both the course coordinator and susan.gabe [at] (Susan Gabe) by email, so that someone on the waiting list can be contacted to take your place.

Both the deposit and the balance of the course must be paid through your student fee account using any of the acceptable payment methods. After making the deposit into your student account, please email Student Accounts (student.accounts [at] to notify them that the payment has been made, with the subject of the email being Biology 331 – Deposit. This will earmark the payment for the field course. Please also copy Susan Gabe on that email (susan.gabe [at] so that she can open MINERVA to allow you to register for the course. Include your I.D. number in all correspondence. Failure to send this confirmation email may result in misallocation of your payment and a delay in receiving permission to register.

Summer inquiries about the course are best directed to the course coordinator as well as to the undergraduate affairs office so that you are more likely to reach someone despite holidays and periods of research away from campus. The course coordinators are rowan.barrett [at] (Dr. Rowan Barrett) and anna.hargreaves [at] (Dr. Anna Hargreaves). They can be reached by email.

To maintain a favourable ratio between students and teachers, registration will be limited to 16 students. If spaces become available, late registration for the course is possible.

MBSU Field Study Bursary

The McGill Biology Students Union offers bursaries to defer course costs in support of students taking Biology field courses. Please see:

Daily Field Schedule

This is an intensive course; you should expect to work long hours. You may snatch time for a shower before supper, but the work days continue into the evening. Commuting from home will not be possible. Dinner will usually be at 6:00 p.m. each day. Introductory talks will be given the first day. Work typically starts at 8:00 a.m. each morning with a break for lunch. The first part of the course is made of 3-4 modules, each 2-3 days and run by a different professor. The next 2-3 days are devoted to your independent research projects. The last day is a wrap up day with reports on group projects by the professors, and a clean-up of the labs and chalets. The field course ends around lunchtime on the last day.

We are endeavouring to make this course as accessible as possible. Please contact us if there is anything we can do to improve accessibility.

Independent Research Projects

Two to three days are dedicated to independent research projects. The object of these projects is to give experience in the planning, execution and reporting of field research. All three phases are critical to a successful research effort, and you should make every effort to carry out each phase carefully and completely. All staff members and the TA will be available to help in planning projects. The choice of a research project is largely your own, as is the decision of whether to work alone or with a small number of your colleagues. Potential projects can follow leads that develop during the modules in the first part of the course.

Alternatively, you can choose to follow up some area of your own interest unrelated to any of the modules. There are limits in time and equipment availability, so it takes some thought and discussion to arrive at a feasible and interesting project. Think about your possible project throughout the field weeks. Discuss your ideas and interests with the instructors and fellow students. You should have your project approved by a professor who will act as supervisor and will ultimately be responsible for grading your effort. The individual modules and discussions will make clear which staff member might be most suitable.

It is best not to leave your choice of a research topic (and research team) until the last moment, but neither should you feel rushed into an early choice. You will find that the days devoted to the independent project go by quickly; a little advance planning is useful, and is essential if your project requires equipment that must be brought out from McGill before the projects begin, or if staff members back in the department need to be consulted about methods or conceptual issues. Data analysis and report writing are to be completed after the field course ends. The teaching assistant will be available to give you advice concerning the analysis and presentation of your data. Go to them first with questions you may have, but feel free to consult the staff as well.

The format of your final report is important in giving you experience in report writing. Guidelines on writing up your report will be distributed during the course.

Your independent research project constitutes 50% of the final grade in this course. The other 50% is based on your participation in the modules. In grading, attention will be given to the planning, the execution of the fieldwork, analysis of the data, and the write-up of the report rather than the conclusiveness of the results. You need not be concerned about the possibility that weather or other uncontrolled variables might limit the amount of data you can gather, or the fact that a project carried out by a pair of students can be expected to have more data than a solo effort. All the staff who will be grading your reports are experienced researchers themselves, and recognize the near impossibility of getting good data in a few days only. Since this is a field course, the report is not expected to include a complete literature review of the selected topic. Nevertheless, it is expected that some relevant background information will be incorporated into the write-up. Projects yielding clear results and a large database might make somewhat less use of the literature, and those, which for reasons of weather or bad luck have little data, can always use background literature to compensate. It is a good idea to check with the staff member responsible for your project to confirm more precisely what is expected in your particular case. Rather than the project being a difficult hurdle you should see it as a chance to get experience in research and in writing reports.

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