In January 2017, 15 UW-Madison undergraduates flew to Guadalajara, Mexico, in the state of Jalisco, to participate in a wildlife ecology study abroad course. The UW-Madison Department of Forest and Wildlife Ecology and the University of Guadalajara’s Manantlán Institute of Ecology and Conservation of Biodiversity have jointly offered this program every other year since 2003. Fast forward to 2017, and 101 students from 13 different majors have taken the international course to learn about the wildlife, culture and geography of western Mexico.

The preparation for the field experience begins long before students book an airplane ticket. Students enroll in a fall pre-requisite course, led by Forest and Wildlife Ecology instructor Jim Berkelman, where they prepare presentations on course-related topics. Guest lecturers share their research in the region on land tenure, sustainable agriculture, biodiversity conservation, community forestry and wildlife diseases.

During winter break, students fly to Mexico to participate in wildlife fieldwork at the University of Guadalajara’s Las Joyas Research Station in the Sierra de Manantlán Biosphere Reserve. The reserve was established in 1987 with the help of UW-Madison botany professor Hugh Iltis and boasts a wealth of biodiversity. The conversations on wildlife ecology and culture that take place between participating University of Guadalajara graduate students and UW-Madison undergraduates enhances the learning experience for everyone.

Some of the bird-banding equipment used by the group.

“This unique experience is done in collaboration with professors from both UW-Madison and the University of Guadalajara,” said UW-Madison student Daniel Erickson, who participated in the field experience this past winter. “I was able to experience working with people who spoke a different language, and I learned how to communicate to work effectively as a team.”

Over the years, students have gained hands-on skills banding endemic birds, photographing pumas and peccaries, mist-netting leaf-nosed bats, trapping mountain rodents and releasing marine turtle hatchlings. Other experiences have included hiking through cloud forests, exploring mangroves, seeing lumber operations, participating in environmental education activities and discussing river restoration programs with city mayors.

“I will definitely be returning to Mexico in the future and I plan on telling all wildlife students that they should take this opportunity, because it was amazing and one of the best experiences of my life,” said student Scout Kirby, another recent participant.

The group identifies some of the birds they’ve seen.

The roots of internationalization in wildlife ecology at UW-Madison go back to Aldo Leopold, who created the Department of Wildlife Management in 1939, the first in the world dedicated solely to that emerging academic field. Leopold went on an expedition to the Rio Gavilán, in Mexico´s western Sierra Madre, and of this experience he wrote, “It was here that I first clearly realized that land is an organism, that all my life I had seen only sick land. The term ‘unspoiled wilderness’ took on a new meaning.” Leopold’s international experience contributed to the ecosystem management approach he developed.

Offering international study abroad courses in ecology that bring together students and teachers of different cultures is not just a tribute to teachers such as Leopold and Iltis but helps encourage harmony among cultures and between people and the biotic communities on which they depend.

CALS International Education and Study Abroad currently administers approximately 30 study and research abroad experiences for undergraduate students. The CALS study abroad team is located within Academic Affairs in 116 Ag Hall. For more information, please contact the director, Susan Huber Miller, at or by phone at 608-265-0673.