Papers in the Biological Sciences



Ann E. Russell

Date of this Version



Russell AE, Aide TM, Braker E, Ganong CN, Hardin RD, Holl KD, et al. (2022) Integrating tropical research into biology education is urgently needed. PLoS Biol 20(6): e3001674. https://doi. org/10.1371/journal.pbio.3001674


© 2022 Russell et al. This is an open access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License,


Understanding tropical biology is important for solving complex problems such as climate change, biodiversity loss, and zoonotic pandemics, but biology curricula view research mostly via a temperatezone lens. Integrating tropical research into biology education is urgently needed to tackle these issues.

The tropics are engines of Earth systems that regulate global cycles of carbon and water, and are thus critical for management of greenhouse gases. Compared with higher-latitude areas, tropical regions contain a greater diversity of biomes, organisms, and complexity of biological interactions. The tropics house the majority of the world’s human population and provide important global commodities from species that originated there: coffee, chocolate, palm oil, and species that yield the cancer drugs vincristine and vinblastine. Tropical regions, especially biodiversity hotspots, harbor zoonoses, thereby having an important role in emerging infectious diseases amidst the complex interactions of global environmental change and wildlife migration [1]. These well-known roles are oversimplified, but serve to highlight the global biological importance of tropical systems. Despite the importance of tropical regions, biology curricula worldwide generally lack coverage of tropical research. Given logistical, economic, or other barriers, it is difficult for undergraduate biology instructors to provide their students with field-based experience in tropical biology research in a diverse range of settings, an issue exacerbated by the Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic. Even in the tropics, field-based experience may be limited to home regions. When tropical biology is introduced in curricula, it is often through a temperate- zone lens that does not do justice to the distinct ecosystems, sociopolitical histories, and conservation issues that exist across tropical countries and regions [2]. The tropics are often caricatured as distant locations known for their remarkable biodiversity, complicated species interactions, and unchecked deforestation. This presentation, often originating from a colonial and culturally biased perspective, may fail to highlight the role of tropical ecosystems in global environmental and social challenges that accompany rising temperatures, worldwide biodiversity loss, zoonotic pandemics, and the environmental costs of ensuring food, water, and other ecosystem services for humans [3].