AB-338 Life History Adaptations to Seasonality (10 ECTS)






Spring semester (May–June), annually. Cancelled in 2023.

Playful Arctic foxes in Svalbard. Photo: Børge Damsgård/UNIS.

Grade:Letter grade (A through F)
Course Cost:None
Course Capacity Min/Max:Min/Max: 10/20 students
Language of instruction:English
Examination support material:Bilingual dictionary between English and mother tongue

Course requirements

Enrolment in a relevant biological master programme, with priority given to students with thesis projects on life history adaptations to seasonality or the ecological implications of such adaptations.

Academic content

Seasonality has strong impacts on biology and is an important part of ecology, evolution and physiology. High-latitude ecosystems, and the Arctic ecosystem in particular, are unique field laboratories for seasonal ecology. The course deals with how chronobiological seasonality shapes life histories and population dynamics, focusing on Arctic marine and terrestrial animals and plants. Evolutionary and physiological adaptations to seasonality will be covered, including analyses of the adaptive value of key ecological themes such as migration, reproduction, foraging and growth. Individual variability in circannual routines and life history traits will be dealt with. Knowledge gained from these cross-disciplinary perspectives are used to study the drivers of observed phenology and population dynamics in selected Arctic species, including the possible effects of climate changes. Life history theory and the theories for optimal timing and annual routines will be introduced. Several field studies and excursions will illustrate the Arctic seasonality, together with biological diversity, ecological interactions and study methods. The course operates at the research frontier and will be linked to ongoing research projects in Svalbard.

Learning outcomes

Upon completing the course, the students can:


  • explain the mechanisms in seasonality and environmental drivers, and some of the basic proximate processes behind circannual rhythms
  • summarize and apply central elements of life history theory and timing and annual routines
  • describe the annual routines and life history traits observed among main groups of Arctic animals and plants, and evaluate the costs and benefits involved in central key themes such as  migration, foraging, growth and reproduction.


  • identify and develop state of the art research questions within the field of life history adaptations to seasonality
  • be able to test hypotheses on seasonality observed in the Arctic
  • design and perform projects on seasonal ecology of selected Arctic animals or plants.

General competences

  • give feedback in a scientific manner, both in writing and orally, on literature studies, field studies and modelling exercises performed during the course
  • understand the relevance of physiological, evolutionary and ecological theory for field-based studies of seasonal ecology.

Learning activities

The course extends over 5-6 weeks including compulsory safety training, and is run in combination with AB-838.

Prior to arrival, the student has prepared a presentation of his/her own thesis project. The students are challenged to reflect on the extent that seasonality influences processes studied in their own work. The students will present this work during a conference-style seminar early in the course. The students will have the core curriculum available prior to arrival at UNIS and are expected to have familiarized themselves with the texts.

The course is run through a combination of lectures, seminars, fieldwork, and group work, including collection of own data throughout the course period. We promote active participation and active learning. The course is research based and the students will meet members of the Department of Arctic Biology as well as invited guest lecturers. The course will be organized around key themes, and the staff and lecturers will work together with the students in field and seminars.

The fieldwork consists of several shorter excursions outside Longyearbyen, including the study site BIG in Bjørndalen, in addition to boat trips in Isfjorden. This gives hands-on experience with the Arctic and the challenges and opportunities of seasonal studies in polar regions.

Through seminars we will read, present, and discuss scientific literature. The students will summarize their learning outcome through reports. The course includes group projects related to the field studies and excursions, including presentations of the data collected. The final assessment is a written report to develop a simplified PhD proposal in seasonal ecology. The report will focus on the ecological, evolutionary, or physiological background for a proposed PhD project, including background knowledge, the identification of research question and predictions, and the study design suggested for testing the proposed predictions.


  • Total lecture hours: 15 hours
  • Total seminar hours: 30 hours
  • Laboratory / computer work: 25 hours
  • Excursions: Many short excursions (30-40 hours in total) and two full day excursions (weather dependent)

Compulsory learning activities

All compulsory learning activities must be approved in order to be registered for the final assessment.

  • Field excursions
  • Group project with report
  • Laboratory and computer work
  • Student seminars and presentations


MethodPercentage of final grade
Written report100%

Student life

Two playful Arctic foxes in Svalbard. Photo: Børge Damsgård/UNIS.
Playful Arctic foxes in Svalbard. Photo: Børge Damsgård/UNIS.
Glaucous gull (Larus Hyperboreus). Photo: Øystein Varpe/UNIS
Glaucous gull (Larus hyperboreus). Photo: Øystein Varpe/UNIS.
Two Little auks in Svalbard. Photo: Børge Damsgård/UNIS.
Little auks in Svalbard. Photo: Børge Damsgård/UNIS.