Course Syllabus


Polar Biology A

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Semester & Location:

 Fall 2023 - DIS Copenhagen

Type & Credits:

Core Course - 3 credits

Study Tour: 

Tromsø, Norway

Major Disciplines:

Biology, Environmental Science, Sustainability 


One course in environmental or earth science at university level. One course in biology or ecology at university level is recommended.

Faculty Members:

PhD. Katja Vinding Petersen


Tuesday and Friday 13:15-14:35

Classroom F24-403


Description of Course

In this course we will provide you with an understanding and introduction to the biology of the Polar regions with a specific focus on the Arctic regions in northern Scandinavia and specifically northern Norway and Greenland. These Arctic regions are sensitive to climate variations, and you will learn how such changes are affecting its polar ecosystem. We will focus on the adaptations organisms require to thrive in marine, terrestrial and/or freshwater ecosystems. You will learn about how plants withstand freezing temperatures, thermoregulation in mammals and birds on land and at sea, the effect of sea ice on marine species and the fluctuations in fish populations.  

The course will look at the ecological processes of nutrient transfer across ecosystems, population dynamics and species richness of the Arctic regions in northern Scandinavia and Greenland through case studies. 

You will get your own experience with the Arctic biology through a field study, and you will obtain first-hand experience on how migrating polar species rely on ecosystems in Denmark when they embark on their long journeys. 


Learning Objectives

By the end of this course, you will have an overview of the different habitats in the Polar regions, marine and terrestrial food webs, as well as, how species groups within fish, plants, birds and mammals have adapted to these cold areas. 

Moreover, you will be able to communicate and understand theories and analyses of Arctic ecology within population dynamics, species interactions and evolutionary adaptations as well as the human impact on the Polar ecosystems

You will also learn how the different habitats are affected by climate change and human exploitation. Some focus will be on research in Denmark and Greenland as well as in parts of Norway. A number of prominent researchers will also be joining us throughout the course to provide insight into their fields of study.

The course is roughly divided into the below modules:

  1. Introduction to the ecology of Polar regions
  2. Climate and weather systems in the Polar regions
  3. Climate feedback loops in the Arctic 
  4. Terrestrial and periglacial habitats in Arctic regions
  5. Marine Ecosystems: From Phyto- and Zooplankton to the top of marine food chains
  6. Bird migrations
  7. Stress, adaptation, and survival in Arctic regions. Focus on Plants, Mammals and Birds
  8. Freshwater ecosystems
  9. Politics in the Polar regions
  10. Conservation and natural resource management 
  11. Impacts of climate change in the Polar regions and effects of pollution
  12. Community Based Monitoring of natural resources and Traditional Knowledge



Katja Vinding Petersen: Ph.D. (Distribution, habitat use, behavior, and sound communication), Zoology Dept., Whale Unit, University of Pretoria, 2016. M.S. (Biology and Didactics), University of Copenhagen, 2007. Research associate at Statens Serum Institute, Denmark (2012-2016). TV presenter at “Physics at sea”, Galathea 3 Expedition (2008). Has worked with marine mammals in the field in, Iceland, Northern Norway, Greenland, and South Africa. Local stranding responsible In the Overstrand Region, South Africa (2010-2012). Founder of the Danish Maine Mammal Society (2003). With DIS since 2019.



Text book: Arctic Ecology. Edited by David N. Thomas. Wiley Blackwell. Ed 2021

Other examples of literature:

The Biology of Polar Regions. D.N. Thomas, G.E. Fogg, P. Convey, C.H. Fritsen, J.-M. Gili, R. Gradinger, J. Laybourn-Parry, K. Reid, and D.W.H. Walton. Second Edition.  Published to Oxford Scholarship 2008.

Tundra-Taiga Biology. Robert M. M. Crawford. Published by Oxford University Press. 2013

INTERACT 2015. INTERACT Stories of Arctic Science. Eds.: Callaghan, T.V. and Savela, H. DCE – Danish Centre for Environment and Energy, Aarhus University, Denmark, 180 p.

Lento, J., W. Goedkoop, J. Culp, K.S. Christoffersen, Kári Fannar Lárusson, E. Fefilova, G. Guðbergsson, P. Liljaniemi, J.S. Ólafsson, S. Sandøy, C. Zimmerman, T. Christensen, P. Chambers, J. Heino, S. Hellsten, M. Kahlert, F. Keck, S. Laske, D. Chun Pong Lau, I. Lavoie, B. Levenstein, H. Mariash, K. Rühland, E. Saulnier- Talbot, A.K. Schartau, and M. Svenning. 2019. State of the Arctic Freshwater Biodiversity. Conservation of Arctic Flora and Fauna International Secretariat, Akureyri, Iceland. ISBN 978-9935-431-77-6

CAFF. 2017. State of the Arctic Marine Biodiversity Report. Conservation of Arctic Flora and Fauna International Secretariat, Akureyri, Iceland. 978-9935-431-63-9

Till Kingdom Come?: An Analysis of Greenland as the Danish Link to the Arctic. Brief (Royal Danish Defence College). Author, Alexander Hviid. 2014.

Other readings will be made available online in Canvas


Field Studies

The field studies provide hands-on and experiential learning components of this course. These activities should be viewed as an integrated component of the lecture course and visits will illustrate and expand directly upon the content of the lectures and readings. Students will also visit field sites where research or nature monitoring is carried out. See the calendar below for field study dates and details.

Friday 15th of September: Zoological gardens in Copenhagen. Animal adaptations

Wednesday 27th of September: Botanical gardens in Copenhagen. Plant adaptations 

Wednesday 6th of December: Course ending. Mini symposium. Presentations of final projects. 


Study Tours:

We have two study tours. The study tours are an integral part of the course as we take the classroom on the road and see how theory presented in the classroom translates to practice in the field.

Short Study Tour. Wadden Sea of Denmark

We will spend 3 days at the Southwestern part of Denmark. This area is one of the most important re-fulling stations for migrating birds to and from the Arctic. We will hike the Danish Wadden Sea, a UNESCO world heritage site and investigate the life in the mudflats and sand bottom. We will also spend a day at the island of Fanø where we will become more familiar with the birds, marine mammals and different invertebrates in the area. 

Long Study Tour. Tromsø, Norway

In Tromsø, we will focus on ongoing research where both terrestrial and marine Arctic research is well established. We will go hiking to explore the unique flora and fauna of the terrestrial and marine ecosystems on both land and seaside. We will meet some of the researchers located in Tromsø and visit some of the important management organizations based in Tromsø. You will experience the local culture, including the Samies and explore the local history of Tromsø. We will also go hunting for the Northern lights, so keep your fingers crossed. 

Expectations for study tours

  • Participate in all activities
  • Engage in discussions, ask questions, and contribute to achieving the learning objectives
  • Respect the destination, the speakers, DIS staff, and your fellow classmates
  • Represent yourself, your home university, and DIS in a positive light

While on a program study tour, DIS will provide hostel/hotel accommodation, transportation to/from the destination(s), approx. 2 meals per day, and entrances, guides, and visits relevant to your area of study or the destination. You will receive a more detailed itinerary prior to departure.

Travel policies: You are required to travel with your group to the destination. If you have to deviate from the group travel plans, you need approval from the program director and the study tours office prior to departure. You are free to return to Copenhagen on your own if you choose to do so but must stay with the group through the last visit and inform your study tour leaders of your plans in advance. 

Approach to Teaching

The classes will involve lectures, class discussion, group work, field studies and student projects. Furthermore, there will often be questions presented for you to consider, discuss, and present in small groups.

The lectures will be taught in the order written in the syllabus, unless you are told differently. The order of the lectures is to ensure that you know all of the basic concepts before we go on study tour and field trips that relate to your final projects.

Expectations of the Students

All students are expected to have completed the course readings before class, so we can discuss the material at the right level. It is important to be well prepared for class because I may randomly select students to give key points on the readings for that day.

Students are expected to participate actively in all classes and field studies and be open minded to your fellow student’s contribution to class. The aim is to establish an environment where we can learn from each other as well as from the texts and cases we engage with, and you are expected to actively support this approach. 


Students will be evaluated on their ability to understand, discuss and communicate scientific concepts within Polar Biology as well as interpret them meaningfully. These skills will be the primary focuse of the evaluations. Group work in class and in the field as well as the student's ability to contribute to a group effort will be taken into account for the grade.


To be eligible for a passing grade in this class you must complete all of the assigned work. The overall grade will come from the following:


Assignment  Percentage


Students are expected to participate in all classes and field studies. Furthermore, active participation in class is required in order to get a good grade for participation. Examples of active student participation: volunteer to sum up key points from last class (2-3 min), ask questions about readings, lectures etc., start and/or participate in class discussions relating to the subjects treated.


Field study: Botanical Gardens


Zoological Gardens


 Presentations. Short study tour


Short Study Tour Assignment

        A selection of questions and assignments to be carried out during our short study tour                  week at the Wadden Sea.


Long study tour : Tromsø Study Tour Assignment

A selection of questions and assignments to be carried out during the six-day study tour to Tromsø. The assignment is designed to contextualize experiences in Tromsø with the course material in general and the student projects in particular.


Catching up on long study tour 


Student Project and Presentation

The students will work with projects in smaller groups. Students will work with data collected in the field by researchers from Aarhus University. Different topics and cases will be available with relevant data from the field. Required elements of each project is that students familiarize themselves with the research topic they have worked on and give a thorough analysis and discussion of it. Each group has to write an abstract and present either an oral poster or power point presentations at the end of the course.


Academic Regulations

Use of Phones and Laptops in class is not allowed unless it is for notes and specified research in class.

Please make sure to read the Academic Regulations on the DIS website. There you will find regulations on: 


DIS - Study Abroad in Scandinavia -


Course Summary:

Date Details Due