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Tropical Island Biodiversity Studies


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Understanding Tropical Islands as Delicate Systems

Bocas del Toro is home to biologically diverse marine and terrestrial ecosystems, such as coral reefs, mangrove cays, white sand beaches, and tropical rainforests. However, poor management of both the development of these areas and the subsequent resource use by residents and tourists has put increasing pressures on these ecosystems threatening the human, animal, and plant communities that depend on them. The curriculum of the program focuses on defining key island systems, both natural and human, and how they interface. Our research in Bocas del Toro has already revealed patterns and processes at the nexus of biodiversity, conservation, and human welfare that merit ongoing study. Through field observations and research, students identify and understand the pressures, both direct and indirect, on the environment and social systems.

  • Semester Programs

    Tropical Island Biodiversity Studies


    The central theme of the program is "islands as a delicate system," with emphasis on the resources of Panama’s coastal and marine environments. Students will explore several key interfaces: human and natural systems, terrestrial and marine ecosystems, and conservation and development.

  • Summer Programs

    Session I: Tourism and Island Systems: Assessment of Sustainable Practices


    Students in this study abroad program examine key aspects of tourism and environmental assessment of tropical ecosystems, and explore sustainable development strategies for the Bocas del Toro Archipelago at a local and global scale.

During the first few years of programming in this Panamanian tropical island environment, we will develop a long-term strategic research plan. We will take the time to make observations in the field of what work needs to be done to address local environmental problems. We will seek out and discuss the needs and priorities of local stakeholders. The goal is to develop a detailed research agenda that will allow SFS to contribute to addressing local environmental problems through our Directed Research program.

We have already defined a broad question that will guide the curriculum and Directed Research program in the first year:

What is the status of key island systems, both natural and human, and what are the pressures that threaten the delicate balance of the island system?

For reporting on the condition of this delicate island system, we will employ the Pressure-State-Response framework, helpful in defining and examining environmental issues. The process of our research is to first define the island’s systems and the desired states – this in consultation with key island stakeholders and actors. Out of this should emerge the environmental issues present in the Bocas del Toro archipelago.

The second step is to measure the state of things, from species to habitats to household economies. Key indicators for the state of each element of the system will be developed based on local perceptions and knowledge, accepted research protocols, and local relevance.

The third component is to identify and understand the pressures, both direct and indirect, on the environment and particular components of the island systems.

Finally, we will examine the responses by residents, local and state government, and civil society aimed at mitigating pressures and restoring balance in the environment.

What are the policies and actions determined and implemented by local and national governments, and what are the attitudes and actions taken by communities and individuals as a response to the state of the environment and the local economy?


Peer Reviewed Publications

For more information on the research conducted by the faculty and staff of this Center, please visit The SFS Center for Tropical Island Biodiversity Studies page and click on individual biographies.

For a complete list of peer-reviewed publications by SFS faculty, staff and students, click here.

Conservation, resource use, forest preservation, and marine species monitoring are important to local farmers and fishers, resource managers, and concerned community groups. With the results of our research, we offer data and recommendations that inform decision makers and build relationships between SFS and the stakeholders involved in tropical island system conservation and management.

SFS students get involved in community volunteer projects and social activities such as:

  • Participating in service trips to help local conservation groups and communities, such as monitoring sea turtle nesting and baby sea turtle emergence (seasonal), as well as beautification or recycling efforts
  • Meeting with members of the indigenous Ngöbe community to learn more about their culture and efforts to promote their role in land management and sustainable natural resource use
  • Hosting community lectures or demonstrations
  • Attending community festivals and sporting competitions
  • Tutoring or mentoring school children in English language skills and environmental education