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Tropical Island Biodiversity Studies


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Understanding Tropical Islands as Delicate Systems

Bocas del Toro, which means “mouth of the bull” in Spanish, is Panama’s westernmost province, located along the beautiful Caribbean waters of Almirante Bay and harbors massive stands of old growth rainforests. The archipelago hosts more marine and terrestrial species than almost anywhere else on Earth. The biodiversity of these island systems, however, is under threat from a variety of human and natural pressures, including climate change, logging, and expanding farming and ranching, all of which put delicate coral reefs and rainforests at risk. Combining scientific research with local and indigenous knowledge is crucial for the conservation and management of this wild and magnificent area.
  • 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. The goal is to assess the state of the archipelago’s fragile natural habitats, define the main environmental issues, and understand the community goals in natural resource management.

During the first few years of programming in this Panamanian tropical island environment, we will develop a Five Year 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?

As in our other locations throughout the world, we are part of the social fabric of the communities in which we are hosted. We partake in community ceremonies and celebrations, play in soccer and baseball matches, and become deeply involved in community service, such as beach cleanups and other public works events.

We collaborate with both government and non-government agencies to promote preservation of habitats and provide important information through research that will help environmental advocates assess ecologically vulnerable areas and plan policy to protect delicate natural systems. Our proximity to rural schools will enable us to expose young learners to the biotic wonders in their own "backyards" and foster an appreciation for the preservation of natural places.