PROGRAM DESCRIPTIONThe School for Field Studies semester program Tropical Island Biodiversity and Conservation Studies in Bocas del Toro, Panama, provides students with an exciting opportunity to conduct research and explore the rural Caribbean and the isthmus of Panama.
Panama is the great connector between two continents – a corridor that links the natural riches of Central America to South America. Few places on Earth can claim the density of species and ecosystem richness that this isthmus can. Among its reefs, mangroves, seagrass beds, estuaries, and rivers, this region boasts a variety of reef/game fish, turtles, and dolphins, as well as more novel species such as manatee, monkeys, and caiman.
Our classroom in Panama is the archipelago of Bocas Del Toro, a place where forest and shore come together and present almost limitless opportunities to study the ecology and conservation of both the marine and terrestrial realms.It is the dynamic interface between forested islands and life-filled waters that will drive our learning of fragile habitats, natural resource use, and indigenous ways of life based on deep relationships with the environment.
Student research focuses on identifying the status of key island systems, both natural and human; interrelationships of these systems; and the pressure points that threaten the delicate balance of the island system.
During the semester, students focus on defining and examining the state of the islands’ species, habitats, and human communities through natural science and social science lenses. We start the research program by identifying key indicators for the condition of the ecosystems and communities.
We will use a suite of field research methods to assess the conditions. These include the following, among others:
- Household questionnaires
- Key informant interviews
- Mapping natural habitat and social networks
- Biodiversity surveys on land and in the water
- Sampling populations of key species for demographics and structure
Students emerge with an understanding of livelihood strategies of island residents, population structure of key species, and habitat arrangements and conditions.
The goal of the research program is for SFS students and faculty to describe the environmental and social conditions on the island, identify problems, and examine the responses by society aimed at mitigating pressures and restoring balance in the environment.
FIELD RESEARCH, LECTURES, AND EXERCISES
- Snorkeling for field research and species identification on coral reefs
- Shallow water excursions to the delicate intertidal surf zones where giant starfish and spiny sea urchins abound
- Exploration of dominant stands of old-growth rain forests; viewing giant orchids, colorful macaws, monkeys, and numerous arrow frogs
- Monitoring of beach erosion and palm stand loss due to rising sea levels
- Lecture from Panamanian and international researchers and government environmental officials
- Visits to banana plantations on the mainland to understand the impact of the commercial agricultural industry on the local economy and delicate coastal environment
- Excursions to nearby islands to visit indigenous housing settlements and observe the livelihoods of traditional farmers, fishers, and forest gatherers
Visits to eco-lodges and resort hotels to understand how development imparts pressures on fragile marine and terrestrial habitats and ecosystems
SAMPLE DIRECTED RESEARCH TOPICS
- Status of key species, including sea turtles, dolphins, corals, lobsters, fin fish, and reef fish
- Condition of marine and coastal habitats: coral reef, seagrass, mangrove, and coastal wetlands
- Survey of livelihood strategies of residents: fisheries, ecotourism, agriculture, ranching, and forestry
- Habitat changes at the terrestrial-marine interface: receding beaches, mangroves, and siltation of reefs
- Perceptions of environmental change, particularly in relation to tourism development, by local people and tourists
- Assessment of invasive species, such as the red lionfish, in reef, mangrove, and seagrass habitats
Conservation, resource use, forest preservation, and marine species monitoring are extremely important to local farmers and fishers, resource managers, and concerned community groups. With the results of our research, we offer advice to local decision-makers and create links between our staff 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 community service trips to help local conservation groups and communities, such as monitoring sea turtle nesting and baby sea turtle emergence
- Participating in annual community fauna surveys to baseline biodiversity measures, such as taking migrating bird counts and observing dolphin abundance in archipelago waters
- Meeting with indigenous leaders and elders of the Ngobe to learn more about their culture and their efforts to promote their role in land management and sustainable natural resource use
- Hosting community lectures or demonstrations and participating in short home stays
- Attending community festivals and sporting competitions
SFS’s research station in Bocas del Toro is located on Isla Solarte, a small island that is one mile to the east of Bocas del Toro town. Isla Solarte is approximately three miles long and less than a half mile across at its widest point. The island has a sandy beach with waves on the east and a sheltered area to the west that is home to expansive mangrove, seagrass, and reef habitats. Isla Solarte is also home to a small community of local Ngobe villagers, who make their living fishing the waters around the island.
The climate largely resembles that of the Hawaiian Islands, with an average air temperature in the low 80s, which matches the temperature of the surrounding water. Isla Solarte experiences approximately 100 inches of rain per year, mostly at night with occasional short showers seen during the day, which accounts for the island’s lush, green vegetation throughout the year.Although the research station feels like it is situated in remote wilderness, the small town of Bocas del Toro is only a short boat ride away. Solarte’s main building is a beautiful two-story wooden building with a classroom, porch, dining room and dorm rooms. Facilities include a spacious classroom that also serves as a lab, six student dorm rooms with ceiling fans, air conditioning, and private bathrooms, and a covered deck with a view of the water. A host of forest wildlife can be seen on the station grounds, including two and three-toed sloths and howler monkeys, which add to the chorus of sound in the trees.