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Tropical Island Biodiversity Studies


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Bocas del Toro, Panama
Language English instruction with 2-credit Spanish Language & Culture course

Fall 2016: August 29 – December 7

Spring 2017: January 30 – May 10

Deadline Rolling admissions; early application encouraged.
Program Cost

Click here for program costs. Program cost includes all tuition, room, board, local travel. Excludes airfare.

Financial Aid Click here for more information about need-based scholarships, loans, and travel grants.
Prerequisites One college-level ecology, biology, or environmental studies course; 18 years of age
Credits 18 credits
Whether it was trekking through the jungle and measuring trees to estimate carbon storage, species identification of marine life while snorkeling, or learning the area’s history from the indigenous community, I saw and learned something new on every excursion.        

—Sarah Cady, University of San Diego, Fall '13


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, the unplanned development of these areas and unmanaged resource use by residents and tourists alike has put increasing pressures on the ecosystems and has threatened the human communities that depend on them.

The curriculum of the program focuses on defining key island systems, both natural and human, and how they interface. Through field observations and research, students identify and understand the pressures, both direct and indirect, on the environment and social systems.

Students gain an understanding of the interdependence of the livelihood strategies of island residents, population structure of key species, and habitat arrangements and conditions. Equipped with foundational knowledge, students then apply sustainability principles to define potential management strategies. Lectures by Panamanian and international researchers and government environmental officials help students to understand the social, economic, and policy context for environmental management.


  • Explore lowland humid rainforests, viewing diverse insects, birds, monkeys, plants, and numerous species of poison dart frogs
  • Snorkel for field research and species identification on coral reefs, seagrass beds, and other marine habitats
  • Visit indigenous communities and learn about livelihood strategies including farming, fishing, and forest gathering


  • Take shallow-water excursions to the fragile intertidal surf zones where cushion sea stars and spiny sea urchins abound
  • Interview and interact with local stakeholders including government agencies, nonprofits, and educational and business leaders to understand the complex implications of management on ecosystems
  • Visit and participate in sea turtle conservation projects, patrolling nesting beaches and working with local sea turtle researchers
  • Tour several plantations, including cacao, banana, and coffee, within the archipelago and on the mainland to understand the impact of commercial agriculture on the local economy and coastal environment
  • Observe dolphin behavior and assess the impact of tourist interaction on resident dolphin populations
  • Visit eco-lodges and resort hotels to understand how different types of land development put varied pressures on fragile marine habitats and ecosystems
  • Participate in public forums on community-based tourism projects
  • Develop field research skills including marine and terrestrial organism behavioral observations, biodiversity assessment, survey design and interviewing techniques, environmental impact and protected-areas assessment, scientific writing and oral presentation, GIS or remote sensing, habitat assessment and mapping species distributions



  • Status of key species, including corals, lobsters, and reef fish, and the importance of these species to the livelihoods of local fishers
  • Condition of marine and terrestrial habitats, including coral reefs, seagrass beds, mangroves, and humid forests, and strategies for monitoring changes over time
  • Effect of edge disturbance as an indicator of forest species diversity and health
  • Investigation of changes in marine species abundance and diversity in proximity to Bocas Town
  • Food security in a changing landscape, with particular focus on food sourcing and impacts of tourism on local production of food
  • The viability of poison dart frogs in fragile ecosystems affected by anthropogenic factors such as habitat loss, land cover changes, and a warming climate
  • Livelihood strategies of residents, such as fisheries, ecotourism, agriculture, ranching, and forestry; and decision-making processes of families that extract natural products for subsistence and income generation



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



The Center is located on Isla Colón, the most populous island in the Bocas del Toro Archipelago. Located a short distance from Bocas Town, the field station sits on a quiet waterfront. It is common to hear the sounds of frogs, birds, and monkeys in the surrounding area. Caribbean waters are the backyard of the Center, providing plenty of activities for students including snorkeling, volleyball, and swimming. The classroom is located over the water with views of nearby islands. Due to the Center’s central location, the coral reefs, jungles, and beaches of Bocas are only short distances away. The facility includes a dining/classroom area, outdoor classroom, student lounge, pool, plenty of hammocks, and a library/laboratory.