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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 2017: August 28 – December 6

Spring 2018: January 29 - May 9

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
Looking at the shimmering water, the classroom out on the pier, the reflection of the palm trees in the pool, and tasting the delicious cooking, I knew that I had made the right choice.        

—Emma Johnson, Davidson College, Fall '15


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.

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 identify potential management strategies. Guest lectures by Panamanian and international researchers, government environmental officials, and community members help students understand the social, economic, and policy context for environmental management in the region.


  • Explore lowland evergreen rainforests, and experience the diversity of plants and animals, such as insects, birds, monkeys, sloths, banana orchids, tree ferns, strangler figs, and several species of poison dart frogs, including the emblematic strawberry poison dart frog
  • Snorkel to identify species such as sea stars, corals, jellyfish, coral reef fish, stingrays, and sea turtles, as well as to research human impacts on coral reefs, mangroves, seagrass beds, and other marine habitats
  • Visit indigenous communities and learn about livelihood strategies as well as the challenges of adapting to a rapidly changing economic environment


  • Take shallow-water excursions to the fragile coral reef ecosystems where multitudes of marine species thrive
  • Make frequent walks through the rainforest and learn about canopies, competition for space, and soil composition and health
  • 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 and patrol nesting beaches with Sea Turtle Conservancy watchmen during nesting and hatching seasons
  • Tour several farms and plantations, including cacao and banana, in Almirante and Changuinola on the mainland to understand the impact of diverse forms of agriculture on the local economy and coastal environment
  • Perform coral bleaching and coral disease assessment within the Isla Bastimentos National Marine Park Marine Protected Area (MPA) to quantify the current and future impacts of climate change on coral reef ecosystems
  • Visit eco-lodges and resort hotels to understand how different types of land development put varied pressures on fragile marine habitats and ecosystems
  • Develop field research skills including marine and terrestrial organism behavioral observations, biodiversity and habitat assessment, survey design and interviewing techniques, environmental impact and protected-areas assessment, scientific writing and oral presentation



  • Status of key marine 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 lowland evergreen rainforests, and strategies for monitoring changes over time
  • Effect of disturbance as an indicator of rainforest species diversity and habitat suitability
  • Impacts of habitat and biodiversity loss due to human activities
  • Changes in marine species abundance and diversity in proximity to Bocas Town and the Bastimentos MPA
  • Viability of poison dart frogs in fragile ecosystems affected by anthropogenic factors such as habitat loss, land cover changes, and a warming climate
  • Knowledge about the tourism sector in Bocas del Toro and how it is supported and actively managed by local stakeholders
  • 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 engagement projects and social activities such as:

  • Participating in excursions and projects that benefit the greater Bocas community including developing environmental education activities for children, gardening at the local high school, and beach cleanups
  • 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 workshops
  • Attending community festivals such as Carnaval and Dias de Patria



The Center is located on Isla Colón, the largest and most populous island in the Bocas del Toro Archipelago. Located on a quiet waterfront a short distance from Bocas Town, it is common to hear the sounds of frogs, birds, and howler monkeys as well as the hustle and bustle of the nearby town while at the Center. Caribbean waters are the backyard of the Center, providing plenty of activities for students including snorkeling, paddle boarding, and swimming. The classroom is located over the water with views of nearby islands. However, with such close proximity to the coral reefs, jungles, and beaches of Bocas, our classroom for active learning extends over vast parts of the island system. The facility also includes a dining/study area, outdoor classroom, indoor classroom (to shelter from occasional tropical deluge), student lounge, pool, plenty of hammocks, and a library/laboratory.