SFS PANAMA: TROPICAL ISLAND BIODIVERSITY STUDIES (SEMESTER)
- Terms: Fall, Spring
- Credits: 18 semester-hour credits
- Prerequisites: One semester of college-level ecology, biology, or environmental studies/science; 18 years of age
- Application Deadline: Rolling admissions. Early applications encouraged
- Financial Aid: All accepted students can apply for need-based scholarships, grants, and loans
Bocas del Toro, Panama is home to a stunning diversity of life, from underwater reef ecosystems to rich green rainforests, and the culture of Bocas is as unique as its environments. Go behind the scenes in this “paradise” and study the impacts of tourism and development on the archipelago. Take a look at local and national environmental policies, explore the island ecosystems, and interview residents as part of an in-depth field research project on sustainability issues.
- Snorkel in the waters of the archipelago to explore coral reefs, mangroves, and seagrass beds as you study sea stars, turtles, rays, dolphins, and schools of tropical fish.
- Visit the Pacific coast and the mountains of Boquete: Explore the Gulf of Chiriquí National Marine Park, take a canopy walk through cloud forest, and tour a sustainable coffee farm.
- Spend a day in Ngäbe communities: Speak with local Indigenous leaders, visit a women’s co-op, and take a forest walk with a local guide.
SFS students live and study at the Center for Tropical Island Biodiversity Studies, once a beachfront hotel that sits among the slender palms and warm sands of Isla Colón lies the Center. You’ll take your classes over the waves of the Caribbean and among the surrounding rainforests and reefs. The laidback tourist hub of Bocas Town is a short taxi ride away, with access to shops, restaurants, and a vibrant culture that is as unique as the mix of people who live here.
- Climate change impacts
- Marine protected areas
- Rainforest biodiversity
- Tourism impacts
- Ecosystem health
- Community livelihoods and perceptions
- Species identification
- Underwater transects and quadrats
- Tourism impact assessment
- Scientific writing and communication
- Basic Spanish language
- Research design and implementation
- Data collection and analysis
- Research presentation
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PROGRAM DESCRIPTIONBocas 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 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. Our research in Bocas del Toro has already revealed patterns and processes at the nexus of biodiversity, conservation, and human livelihoods 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 also evaluate the responses by local actors and policy-makers aimed at mitigating pressures and restoring balance in the environment. Studies with local residents about their livelihood strategies, approaches to farming, and use of natural resources help us to assess the sustainability of land and resource use in the region. While Bocas del Toro is home to an eclectic mix of people—including Latinos, Afro-Antilleans, indigenous people, and expatriates—each group occupies a niche in the social and economic systems of the islands, and each has a distinctive way of relating to the environment. The archipelago offers myriad opportunities to examine how natural systems and human systems are able to mutually exist—but not necessarily without conflict—in this small island region of the rural Caribbean.
Through coursework and research, students gain an understanding of the interdependence of livelihood strategies of island residents, population structure of key species, and habitat arrangements and conditions, and then apply sustainability priniciples to define potential management strategies. Lectures from Panamanian and international researchers and government environmental officials help students to understand the social, economic, and policy context for environmental management.
FIELD RESEARCH, LECTURES, AND EXERCISES
- Snorkel for field research and species identification on coral reefs, seagrass beds, and other marine habitats
- Take shallow water excursions to the fragile intertidal surf zones where giant starfish and spiny sea urchins abound
- Explore lowland wet rainforests, viewing a diversity of butterflies, birds, monkeys, and numerous poison dart frogs
- Visit and participate in sea turtle conservation projects, patrolling nesting beaches and working with local sea turtle researchers
- Tour large banana plantations on the mainland to understand the impact of commercial agriculture on the local economy and coastal environment
- Visit indigenous villages and learn about the livelihoods of traditional farmers, fishers, and forest gatherers
- 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
SAMPLE DIRECTED RESEARCH TOPICS
- 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 forest, and strategies for monitoring changes over time
- Levels of butterfly diversity as an indicator of forest and environmental disturbances
- Status and distribution of invasive lionfish in southern Caribbean waters and the effect on native fish population dynamics
- The viability of amphibian species to thrive in fragile ecosystems affected by anthropogenic factors such as habitat loss, land cover changes, and a warming climate
- Habitat changes at the terrestrial-marine interface including receding beaches, destruction of mangroves, siltation of reefs, and pollution-caused degradation due to increased tourism and development
- 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
SFS’s field 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 Center’s open-air classroom overlooks the jungle and ocean. With trails that wind through lush forests and coastal mangroves to snorkeling spots filled with tropical fishes, Solarte is a rich learning landscape allowing for total immersion right outside of the Center steps.
|Term||Year||App Deadline||Decision Date||Start Date||End Date|
|Spring Semester||2020||10/01/2019 **||Rolling Admission||01/27/2020||05/06/2020|
|Fall Semester||2020||03/01/2020 **||Rolling Admission||08/31/2020||12/09/2020|
** Indicates rolling admission application process. Applicants will be immediately notified of acceptance into this program and be able to complete post-decision materials prior to the term's application deadline.