Center for Tropical Island Biodiversity Studies


Covered in lush rainforests, hundreds of mangrove islands, and coral reefs teeming with diverse marine life, the Bocas del Toro Archipelago serves as a living laboratory for studying tropical biodiversity. This chain of islands is populated by everything from hummingbirds and howler monkeys to stingrays, dolphins, sloths, and brightly colored poison dart frogs. At first glance, Bocas is nothing short of paradise.

However, climate change and increased tourism on the islands have led to ecosystem and natural resource degradation while also threatening Indigenous islanders’ traditional livelihoods. Our research on the environmental impacts of tourism and development on the natural ecosystems in Bocas provides the community with data necessary to support more sustainable policies and protect the beautiful islands so many call home.



Tropical Island Biodiversity Studies

Spend a semester in the dynamic community of Bocas del Toro, where you will experience everything from underwater ecosystems to rich green rainforests. Go behind the scenes of this “paradise” as you study the impacts of tourism and development on the unique habitats of this island system. Evaluate local and national environmental policies and study the principles of sustainability and conservation as part of an in-depth field research project.
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15 Weeks
18 Credits
Fall 2020

Aug 31 - Dec 11


Spring 2021

Jan 26 - May 7


winter session

Foundations of Tropical Coastal Ecology

This winter break, snorkel and hike through the diverse ecosystems of Panama's Bocas del Toro Archipelago – from coral reefs and mangroves to beaches and rainforests. On this 200-level introductory course, you’ll go behind the scenes of this ‘paradise’ to examine the impacts of tourism and climate change, discuss conservation methods, and learn how to assess reef health and identify key marine and terrestrial species. Snorkel in the waters of...
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03 Weeks
03 Credits
Winter 2021

Dec 28 - Jan 15


summer session I

Tropical Island Ecosystems: The Human Impact

On this summer study abroad program, snorkel and hike through the diverse environments of Bocas – from coral reefs and mangroves to beaches and rainforests – and study human impacts, such as tourism, on the island’s ecosystems and communities. Meet the local residents who depend on both tourism and natural resources and learn about current approaches to sustainable development in the archipelago.
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04 Weeks
04 Credits
Summer 2021

May 31 - Jun 30


Life In The Field

The Center, once a beachfront hotel, lies among the slender palms and warm waters of Isla Colón. 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.

  • Dorm living in 4-person bunkrooms
  • Classroom on a sheltered dock above the ocean
  • Air-conditioned student lounge, lab, and staff offices
  • Casual al-fresco dining area, and on-site cooking staff
  • Swimming pool, kayaking, paddleboarding, and snorkeling
  • Volleyball, spikeball, and beachfront hammocks
Click here to read stories and tips from students, staff, and faculty on our blog

One of the greatest features about SFS is that the classroom expands way beyond a room with desks. You can find yourself “in class” while taking a hike through the tropical rainforests, snorkeling at a reef, and visiting a local Indigenous community.

Liz Walker
St. Catherine University


Research at the SFS Center for Tropical Island Biodiversity Studies focuses on approaches to environmental conservation and natural resource management in the face of threats such as climate change and impacts from increasing tourist activity. Students and faculty engage with Indigenous communities, NGOs, fishers, farmers, and business owners as they explore the future of these fragile ecosystems, small communities, and sustainable tourism models.
Our research focuses primarily on the following themes:

  • Climate change impacts
  • Marine protected areas
  • Rainforest biodiversity
  • Tourism impacts
  • Ecosystem health
  • Community livelihoods
  • Perceptions of conservation

Environmental Issues

Our Centers are strategically located in regions facing critical environmental issues. Students and faculty study these issues and collect data to help facilitate sustainable responses. In Panama, we’re currently investigating the following issues:

Climate Change
Biodiversity Conservation
Land Use Change
Tourism Impacts
Environmental Policy
Fisheries Management
Learn More About the Issues


The Local Community

SFS is an active member of the Bocas del Toro community. During the program, students organize a snorkel and swim club for children and other projects such as urban birding festivals and educational talks. Students attend area events and festivals, frequent the shops, markets, and restaurants of Bocas Town, and compete in a local volleyball match. SFS research findings are presented to the local community, NGOs, and Panamanian government.

Meet Our Team

Leon Mach, Ph.D.

Associate Professor in Environmental Policy and Socioeconomic Values
Meet Leon

Carolyn Kovacs, M.S.

Lecturer in Tropical Coastal Ecology
Meet Carolyn

Andy Palacio, M.B.A.

Student Affairs Manager
Meet Andy

Holly Hummel, M.S.

Community Coordinator and Cultural Liaison
Meet Holly

Alex Arcia

Program Assistant
Meet Alex