Tropical Coastal Ecology Directed Research

Posted: December 10, 2015

This semester has passed by in a flash, but not without the students going on some incredible adventures. It’s been an amazing experience to teach for SFS in Panama. The SFS Center in Bocas del Toro is a dynamic setting where I can be teaching students about coral reefs on our classroom dock one minute and diving into the ocean the next to actually view all of the biodiversity firsthand.


Students Sarah, Mike, Mallory, Bridget, Grace, Chloe and Saraneh getting ready to jump into the water with their gear at Zapatilla reef.

The Directed Research (DR) course has been a wonderful experience. I have been able to see my DR group grow and learn every day. The students’ snorkeling stamina improved greatly. They got faster and faster at laying transects, identifying species and diving down to conduct coral bleaching surveys. Emily, Program Intern, and I developed a highly effective system for deploying and utilizing five separate 50-meter transects, in the most efficient manner possible (see schematic below). The system’s efficacy was field-tested and I was very happy with our results. We kept it light and fun by incorporating adorable floats to help identify the number and the starting point of each transect.


Transect Schematic written by Dr. Aileen Maldonado and Intern Emily Penaranda

The students collected the following water and biodiversity parameters with this system: turbidity, pH, algae cover, fish biomass, fish identification, coral bleaching, coral disease, parrotfish feeding, rugosity, benthic cover and invertebrate assessment. This data was collected with 5 replicates at each location, within a two-hour period. The data collected has allowed the students to fully assess the Bastimentos National Marine Park (BNMP) and compare it to the coral reef ecosystems outside of the park. The BNMP was established in 1988 with no consistent assessments with regard to its progression or success. The SFS program’s long-term strategic research plan attempts to address this data gap by continuing to monitor this Caribbean gem for years to come. The research collected during this semester will be the baseline for future student projects.


Elkhorn coral (Acropora palmata) at Zapatila reef.


Nurse Shark (Ginglymostoma cirratum) at Zapatilla reef. Photo: Sarah Massicott