The SFS 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 toucans and butterflies to turtles, sloths, and brightly colored poison dart frogs. At first glance, Bocas is nothing short of paradise.

Unfortunately, increased tourism on the islands has led to ecosystem and natural resource degradation while also compromising Indigenous islanders’ traditional livelihoods. Our research on the environmental impacts of tourism and development in Bocas provides the community with data necessary to support more sustainable policies and protect the beautiful islands they call home.



Tropical Island Biodiversity Studies

Spend a semester in the dynamic community of Bocas del Toro, where everything – from the thriving underwater ecosystems to the rich green rainforests – seems more alive. Go behind the scenes in this “paradise” as you study the impacts of tourism and development on the island system’s unique habitats, evaluate local environmental policies, and apply the principles of sustainability and conservation to your research project.
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15 Weeks
18 Credits
Fall 2019

Sep 2 - Dec 11


Spring 2020

Jan 27 - May 6


summer session I

Tourism and Tropical Island Ecosystems

Immerse yourself in the dynamic community of Bocas del Toro. Snorkel and hike through diverse environments – from coral reefs and mangroves to cloud forests and rainforests – and study the impacts of tourism on the island system and its people. Meet the local residents who depend on both tourism and natural resources and learn about current approaches to sustainable tourism in Bocas.
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04 Weeks
04 Credits
Summer 2019

Jun 3 - Jul 3

In The Field

Summer 2020

Jun 1 - Jul 1


Life In The Field

Among the slender palms and warm sands of Isla Colón lies the Center, a one-time beachfront hotel. At this idyllic field station, you’ll take your classes in the waves of the Caribbean and the surrounding rainforests. 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
  • Main building with faculty offices and air-conditioned labs
  • Classroom on a sheltered dock above the ocean
  • Casual al-fresco dining area, on-site cooking staff
  • Swimming pool, kayaking, paddleboarding, and snorkeling
  • Volleyball, spikeball, soccer, and beachfront hammocks
Click here to read stories from students, staff and faculty in the field

Research is one of the best parts of studying here in Bocas with SFS. The biodiversity and many different ecosystems offered in Panama are amazing to study and prevent us from ever being bored.

Alaina Eckert
University of Wisconsin-Madison


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:

  • 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
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The Local Community

SFS is an active member of the Bocas del Toro archipelago community. During the program, students organize a snorkel and swim club for children or urban birding festivals and educational talks. Students attend area events and festivals, frequent the shops, markets and restaurants of Bocas Town, and compete in local soccer matches. SFS research data is made available to the local communities, NGOs, and Panamanian government.

Meet Our Team

Leonor Ceballos-Meraz, M.S.

Resident Lecturer in Principles of Resource Management
Meet Leo

Leon Mach, Ph.D.

Resident Lecturer in Environmental Policy and Socioeconomic Values
Meet Leon

Carolyn Kovacs, M.S.

Resident Lecturer in Tropical Coastal Ecology
Meet Carolyn

Holly Hummel

Community Coordinator and Cultural Liaison
Meet Holly

Anna Chahuneau

Program Assistant
Meet Anna

Alex Arcia

Program Assistant
Meet Alex