Tropical Biodiversity and Conservation

Leonor Ceballos, Ph.D. candidate.

Giant Zapatero at ITEC

Institute for Tropical Ecology and Conservation Bocas del Toro Biological Station Isla Colon, Bocas del Toro, Panama. Phone: 507-6499-5570, Email:

Lonnie Kaczmarsky, Ph.D.  

St. Johns River State College Science Department Palatka, Florida 32177.  Phone: (386) 312-4298 Email:

Course Description

This course is designed to provide students with an introduction to the basic principles of tropical

Blue Pleasing Fungus Beetle, Erotylidae

ecosystems, biodiversity, and their conservation. The course focuses on biodiversity conservation in the ecological context of Panamanian Caribbean rainforests and coral reef systems. Through lectures, group discussions, field exercises, and an independent research project, students will receive an in-depth understanding of tropical ecology and conservation issues and practices.  Students will be offered first-hand field research experience by examining the importance of balancing biodiversity conservation and natural resource use for human development. Topics will often be viewed through local, regional, and global perspectives, frequently comparing Bocas del Toro conservation issues with those elsewhere in Latin America and beyond.  By the end of the course, students will have familiarized themselves with methods and applications that allow an understanding of the fundamental concepts of biodiversity conservation. The course material is equivalent to a university upper-level field course.

Course Schedule

Three-toed sloth, Bradypus varigatus

During the first few days of the course students will receive an orientation that focuses on the history, ecology, resources, and socio-economics of the Bocas del Toro region. The next phase of the course integrates traditional lectures, readings, paper discussions and field exercises to provide students with a working knowledge of the principles of biodiversity protection and familiarity with a broad range of approaches to conservation on tropical islands and their fragile ecosystems. Students will draw upon this knowledge as they design independent research projects and write a proposal.  Students will then collect data for their independent research for approximately one week.  During the last few days of the course, students will analyze their data, write a research report, and present their findings. The course schedule will be determined on site as a function of student needs and preferences, and may be weather-dependent.

Formal Lectures 

  • Defining Biodiversity
  • Value of Biodiversity
  • Bocas Ecosystem Biodiversity: Rainforests, Coral Reefs, Mangroves
  • Species Diversity and Species Loss
  • Causes of Biodiversity Loss
  • Habitat Loss, Alteration and Fragmentation
  • Ecosystem Services
  • Biodiversity and Traditional Knowledge

    Cushion Sea Star, Oreaster reticulates

  • Community-based Conservation
  • Nature Reserves and Protected areas
  • Oceanic Plastic Pollution: Micro Plastics
  • Island Biogeography Theory and Reserve Size
  • Reforestation and Afforestation
  • Carbon sequestration in Forests and Marine Systems
  • Ecological Carbon Footprint
  • Global Climate Change: Causes and Effects
  • Sustainable Development
  • Environmental Costs to Ecotourism
  • Natural vs. human disturbances as part of the coral reef ecosystem and its evolution
  • Sustainable and restoration approaches in coral reef conservation


Most readings are peer reviewed articles which will be assigned and provided as PDFs. Some examples of readings include:

  • Costanza, R., de Groot, R., Sutton, P., van der Ploeg, S., Anderson, S. J., Kubiszewski, I., … & Turner, R. K. (2014). Changes in the global value of ecosystem services. Global environmental change26, 152-158.
  • Barnosky el a. (2011). Has the Earths sixth mass extinction already arrived?
  • Moritz, C., & Agudo, R. (2013). The future of species under climate change: resilience or decline? Science341, 504-508.
  • Porter-Bolland, L., Ellis, E. A., Guariguata, M. R., Ruiz-Mallén, I., Negrete-Yankelevich, S., & Reyes-García, V. (2012). Community managed forests and forest protected areas: An assessment of their conservation effectiveness across the tropics. Forest Ecology and Management268, 6-17.
  • Guzman, H. & Barnes, P. & Lovelock, Catherine & Feller, Ilka. (2005). A site description of the CARICOMP mangrove, seagrass and coral reef sites in Bocas del Toro, Panama. Caribbean Journal of Science. 41.
  • Cramer K, Donovan M, Jackson J, Greenstain B, Korpanty C, Cook G, Pandolfi J
    (2021). The transformation of Caribbean coral communities since humans. Ecol Evol. 2021 Jul 17;11(15):10098-10118.
  • Stewart, H. A., D. I. Kline, L. J. Chapman, and A. H. Altieri. (2021). Caribbean mangrove forests act as coral refugia by reducing light stress and increasing coral richness. Ecosphere 12(3): e03413.
  • Shantz, A. A., Ladd, M. C., and Burkepile, D. E. (2020). Overfishing and the ecological impacts of extirpating large parrotfish from Caribbean coral reefs. Ecological Monographs 90(2): e01403.
  • Wear, S.L. and Thruber, R.V. (2015). Sewage pollution: mitigation is key for coral reef stewardship. Ann. N.Y. Acad. Sci., 1355: 15-30.


Primack, R. B. (2012). A primer of conservation biology. Sunderland, Massachusetts. Sinauer Associates. 363 p.

Color polymorphism in the poison frog, Oophaga pumilio

Group Field Projects

These are field exercises, demonstrations or projects designed by the faculty and worked on in groups. The purpose of these exercises/projects is to familiarize students with an array of field sampling techniques and equipment commonly used in conservation and biodiversity studies. With help from a faculty member, students set up projects, collect data, and generally (depending on the project), analyze data, and present the results to the class.  Some group field exercises and activities include (but are not limited to):

  • Carbon Sequestration in Secondary vs. Primary Forests
  • Biodiversity Assessments of Forests and Mangroves
  • Invertebrate Diversity on Protected and Unprotected Coral Reefs
  • Biodiversity Loss on Starfish Beach: Effect of Ecotourism
  • Reforestation Project at Finca Maribella and Carbon Footprint Mitigation
  • Analysis of Beach Litter: What, Where and from Whom

Individual Research Project

Working closely with faculty, students will be responsible for designing and completing an original

Red-billed Tropicbird

research project of their choosing.  The project may deal with any topic involving biodiversity or conservation.  These projects will be carried out during the second half of the course and students will have about a week for data collection.  A few days before the end of the course students will analyze their data, write a technical report, prepare a PowerPoint presentation of their work and orally present their findings during a station-wide symposium on the last day of the course.

Grading and Credit

Up to 6 units of credit will be given, 3 for the lecture portion and 3 for the field portion. A letter grade will be assigned based on exams, research reports and presentations, lecture attendance, and participation in discussions and activities. Course credit must be arranged at the student’s institution. Contact ITEC for details.

Coral reef in Bocas