Bocas, here we come

We’ll be travelling to Bocas del Toro next week, and I’m very excited.  As a marine ecologist, I’ll be doing most (if not all) of my fieldwork there.  In preparation, I thought I’d write a short description of the area and its ecosystems.  I’ll also be writing a little bit about my project, in part because I’m slogging through my project proposal right now and I’ve got a bit of writer’s block.  Hopefully this will help.

I won’t write about the terra firma at Bocas, because I think we all know that terrestrial ecology is for nerrrrrds (just kidding, mostly).  Bocas is really beautiful because of its varied marine ecosystems- primarily coral reefs, mangroves, and my (undergrad) specialty, seagrass meadows.  These three ecosystems are typically referred to by the names of their foundation species (i.e., a species that increases local biomass and diversity by creating habitat).  Within each of these habitats, invertebrates, fish, and epiphytes flourish.  We’ll also see habitats overlapping- especially between seagrass and corals, which often grow among one another.

I’ll start with seagrass.  Seagrass is the like the ugly but underrated friend of coral- it’s not much to look at, but it can form complex, dynamic communities and metacommunities.  There are only ~60 species of seagrass worldwide, but it’s found in patchy distributions along most coastlines (except in the polar regions).  Seagrass is one of the very few flowering vascular plants found in marine systems (algae is non-vascular, i.e., it doesn’t have xylem or phloem, which are water- and nutrient-transporting tissues (respectively).  However, seagrass itself is not a good food source for most animals.  Most animals that live in seagrass consume its algal epiphytes, which are comparatively easy to digest and nutrient-rich (with some exceptions, e.g., pinfish on the east coast of America, limpets, etc.).  I did my undergrad thesis on epifaunal communities living in seagrass (in British Columbia), and also created an informal key for the invertebrates I observed (, if you want to see some photos of amphipods and isopods.  Amphipods are an incredibly diverse and beautiful group of organisms, and they’re a huge pain in the ass to identify.  Apparently there aren’t many at Bocas, unfortunately.

Coral.  Who doesn’t love coral?  Like seagrass, it provides habitat for many species.  And it’s nice that we get to see it now, since it’ll probably be gone in a few decades.  I won’t say too much about it, since people are pretty familiar with it, but I will note that Bocas del Toro has observed a couple of severe coral bleaching episodes in the last few years, and they’re expecting that this strong El Nino/La Nina cycle will create another bad season.

Mangroves are another vascular plant that provide habitat for marine organisms.  When we go snorkeling, you’ll see tons and tons of oysters, brittle stars, epiphytes, crabs, etc. making a nice living on their roots.  Don’t touch the spiky brittle stars.  I may or may not have learned that the hard way.

So Bocas del Toro is a great place for me to do my fieldwork for several reasons.  My project explores changes in the prevalence of herbivorous fishes with latitude- basically, herbivorous fish make up about 50% of the abundance and 15% of the diversity of all fishes at the equator, but are virtually absent above 50 degrees latitude (Floeter et al., 2006).  I want to explore the possibility that herbivorous fishes are absent at high latitudes because of temperature-related constraints on their ability to digest plant matter.  Bocas has plenty of herbivorous fishes and invertebrates for me to work with, living in different ecosystems with food of varying quality, so I hope to run observational and experimental projects while I’m there (if I can ever finish the paperwork).

Anyways, I’ll end with some safety tips for Bocas:

  1. If you’re snorkeling and you need to put your feet down, do the “stingray shuffle.”
  2. If you’re snorkeling bring something (e.g., a t-shirt) to cover your neck- the sun is incredibly strong and if you’re near the mangroves the bugs will come after you.
  3. There’s a small pond under the station with the occasional caiman living in there.  I don’t think they usually attack people at the station, but maybe don’t push any small children in the water or anything (and maybe don’t do that in general, you monster).



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