Coral Health and Disease in Bocas del Toro, Panama


In Spring 2016, I participated in the School for Field Studies’ Tropical Island Biodiversity Studies program in Bocas del Toro, an archipelago on Panama's Caribbean coast. As a student researcher, I visited the rainforest, the ocean and local indigenous fishing communities to study in a “living laboratory”. From my first snorkeling expedition, I was mesmerized by the beauty and diversity of the tropical marine ecosystem around me.

Of all the ocean’s fascinating inhabitants, I was most enchanted by the living backbones that supported these teeming underwater communities: reef-building scleractinian corals. Their colonies of tiny polyps formed the substrate upon which everything else grew, clung, or crawled. I quickly memorized each coral species’ scientific name and learned to identify it in the field.

On early snorkeling expeditions I observed corals blemished with stark white patches where tissue had been stripped away to expose the calcareous skeleton beneath. Concerned by the apparent abundance of these diseases and the damage they caused, I chose to investigate their prevalence in the archipelago as my directed research project. I learned to conduct underwater research, spending up to 10 hours in the water every day surveying the size and abundance of each coral species in our study sites while recording incidence of disease. Out of the water, I analyzed relationships between coral health, colony density, species richness and algal cover. Finally, at the end of the semester, I produced the first comprehensive survey of coral health and disease prevalence in the area.