Zero to three meters below sea level – this was the elevation I listed as I filled in my third field notebook entry. For the first time this semester, we swapped out our boots, field clothing, insect repellent and notebooks, and were instead armed with flippers, snorkels, life-jackets and a nifty little PVC cuff that we could write on underwater. Given that we have spent the majority of time in terrestrial environments, this change was naturally welcomed. Additionally, it didn’t hurt that we could collect an additional stamp in our passport since we were headed out of the country into neighboring Panama.
Growing up in the fringes of the coral triangle region in South East Asia, I have always been intrigued and amazed by the diversity of the coral reef ecosystem and had a relatively good understanding of them. I knew that they generally grew in shallower waters due to their need of sunlight but was surprised to learn that herbivory played a huge role in determining the health of the coral reef ecosystem. This idea of top down control through herbivory was far from my expectations given that plants do not form the bulk of the biomass in the coral reef ecosystem. However, a series of lectures with guest faculty Andy Shantz as well as a faculty led project on the topic of herbivory levels in reefs slowly shed light on how herbivory shapes the coral reef ecosystem. By controlling the growth of algae, another light loving organism, herbivores ensure that there is sufficient real estate for corals to grow and receive sunlight that they require for photosynthesis. In that regard, herbivores act as gardeners, pruning and removing “weedy” species within the reef. Interestingly, each herbivore “prunes” the coral reef in a unique way due to the various types of feeding apparatus they possess. For example, sea urchins possess unique mouth parts comprising of five sharp blades, known as Aristotle’s lantern, which leads them to feed on different algal communities compared to parrotfishes who feed with beaks instead. As such, having a diversity of herbivores on the reef is important in controlling different algal communities to maintain coral diversity.
Beyond understanding the ecological concepts of bottom-up and top-down control of ecosystems, my biggest takeaway from our time spent at Bocas del Toro is that we need to constantly improve our understanding of ecosystems in order to apply suitable conservation and management decisions. During our lecture on ecological traps, it was disheartening to learn that some well-intentioned biodiversity management actions had backfired and led to population declines, putting some species at a greater risk of local extinction. These examples only serve to show that while we continue to brainstorm and roll out initiatives to protect wildlife, it is imperative for us to be proactive in research concerning animal behavior and the ecology of the habitats they live in. Only by doing so can we make well informed management decisions that serve to promote the protect of biodiversity.