After an hour-long boat ride, we arrived at the edge of a mangrove forest. I heard that our next site would be in the mangroves, but I thought we would find a dock at the edge of the forest. Instead we found an opening not wide enough for two boats and barely tall enough to stand up in at high tide. As we passed through the entrance it really felt like a scene from River Monsters. Two minutes later, we arrived at the dock and another drastic change of scenery. As we stepped off the boat, we looked up to see a large pastureland and followed a lightly tamped down path through the grass up to the Institute for Tropical Ecology and Conservation (ITEC). The station manager, Pete, gave us a friendly warning not to tread on a fer-de-lance, and the reef ecology segment of our trip was underway.
That night, our guest professor, Mark Ladd, arrived and the next day he gave an introduction to snorkeling around the reefs of Bocas del Toro. After a swim test and snorkel orientation, we headed over to Pete’s Reef where we got our first taste of what a tropical reef looked like, teeming life and diversity. You could look at one spot for an hour and be entertained the entire time. Besides the colorful and friendly looking fish, you might also stumble upon a barracuda in the distance, lurking just barely in your range of visibility. Little squid traveled in small groups and would turn white if you approached them too quickly. Needless to say, everyone was beside themselves thinking about what a normal marine biology course would entail at our respective schools in the states.
After the initial shock of how incredible a tropical reef was, Mark helped us to start wading through what we were actually seeing with his lectures. He went through the basics of reef ecology, explaining things like coral establishment and their relationship with the herbivorous parrot fish, before introducing us to his own research. His area of focus is in coral reef restoration. He looks into things like what genotypes of certain coral species allow for temperature resistance as well as interactions between different species off coral. His lab’s results were really cool, they were able to identify that certain genotypes are definitely more resistant to higher temperatures and also that certain interactions can be detrimental to species growing in direct contact with one another. These kinds of studies can have a huge impact on reef restoration efforts. For example, with rising ocean temperatures, the identification of certain genotypes with naturally occurring temperature resistance can greatly increase success rates of restoration efforts. Also, when trying to restore a reef, there’s a great benefit to know which species do not interact with each other well and which ones do.
Mark guided us through the reef, always excited to answer any questions we had. It felt like every ten minutes he would tell us to come look at something cool he found. Although the reef was intensely interesting, it definitely took its toll. Chafing, sun burns, and scratches from being a little too interested in the coral were not uncommon and each night consisted of heavy recovery time before the next morning.
It’s so good to see all of the different methods for research in all the drastically different life zones we’ve seen. Personally, I can’t think of a better way to narrow down what kind of work I want to do than actually talking to people who do the work and then seeing it done first hand. In our faculty led project, we constructed and used feeding assays that Mark said his lab uses all the time. It’s one thing to read the methods section of a paper and think, “oh that’s clever” or to even hear someone tell you about using it, but doing it yourself is the only way to know if that is the direction you want to work towards in your career. I’m so grateful to have had these opportunities and excited to see what lies ahead at our next and final site, La Selva, the tropical biology research Mecca of Costa Rica.