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Skidmore College

Publication Date

Fall 12-3-2014

Program Name

Panama: Tropical Ecology, Marine Ecosystems, and Biodiversity Conservation


Just off the Atlantic coast of Panama, a dynamic and self-renewing ecosystem takes advantage of the tropical climate and swampy conditions. Guarding Punta Galeta’s shores since before it was a U.S. navy base in the 1930’s, mangroves that have persisted here for centuries now draw scientists and tourists alike from all over the world to the Smithsonian Tropical Research Center. Once viewed as unproductive, distasteful environments, mangroves are increasingly recognized worldwide as critical habitat for endangered and commercially significant species, as well as for their ecological and aesthetic value. Uniquely adapted to survive in saline environments, mangroves combine methods of excreting, excluding, and accumulating salt to survive in otherwise hostile saline environments. The beautifully haunting roots of R. mangle, the most iconic mangrove species, anchor trees to coastal fringes, providing extra surface area and stability in the stressful environment of the intertidal zone. Mangroves have evolved to do more than endure the coastline’s constant state of flux; their method of reproduction depends on it. With viviparous, buoyant seedlings, or propagules, young, immature mangroves can travel long distances in the ocean’s currents before rooting on sandy coastlines or the sediments of an estuary. The ability to thrive in salt water gives them a competitive edge; though able to survive in freshwater, saline environments weed out competition from other tropical flora. These incredible ecosystems hold countless benefits for humans; they serve as carbon sinks, emitting oxygen into the atmosphere. Their wood can be used for charcoal and tannin. They protect coastlines from erosion and mitigate natural disasters like hurricanes. And they provide habitats for endangered species like the pygmy three-toed sloth, and for commercially significant species like lobster and shrimp. Without the ample benefits provided by mangrove ecosystems, benefits from scientific study, carbon accumulation, and fishing and ecotourism industries would decline. Already, about one third of mangrove populations around the world have been lost to anthropogenic causes over the past 50 years. Despite their immense financial and aesthetic value, mangrove populations in Panama are declining at an alarming rate. While government authorities like ANAM are working with scientific institutions like STRI to conserve and protect these incredible ecosystems, a better understanding of mangrove communities local to Panama would aid in better protection and reforestation efforts for Panama’s mangroves. In 2004, a 1,250 hectare reforestation project was begun for mangrove reforestation on degraded lands. With good assessment and progressive methods, these reforestation projects could provide substantial carbon offsets and important ecological and economic benefits to Panama’s local communities. Isla Galeta itself contains its own reforestation zone. By comparing conditions of healthy mangroves on Isla Galeta to those of the reforestation zone, I provide an assessment of the progress of mangrove reforestation on Isla Galeta.


Biodiversity | Environmental Health and Protection | Environmental Indicators and Impact Assessment | Environmental Sciences | International and Area Studies | Latin American Studies | Terrestrial and Aquatic Ecology


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