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On Location: Haines Concludes Study Abroad Experience

by | Jul 12, 2023

Rising junior and women’s basketball guard Mallorie Haines is spending four weeks in Panama this summer with The School for Field Studies, a study abroad program designed for environmental research and stewardship with initiatives all over the world. With a passion for marine biology, Mallorie is spending the next four weeks studying human impacts on the ecosystem and will share a journal entry with Wildcat fans after each week of her once in a lifetime experience.


WEEKS 3 & 4

Hey ‘Cats, 

This post is a combination of the two last weeks I spent in Panama, doing some really cool research and presentations, before I returned to Davidson on July 5th.

One of the biggest things I’ve been working on, was that I chose, designed, and completed my first research project for my largest and final class assignment. Because I love sharks, I decided to try to understand and research how the absence of top-order predators affect the coral reef ecosystem health here in Bocas del Toro, and what that could potentially mean for the future. Being a top-order predator means that sharks are at the top of the food chain and have no natural predators of their own. In the Caribbean, the main top-order predators are sharks and barracuda. Over 30 species of shark live off both coasts of Panama, including bull sharks, nurse sharks, tiger sharks, white-tipped reef sharks, and at some times of the year, even massive whale sharks on the southwest coast. Here in Bocas, we see nurse sharks and hammerheads mostly, but there have also been bullshark and lemon shark sightings in recent years. While a variety of anthropogenic factors have also driven out these top predators, the biggest threat to them is shark fishing.

I have been able to experience an entirely new culture while still exploring my passion for marine biology.

My partner, Cate Wollmuth, and I collected data in six different locations and documented all sightings of barracudas and sharks. In total, we saw five barracudas and only one shark, a significantly larger number of barracuda than sharks. This substantial difference in numbers of barracudas and sharks also made us question the abundance of sharks in the Caribbean. However, it is important to note that our data was still extremely limited.

As far as our results of the study, we found from a variety of sources that there is evidence that the removal of sharks on reefs causes a “trophic cascade.” This means that the removal of a top-order predator can directly and indirectly affect species of a lower trophic level in a food web. This trophic cascade completely alters the composition of reefs and can be detrimental to the balance of their ecosystem.

We also took our last snorkel trip to Zapatillas Dos, the marine protected islands that I had written about in previous weeks. The purpose of this particular field excursion was to compare the number and types of species seen at Zapatillas Dos to a different snorkel site outside of the protected area, and perhaps spot the differences between the two. Since my research was on sharks, I had a very easy job. I didn’t see a shark at this site, which correlated with the numbers at the other sites as well.

I also played basketball one last time with some of the local kids that had become my friends over the last month. This time we played on the outdoor court that overlooked the beach. My friend Matt and I played for hours, and it was definitely tough to say goodbye. I am so incredibly grateful to have been afforded this study abroad experience.

I have been able to experience an entirely new culture while still exploring my passion for marine biology, and Bocas del Toro will always have such a special place in my heart. With that being said, I am back in Davidson and ready to start preparing for this season! Thank you for reading my blogs over the last few weeks, and I will see you at our home opener in November!


-Mallorie Haines #1

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