Ian is a multicultural and multidisciplinary illustrator, visual journalist, and writer of weird fiction. He has a wide breadth of interests, from cultural intersectionality to science communication, and Pre-Columbian art.
Ian takes particular interest in the effect environments have on individuals and culture both as a source of illustrative material and as inspiration for short stories. His work often appears as illustrations and sketches of a place and the people therein. In creating engaging visual records of mundanity often ignored, Ian aims to show that the lenses of normality often hides a true multiplicity and complexity to our every individual, collective and cultural action.
Ian joins the O’Dea Lab not just to document the day-to-day of scientific research, but find the multilayered relationships between researchers, their investigations, and the stories waiting to be told by the people in these tropical “paradises” we rarely ever hear from. By displaying these findings as information-rich illustrations, Ian aims to bring tropical sciences, folk knowledge and novel communication methods to a wider audience, both in his native Panama and around the world.
A quick look at the fossil record shows that no species lasts forever. On average, most species exist for around a million years, although some persist for much longer. A new study published in Scientific Reportsfrom paleontologists at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama shows that young species can take advantage of new opportunities more easily than older species: a hint that perhaps older species are bound to an established way of life.
“We’re lucky to live and work in Panama where nature has set up its own evolutionary experiment,” said Aaron O’Dea, STRI paleontologist. “When the Caribbean Sea was isolated from the Pacific Ocean by the slow uplift of the Isthmus of Panama, nutrient levels fell and Caribbean coral reefs proliferated. We can use the excellent fossil record to observe how Caribbean life responded to this environmental and ecological transformation.”
The team’s best choice for tracking the change was a peculiar family of marine animals known as the cupuladriid bryozoans. These relatively small animals consist of unusual, free-living, disc-shaped colonies of individuals called zooids. “Colonies form through sexual reproduction or asexually by cloning, as bits of the colony break off and continue to grow,” said STRI post-doc and coauthor Blanca Figuerola. “They abound on the sea floor along the continental shelf across the tropics, filtering plankton from the water via a beautiful waving crown of tentacles. When colonies die, their hard skeletons remain, and are exceptionally abundant as fossils.”
O’Dea’s group collected and identified more than 90,000 cupuladriid colonies from 200 fossil samples and 90 more recent samples collected by dredging the sea floor. The samples contained mud, sand, coral remains and other indicators of the kind of habitats where the bryozoans had lived. The team measured the abundances of the 10 most common species along gradients of these environmental and ecological indicators.
“We were intrigued to find that, even though all species could expand into the new Caribbean habitats created after final formation of the Isthmus, different species did so at different speeds,” said O’Dea. “The patterns were clear—old species that originated before 8 million years ago took 2 million years longer to expand into the new habitats than the younger species.”
“Perhaps younger species, which have smaller populations, are less tied to their history,” said former STRI post-doc and University of Saskatchewan researcher Santosh Jagadeeshan, another co-author. “Old species, with large, settled populations may be less able to escape from established roles and defined environmental tolerances because they mate with each other creating a high gene flow that makes it hard for genes for new traits to become established. It seems you can’t teach an old dog new tricks in evolution, either.”
The study was funded by Panama’s National Bureau of Science, Technology and Innovation, SENACYT, Panama’s National System of Researchers (SNI), the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF), the Smithsonian Institution, STRI, the National Geographic Society and Mr. Josh Bilyk.
O’Dea, A., De Gracia, B., Figuerola, B. and Jagadeeshan, S. 2018. Young species of bryozoans occupied new Caribbean habitats faster than old species. Scientific Reports, DOI: 10.1038/s41598-018-30670-9
Las imágenes satélite de 2009 (arriba) y 2016 (abajo) muestran la pérdida completa de la hermosa y valiosa lengua de arena blanca en Isla Grande.
Llegué a Panamá por primera vez en 1998. En esta época era un joven estudiante y me atraía y fascinaba la vida marina en ambos lados del istmo. Era mi primera vez en las Américas y toda era una aventura. Sobreviví a tres cosas: a una disentería en Bocas del Toro, al atropello por un taxista en la ciudad de Panamá y a la caída de un coco sobre mi cabeza en Isla Grande, Provincia de Colón. Salí del país prometiendo nunca volver. Pero, como dije al principio, Panamá goza de una extraordinaria vida marina que cautiva al primer contacto con ella. No hace falta decir que ahora hace ya 16 años que vivo en Panamá con mi familia panameña.
En esa primera visita a Isla Grande, en la zona llamada Costa Arriba, me encontré con una exquisita extensión o lengua de arena blanca que iba desde la esquina suroeste de la isla a más de 150 metros hacia mar adentro. En esta época, buceé con una dinastía de peces brillantes; en la noche dormí sobre las blancas y suaves arenas de la playa, que imaginaba como una gran cama de harina. Hoy día, la playa se ha ido y no hay peces. ¿Qué ocurrió?
La erosión de la playa es un proceso natural que ha ocurrido durante miles de años, en donde la arena es arrastrada por la acción de la lluvia o las olas, y es reemplazada por arena nueva, algunas veces más, algunas veces menos, por lo que la playa cambia de forma. Entonces, ¿por qué las arenas no regresaron a Isla Grande?
La respuesta es bastante interesante y algo desconcertante. Resulta que la suave harina blanca que nos encanta en nuestros pies en realidad está hecha de pequeños pedazos de coral que fueron comidos y luego defecados por animales como los peces loro. Sí! Las playas blancas del Caribe están hechas de excremento de peces. Algunos científicos han estimado que un solo pez loro puede producir una increíble tonelada de arena en un año. ¿Cómo lo midieron?, no les pregunté!
Por consiguiente, cuando se eliminan los peces loro del arrecife por la sobrepesca, llega un momento en que la arena erosionada es mayor que la arena que se forma, y la playa desaparece rápidamente. No más peces, no más playa. Agregue a eso el impacto de la contaminación y el calentamiento global sobre los corales, y tendremos una receta perfecta para el desastre.
El resultado no solo se muestra en imágenes de satélite, sino también en los recuerdos de quienes alguna vez disfrutaron de estas playas espectaculares. Las personas en las comunidades costeras desde Bocas del Toro hasta los Cayos de Guna Yala, están viendo desaparecer sus playas de arena blanca.
¿Cómo lo detenemos? En papel es sencillo: mejorar la salud de los corales y aumentar el número de peces loro; y las playas volverán. En la práctica, podemos buscar historias de éxito en otros lugares del caribe. En Punta Cana, República Dominicana, conocen el valor económico de sus playas de arenas blancas. Estimaron que con cada metro de playa perdida, el país pierde más de 300,000 dólares en ingresos del turismo cada año (Wielgus et al. 2010). En Punta Cana establecieron zonas dónde estaba prohibido pescar que permitieron la recuperación del pez loro y en consecuencia de los arrecifes. También, emprendieron una fuerte campaña para cultivar nuevos corales donde anteriormente existían. Es un modelo que tiene sentido desde el punto de vista comercial y podría aplicarse en cualquier parte del mundo si cuenta con una iniciativa correcta y regulada. Las playas de Panamá son un tesoro nacional que vale muchos millones de dólares en turismo. Son una protección frente al aumento del nivel del mar y a las tormentas como el infrecuente, pero mortal, huracán Otto. Brindan refugio a la vida marina y alimentan a las comunidades locales. Pero más que esto, se suman inexorablemente a la calidad de vida a todos.
Al saber cómo se forman estas playas podemos entender mejor porque se están perdiendo. Eso nos ayuda a tomar decisiones más efectivas que traerán de vuelta las hermosas playas del Caribe, para así apoyar la economía futura de las comunidades locales y el disfrute de todos.
My research integrates behavioural ecology, sensory physiology, evolutionary ecology and genomics to examine the role of environmental change in shaping communication systems and ultimately the evolutionary trajectory of populations. I am fascinated by rapid ecological adaptation and its genetic and epigenetic underpinnings, particularly in aquatic environments. If there is water, and there are animals, I am interested!
My work at STRI focuses on divergence in ecological traits between sister species of coral reef fishes separated by the rise of the Isthmus of Panama. At the moment, I am examining how the visual system of sister fish species differentially adapted to the drastically different underwater light conditions between the two coasts (Pacific and Caribbean) of Panama.
I am an environmental biologist from Panama, interested in understanding how coastal marine ecosystems respond to human-induced perturbations, and how to apply this knowledge to conservation and management strategies.
I am working on a project with Dr. Chien-Hsiang Lin that uses otolith assemblages to investigate the life histories of holocene reef fish. I am searching for patterns in the sizes of these assemblages over time, space and habitat. Through the study of otolith assemblages, we hope to contribute information to what coral reef fish communities were like in a time before human influence. This information can be compared to present reefs and can shape our ideas about ecosystem conservation.
I graduated from Boston University with a B.A. in marine science and biology, then spent a year as an Americorps after-school educator before I joined STRI as a research assistant. My personal interests lie at the intersection of research and community-driven conservation. I hope to explore marine ecological questions while supporting connections to the natural world through citizen science outreach.
I am a student of Marine Biology at the International Maritime University of Panama. I have previously worked on the taxonomy, identification and ecology of coral reef fish. I am currently working on a project that seeks to create the first collection of micro-gastropods in Panama, and at the same time investigate the variability in time and space of these organisms on a geological scale at the Caribbean and Pacific side of Panama to understand environmental changes. My primary goal as a marine biologist is to help develop science in Panama to help preserve the natural world.
When we think about a “pristine” untouched ecosystem we often have a single, preconceived image in mind. It could be a grassland with thousands of bison, a thick tropical forest, or a coral reef teeming with fish and sharks. These places certainly existed, and in many cases are now lost or replaced by alternatives, but there has always been variation and not everywhere would fit into these limited boxes. There must always have been marginal ecosystems and vast amounts of variation.
It is this variation that we propose can help conservation. If we can describe that variation we can do a better job at placing modern ecosystems into context. In this paper published in Conservation Biology we discuss our ideas of how the fossil record can be used to redefine what should be considered “pristine” and the positive benefits of doing so for conservation.
I am working with Aaron at STRI to collect modern, archaeological, and paleontological shell materials from Bocas del Toro. Strombus pugilis is a species of conch that has decreased in body size at maturity over the past ~7000 years possibly due to size-selective human subsistence pressures. I’ll export these shell samples, along with some modern tissue samples, back to PSU and attempt to extract and sequence both modern and ancient DNA from these materials.
One long-term goal is to perform a genome-wide association study (GWAS) to identify genetic loci associated with body size variation in these marine snails. These loci could then be studied with evolutionary population genomic methods to test the hypothesis that small body size has evolved via a history of positive natural selection. If ancient DNA can be extracted and sequenced from the archaeo- and paleontological sites, it will be possible to directly track the evolutionary history of size-associated genetic variants over time, relative to genetic variants from other regions of the genome.
We have a position open for Lab Manager. It will be a really diverse job with a mixture of admin, supervision, lab work and fieldwork. The position is based at the Naos Island Laboratories in Panama. For more information about the position, including a brief description of duties and requirements, and information on how to apply click here.
My research sits between the established disciplines of biodiversity, ecology, chemical ecology and mineralogy in the context of the global change using bryozoans as model organisms.
My current research aims are (a) to present new data on bryozoan species richness and the spatial patterns from poorly known regions, (b) to evaluate the ecological and applied effects of their natural compounds and (c) to deepen current understanding of skeletal geochemistry so that we can assess better how they will respond to global change.
Why study bryozoans?
Bryozoans are ubiquitous and important members of many benthic communities with high productivity, biodiversity and many ecosystem services and their global species richness is still largely underestimated. Biodiversity and biogeographical baseline studies are starting points for monitoring and rapidly assessing changes associated with threats such as climate change and the establishment of invasive marine species.
They inhabit depths between the intertidal to abyssal plains, and at all latitudes in the oceans. The broad bathymetrical and geographic ranges of some species make them useful organisms for evaluating depth and/or geographical-related changes.
They are known to produce natural products (NPs), such as alkaloids and terpenoids, although research in NPs and their role in an ecological context have focused mostly on other phyla.
They are often dominant skeletal-carbonate producers in temperate and polar waters that secrete skeletal calcite containing significant amounts of Mg-calcite. Their skeletons are more soluble than skeletons with low Mg content, and consequently, more susceptible to ocean acidification, as the solubility of calcite increases with its Mg-calcite content.
Lauren Graniero, student at Texas A&M and STRI short term Fellow, just published another paper that helps us make sense of the significance of stable isotope ratios in skeletal material. Continue reading →
We thank Erkens and Hoorn for their constructive comments. Like us, they believe that collaboration between biologists, geologists and paleontologists focusing on data and analyses is required to unravel the history of the Isthmus of Panama. We agree with Erkens and Hoorn that the Continue reading →
Caribbean coral reefs have transformed into algal-dominated habitats over recent decades, but the mechanisms of change are unresolved due to a lack of quantitative ecological data before large-scale human impacts. To understand the role of reduced herbivory in recent coral declines, we produce a high-resolution 3,000 year record of reef Continue reading →
In 2016, artist Irene Kopelman brought her unique and endearing perspective of nature to our science.
Irene built her “Underwater Workstation” where she used fossils from our lab and living organisms with Andrew Altieri’s lab (including two live mangrove root systems covered in sponges, ascidians and other creatures) to reflect on (amongst other things) the surprising similarities between the processes of science and art. Read more about Irene’s underwaterworkstation
Nicte-Ha did her master’s degree in marine biology at Reefs System Unit, UNAM, Mexico. There, she investigated the growth rates of fossil and modern corals as proxies to understand environmental change.
As an intern scientist of the O’Dea lab, Nicte-Ha expects to gain a wider perspective on how the study of past marine environments can help to develop better strategies for conservation of current coral reef ecosystems that are under the current effects of human impacts.
I am a taxonomist and primarily use fish otoliths to explore systematic and ecological questions. Much of my work uses sea bottom otolith assemblages as a study system, but I also work on fossil materials to address their paleoecological, biogeographical and evolutionary aspects.
I am an undergraduate student at College of the Atlantic in Bar Harbor, Maine, pursuing a degree in Human Ecology with a concentration in marine biology. I am interested in the ecological relationship between sea turtles and the communities in which they belong. Subsequently, I hope to make further contributions to the restoration and conservation of both in my homeland, Malaysia.
At STRI I am assisting Mauro Lepore in quantifying the differences in community composition between fossil reefs and sub-recent reefs in Bocas del Toro. This internship will provide me with a new perspective to approach marine conservation: how the study of marine historical ecology can be utilized to better inform coral reef restoration and conservation efforts.
Soy biólogo y paleontologo marino y los moluscos son mi gran pasión. Utilizo la taxonomía como una herramienta para identificar cientos de estos animales, tanto del registro fósil como modernos. Me interesan las interacciones ecológicas, depredador-presa en función del hábitat y los efectos antopocénicos sobre el medio ambiente, desde el punto de vista de conservación.El enfoque que utiliza el proyecto es súper interesante, ya podemos ir al pasado usando la paleontología; saber cómo eran los ambientes, que especies dominaban y que ha cambiado.
Soy licenciada en geografía e historia de la Universidad de Panamá. Como técnica de investigación he tenido la oportunidad de trabajar en diferentes proyectos identificando organismos de la fauna arrecifal como: Bryozoas, corales, bivalvos y gasterópodos. Actualmente, en colaboración con el Dr. Orangel Aguilera (Universidad Federal Fluminense, Brasil), trabajo en un proyecto que busca describir las comunidades de peces arrecifales antes de las perturbaciones (p.ej. milenios de sobrepesca) causada por los seres humanos. Para ello identifico otolitos, estructuras calcáreas alojadas en el oído interno, de peces teleósteos marinos colectados en muestras fósiles (Holoceno, ~7000 años) y modernas del Caribe. Los datos que se obtendrán serán muy importantes en la gestión de los recursos pesqueros en el Caribe de Panamá principalmente, así como para funcionarios tomadores de decisiones y conservacionistas.
Soy Bióloga egresada de la Universidad de Panamá con orientación a la biología animal. Estoy realizando una pasantía que va enfocada específicamente a la clasificación de los moluscos utilizando muestras de la costa del Pacífico así como del Caribe. En este proyecto manipulare organismos del registro fósil como modernos, separando las especies según caracteres morfológicos que me ayudaran a inferir entre familias y géneros. Teniendo en cuenta que los moluscos son un grupo muy diverso y complejo y el cual ha sufrido un proceso evolutivo muy interesante a lo largo de todo este tiempo.
My interests lie in geology and paleoecology, specifically the structure, constitution, behaviour, and evolution of physical processes and how they interact with biology. I am working with Erin Dillon to process fossil and modern reef sediments from the Dominican Republic for her shark dermal denticle project. Through this opportunity, I hope to gain experience in the lab and learn more about microfossils and their application in interpreting environmental change over time, which will assist my future academic studies in paleoecology.
I’m a Biology undergraduate student at University of Panama profoundly interested in Marine Biology and paleontology, especially the evolution, adaptation and ecology of coral reefs. I’m working on a project that consists of reconstructing the Caribbean reef fish communities of the past, and my master tools for this research are fishotoliths. Otoliths have distinct shapes that enable us to identify fish families, sometimes even to the level of species and fossil otoliths may help us reconstruct the reef fish community of the Caribbean 7000 years ago (i.e. before human impacts). This information will provide a baseline that will enable us to compare “pristine” with modern reef fish communities.
My research focuses in the understanding of multiple factors influencing freshwater biodiversity over time. I am interesting in the synergies between the introduction of exotic species, water pollution, hydrological alterations and climate change affecting lake assemblages in the Anthropocene. My work integrates paleolimnological techniques, historical data and contemporary monitoring data in human-impacted tropical lakes to:
Assess how tropical lake communities respond over time (decadal to centennial) to environmental change (e.g. eutrophication, climate change and lake water level alterations).
Determine if dominance of exotic aquatic plants and fish are a direct consequence of competitive exclusion with native species; or whether dominance is an indirect cause from direct negative effects of habitat disturbances on native communities.
Explore if there have been positive impacts from the introduction of exotic species (e.g. carbon sequestration.
Abby is working on a project that explores how marine life, specifically molluscs, respond to the differing energy regimes of the Pacific and Caribbean sides of the Isthmus of Panama. The Pacific experiences coastal upwelling and high nutrient availability, corresponding to high productivity, while the Caribbean experiences no upwelling and low productivity. How do marine communities, which share many of the same species, differ between the Caribbean and Pacific sides?
I am a student at Keiser University in Nicaragua who will be transferring to FIU this year to pursue a degree in Marine Biology. I am working alongside Erin Dillon helping process fossil and modern sediment samples to find shark denticles and formulate a hypothesis of how shark communities were before humans. This will allow me to explore new areas of marine biology and gain experience doing research. It will also help me understand how fossils can be used to interpret the present.
Reconstructing shark communities using dermal denticles preserved in reef sediments
What were shark communities like before humans? Ecological surveys and historical records demonstrate significant declines in Caribbean shark populations, yet pre-exploitation baselines are nonexistent. Dermal denticles – tiny, tooth-like scales lining the skin of elasmobranchs – can offer insight into shark communities on reefs. We have found denticles to be beautifully preserved in fossil and modern reef sediments, allowing morphometric analysis and classification. Denticle traits are also closely associated with shark ecology and can paint a picture of shark community composition. Evaluating the relative abundances of different denticle morphotypes in sediment samples across time and space can both supplement existing survey data – using time-averaged modern sediments – and assist in the reconstruction of pre-human shark baselines – using the recent fossil record. This previously unexplored data source may reveal what shark communities looked like prior to the advent of fishing, facilitating exciting and important assessments of the magnitude and ecological consequences of global shark declines and producing more meaningful conservation targets.
Quantifying Ecological Changes in Reef-Building Corals over Historical Timescales
Coral reefs are declining worldwide but we do not know what a natural reef should look like because their degradation appears to have begun long before scientists began to survey reefs. Focusing on Bocas del Toro, Panama, this project aims to quantify the differences in the ecological structure of reef-building corals from a 7000 year old fossil reef versus a modern reefs. The fossil reef and modern reefs respectively developed before and during the period when human activity has been the dominant influence on climate and the environment. Understanding how reef-building corals have changed over historical timescales can help marine managers to assess the decline of Caribbean reefs relative to their condition before the period during which human activity has been the dominant influence on climate and the environment.
My research interest are: (1) Relating community structure over broad spatial, environmental and temporal scales; (2) Historical interactions between natural variability, biota and humans; (3) Reconstruct past environmental conditions using stable isotope ratios of modern and fossil mollusc specimens; (4) Design, construct, test and maintain useable databases and web-systems and (5) Marine macro- and micro- gastropod biodiversity and taxonomy.
The diverse temporal time-scales (modern to geological), spatial habitat differences in temperate, tropical and subtropical areas and the complexity of the organisms I have studied in the past (macro and micro gastropods, corals, sponges, crustaceans), provides an excellent background to conduct innovative research and integrate macroecology and palaeoecology. Thus, my current research focuses on integrating new and existing geochemical data with paleobiological data from the Panama Paleontology Project (PPP) to resolve the drivers of ecological change and evolutionary turnover in the Caribbean. In collaboration with Dr. Ethan Grossman (Texas A&M) I have built a relational database ‘Tropical Ocean Database’ that will be available to unite paleoecology, evolutionay, environmental and geochemical datasets to allow broad-scale comparison and analysis of marine ecosystems and their communities through time.
The formation of the Isthmus of Panama stands as one of the greatest natural events of the Cenozoic, driving profound biotic transformations on land and in the oceans. Some recent studies suggest that the Isthmus formed many millions of years earlier than the widely recognized age of approximately 3 million years ago (Ma), a result that if true would revolutionize our understanding of environmental, ecological, and evolutionary change across the Americas. To bring clarity to the question of when the Isthmus of Panama formed, we provide an exhaustive review and reanalysis of geological, paleontological, and molecular records. These independent lines of evidence converge upon a cohesive narrative of gradually emerging land and constricting seaways, with formation of the Isthmus of Panama sensu stricto around 2.8 Ma. The evidence used to support an older isthmus is inconclusive, and we caution against the uncritical acceptance of an isthmus before the Pliocene.
Panama has a rich and unique natural history, filled with stories of change and heaps of fascinating diversity. To keep you focused on the important, we present a few of our own ‘Panama Papers’ to download and read for yourself Continue reading →
Our book, A History of Life in 100 Fossils, has just been published in French and German. As predicted, the French one looks better than any of the others, but the German version is bound to last a lifetime.
Project 1 (one position). Interoceanic differences in energy flow. Position open now, send CV and cover letter to email@example.com.
Project 2 (two positions). The ecological, life history and environmental differences between Holocene and modern Caribbean coral reef fish assemblages using fossil otoliths. To apply follow directions on the flyer.