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Invaders are lunch
for local marine species

September 10, 2019

Panama, Chile
Text by Leila Nilipour, STRI

Native predators could contribute to controlling the abundance and expansion of invasive species

The climate is changing, and with it, ocean temperatures. On the other hand, global maritime traffic is increasing, provoking marine species to move towards new areas. Panama, in particular, is at greater risk. The heavy ship traffic could be transporting plants, animals or even parasites, from one ocean to another involuntarily. These ‘invasions’ could negatively affect the local fauna or human health, so Luis De Gracia has been interested in understanding them.

“This is very important, especially in a country like Panama, that is vulnerable to the introduction of these species due to high maritime traffic,” explains De Gracia, a former fellow at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (STRI).

While pursuing a master's degree in marine ecology in Chile, the marine biologist from Veraguas seeks to assess the impact of native predators from the ocean floor –such as crabs, lobsters, starfish or mollusks– as well as fish, on invasive species in Chilean temperate waters and in Panama’s tropical oceans.


“The belief is that native predators can affect the abundance, diversity and distribution of invasive species,” says De Gracia. “With a broader view of their role, maintaining the diversity of native predators could be an effective management strategy to control the abundance and expansion of invasive species.”

His interest in the subject arose throughout his experiences at STRI. In 2012, he conducted work for his undergraduate thesis at the Punta Galeta Marine Laboratory in Colón. Then, he worked with two STRI scientists: as an intern in the lab of marine paleobiologist and ecologist Aaron O’Dea, and in the lab of marine biologist and ecologist, Mark Torchin, under the guidance of doctoral student Andrew Sellers. After this, and advised directly by Torchin, Luis became a fellow and carried out his own research project related to invasive species.

Thanks to the opportunities offered by STRI, De Gracia became hooked on science. Once he completes his master’s degree, he hopes to continue studying the ecology of invasions at the doctoral level and return to Panama to apply his knowledge.

“Working with STRI scientists allows you to learn what it is to do science, carry out a research project and solve the difficulties that could come along the way,” admits De Gracia. “These experiences aroused my curiosity and critical thinking, and allowed me to explore different areas of research to decide what I really love.”

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