Author: maurolepore

Hi, I’m Mauro Lepore, R package developer at CTFS-ForestGEO (The Center for Tropical Forest Science - Forest Global Earth Observatory). I am interested in getting more by getting along with people, pragmatism, scientific storytelling, GitHub and R. You can find me on Twitter as @mauro_lepore; or working with cool people in Washington DC, visiting friends and family in Argentina, running or surfing.

Nicte-Ha’s farewell!

Earlier this year, the coral project was set. The research question was clear, the samples – the key to the question – were at hand, and I was making good progress. But the coral team had only one member: me. This was not great because I love working in teams and to learn new stuff. How best to learn if not by teaching?

Potential interns had shown interest in working in the lab. Not always, however, this works well for the intern or researchers. It is hard to find a good match. Then, a young woman emailed Aaron. Shortly after, she was standing in front of us. “Gosh! Nicte-Ha is very determined”, I initially thought. And she was.

On day one, Nicte-Ha said that she aimed to find a research job in Bocas del Toro. We were sitting hundreds of kilometers from Bocas, but for Nicte-Ha, we were pretty close. A few hours after she analyzed the last sample in our lab, she headed off to Bocas del Toro.

What do you think happened between day one and the last sample she analyzed? Success! That is what determined people consistently get. Just to name a few of her achievements, Nicte-Ha learned fast and taught others, analyzed hundreds of kilograms of coral samples, developed and presented a poster at a conference, and was actively engaged in the daily life and discussions of our scientific community. More than anything, she got a special place in everyone’s heart.

Thank you, Nicte-Ha. Today we see you leave, moving in the direction you chose. We are happy and proud.


Nicte-Ha Muñoz presents a poster in APANAC.


Great news from the coral team!

The coral team has great news to share: one reef from Bocas del Toro may be a bright spot! This blog explains what a bright spot is, why it is important and where we may have found one.

Coral reefs are declining worldwide but not all of them are in bad shape. Bright spots are, among coral reefs, those reefs that are in better condition than expected given the environmental and socio-economic conditions they are exposed to (Cinner et al. 2016). If we can learn why bright spots are different, we may be able to improve degraded reefs. But first we need to identify bright spots! And we may have found one in Bocas del Toro, Panama.

To do this, we became time-travelers! We compared (fossil) reef corals that lived in Bocas del Toro around 7 000 years ago (figure 1a) with (subrecent) reefs corals that have lived here over the past few decades (figure 1b). We measured the amount and type of reef corals both in fossil and subrecent reefs. From this data we are learning how reefs changed since substantial human impact began.

Our preliminary results show that one reef from Bocas del Toro, Punta Caracol, is a potential bright spot. Compared to other subrecent reefs, Punta Caracol is exposed to similar environmental conditions and human pressures but it seems substantially healthier. In fact, it is almost identical to the pristine reefs that lived in the region 7 000 years ago.


Figure 1. When fossil (a) and modern (b) reefs from Bocas del Toro are compared, Punta Caracol is outstanding, likely a bright spot. It is healthier than other subrecent reefs and similar to pristine reefs that lived in Bocas 7 000 years ago.

Our next step is to refine this exciting finding. We plan to precisely describe how Punta Caracol is special. For example,

  • What type of corals drive the difference between Punta Caracol and other subrecent reefs?
  • What are the key similarities between Punta Caracol and the pristine reefs that lived in Bocas del Toro 7 000 years ago?

We will let you know what we find out!

It’s Melisa’s farewell

Today we say farewell to Melisa! Because she has done great and has big plans ahead, we want to celebrate.


Melisa never gets stuck (except this one time)!

During her three-month internship, Melisa was outstandingly productive. For example, she (a) identified over a hundred kilograms of tiny coral fragments, (b) planned a fieldtrip, (c) reviewed literature, (d) developed a guide and a reference collection to identify coral skeletons, (e) wrote an abstract and produced a conference poster, (f) presented interesting topics at multiple lab meetings, (g) attended to multiple scientific seminars and (h) organized the research collection of the coral team. And most importantly, Melisa connected personally with everyone she met. She is easy going, kind, and respectful.

But the semester starts soon so she has to go back to college. For her farewell, we gave Melisa a little present and took her out to lunch. The restaurant we chose was Napoli’s Restaurant and Pizzeria, a place that has hosted the special occasions of the O’Dea lab and its scientific family, including the legendary Tony Coats and Jeremy Jackson, over decades.

The coral team, the O’Dea lab and many others at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute will remember and miss her a lot. Because she is smart, positive and hard working, Melisa will never hit a roof. So I am confident this is only the beginning of something even bigger and better.

Melisa, we wish you the best because you deserve it!

The coral team kicks-off!

What did reefs look like before humans?. To answer this question, I joined the Baseline Caribbean project of Aaron O’Dea and his lab.

Reef corals are very important, for example, because they build “homes” for multiple reef critters—including delicious fish! Reefs also protect our coasts against storms and boost the tourism industry. Despite their importance, we know little about how reefs vary naturally and how they respond to human impact. This makes it difficult to conserve coral reefs and to sustain fisheries and tourism, among other valuable services.

To understand and manage coral reefs better, we project to investigate communities of reef corals from Bocas del Toro, Panama. Here, we had opportunistic access to sample pristine communities of reef corals—communities that lived approximately 7,000 yeas ago and, therefore, never experienced human impact. That opportunity was brief, during construction work (figure 1.a). Soon after sampling (figure 1.b-e), that fossil treasure was transformed into a lake and lost forever. Fortunately, our samples will provide robust evidence of what pristine coral reefs should look like. We will compare modern reefs with the pristine reference from the same region (figure 1.f).


Figure 1. Sampling fossil (a-e) and modern (f) reefs in Bocas del Toro, Panama.

Our project has an excellent home and family – its home is The Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, which offers exceptional support including internships and fellowships. Its family are a bunch of people, rich in ideas and energy, and willing to work hard to make this world a better place. We are: Nicte-Ha Muñoz (intern, post-graduate student), Melisa Chan (intern, undergraduate student), Felix Rodriguez (staff research assistant), Andrew Altieri (co-advisor, staff scientist), Aaron O’Dea (principal investigator, staff scientist) and me, Mauro Lepore (the person to blame, fellow scientist). To learn more about us visit Aaron’s and Andrew’s websites.

Are you convinced that we have great intentions, ideas and team? If so, come back to this website; we´ll keep you posted!