Bring Belize Back

Tropical rain forests and the coral reefs are not only textbook examples of high levels of biodiversity, but are picturesque ecosystems that the world at large has accepted as exotic and fantastic. Think of the Red-eyed Tree frog and the Clownfish swimming above sea anemone.

Image result for red eyed tree frogImage result for coral reef

These were the images that came to mind when I prepared myself for Belize. Things we only see on nature documentaries will finally be seen by our naked eyes, I expected.

Although I did not get to see either of these popular symbols of the ecosystem I was in, I saw many other species that were simply awe-striking.  5 years from now, I bet, I will still remember the first photo of a jaguar on our camera trap, and our immediate screaming chorus.

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Also, I will remember the coral snake that emerged from its home underneath a log as I turned it over. And, the boa constrictor that Adrienne was too busy to see. And, the unexpected contact between my hands and the warmth that radiated from the trash dump of Leaf-cutter ants. These close engagements with other lifeforms are among some of my favorite experiences from this class.

As much as we joke about being elite gentlemen naturalists of the 1800’s, many of us were simply in awe at the amount and different types of life we got to experience. Like some of them, we set out to categorize and zero-in on the type of species we were seeing. Veronica’s incessant hunt for the Blue Morpho can be likened to past naturalist’s desire to collect specimen for further study, or to simply show the world. Being in proximity to these alien (to us) lifeforms, it was like exploring a new world.

Or new worlds. Although the tropical rain forest and the coral reefs shared many similarities (such as dependence on microbial-plant interactions, abundance of solar energy and large energy output), they were different.

Much of the life in coral reefs depended on water for movement. Many species of plant and animals rely on the dispersal ability of water for survival. Water carries the reproductive cells of many species and gametes are formed in open water. Sea urchins uses powerful wave energy to move from place to place. In the tropical rain forest, the relative lack of wind means that most movements must be provided by individual organisms.

We also felt this first hand. Although snorkeling and hiking both are actively tiring activities, with snorkeling one can simply float and carried by the waves. If there is only one lesson I learn from being in the ocean, it is that I need more of it in my life. Having gone from being afraid of water to being in love with it, I feel at ease in this new element in such a way I have never felt before. This was totally unexpected, too. These new worlds at the very least gave me new experiences. Though I would willingly opt-out of the sand fly experience. That sucked.

Seeing a new world has its biases. We developed a search image for the “exotic” and for certain species we come in with expectations to see. It’s interesting that as a group we had such wild reactions to the jaguar but only showed only slight amusement or even annoyance to orchid bees.  Both species offer necessary ecosystem services though it seems our predisposition towards mammals biased us against non-mammals. I wonder if I would have a different or better experience if we were able to develop more fully our appreciation for species we had less appreciation for going in.

Coming out Belize and into Houston’s concrete jungle, I haven’t been as awe-striken by lifeforms here. But I think back to a paper by William Cronin titled “The Trouble with Wilderness; or, Getting Back to the Wrong Nature”. He tells us that there is wildness and nature in every place.

“Wildness (as opposed to wilderness) can be found anywhere: in the seemingly tame fields and woodlots of Massachusetts, in the cracks of a Manhattan sidewalk, even in the cells of our own bodies. As Gary Snyder has wisely said, “A person with a clear heart and open mind can experience the wilderness anywhere on earth. It is a quality of one’s own consciousness. The planet is a wild place and always will be.”

Although it might easier to spend thousands of dollars on a trip to see cool nature, ecotourism has its negatives. It can prevent us from seeing interesting lifeforms (that is all lifeforms) in our backyard and in our bodies. I am not sure how my thinking about wilderness will change in 5 years, but at least for right now, I think it is my challenge to incorporate the experience of Belize into my everyday life, much like continuing the sense of meditation after meditating.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Adios Belize <3

Okay reflection here we go:

There are many similarities between the tropical rainforests and the coral reefs. Starting with the most obvious, both ecosystems rely heavily on water. Both ecosystems seem to have alternating states, whether it be the seasonality in the rain forest (wet vs. dry), or the tides in the ocean (high vs. low) that can differ between the hours. The organisms in each ecosystem have various stages of their life cycles in sync with the different cycles that occur in their environment, such as mating during the start of the wet season, etc. This variation in the environments allows for speciation; when one species is inactive, another in a similar niche can thrive, and so forth.

Another similarity, which is something that I did not know about before this trip, is the paradox of both environments being in and of themselves nutrient poor, yet somehow being able to support staggering amounts of biodiversity. In our little experiments in the Chiquibul for example, we were able to identify, morphologically speaking, approximately 60 different species of arthropods that wound up on our various vials, The fact that this number is a ridiculously small fraction of what is actually out there is absolutely mind blowing. Before the trip, I was wondering how to get as many species of my taxa possible on my taxon ID cards. I foolishly thought that I would be alright with approximately 24 species of trees and 24 of herbivorous fish- I mean were going to areas that were only so big, how diverse can the species get? The truth is, I didn’t see anymore than 8 or so of the species on my ID cards, both in the rainforest and on the reef. That isn’t because there simply were 8 or so of each taxon in each ecosystem- its because there were so many species of each taxon and they were so spread out around the ecosystem, somewhat “diffused” along with hundreds of other species that it was hard to identify them based on a very limited knowledge of their physical characteristics and distribution, bot to mention the fact that so many species looked SO similar, especially in regards to the trees, but in fact were different species entirely. While I knew before that there were MANY species in the rainforest, I think it was difficult  for me to grasp how many is many until I got a small glimpse of it myself. This was one thing that somewhat did surprise me about the course; no matter how much you think you know, or how positive you can distinguish one species from one that looks strikingly similar other than a minor variation in the veins of their leaves, you will never actually know all that much at all.

I didn’t realize that working underwater would be such a challenge. Of course, this was my first experience with snorkeling, let alone my first time trying to collect data underwater- I’m sure more experienced researchers won’t get salt water into their eyes as often as I did. However, I’m pretty certain that whether you are a novice or a marine biologist with 20+ year experience, goggles will get foggy, calves will cramp up, transect tapes won’t always stay in place and quadrats will sometimes refused to fall flat on the benthos. We were lucky that there were basically no waves and the sea was very calm. I could not imagine doing the same things we did, like measure coral coverage on the benthos, in very windy or rough conditions. Communicating underwater was quite difficult as well. Most of the time, if what I was trying to say didn’t get through to the other person, we both just surfaced so could talk out loud. I imagine in conditions or project that are time constrained, researchers would need to have a detailed communication system in place so that they won’t have to waste precious time trying to ask someone to lend them their camera.

One last thing that I didn’t really think about much until this course was about how much overlap there is between different fields of study, and how humanity is tied to nature, not matter how far away from it we think we are. Biology is ecology and evolution, yes, but it is also philosophy and physics and geology and politics and chemistry and sociology and history and nearly any field you can think of. People shape their environment, but the environment shapes people too. The things that we learned about the Maya civilization, their use of the land (the trees!), their culture, their struggles and their eventual downfall is all ingrained in the biology of the land as well, from the slashed on the bark of the chicle trees, to the changing soil qualities due to slash and burn agriculture. It really made me think about questions concerning geopolitical borders- the Guatemalans can’t harvest Xate but Belizeans can, just because they are on the wrong side on an imaginary line? The Chiquibul – and nature as a whole- doesn’t follow the rules of man.

Belize was hot. More humid in the forest, and a stronger sun on the island. However, in the forest, the nights were cooler and in Glovers’, we had that occasional ocean breeze.

Complaints? I’ve been told I have had them. As I can’t really think of anything that’s been bothering me up until right now, I think all of my complaints were in the moment, mostly. My various bites are still itchy as hell, but I’m sure I won’t even be remembering them in a few weeks. If I had to pick my least favorite part of the course, I would probably be when my sunscreen keep getting into my eyes while snorkeling and I couldn’t keep them open for hours afterwards- that is until we realized that that was the cause of my temporary blindness and I stopped using sunscreen on my forehead.

It is hard to choose one favorite part of the course, but I can say that all my favorite parts were shared with the people who I have personally learned so much from throughout this course, whether it was about the various lectures we’ve had, or otherwise. We all talked about how much of a surprise it was when we looked over the camera trap pictures and saw the jaguars, or how cool it was to climb around inside the ATM cave, or see scarlet macaws in the wild. The experiences we had during this trip were one of a kind  and I will treasure them forever, but I think that my favorite part overall was being able to meet such amazing human beings with the same passion for science and learning and the environment and people as I have, and the opportunity that I had to experience this truly eye opening trip with them.

I think I somewhat came into this course thinking: okay this is it, after May 29th I will be able to decide whether or not I want to do field work in my career as a biology. I expected to have the answer to the question I’ve been asking myself for the past few months, now that graduate school applications are looming overhead. But now I realize that the answer is not that simple to be answered after a two week experience, no matter how amazing it was. Will I know pursue a career as a tropical field biologist, or even field work in general? Honestly, it’s too soon to tell. I’ll probably have to let my sand fly bites heal before I start thinking about that. What I can say now is that no matter what specific field of study I choose to pursue in my career in EEB, I can always look back at this trip to remind myself of why I do what I do- because I love science and I love what science can do for people, and what science has the potential to do for all of the earth and its creatures.

 

 

Belize has my heart

The tropical rainforest and the coral reef are two of the most biologically diverse ecosystems on earth. What similarities exist between these two ecosystems, and how might these similarities relate to high levels of biological diversity? What personal observations have you made about the similarities and differences between these two ecosystems? How did the course compare with your expectations? What were your favorite—and least favorite—parts of the course? Describe three things that you learned in the course that you consider to be the most important or surprising (i.e., what did you

It seems so weird that just a couple of days ago we were in Belize and now I’m back home in my bed writing this reflection (with air conditioning).

The tropical rainforest and coral reefs have so much biodiversity, and there is still so much we have to learn and discover about these ecosystems. I knew before that there were large numbers of species that hadn’t been identified yet in the rainforest as well as coral reefs, but nothing compared to seeing this for myself. The amount of flora and fauna in the rainforest is crazy, and there were definitely things that we saw such as beetles and even ants that Scott or our guidebooks couldn’t identify. In our hurricane gap project as well as our To Pee or Not to Pee project, we separated our findings into morphospecies and the number of species we had for both projects was extremely large (so large it took us 5 hours to separate the morphospecies from the pee traps). Both ecosystems also are nutrient poor, but they overcome this by finding nutrients in their own inhabitants. Nutrient cycling takes place by decomposers or in coral reefs, by corals and sponges. Another similarity is how both ecosystems are not only threatened by natural dangers such as the changing environment but also direct human threats such as poaching and use/harvesting of land and resources by other countries like Guatemala and Honduras.

I went into this class not really knowing what to expect, as many of the other now TFBs will say as well. I was definitely nervous the day we left Rice to fly to Belize. I was worried I wouldn’t be able to keep up with the class, or I would discover I wasn’t cut out for the TFB lifestyle. However, I discovered that the TFB lifestyle is amazing and I am more than capable of completing long hikes and swims in tropical environments. I can even hold snakes and swim after sharks because I’m not afraid of them anymore. Seeing these creatures in the wild is way different than seeing a picture online, and you can truly appreciate how amazing they actually are.

One of the last days in Belize, Scott asked some of us what our favorite moment of the trip was, but having to choose one is just too hard. One of my favorites from Las Cuevas had to be the last night there where we all gathered around a laptop to look at the camera trap pictures, and we first saw a tapir picture and the second the picture changed there was a gorgeous shot of a jaguar and we all flipped out and were screaming. At Glover’s I really loved the sea urchin day, because I got to hold a ton of adorable sea urchin, including my favorite thing ever, a sea egg (yes sea urchin can be adorable).

It’s hard to say something out of this trip wasn’t great, but I guess my least favorite moment was having to endure getting a ton of mosquito bites at Glover’s. However, I was having so much fun that I wasn’t about to let bug bites get in my way.

Before this trip, I was still on the edge about what my major would be and what I wanted to do with my life, and it might sound cheesy but this class solidified that my passion is biology and I want to work on helping and studying the environment. I also met some wonderful people on this trip, and I wasn’t expecting to come back with so many people I can call close friends. We all seemed so different but were connected by our love for the environment and desire to make a difference through studying it. I feel really lucky to have met everyone and shared this experience. Finally, I realized how much I want to do to make a difference in the environment even just at home. I would always tell myself I would try and cut down on my waste, but I never stuck with it. After seeing marine debris attached to a nurse shark, and having to pick up trash off a remote island that I could never imagine having debris, I feel like not only cutting back on my waste but also educating others about the effects and of marine debris and how we can help cut back.

This trip to Belize has literally been one of the most important experiences in my life so far, and I know I will always look back and remember the things I learned and experiences I had. 

No One Leaves Belize Scott-Free: My Love Letter to Belize

It’s hard to imagine that a country as small as Belize can contain such vastly different environments, which we were lucky enough to experience. The rainforest and the reef are both such fascinating views into the diversity of life, each with their own unique organisms that we humans depend on. Every time we saw something we didn’t recognize, I couldn’t help but wonder if we were the first people to ever come across it, since the sheer number of organisms in the rainforest and reef make that a possibility each time we stepped out onto the field. Even though I’ve always known how important both of these ecosystems are, I never really understood the impact they have on us until I experienced them through the eyes of a biologist.

Despite this similarity, these ecosystems were still so different. We faced unique problems in each environment that often required us to think outside of our comfort zone to answer the questions we posed. Each time we tried to solve a question, we encountered multiple other problems that we had to come together to find a solution for. In the rainforest, this was often because of just a lack of knowledge about all the organisms that were there, like in To Pee or Not to Pee with our vast number of insect morphologies. In the reef, the main problem was learning how to collect data while snorkeling. Communication became so much harder underwater and making sure that you were identifying the right organism became more complex. Despite these challenges, we always worked together to find the best solution.

I came into this course with pretty much no idea what to expect, which I think was a good thing because I never would’ve been able to guess the crazy things we’d experience. I expected to learn about the rainforest and the reef, but we also learned so much about living in research stations, caring about the environment, and working together as a group. At first, my least favorite part about this trip was how isolated I felt being in the rainforest with no internet and no way to contact anyone outside the group. However, this became less and less of an issue as the days went on and actually became something that I enjoyed. We became really close as a group and I felt like I learned so much about everyone because of how close we were to each other. Working in such a close knit group became my favorite part of the course because we were able to joke and talk with each other so comfortably. I’ll always remember this group as some of the greatest people that I’ve met at Rice.

There are a lot of things that I learned from this trip that I’ll remember for years to come. One was that despite how much you think you know about conservation and protecting the environment, there’s always more to learn and experience. Our marine debris project really showed me just how much more work we have to do to clean up the reefs and protect them for future generations. The second one is that there’s always more to an environment that you don’t always see at first. From the leaf cutter ants to the camera traps we set out, we were always finding out about hidden worlds that, even though we didn’t see them at first, still hold such importance. The last thing that I learned comes from something Andressa mentioned to me in Las Cuevas. She said it was crazy how this trip had shown that literally anyone can become friends. Despite our different backgrounds and experiences, all it took was a love for nature for all of us to become close friends. I was surprised by how true this was but extremely grateful that it was.

Overall, this course was everything I hoped it would be and more. I’m extremely impressed that everyone was able to put up with my terrible jokes and lame stories for two weeks, so kudos to all of you guys. Everyone on this trip and everyone we met in Belize played such a huge role in making this trip so memorable. There’s really no way to end this but with a culmination of my worst joke this trip:

Basically Steve Irwin pt. 2

The sky over our last night in Belize. Once again, this photo is NOT color corrected!

Now that I’ve been back from Belize for a few days, I’ve had some time to gather my thoughts on the past two weeks. I had the privilege of visiting two of the world’s most biologically diverse ecosystems and witnessing their beauty firsthand. Although the rainforest and the reef seem to be completely distinct ecosystems, in reality, they have several underlying similarities.

The biggest concept I learned about these two ecosystems on my trip was that both exist in oddly nutrient-poor areas. You’d think that such diverse places would never be able to survive in environments as lacking in nutrients as the soil of the Chiquibul or the waters of Glover’s Reef. But paradoxically, they thrive here!

Upon closer inspection, the “paradoxes” of the rainforest and of the reef aren’t paradoxes at all. In both ecosystems, the efficient recycling of nutrients allows these areas to support such a large diversity of organisms. So even though the soil or the water itself may be nutrient-poor, these ecosystems are able to flourish.

Even at first glance, I noticed similarities between the rainforest and the reef. I was impressed by the sheer diversity of animals in both places. Even without going anywhere, I observed more life than I’ve ever seen back home in Texas. At Las Cuevas, hundreds of species of moths, as well as frogs, geckos, katydids, and scorpions clung to the station walls every single night. It was the same at Middle Caye at Glover’s Reef. I spotted multitudes of fish, including barracuda, sardines, lemon sharks, and nurse sharks from the dock of the island. We also shared the island with hundreds of hermit crabs, iguanas, and blue land crabs. It’s crazy how the animal life in both places came to us without us even having to seek it out.

Belize was everything I expected and more. I’m rereading my pre-trip blog now, and it’s comical to me how accurate my expectations for the trip were. Two weeks ago, I said I expected a lot of sweat and longing for air conditioning – and I was SOOO right. I don’t think I was completely dry for a single minute on the entire trip – I was always either sweaty or in the ocean.

The painfully early mornings and physical tiredness from full days of hiking or swimming were probably my least favorite aspects of the course, but even those I didn’t mind too much. (Actually, maybe finding bug bites in places where I never, EVER wanted to find bug bites was my least favorite thing. Anyway.) They were necessary for us to make the most of our time in Belize.

It’s so difficult to choose only one or a few favorite parts of the trip because I genuinely enjoyed every single day – who wouldn’t? I got to wake up in some of the most beautiful places in the world for two weeks. Like, what the heck?? But if I had to pick, my favorite moments of the trip were either checking the contents of our camera traps, collecting sea urchins, or swimming at the reef crest.

I’ll never forget the moment we saw a tapir captured in the lens, which was then followed by jaguars, pumas, armadillos, and more! We probably screamed loudly enough to wake up the whole research station. I also had a real ball finding and catching sea urchins. They were in my taxon, after all, and they were so fun to spot! It was basically iSpy, but in the name of science. And how could I not love the reef crest? I’ve never seen such extraordinary abundance of life anywhere.

In the end, believe it or not, this trip was actually a class and not a vacation. That means that I actually learned stuff and didn’t sit around drinking and eating fresh coconuts on the beach all day – although there was some of that, too. I learned a lot about the lives of real TFBs and commonly used techniques in the field. Some of these techniques include taking transects (taking measurements at set increments of distance along a straight line), using quadrats (using grids to count items of interest), and setting pitfall and camera traps. We conducted several mini-projects over the course of the trip in which we practiced using some of these techniques.

Something else that I learned about that will stick with me for a long time is not only the danger that both forests and reefs face, but also about the efforts of those who fight against these dangers. For example, the FCD, Friends for Conservation and Development, is an NGO made up of a few dozen men who patrol the forests of Belize. They also speak with the national government and mediate political conflicts that bleed over into the environment. Basically, they do jobs that seem to be meant for a government to do, and they do them well.

And finally, I learned a lot about myself. I learned that I’m not as much of a wimp as I thought I was. Sure, I’m not the most athletic person you’ll ever meet, but I can keep up on difficult hikes and I can swim through strong currents. I learned that I have a knack for spotting and catching critters, and that I’m not creeped out by creepy crawlies. In fact, I actually really enjoy them! (Unpopular opinion – millipedes are pretty cute.) And most importantly, I really, really love the TFB life. I’ll never be Steve Irwin, but now I can say that I’m a certified Tropical Field Biologist.

Feels great.

Day 16: Encore

Rainforests and coral reefs have relatively similar ecologies. Both exist in poor nutrient conditions, wherein most of the nutrients are housed in the biotic as opposed to the abiotic. Both display disproportionate levels of diversity when compared to their total area—coral reefs cover only 0.2-1% of the seafloor, but sustain 25% of all marine species. Similarly, more than half of the world’s species of plants and animals live in the rainforest, which covers about 2-6% of the Earth’s surface. This means a very high proportion of Earth’s organisms depend on these two ecosystems alone, making deforestation and coral bleaching an even more urgent problem. Additionally, both of these ecosystems are distinctly tropical, which poses the question of why tropicality encourages and fosters biodiversity.

The answer may lie in the overlapping factors that allow both coral reefs and rainforests to provide for such drastic biodiversity. The lack of nutrients in the soil or water means nutrients are in the organisms themselves. In the rainforest, these nutrients are cycled around as decomposers extract nutrients from leaf litter that coats the rainforest floor. This means that every aspect of the nutrient cycle is dependent on organisms, allowing for many different niches of decomposers, producers, and consumers. In the reef, nutrient cycling is done by corals and sponges and other organisms, again creating niches for new species to occupy and providing nutrients to the entire ecosystem without relying on abiotic factors. This abundance of niches is important, as it encourages speciation.

New species form when a new role in the ecosystem opens up, and rainforests and reefs are constantly creating new niches and roles. This is because both have many different parts and portions that mean an organism can be doing the same thing as another, but in a different area, and so competition does not occur. The rainforest, for example, is divided into the emergent layer, the canopy, the overstory, the understory, and the forest floor. Each of these areas receives a different amount of sunlight and so sports a different ecology, which means each layer can be exploited by different organisms. This means that in only one square meter of rainforest, species can exist and develop on each layer without competing with each other, thereby rendering this one patch of land a lot more productive and biodiverse than in a savannah, tundra, or other ecosystem. Similarly, the reef is also divided into different layers, like the fore reef, the back reef, and the reef crest. Each of these layers presents different niches that do not overlap, and encourage speciation.

Another important factor is the tropicality of these ecosystems. The tropics receives more sunlight per square meter than any other ecosystem on Earth. This means that photosynthetic organisms in the tropics receive more energy than any other, and this energy is used and distributed throughout the ecosystems they are a part of. Every organism, directly or indirectly dependent on the photosynthetic foundation of these ecosystems, benefits from the energy of the sun, which in the tropics is abundant and strong. Additionally, note that both these ecosystems do in fact sport a photosynthetic keystone species or group of species that supports all other organisms. In the rainforest, this is the trees and plants that provide shade, habitat, food, and nutrients. In the reef, this is the corals themselves, which also provide habitat, food, safety, and nutrients. Deforestation and coral bleaching directly impact these photosynthetic foundations, and that is why they are so dangerous to the continued existence of these vital ecosystems.

This biodiversity was apparent to me from the first rainforest trail we hiked to the last patch reef we swam in. It was amazing how no matter where you stopped and observed, you could find dozens of species coexisting. Of course, there were differences—for one, the rainforest’s biodiversity can be communicated through sounds, and standing and listening to the hum of the forest was one of my favorite things to do. The reef is silent, but still sports similar levels of biodiversity despite the lack of communication. In both ecosystems I was most fascinated by the apex predators, perhaps in typical human fashion. The snakes and big cats of the forest captivated me, while the sharks and rays represented them in the reef. One of the most striking moments for me was snorkeling in one of the patch reefs, on a day where the water was crystal clear. Beneath me were schools of fish moving in harmony, and huge colorful parrotfish unlike anything I’d ever seen before. In the rainforest, larger creatures tend to be hidden and more difficult to find. But the stand-out moments for me was when we did find them—like the boa constrictor, or the jaguars caught on our camera traps, or the parrots and vultures that flew above us.

My favorite moment is difficult to pin down. The moment we saw the boa and Kristen screamed, the climb up the Mayan ruins of Caracol, or that first time when we all screamed, huddled around a laptop as the jaguar’s distinctive coat flashed across the screen for the first time. The hermit crab race, sitting at the edge of the pier while a tropical storm brewed above me, or every single golden sunset I watched settle over the Caribbean sea. The sea itself could be a favorite moment, as I’d never before seen such a clear turquoise. The specific moments of finding myself knee-deep in the rainforest and absolutely loving it, or maybe on the night hike, when we turned off our lights and I looked up and saw the stars, those tropical night-time stars that I can never seem to get used to. Total darkness in the Las Cuevas cave, or the look of the stalactites shimmering above me. All of these could be listed as my favorite moments from the trip.

My least favorite thing is likely the hundreds of bug bites I acquired, which still haven’t gone away. As far as expectations, I don’t think I really knew what to expect. The information I had on the trip itself wasn’t extensive, so I assumed it would be similar to when I visited the Amazon or the Caribbean with family, on vacation. Of course, it was nothing like a vacation. We were up from dawn past dusk, collecting data and working all day. But even then, the places we stayed at and the friendships formed made it almost seem like a vacation. If I had ever set expectations, they would’ve been exceeded. The amount that I learned about myself, my career, my interests, my existential questions, and ecology itself is unparalleled in any other course I’ve ever taken. One of the most important things I learned is what it really means to be a field researcher. You’re not spending your life in nature, you’re collecting data for weeks or months and then returning home, and doing lab work. It’s a bit of a dual life that I think fits my aspirations well. I also learned that I’m not as weak as I thought I was. As someone who didn’t start out loving nature, being capable in the outdoors is something I had to learn over the years. I had always doubted my abilities, but this trip taught me that I am in fact capable of living the more primitive, less wasteful lifestyle that I’d always romanticized. And lastly, this trip answered a lot of questions for me about humanity and our place in nature. We are animals, but we operate outside of natural ecosystems. We are an invasive species, eating and consuming without limits just like the lionfish. This is not necessarily our fault—any species in our position would do the same. But we have the advantage of having morals and ethics, allowing for some vague grasp of what is wrong and what is right. Because of this, we have a responsibility and a drive to protect the things we come from. It is sometimes difficult to remember every single thing around us comes from nature, that even what is man-made originated from the soil, in the ground, or in the sea. If anything, we should protect nature for ourselves. For me, though, nature is the closest thing to a spiritual home that I have found. This trip has showed me exactly what path I must take to fight for and reside in nature. A long time ago I resolved to reject the wasteful, selfish aspects of cities, and to turn to more abstract things like art and music and nature for comfort. These things had always been something on the side, something I could never rely on in any realistic, formulaic plan for my life. This trip is one of the many puzzle pieces that have helped me realize it’s totally possible for me to integrate my passions into my career. And this is something that will stay with me, something that in twenty years I can list as one of the major factors that pushed me into a lifestyle I can condone and not condemn—part one of my lifelong quest to understand the beauty of this planet and every single thing within it.

Day 15: finale

And so the final day has arrived. We all woke up early to pack, had a final breakfast, and loaded into Captain Buck’s fancy boat. Today was exceptionally hot—by 7 o’ clock I was already sweating, and normally the heat only begins around 9 or 10. So the wind in my hair from the boat trip was a big relief, and though I was sad to be leaving, I was happy to be doing it in such style.

We had two stops along the way. The first was at another research station, much smaller than ours, this one owned by the Smithsonian. It was an incredible island, you could throw a ball from one side of it to the other. The station itself was colored in pastel paints and very cozy. We got a quick tour of the place, and looked at their experiments. They had many tanks of clear water housing two common Caribbean corals and their hybrid, which tends to be more heat-resistant than either of the parent species. We also got a great view from their patio, at the sea beyond the reef crest.

The set up of Carrie Bow’s coral lab.
The view from the patio at Carrie Bow.

After this we went snorkeling in the mangroves for about thirty minutes before heading to the airport. We had lunch at the restaurant on the pier of Belize City along with Javier and Rose, and said our goodbyes and took pictures. The bus driver alerted us that the van’s air conditioning had broken, and that he was sorry for the inconvenience. We all cheered (and I internally laughed, as we hadn’t had air conditioning in two weeks) and piled in anyway, for the final stretch of road in Belize.

The flight was good, I listened to music for all of it. Claire’s dad flew us again! It was a surprise for all of us. He waved from the cockpit and I did a double take upon seeing him, and then he gave us another shout-out before he took off. We arrived in Houston at around 8 o’ clock, and I got home at around 10 o’ clock, exhausted and still full of saltwater. I took a shower and passed out, unable to believe we had really spent two weeks in Belize, in the rainforest and in the sea.

Wrap-up blog (I wasn’t the clever title person on this trip)

Now I’m back home, enjoying air-conditioning and incredibly fast image upload speeds to the blog, but missing the beauty of the tropics. A sea of identical suburban rooftops just doesn’t compare to the actual sea.

The rainforest and the reef are two extremely diverse ecosystems despite their low nutrient availability (like I talked about for my lecture on rainforest soils). Because nutrients are hard to come by, organisms are able to fill many different small niches where nutrients are more available. In addition, neither of these ecosystems are low energy. Their proximity to the equator means they have lots of solar energy pumping in all year long. That light is converted into more accessible energy by plants in both ecosystems. One striking similarity that I noticed in both of these ecosystems is that, despite their extreme diversity, seeing moving animals is surprisingly difficult. As you walk through the rainforest, you see very few mammals or reptiles or birds, a good number of insects, but still surprisingly few. The same was true for the reef, the fish and crustaceans and echinoderms blend in so well you often can’t see them.

Overall, this course was everything I expected and more. I came in with a vague expectation to do a little research and learn about the environments we would be surrounded by. I didn’t expect to be designing, implementing, and presenting experiments all in the same day. I also hadn’t even thought to expect how much fun this trip was. My favorite part of the course was definitely hiking through the rainforest and finding insects I knew a surprising amount about despite having never seen them before. I hadn’t realized that because I knew a good bit about one insect species I study at school I could extend that knowledge to related insects I’d never even heard of. (Hemipterans are dope!) My least favorite part of the course was swimming through the reefs. The reefs were absolutely amazing to look at, but I was always afraid of damaging everything around me. The coral reefs are famous for being in danger and as we snorkeled through them I often felt like touching anything might destroy everything. Sometimes swimming through the reefs I worried that we were doing more harm than good. The fish and the corals were beautiful and I don’t want to do anything to hurt them.

The three most important things I learned in this course were how specific knowledge can become general knowledge, how little we actually know about both of these ecosystems, and how important these ecosystems are and how closely linked they are to the entire world. I’ve already talked about the first one a little bit but finding two true bugs nobody recognized and being able to identify that they were nymphs and recognize their body plan was crazy. I could look at these two bugs and I knew what body parts to measure to quantify their size because I’d measured something similar many times before. It was really cool to see the effects of common ancestry implemented. The second thing I realized as we were all trying to identify our species. In the rainforest with birds, pretty much everything was identified, but many of the insects had little to no information available. Most of the taxon id cards featured genera at best and the books we had on tropical insects focused almost exclusively on butterflies, despite the broad diversity of everything else. In the coral reefs, I struggled to find information online about shrimp and crabs and was unable to identify plenty of organisms because they were small or because I didn’t have the right books or because they simply weren’t really described anywhere. Because these two ecosystems have so much diversity and because many of these organisms are so well hidden, information is often inaccessible unless you are an expert in a very specific field, if the information exists at all. The last of the three big things I learned is how both of these ecosystems are closely linked to everywhere else. From the reading before the course, we learned that the xatè palm is harvested from the Chiquibul forest to be used in flower arrangements. From the experiment we did with trash and from Andressa’s presentation, we learned that trash from all over the world can get moved by the wind and water and wind up in the ocean. While we are often unintentionally doing these (and many other) harmful things to the tropics, the tropics are doing surprisingly important things for us. The rainforest is an important CO2 processor and a source of many medicines. The coral reefs act as nurseries for fish that spend their adult lives all across the oceans. Without either of these ecosystems, humans would be worse off and the world would be less beautiful.

Now that I’m home, I get to reminisce about the great experience I just had and implement my new found knowledge and understanding.

Day 15: Once Upon A Time Not Long Ago, I Was a TFB

We woke up at our earliest time here on Glover’s to finish up the last bit of packing and get our stuff down to the docks. It was pretty sad to clean up after all the time and memories that we’d made here. We had a special early breakfast with our last bits of Maria Sharp’s Mango Jam before getting on the boat to sail off. Bye Middle Caye!

Last Belize Sunrise!

We sailed for about an hour before landing on Carrie Bowe Caye to tour the Smithsonian Research Institute. The station manager, Clyde, ha actually lived in my hometown Midland for a while, which was really cool! We also got a tour of one of the labs where they were looking at the heat stress effects on hybridized corals. The research station was a really cool place with some great views of the reef crest.

We got back on the boat for a short sail to Twin Caye, where we jumped off the boat to snorkel among the mangroves. The water was pretty murky so it was hard to see much but we still got to see the fish and sponges among the roots. Javier saw a manatee too but the rest of us didn’t get to see it. We hopped back on the boat and sailed for an hour until we reached Belize City. We rinsed off and changed and ate lunch at Calypso’s by the dock. We said bye to Javy and Rose before bussing ourselves to the airport.

Being in the airport was odd because it was weird seeing tourists who had experienced a completely different side of Belize from us. We shopped for quick souvenirs and chilled until we got on the plane, where Claire’s dad was the pilot! After we landed, we went through immigration and customs and everyone who was leaving gave their gear to Scott. We took one last photo before I said goodbye to everyone, which was really sad to say the least. It’s hard to imagine not waking up to everyone every day and not going on crazy adventures with these people. I flew home and was picked up by my Mom, who was predictably distressed by my bites and dark skin #tookoolieforyou. I tried to explain everything that we did on this trip, but it was hard to condense two weeks into a just a few words. It’s hard to realize that this is the last normal blog I’ll be posting but get ready for some exciting music in my reflection!

Love Letters to Belize

Wow its already time to wrap up and reflect.  It almost feels too soon.  Well here it goes…

The rainforest and the coral reefs on the outside appear very different, but upon closer inspection are very similar functioning ecosystems.   Most notably, these ecosystems function and form in nutrient poor environments.  In the rainforest, the soil lack nutrients and is acidic while the coral reefs are surrounded by nutrient poor waters.  Paradoxically, they are also both nutrient rich environments.  In both cases, the nutrients come from the organisms themselves rather than the surrounding environment.  The nutrients within the tropical rainforest come from within the organisms living there, especially the trees.  Nutrients are made accessible when things begin to break down.  Those nutrients are quickly recycled into other life forms, allowing for such high biological diversity in the tropical rainforest.  

A similar process occurs in coral reefs, as corals and algae provide the nutrients to sustain other life forms living on the reef (rather deriving nutrients mostly from the water).  They also use a form of nutrient cycling to maintain the nutrient levels that allow coral reef to have such high biological diversity.  You can observe this cycling between the genus of green algae, symbiodinium, and hard corals.  Green algae photosynthesizes to provide nutrients for the coral and in turn uses the corals’ waste products to feed itself.  In both ecosystems, the nutrients in derived and conserved within the organisms rather than the surrounding environment.  This allows the ecosystems to maintain such high nutrient and biomass levels which in term allows for high biological diversity in both ecosystems.  

In addition, I also noted several other comparisons between the two ecosystems.  Both involve intense competition for space between organisms.  For example, different trees grow in the same space depending on the state of the area.  Corals and algae compete for the same space on the reef.  Both are also plagued by poaching issues from other neighboring counties.  Both ecosystem provide ecological services to humans from protection from erosion to wood to providing healthy populations of seafood.  Conversely, they also have notable differences in addition to the obvious differences in appearance and mediums (water vs. land).  Coral reefs directly rely on and interact with surrounded ecosystems like mangroves and seagrass while the tropical rainforest tends to exists as its entity.  Coral reefs can also function as fragmented ecosystems in a way as there can be several reef patches within an area that interact while the tropical forest in the Chiquibul is less fragmented.  

Overall, this course exceeded my expectations.  I learned so much not only about the environments we explore, but also about the impact these ecosystem have on current human civilizations.  I unexpectedly also learned an incredible amount about the Mayan people and their culture and how their decline is something we should learn from in relation to our current climate issues.  My favorite parts of the course included taking data for our projects and simply waking up to such beautiful morning scenery.   If I’m being honest, my least favorite part of the course was actually writing these blogposts at the end of the day because I was so tired from all of the activities we had done during the day.  Every night was late night. 

In the end, I would call this experience one of the most valuable in my life up to this point.  I learned that we truly don’t understand much about the environment outside of civilization.  As a result, we fail to wrap put heads around the importance of these environments.  We then litter, overuse resources, and take things from where they belong to be used as pets or “pretty things”.  These environments aren’t just things that function independently from us and us from them.  We are as much a part of nature as everything else, and when our actions result in a negative impacts on these ecosystems, it won’t be long until we feel the effects of those impacts. 

I also learned that environments are constantly shifting.  What I saw in the tropical rainforest and coral reefs this year will not be what future classes observe.  For example, hurricanes are major force in reshaping both landscapes through fallen trees and broken corals.  No hurricane has the same effect. Some can be good as fallen trees gives way to new ones and broken coral branches begin to regrow in new areas of the benthos.  They can also wreck havoc.  These landscapes are made to alter and adapt, and what I saw was complexity unique in itself.

Finally, I learned these environments are disappearing so much faster than I thought.  Most of us know that corals are bleaching and people are cutting down the rainforest, but most of us fail to truly understand the rate and severity until you see it.  Until you see the effect, you don’t realize how fast it is happening.  We saw so much dead coral rubble and so much marine debris.  It’s a really sad idea to end on, but the up side of it is that it made me really appreciate this experience more than I would if I felt like this ecosystem weren’t going anywhere.  In other words, seeing the decline of these ecosystems allowed me to get the most out of this class.  

Rice University