Day 9- Caves Remind Me of Corals

Today we went to a cave called Actun Tunichil Muniknal (ATM).  It was so cool! You swam into it and then you had to climb up and over all these rocks to get to the top part where the Mayan remains were.  There were remains of old pottery and Mayan human sacrifices.  We weren’t allowed to bring cameras in so I don’t have photos, but it was so pretty and interesting inside. One of the floors of it was all ridged and it looked like a giant coral, specifically a Pseudodiploria (@Adrienne I miss Glovers).

Me in front of the coral genus Pseudodiploria, the type of coral that the cave reminded me of

I did not really see any birds today, mostly since I was in a cave where they don’t live.  I saw some chickens on the side of the road, but nothing that exotic or new.

Picture someone took of me asleep on the table at Glovers. Accurately describes how I feel now.

We are staying in an eco-lodge in San Ignacio tonight and it has bathrooms in our own room, so luxurious! We briefly stopped in town and I tried a tiny banana.  It was really good, but really that’s been it for the day. I am tired. Good night.

Cold and Fruity

Dear Adrienne,

Today we went to Actun Tunichil Muknal archeological reserve. Here we hiked into a cave that was used for Mayan sacrifices and has lots of well-preserved artifacts and human remains. I did not see any Orthoptera.

(sign pic)

To get to where the artifacts and remains were, we had to swim and scramble our way through the cave. The guide said I had to wear the top I had been carrying out of respect to the ancient Mayans, so it was real frigid being in the cave because the rivers were so cold and my clothes were so wet.

Nevertheless, it was crazy to be inside of such a sacred place, especially since we could see the vessels and victims of sacrifices all around us and knew that only the most elite Mayans would ever enter the cave. As neat and memorable as it was, I kind of felt like it was inappropriate for us tourists to be climbing around in there, given the religious significance the cave has.

Maneuvering through the cave was pretty complicated because it involved a lot of climbing up tall structures and fitting our heads through small cracks. At some point when we were climbing, Deepu scraped his leg and bled some. When we were in the cave, our guide taught us about bloodletting, a process in which people would slit themselves with obsidian blades or stingray barbs and offer their own blood to the Gods, so we were joking about how Deepu was partaking in bloodletting. It was really eerie when we emerged from the cave to see that it had just started to pour as if Deepu’s sacrifice to Chuck, the rain God, had worked.

After we left the cave we drove to Crystal Paradise where we are spending tonight before going on to Las Cuevas. On the way we stopped in the town of San Ignacio. There I bought a bag of grapes and tried a baby banana. Also, I made Therese go ask a man with a produce stand if we could have some of the oranges that had fallen out of his truck. I think he took pity on us because he just gave her two fresh ones. These are some of the advantages of having a TA.

 

I need to spelunk more

DAY 9 – The main event of today, a visit to the ATM cave, exceeded my expectations. We left TEC around 8:00 am after a sad goodbye to Adrienne. She will be missed.

Nelson drove us skillfully down the bumpy gravel roads to Actun Tunichil Muknal (or ATM) Archaeological Reserve. The trail through the forest to the entrance of the cave started off strong: we all waded across water up to our necks, which left us refreshed for the hike ahead.

Along the path, our guide showed us the destruction that remained from a hurricane last August. He pointed out some debris about 12 feet off the ground where the water reached. We waded across more sections of the river, finally arriving at the cool, dark opening of the cave.

The cave is formed mostly from limestone, some dolomite, and has lots of calcite deposits. We walked/waded through various depths of (chilly) water, surrounded by beautiful rock formations. There were plenty of stalagmites, stalactites, and curtain formations to go around. I was shocked at how extensive the cave was; I could have walked around and explored all day.

Our guide told us a lot about the ancient Mayan people who had used the cave between 700 and 950 AD. Mayans believed caves were connected to the underworld, and so very few people actually entered the caves. Priests and their entourage would go into the cave to perform sacrifices, including blood-letting. The Mayan people would cut themselves with obsidian blades or sting ray barbs and drip their blood onto paper to be burned. In order to appease the gods, or to ask for their favor, various sacrificial acts would be performed. In some cases, human sacrifice was performed inside the caves. We saw remains from 5 bodies in the cave, the last of which has been dated back to 950 AD, right before the collapse of the Mayan civilization. Sacrifice was seen as an honor, and those who were sacrificed to the gods skipped the nine trials of the underworld and went straight to the upper world.

In the big, cavernous rooms of the underground cave, there was also lots of scattered ceramic pieces. There were boards for grinding corn and cacao, lots of vessels, and remnants of fire pits. It’s crazy that the artifacts survived for so long. According to our guides, they are most likely exactly as the Mayans left them.

I could go on and on about the cave, but I want this blog post to be brief and I also have bees to talk about!

As we emerged from the cave, it began to pour in the forest, which was really cool. We were already soaked from the cave water and river water, so more water couldn’t hurt us at all.

We ate lunch and drove to San Ignacio, where we walked around a little bit. Sarah and I found a bathroom (for free!) thanks to a nice waiter at a restaurant in the city. I also tried an apple banana, courtesy of Scott. It was a tiny little bugger, and really sweet.

Finally, the moment you’ve been waiting for, the bee. We drove from San Ignacio to Crystal Palace Eco-lodge where I saw my first confirmed sweat bee. There were three in total, walking around on the table. They are in the Halictini tribe, and are small and black all over.

Mikey holding a tiny sweat bee (Halictini tribe) and eating banana cake

We head into the rainforest tomorrow! Wish us luck!

Immersion

Today’s primary endeavor was exploring Actun Tunichil Muknal, a cave hidden within the Belize rainforest. With its seemingly endless rock formations, the cave was spectacular. Rocks were rounded and smoothed over from the flow of groundwater, coarse and jagged from sparsely dripping water droplets, or even organic-looking like coral or knotted roots. Spaces ranged from the expansive to the claustrophobic, and colors ranged from sparkling green-brown to beige with patches of jet-black to mahogany swirled with gray to stark white. Paradoxically, these robust colors only existed because of the illumination gleaming our headlamps.

The cave was all encompassing. Once you entered, you were in the cave, and you were not leaving until you completely turn around and head back. We had to swim through pools of groundwater, navigate through jutting rock formations, and climb up several stories-worth of rocks to reach the cave’s heart – an ancient Mayan sacrifice site.

The entire experience was a journey. I left the realm of sunlight for a darker, almost sinister, yet breathtakingly beautiful one.

Immediately upon leaving the cave, rain began to pour down. Logically, it makes sense that it would rain in the rainforest, but a sudden downpour was something I did not expect. My class and I hiked through the rainforest, entirely drenched. Concurrently, trees towered above and filled the horizon. In front of me, behind me, to the sides, above, and below, I was fully immersed in the quintessence of the rainforest.

“Immersion makes the trip worth it,” I thought to myself as I was wringing out my soaked clothes in the park bathroom after the torrential hike.

And I was right; looking back on my day, I have gotten to see cohune palms (Attalea cohune), a trumpet tree (Cecropia obtusifolia), and multiple species of anura in the rainforest, as well as an unknown species of bat (Order Chiroptera), a massive unknown spider (Order Araneae), and an assortment of human remains (Homo sapiens) within the cave.

Immersing myself has enriched my day, and I am excited to continue to experience this immersion throughout my next week of travel.

Team Flying Pizote Explores an ATM

Today was the first full day on land and it has been a bit of an adjustment. Adrienne said it best when she compared the transition to land to the first amphibians coming out of the water. I wasn’t ready for hot, muggy air untempered by the ocean breeze. Bugs were flying into me while walking and falling into my dessert at dinner. But besides the small impracticalities, today has been incredible.

After a brief hike during which I struggled to doggy paddle through a cold river and slipped on algae covered rocks, I finally got to the mouth of the first cave I would ever traverse. The experience was etherial. The cold, clear, bluish-grey water of the cave shocked my senses and the crystals sparkling in the formations of the cave entranced me. I wish I could have taken a picture, but the images in my mind will have to do.

Besides just the structure of the cave itself, the contents it held were remarkable. The Mayan ceramics and especially the skeletal remains sent chills down my spine. It was a bit concerning, however, that the last and most complete skeleton was my height exactly.

I didn’t see too many ants today because of all the rain, but I did manage to see a male army ant (Eciton burchellii parvispinum). I hope tomorrow I’ll have better luck with seeing ants and will have some interesting anecdotal information to include in my taxon briefing.

Well I probably have a Mayan curse now… but it was worth it!

We woke up early and began our trek to the Actun Tunichil Muknal caves. The ATM caves were used by the Mayan’s for blood lettings and human sacrifices. When we arrived at the entrance to the historical site, we had to hike to the cave. We got to make three river crossings! It was really fun to swim across the rivers fully dressed in a hard hat. Unfortunately, they did not let us bring cameras on this expedition in order to protect the artifacts in the cave.

When we got to the cave, we swam into the entrance throughout the cave. The water was so cold! We had to squeeze through tiny spaces, scamper down waterfalls, and climb giant rock walls in order to get to the old relics. I honestly don’t believe that we could do this in the United States. It was one of the coolest things I have ever done!

After a wet trek into the cave, we reached a large cavern and had to scale a giant rock wall. Then, we entered the giant open space that contained the majority of the relics. We saw allot of old pots that were used by the Mayans for sacrifices to the gods! There were also a few skeletal remains in the cave. One of them, had an alien shaped head that was caused by Hydrocephalus! We also got to see the crystal princess aka the crystal prince after forensic scientists discovered that the skeleton was male. The crystal prince is a complete skeleton of a sixteen-year-old Mayan.

As we were leaving the ATM caves, it began to rain. On the hike back, I saw Smilisca baudinii ( The mexican tree frog) hoping across the path. This frog had the characteristic light brown and black blotches on its back. A little while later, I saw the tiniest frog I have ever seen. It was about the size of my finger nail. I am pretty sure it was a juvenile Mexican tree frog. Later on the way to dinner, I saw a Incilius valliceps (Gulf coast toad) which has a characteristic white stripe on its back.

Transitioning Back to Land

Day 9 was amazing! We didn’t do too many things today, but the things we did were absolutely unforgettable. We had to say goodbye to Adrienne today, which was sad, but she promised to read and comment on all of our blogs 🙂

Belize Zoo

We woke up in the Belize Zoo but left early. We took a bus to the ATM Cave, which was one of the coolest places I have ever been. Sadly, cameras are not allowed in the cave, so I don’t have any photos to show you. We quickly became master spelunkers! We had to swim through the entrance of the cave to access it, and we waded through the freezing water deep into the mountain to see some ancient Mayan artifacts.

The cave was freaky at first, but once we got used to it, we loved crawling through tight spaces and ducking under the overhangs. We begged our guide to take us down the most interesting paths he could! He even made us turn off our headlamps at one point to appreciate the darkness of the cave (it was super cool). To reach the artifacts, we even had to scale a 50(ish) foot rock wall!

At the top of the wall, deep inside the cave, there were many Mayan ceramic pieces and several sets of human remains! They were amazing to see. We even got to see the famed “Crystal Maiden”, although it was recently discovered that she was actually a 16-year-old boy.

When we left the cave after several hours of adventuring, we emerged into a rainstorm in the forest! I was so excited to get the full experience of rainfall in the rainforest. We had to hike for a while and cross several rivers to get back to our bus, and we had a great time splashing and enjoying the water.

On our way to the ecolodge that we are staying in tonight, we stopped in San Ignacio to walk around. We visited a town square and an open air market. What a great city! When we got to the ecolodge, we were extremely excited to find that there are bathrooms in our rooms! We have definitely learned to appreciate the little things.

Sadly, there really weren’t any opportunities for epiphyte sightings today. However, I did give my presentation on epiphytes! Two presentations down, and one to go. Tomorrow is another travel day, but we will finally be arriving at Las Cuevas! Today was a nice tourist-y day, but our break will end as the research continues tomorrow.

Cooling Off

Today was another day of activities that involved us wearing dive booties out of the ocean. After departing TEC and our lovely cabanas in the morning (and saying goodbye to Adrienne with heavy hearts), we drove for an hour and change to the Actun Tunichil Muknai cave, also known as the ATM cave. The cave was partially filled with water, so we swam to get in and then waded for much of the walk in the cave. The water was refreshing after standing in the hot sun to get there, and the inside of the cave was lined with lots of beautiful stalactite formations. The cave also had ceramic artifacts and even human remains inside from the Mayan age.

After we finished in the cave, it was raining outside. Since we were already soaking wet from the cave, we came back to the parking lot just as wet. The rivers we crossed to get to the cave that previously felt cold now felt like hot tubs. We had a nice lunch upon returning, and then set our course to San Ignacio. While at the ATM Cave area, I spotted some kind of skink or mabuya that I wasn’t able to identify, as well as some other lizard that I couldn’t recognize.

In San Ignacio, we walked around a bit and stocked up on supplies before going to the rainforest. I bought some plantain chips, a soursop, and Damien and I opportunistically bought bandanas to hopefully keep the bugs off our faces. We are now staying at Crystal Paradise Eco-Lodge, getting our last taste of wifi for the next week and enjoying some cool post-rain weather. Tomorrow, we go into the jungle.

On the Ground and Away from Glover’s

5.23.2017

Leaving Glover’s today was so sad that I almost asked if I could just permanently live in the snorkel shed. I felt like I was finally getting to know everyone on the island, finding a rhythm and place there. I was even recognized by one of the staff as “the girl who scored the beautiful goal.” I’m truly going to miss the island lifestyle, especially a small island like Glover’s, and the way that everyone gets knows each other and becomes connected.

Speaking of small islands, after leaving Glover’s we visited another research station operated by the Smithsonian on a tiny speck of sand called Carrie Bow Cay. We got a tour of the facilities and a rundown of the research projects taking place on site, as well as interesting insight into the nature of toilets in the field.

Shore of Carrie Bow Cay
Boats used by researchers at Carrie Bow
Cabana and clothesline at Carrie Bow Cay

After that stop, we headed on toward Twin Caye. The mangrove forest there was made up of entirely of red mangrove (Rhizopora mangle) from what I could tell. We walked through the mangrove peat which was incredibly goopy and gross, then snorkeled around the edge of the mangroves.  The snorkel was much more enjoyable and along the mangroves, I saw small snapper, schools of bait fish, a juvenile sting ray, sponges, and even a sea horse.

Once we finally made it to Belize City, we had lunch and drove back down to TEC for the night. We walked some paths on the grounds before dinner and saw some Acacia ants (Pseudomyrmex gracilis). After about an hour, we went to dinner before going to the Belize Zoo at night which was such a cool experience. Tony the Tiger’s frosted cereal has nothing on Junior the Jaguar’s somersaults. I even got to hold a boa constrictor!

Junior the Jaguar finishing a somersault
Holding a boa constrictor… again

All that excitement still hasn’t convinced me to switch from team marine to team terrestrial, though. Fair to say that a frog falling from the ceiling and almost landing in my hair, as well as having to share shower time with a moth, a beetle, and a lizard keeps me skeptical. Let’s see if the caves tomorrow have me singing a different tune.

Chasing the Last Day at Glover’s Away

5.22.2017

I haven’t quite accepted that today is the last full day here at Glover’s. Although I know the rainforest will be a great experience, the Floridian/Cuban in me wishes I could stay here by the ocean forever. We took full advantage of the day, though, hitting three reefs over the course of about three hours. My favorite was the channel by Long Caye. I saw at a spotted eagle ray, chased a Southern stingray across the sand, and saw a spotted sun eel. I saw a lot of soft coral on the reef, noticing that many of the fan corals (G. ventalina) were covered by fire coral.

After that, we went to another part of the atol called the aquarium. The reef was becoming overrun by algae. I chased a nurse shark that had a remora on it and even saw a pair of Caribbean reef squid.

In the afternoon, I gave my lecture on mangroves and seagrass beds in preparation for tomorrow’s excursion. Then, I dissected Azlan the lionfish with Sarah T. Having my hands full of fish guts wasn’t the most enjoyable, but we made our poster presentation quickly which gave us time to go over to the resort at Long Caye. There, we ate delicious ceviche and after I bargained with a fisherman for his shirt, we came away with a class signed t-shirt that will (hopefully) hang in the cabana of the bar for memories.

Lionfish prepared for dissection

It has been such a fun afternoon full of laughing that ended with a beautiful sunset and I’ll be sad to leave here, but I’m really excited for all that’s still to come in the rainforest.

Sunset at Long Caye

Rice University