Reflections on Randy’s Vacation

The biodiversity of the rainforest and coral reef is of a scale that we cannot easily comprehend. Even scaled down the Chiquibul forest and Glover’s reef atoll, the sheer number of species that I saw on this trip is crazy. If you narrow it even more to my two taxonomic groups, I still couldn’t tell you about all of the variety that I saw in these two short weeks.

One of the key similarities that I found between the two ecosystems was the high degree of topographical complexity. Not only were they complex, but each tropic layer added complexity in a way that created to what had already been created. For example, the bare sea floor is not a topographically complex area to start with. Over geological time scales, however, reef-building species (stony corals, formerly Acropora palmate) create a much different topography. Onto of this, other stony corals can settle and develop. From this, builds soft coral, sponges and other reef builders/space occupiers. Combined with the tight nutrient cycling and the mutualism with Symbiodinium the actions of stony corals build up to lay the groundwork for a myriad of other taxonomic groups. In the high moisture high heat environment, colonization of this topographically complex area adds and adds. In the rainforest, rather than topographical complexity being created by calcium carbonate laying species, the massive trees create the framework. Similarly, there is a nutrient-poor environment coupled with rapid cycling. These similarities are stark, more obvious than I thought they would be before going on the trip. I didn’t believe that there would such an interchange between turf and surf.

The most interesting thing about marine and terrestrial habitats for me was how similar my two taxonomic groups ended up being. Both epiphytes and soft corals were secondary groups to the dominant builders (trees and stony corals). They gained a lot from the dominant builders. Epiphytes, as plants that grow on other plants, benefit greatly from the topography created by trees. From my observations on the reef, I saw that soft corals were in a general association with the stony corals. I would never have made this association without the EBIO 319 class.

While I expected to be doing longer-term projects in both the rainforest and the reef, the smaller scale definitely allowed us to get a broader understanding of what was going on ecologically in the Chiquibul and Glover’s Reef. I also can’t say how much I loved getting to know the people on this trip. Not only the students, but also the professors, and all staff of the research stations. I am still finding it odd to not be with them right now. My only hope for the course is that next year Scott and Adrienne get to run the EBIO 320 course in Brazil. I would most certainly attend.

In the end, the most valuable thing that I got out this trip was exactly what I hoped I would at the beginning: a higher degree of clarity. I know research is what I want to do. Maybe not in the exact context of Belize, but I certainly enjoyed getting to establish connections in the region. I also gained a much greater appreciation for the surf side of things. Though I do believe that I will be terrestrial focused, I can see a lot more connections to marine life that I did not before. Additionally, lecturing about the topic of NTDs was one of my favorite parts of the trip, leading me to believe that this could be a possible field to pursue. Years from now, I certainly won’t remember the specific of our projects, but I will remember how spending two weeks with this crazy group of sixteen people gave me confidence in myself and my field of choice.

Day 16: Wow.

This trip has been such an amazing experience. I registered for the EBIO 319 hoping about tropical ecosystems, conducting experiments in the field, and the country of Belize.  This course far exceeded my expectations. I also learned about travel, troubleshooting, and how to feed yourself when Houston runs out of water, which I wasn’t anticipating but will surely come in handy in the future. More than that however, this trip has completely reaffirmed that I need to find a job that involves fieldwork. It’s difficult to explain, but I feel so complete hiking through the rainforest, surrounded by the buzz of countless birds, insects, and the occasional monkey, miles from human settlement. If I wasn’t flying back to the jungle tomorrow I think it would have been a bit of a culture shock to return to “normal” life.

I learned so much from the lectures and projects we worked on, but I also enjoyed the unstructured time where we were free to explore the amazing ecosystems around us. My favorite parts of the trip were 5 am walks through the jungle, kayaking through the mangroves, and late nights watching stars dart across the sky. My least favorite part was probably the pre-trip assignments, but I definitely see how helpful this preparation was in the field.

At first glance, the reef and the rainforest are vastly different ecosystems. There is almost no overlap between species, and the organisms have very different adaptations to their respective environments. However, I was amazed to see how much they had in common. Both ecosystems are incredibly diverse, in terms of species and microhabitats. Interestingly, while both ecosystems are full of life they are also very nutrient-poor and cycle nutrients very efficiently. Trees and coral colonies provide 3-dimensional structural diversity, and very different species reside in different layers of the forest and reef. When we went on night hikes and dives both ecosystems were nearly unrecognizable, and a completely different set of species revealed themselves.

In addition, I thought it was interesting how both sites managed their resources. Although Glover’s and Las Cuevas were situated in protected zones, both allowed selective removal of species. The US is a large and wealthy country, so we can afford to set aside large swaths of completely protected land in national parks. From an American perspective, it would be awesome if Belize could similarly isolate the Chiquibul. However, this forest covers 1/7 of the entire country, so it would be very difficult to isolate the forest without economic repercussions for the country.

Despite this removal of species, both areas are relatively pristine in comparison to their neighboring countries. Consequently, both struggle with people coming across the border to harvest resources—xaté palm in the chiquibul and illegal fishing in the attol. This also poses a difficult problem for the country. While they certainly want to secure their borders and protect their resources, arresting offenders will likely only worsen the problem. Most of these people are the primary providers for their families, and turning them away or arresting them could mean the starvation of their children.

I could go on for pages about everything I learned on this trip, but a few ideas really stood out to me. Conservation is an incredibly complicated problem, and we can’t barge into other countries with a single solution that will fix everything. A multitude of complex circumstances lead to the degradation of ecosystems, and many creative solutions will be needed to reverse or even slow ecosystem loss. I’ve wanted to do field research for many years, but before this trip I wasn’t quite sure what that would actually look like. Now, I can see how many of our pilot experiments could be expanded into long-term studies. Finally, this trip has definitely reaffirmed that I’m on the right path for my life. While my dreams for the future may change, I can’t imagine a life that doesn’t involve exploring nature, in whatever form that may take.

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Reflections on the course

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Plants growing in a Mayan temple at Curacao

My first day back was filled with even more travel from Houston to Washington DC. It was crazy to be around so many vehicles and people. Going through the airport seemed way more chaotic than usual, even though it probably wasn’t. Overall, I’m so glad that I got the opportunity to go to Belize with this class. The entire trip was a great experience from the places that we visited to our activities to the people that I got to meet.

Visiting the rainforest and coral reef was different than anything else I have ever done. While I have been in forests and on reefs before, the ecosystems that we visited had a much higher abundance and diversity of species. The ecosystems both have a high amount of 3D topography, which allows for the high diversity. In the rainforest, trees provide structure with their branches, trunks, and roots whereas in the reefs the corals grow to create structure from the sea floor to the surface. The structure creates room for species to fulfill different niches.

Comparing the two ecosystems, trees and corals provide many similar functions. Both have epiphytes and borers that live in their branches. The birds that live in trees are like the fish that live among the coral. I also noticed that turf algae was similar to the undergrowth in the forest that takes advantage of every bit of light and nutrients that it can. Another similarity that I noticed was the striking difference between the diurnal and nocturnal diversity of both ecosystems. When we went out at night, the regions had very different species compositions than during the day. This is another example of the different niches that are available.

One of the differences between the forest and the reef was that the forest seemed to discourage the spread of species because it is rather hard to traverse, whereas marine species are not prevented from migrating by the corals. It seems likely that species are better able to disperse on a reef than in the forest.

Looking back, this course exceeded my expectations in so many ways. I never expected to make so many friends or to have quite as much fun on the trip as I did. Every day was challenging but so rewarding. I don’t think that I have ever appreciated food as much as I did during our stay at Las Cuevas, where every meal was incredible even though the ingredients were so limited. I never could have imagined how beautiful Middle Caye would be. Bearing the sand flies and giant land crabs was more than worth the incredible views and people. This course fed a desire in me to travel and experience other places and biomes that I never knew I had. While it was definitely a form of biology bootcamp, it only strengthened my certainty that I want to do research in ecology.

EBIO 319 students being EBIO 319 students
EBIO 319 students being EBIO 319 students

Probably my least favorite part of the course was our transportation troubles. While hiking in the heat was manageable, sitting in hot buses or waiting for them made the heat feel ten times worse. I think that my favorite part had to be seeing and hearing the macaws in the Chiquibul. The birds are so charismatic and so smart, and I felt honored to be able to see them in the wild.

I learned so much from this course, so it’s difficult to pick out what was most important or surprising. Learning about tapirs’ genitalia is something surprising that I will remember for a very long time, but it probably won’t be important to my future studies. Experiencing the mangroves impressed upon me the importance of conserving habitats because of how they influence other areas. Probably the biggest thing that I am taking away from this course is the realization of how hard conservation is. There are so many factors that go into protecting biodiversity and so many sides to consider that make it impossible to please everyone. I admire the people who we met who have made conservation their focus despite the challenges that come with it.

Unbelizeable

The rainforest and the reef are similar and dissimilar in several ways. Both ecosystems hold incredible biodiversity, experience similar negative anthropogenic impacts, and exist in oligotrophic surroundings. The reason biodiversity is high for each has to do with the location of rainforests and reefs. Both are found low latitudes, where weather and temperature are more constant than at higher latitudes and the impact of the sun is at its fullest. The structural complexity of each provides a wide array of niches to be filled by different organisms. Both habitats are under severe threat from human activities, even if those activities are different. Though, the goal is the same, to extract resources. The soils of tropical rainforests are nutrient and nitrogen poor and the same goes for reefs. The turnover rate in both ecosystems is so large that these nutrients are almost instantly ingested by the organisms living on the forest floor or in the benthos, where it is recycled in a microbial loop.

There are differences also in the environment, types of life, and in the effects of humans. As terrestrial organisms, we are built for living on land and can be quite awkward and clumsy in the sea. The ocean is an entirely different medium, made up of salty water. To fully explore the reefs, a human must strap on fake fins and be able to hold their breath for long periods of time, or utilize scuba. Land is a remarkably easier place to do field work for most people. The types of life found in each area are also different. Insects do not inhabit the oceans but are found on every single continent. While marine fish make up a great portion of the species in the sea, as do marine mammals, most if not all are absent from the rainforest’s rivers. Reefs are probably the more fragile ecosystem, since a large part of the functionality of a reef is dependent upon the health of its main reef builders, stony corals. The forests of the Chiquibul face a number of anthropogenic threats, such as selective and indiscriminate logging, harvesting of Xate, hunting, poaching, and mining. While these forests do face some threat from global warming, its main threat is extraction. But for reefs, human extraction, pollution, as well as global warming are likely all equally threatening. Stony corals live in symbiosis with tiny dinoflagellate algae, and this symbiosis is fragile and easily susceptible to stressors in the environment. If the stony corals are unhealthy, this can cause huge changes to this ecosystem, such as a loss of architectural complexity, harms to reef fish populations and dynamics, and erosion along coastlines. The ocean also serves as a dumpster for humanity’s trash and it seems that even a place like Glover’s can be affected, whereas trash cannot just drift into the Chiquibul.

Overall I observed all of these similarities and differences between these two ecosystems. The forests may stand taller than much of the reef landscape, but it is wise not to be fooled. The outer reef contains multitudes of boulders and nooks and crannies, creating this complex and diverse habitat. We were fortunate enough to see several colonies of Acropora palmata, a beautiful, large branching coral that was nearly wiped out by White Band Disease. Once, this species formed a zone that mimicked the forest, but now, these corals are dispersed across the outer reef. Noise is another factor to consider. The forest was never still and never silent. From crickets to cicadas, from howler monkeys to the sounds of the wind blowing through the trees, there was never a time when anything stopped. In the sea however, noises were harder to hear, and were occasionally absent. Down in the depths of the outer reef, an eerie but calming silence envelops you and nearly makes you forget that you have to go back to the surface in order to draw another breath.

I am quite biased towards the reef and must say that was my favorite week. I love the ocean, and the challenges that it presents to a land creature like myself. I enjoyed every aspect of the entire trip however, and found that hiking 13.25 miles in rain boots isn’t so bad as long as you have a chipper attitude and an amazing group of people surrounding you. Michael and Sam, in their enthusiasm for insects, and Adrienne’s funny antics towards them, made me more fully appreciate their existence. While I will never pick up a cockroach, I still have a newly found respect for them. I also think that monkey hoppers are actually pretty cute. My baseline for ant size has definitely been shifted to a larger perspective. I’m excited to go home and see tiny ants and be thankful they aren’t the large soldier ants we so lovingly harassed. The reef though, is where I think I am the happiest. The large colorful and beautiful birds of the Chiquibul morph into colorful reef fishes. The large trees turn to acroporas and boulder mounds. Predatory jaguars and other cats turn into the sharks and barracudas that silently cut through the water. In the end though, I love both places, and would never turn down an opportunity to explore both even more.

A few things surprised me. Hiking 13.25 miles in one day in rain boots wasn’t so bad after all. I learned that trying to count intersect points of a quadrat in five feet of water is extremely difficult, even in the slightest of waves. I can never un-see Michael putting that bee larvae in his mouth. I also learned I am definitely not a morning person. I would tell myself literally every night that I would get up early to go bird watching or to write my blogs, but I always got up at the last second, threw on some clothes, and headed to breakfast. Cold showers are necessary and will make you wonder why you ever took a hot shower. Bees are really cool and are diverse and variable in form, and I’ll never forget that little metallic green orchid bee. I may never see one again. I shall never forget our friend Clivus. Most of all, what will definitely stick with me over the years is the awesome group of people I got to explore Belize with. This group was amazing and every person played a part in making the dynamic fantastic and crazy. Throughout my time in Belize, I met some amazing people, from Lauren and Boris at Las Cuevas, to Javier and Herbie at Glover’s Reef. I wouldn’t change anything about this course (even though the transportation was definitely not on par, our group made the best of it!) because each activity is meant to challenge our perceptions of nature and how to turn observations and experiments into usable data. I will look back on this trip with fond memories.

Postcards from Randy. See me. Pupae. Where is she (Batman voiceover). Mrrph.

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(Nakian) Looking back: Life as a will

 

Korea has a blessed geography where the mountains that consist 70% of the country are covered with deciduous forests of green, orange, and white that parade through the year. I am used to the changing hues of the forest as I watched them from my house in Seoul, lived within them in the barracks, and experienced them inside the forests whenever I hiked them. Indeed, the nature I am local to is undoubtedly beautiful. However constant human coexistence, modern extraction and exploitation have made the ecosystem devoid of much diversity. Naturally the immense biodiversity I witnessed in the rainforest and the coral reef past two weeks have overwhelmed me with the manifestation of untamed, uncontainable vigor of life in its true form I never have experienced.

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After experiencing the rainforest and coral reef, I noticed three common characteristics which I believe are the sources of immense biodiversity that these two ecosystems host:
As the common prefix eco- (oikos, “house” in Greek) imply, ecology and economy share similar principles based on deliberate will for persistence and elevation. They exhibit similar analogous features that I wish to refer an economy as an ecosystem. Dependence to “capital” is one of the features. The size and vigor of an ecosystem are relative to the amount of available capital. Just as an economy grow in size and diversity with input of capital (be it foreign or domestic), biodiversity and biomass will increase as more energy and nutrient is present. Sunlight is the prime source of energy for all life. The immense biodiversity along the equator is not surprising with the blazing amount of sunlight that hit the tropical rainforest, as evident with my sunburnt skin. The high canopies of the rainforest and vast field of corals and algae pumps the ecosystem they support with energy they converted from the sunlight with amount unmatched by any other biome on Earth.
Another characteristic of a healthy and sizable economy is the rapid circulation of money. At least in theory with lots of money in the economy, people will consume more, loan more, and produce more. However, rainforest soil and the tropical ocean lack nutrient, paradoxically to the great biodiversity and abundance they hold. But think: these ecosystems are full of consumers that will extract nutrient from the environment and another. Once a tree dies or a leaf falls, or a fish dies, they will rapidly turn back into nutrient by decomposers and as much rapidly be consumed by the great number of other consumers. With great amount of source of nutrients and equally great amount of consumers, nutrients have no time to be accumulated into the soil or water.
With great availability of capital, its healthy circulation, economy diversifies, creating various niche meeting the various needs of people. Ecosystem show similar trend. As the trees create diverse canopy structures, and as reefs create complex formations, organisms that depend on them will radiate accordingly, specify, and speciate. The specific symbiosis like Azteca ant: cecropia tree, Pseudomyrmex ants: acacia trees, and Atta ants: fungus farm demonstrate such specificity.

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While rainforest and coral reef ecosystems share principles to most richness and diversity, each received myself with different level of hospitality. In the forest I was part of it. I experienced the soil, the tree, air, ticks, the point of view like the other inhabitants. Without deliberate intention as that of blood sucking ticks or mosquitoes, fellow inhabitants of the forest never approached us. Subtle signs like the howler’s monkeys’ call and disturbed forest floor indicating the jaguar’s presence implied their existence. These forest animals really respected personal space. However, I was only a guest underwater. Animals recognized my presence and fled or showed aggression only when I approached them so closely.
The fragile nature of the coral reef ecosystem was striking. The visible competition between the coral reef and algae for space and sunlight highlighted the intricate nature of the corals and how special this ecosystem is. The rising sea temperature, defiling marine debris, flow of excessive amount of nutrient into the waters, all are collaboration of humanity to destroy this important ecosystem where we cannot pinpoint our judging fingers to.

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Through this course I successfully realize what I like and what I can do regarding field biology which will consist significant part of my career. As I spent more time among the rainforest I learned how much I liked the place. My initial expectation was that I will like the diving and the open ocean horizon of the atoll. But the dry and pure breeze and thick canopy that shaded me from the blazing sun convinced me that rainforest is not bad at all. I should wait until I experience the rainy season and the bloom of mosquitoes but I did like the forest’s dry season. Meanwhile, I truly learned the terror of sandflies at the atoll. These small devils made unpleasant hickey marks all over my body followed by extreme itchness. I just couldn’t bear it. Also without shade, I was in direct exposure to the sunlight. Contrary to the expectations I realized myself as a “Turf” person. I love the mountains and the forest as I am more familiar to them.
The academic part of the course was far beyond my expectations. I really liked how each projects challenged us to ask the right question, make a right hypothesis, right methods, and right conclusion from the unexpected results. I learned how much I must learn and be trained to make relevant decisions regarding a research. As for the unexpected results, I will never forget when our camera trap caught a wild ocelot. The beautiful pattern of the small leopard embodied the beauty of unexpectedness gift of the nature.
The immense biodiversity that I encountered in the rainforest and coral reefs embodies the radiant will of life that seeks to rise. And this will is the will of genetic materials to proliferate. The characteristics of each species I saw came to be either as an effort to sustain itself under pressure or to expand and exploit under favorable conditions. Witnessing this principle, I accepted that the purpose of life to rise naturally reside in our species still. However, struggle to rise does not necessarily involve unjustly exploiting on others. Yes, we have to prey on others like all life does but there is an extent to which the extraction will become unnatural exploitation. Humanity has long exceeded that threshold. After this course I once again recalibrated, reinforced my will to contribute to the effort to correct humanity’s current path down to unnatural decadence back to that of natural and healthy will to sustainable power.

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Belize Adventure Reflections: Wrap-Up

What an adventure. So many miles traveled, wisdom gained, and personal growth has taken place during these past two weeks. I can vividly recall everyone sitting outside KWG 100 that first morning, eagerly awaiting what was to come and the cleanest we ever were. I have learned so much since then, and in the past hours as I have struggled to figure out how to sum up everything I want to say about this experience, I have realized that it’s almost impossible to put it all into words without writing a novel or two, but I will do my best here.

We were fortunate enough to visit two of the most beautiful and biologically diverse ecosystems in the world during our time in Belize: the tropical rainforest and the coral reef. Though these two ecosystems appeared very different to me at first, a closer examination revealed that they share many similarities. From the many layers of the rainforest canopy and the abundance of leaf litter canvasing the rainforest floor to the shallow sea grass beds and the wide range of coral structures in the reef, both ecosystems contain countless diverse niches and microhabitats that have the capabilities for a myriad of organisms and species flourish.

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The coral reef
A glimpse up into the canopy of the Chiquibul Rainforest
A glimpse up into the canopy of the Chiquibul Rainforest

Along the same lines, the complexity and depth of both of these ecosystems are things that I feel I had an idea of before but didn’t truly grasp until I was totally immersed in them for the two weeks. For example, looking carefully at what appears to be a simple leaf-covered path in the forest can reveal several termites and beetle species under a log, a variety of arachnids skittering along the surface of the leaves, and snakes hidden just under them. Similarly, studying a mound of coral colonies might show Christmas tree worms burrowed into the polyps, sea urchins wedged into the crevices, and macroalgae growing in patches.

Experiencing it all firsthand really helped me understand how the numerous things living in both of those ecosystems are interconnected. Each species contributed something crucial to the ecosystem that they inhabited, and an environmental change that impacts one species undoubtedly impacts countless others as well. Learning about my two taxa played a role in this, with the beetles being important decomposers in the rainforest and the echinoderms being important prey and predators in the reef. Also interestingly and unexpectedly (for me at least) given the structural and organismal diversity present in these ecosystems, both of these ecosystems are fairly nutrient poor yet have managed to efficiently recycle nutrients to support their inhabitants.

In addition to the obvious species differences in these ecosystems, I noticed that the behaviors of the ‘dangerous’ species in each varied. While in the rainforest I was very wary of snakes and spiders, it turned out that most creatures would avoid you and we only saw one snake and few large mammals during our trip. On the other hand, the reefs were filled with things that simply hovered about unafraid of your presence (such as the jellyfish and lionfish).

The coral snake we saw during our night hike
The coral snake slinking around during the night hike
An upside-down jellyfish swimming around the mangroves
An upside-down jellyfish swimming around the mangroves

Throughout the course, I particularly enjoyed hearing from all of the guest lecturers and the constant exploration that occurred. I never felt bored, and everywhere I looked there was always something new and exciting to learn and see or someone with a unique perspective to talk to and learn from. If I had to choose a least favorite aspect of the course, it would probably be the amount of preparation that we had to do beforehand. Still, I can see how necessary and helpful all of it was.

I will no doubt remember how interlocked everything really is. Both within the ecosystems with the large trees and corals providing for the smaller species around them and outside of the ecosystems in our lives. As far removed as we might seem in our daily lives from either of those ecosystems, the things we do in our everyday lives leave a long lasting impact on the environment, as shown by the marine debris cleanup project that we did. As cliché as it sounds, this course also further reinforced the motto of hard work truly pays off. Hearing from a graduate student who spends hours sifting through photos from camera traps in the hopes of coming across a big cat snapshot about the simplicity of just remaining cheerful even when everything goes wrong is imprinted in my mind. Furthermore, I learned that working hard on your own is important, but it takes the efforts of many to manage the dynamics of conservation. Among the other lessons learned on this trip is that traipsing around in full body spandex dive skins is not actually as bad as it sounds, but putting it on is a struggle every time.

All in all, these past two weeks far exceeded my expectations. Not only did we have running water for the whole trip (well except for the time we were still in the states, ironically), but I also had countless opportunities to push past my comfort zones and see how incredible doing so could be. All of the sights and experiences were so much more beautiful than any textbook or online image could ever portray, and I am still in awe that I had the opportunity to witness it all.

Thanks for following along everyone; what an unbelizeably wonderful ride it’s been.

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Final Post

One of the most striking similarities between the rainforest and the coral reef is that both are nutrient-poor environments. This seems strange considering that both are such rich in life and diversity. Contrary to popular belief, just because the soil and water are nutrient poor, doesn’t necessarily mean the environment is. It would be more accurate to say that nutrients are being constantly cycled through the many different kinds of organisms that live in the matrix. Additionally, organisms in these oligotrophic environments tend to be slow growing and have specific adaptations or symbioses that allow for greater and more efficient nutrient uptake. Both the rainforest and coral reef are complex three-dimensional networks that allow for a wide variety of physical and biochemical niches. Producers and consumers exist in a delicate balance that can be easily disrupted, a common problem when these environments are disturbed by human activities and byproducts.

In the reef especially I felt as though these conditions were most easily observable. The clear waters were an obvious indication of the oligotrophic conditions, as was the slow growth rate of coral. There were no bare surfaces and every inch of substrate was covered by coral, macroalgae, or sponge. Fish, urchins, marine worms and crustaceans filled cracks and crevices, and it seemed like every space was accounted for. In the rainforest, plants, vines and epiphytes competed for sunlight and moisture, while spiders, roaches, and ants crawled about the leaf litter. The constant activity of producers, consumers and decomposers was palatable.

This course exceeded my expectations on all accounts. I could not have imagined all of the things we got to see and do on this trip; I felt as though I finally got to really experience the reef and rainforest, as opposed to the snatches and glimpses I have received before. Partially this was due to the fact that we were able to visit places accessible only to researchers, rather than the areas that are usually overrun by tourists. I was also pleasantly surprised by the level of comfort we experienced on this trip. My time in Panama had prepared me for pasta with ketchup and spam, and stinky bucket showers. Instead we had delicious Belizan food, running water, electricity, and clean, comfortable living quarters. Also, having everything planned out for you was a real treat which let us immerse ourselves in our surroundings rather than worrying about logistics. Finally, I felt as though I had a thorough introduction to various field methods and the types of problems one might face when doing research in such an environment.

It would be hard to pick a favorite part of the course, so I’ll try to name a couple. Seeing the big cats at the zoo at night was really incredible because it was something you couldn’t see anywhere else. Sharks and rays are some of my favorite animals so seeing those on the reef made my day more than once. And, however cheesy it may be, the friendships I developed on this trip were really special. As for a least favorite, I don’t have a good answer. Sometimes trying to work on a project in such a big group was challenging and some people got their feathers ruffled while others felt they couldn’t contribute (too many cooks in the kitchen). At the same time, I felt this was a valuable lesson in collaboration and I’m not sure I would change it.

I don’t think I’ll ever forget all I learned about my taxonomic groups and topic lecture. While amphibians and annelids were never something I was interested in before, now they hold a special place in my heart. I also really value the practical knowledge I learned on this trip. Experimental design, problem solving on the spot, working smart, analyzing data in a way that reflects your research question, and my pro snorkeling skills are all things I look forward to utilizing in the future.

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Sophia Streeter (certified TFB)

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Until Next Time, Belize

Scrolling through pictures of both corals reefs and the tropical rainforest, it’s clear that both are incredibly lush environments that host diverse sets of organisms. But through this course, I’ve realized that there are more subtle similarities between the two. In the Chiquibul, we studied how the tropical soils are somehow able to sustain a diverse ecosystem while being incredibly poor in nutrients. These soils are paralleled by the oligotrophic, or nutrient-poor, waters of Glover’s Reef; both inexplicably provide a home for thousands of organisms while seemingly offering no sustenance. However, both of these habitats are characterized by rapid nutrient turnover. For every fish or insect we see, there are millions of others living organisms like microbes that exist outside of human view. The key to both of these habitats’ success seems to be this system of efficient nutrient cycling, which leaves the area nutrient-poor but the animals themselves nutrient-rich.

 

Perhaps even more importantly, these two ecosystems are tied together by their impending destruction. Both Glover’s Reef and the Chiquibul are faced with problems of illegal extraction and habitat loss for a number of organisms. The biology of deforestation and coral bleaching may act in different ways but the cause is the same: humans. Conservation issues plague ecologists in both areas, as they attempt to battle the overexploitation of natural resources. Poaching and overfishing are one in the same in that they sustain a desperate human population with no other livelihood, while depleting these environments of their incredible diversity.

 

With that said, I did notice that human intervention in the rainforest seemed much less obvious. Since Las Cuevas was so removed from civilization, the biggest indicators of human presence were camera traps and the occasional logging truck. On the reef, however, we saw a huge amount of marine debris, acting like a red flag for mass consumerism. It’s harder to see our effects on the rainforest in a short amount of time, but the 90 lbs. of Styrofoam and bottle caps serve as a pretty blatant reminder of what we’re doing to the natural world.

 

Overall, this course has completely surpassed all of my expectations (entirely thanks to Scott and Adrienne and all of their hard work). Ihoped to come out with a better understanding of fieldwork, but I didn’t expect to learn nearly as much as I did about conservation or how to deal with unreliable transportation. My favorite part was probably going through our camera trap photos. After 26 miles of hiking and anticipation, the payoff of that single ocelot picture was fantastic. It really made me appreciate how hard field researchers have to work. And even now that I’m back with air conditioning and wifi, I can’t say that I had a least favorite part of this course (not even the sand flies). With every van we missed and blister we added, I think we learned to be better TFBs, and that’s not an experience I could’ve gotten anywhere else.

 

In five years, I may have to consult my field notebooks to brush up on specifics, but I’ll definitely remember these three things:

1. Make bold choices, and live by the motto “Screw it, let’s do it!”

2. Field work takes patience and a whole lot of sweat, but it’s worthwhile in the end.

3. Never underestimate the power of a good pair of rubber boots.

 

I realize that I’m writing my final blog post in the very same seat I occupied two weeks ago to hurriedly write my pre-departure post. It’s incredible how much has changed since the last time I sat here; I’m a little bit tanner and covered in a whole lot more bug bites, but more importantly, I’ve returned with a whole new appreciation for the natural ecosystems I visited. Conservation is a multi-faceted and complex process with no easy solution, but with every bit we learn about the diverse habitats of the tropics, our understanding increases.

 

In the words of a true Belizean, “You’ve got to see it to Belize it.”DSCN4432

Course Review and Wrap Up: Michael Saucedo

I want (an it is required of me) to recount the three most memorable experiences from this course. The first is obvious, and that is the experience of meeting and getting to know the incredible group of instructors and students who decided it was important or even necessary to complete this course. Most people would not consider trudging a dozen miles in the Chiquibul or collecting marine debris at Glover’s Atoll to be an entirely pleasant way to spend one’s summer. Each and every participant made it their aim, however, to not just complete these and other challenges, but to take away from them a positive message. Not to mention the positivity and diligence of the workers at each of the two field sites we stayed at. These people have devoted their life to the cause of conservation and biological research and to the education of young people like myself. In five years, I am confident I will still remember the attitudes and moments of courage from those who inspired me during the last two weeks. This was undoubtably my favorite part of the course.

Secondly, I will never forget the peace of mind that comes with field work. Never before had I reached a feeling of calm as when diving to the bottom of a reef, hearing nothing but my own air bubbles, and carefully observing and recording the diversity of life I saw. The same is true of my time spent in the Chiquibul, where the cacophony of noise reaches a transcendental hum. In the field, your eyes and ears become attuned to each stimulus they encounter. Over time, nothing slips by and you can appreciate everything around you. I dream of a time in my life where I can spend months or even years in this blissful state. I guess this experience has given me a dragon to chase, my first taste of “field euphoria.” I take it back, you guys were great, but this was undoubtably my favorite part of the course.

The third memorable aspect of this trip (and reducing this trip to just three memories does not really do it justice) was the unstoppable stream of information coming from both qualitatively observing and directly quantifying my surroundings. Both from direct observation and methodical quantifying I became more attune to the biotic and abiotic processes occurring all around me. But comfort in your assertions about this environment are short-lived because of the astounding amount of alternate information popping up left and right. When we conducted studies of different biological systems we constantly faced the dilemma of what question to ask (what data to quantify), because there are a million valid questions, but many fewer that actually lead to meaningful results. Even once you have asked the right question, it is not always clear how to interpret the data you have collected. Different statistical methods can lead to finding wildly different conclusions from the same data set. This experience has taught me that specific knowledge of life is key to understanding the problems that face our modern world. It has also taught me that careful scrutiny and painstaking attention to detail is the only way to sift through this wealth of information and acquire relevant knowledge. The daunting feeling that comes with this realization could be viewed negatively (as my least favorite realization) but as always understanding what you are up against can make it feel less scary. So overall, a net positive experience.

How can I most succinctly summarize this experience and still do it justice? One adjective that comes to mind immediately is educational.  EBIO319 is hands down the most educational experience I have had in my time at Rice. You can read and discuss all you want and begin to understand the systems of organisms that exist in the tropics, but until you see them first hand it is near impossible to fully appreciate their novelty and complexity. My expectations of adventure were certainly met, but I had no idea how much knowledge I could attain from exploring these pristine habitats.

Moreover, the nature of this experience was paramountly thought-provoking—stimulating connections each time we reached a new location and inspected its life forms. One of the first lectures in the Chiquibul focused on life in the rainforest canopy. It touched on the paradoxical duality of high biodiversity existing in soils without highly abundant nutrients. This concept immediately rang a bell in my head because it was so connected to one of the fundamental aspects of my lecture topic from the reef. On coral reefs, waters are oligotrophic as well and yet support a similar richness and abundance of life. Both ecosystems rely on the cycling of nutrients from the top of the ecosystem to the bottom and back again from the bottom to the top. In the rainforest, decomposers like microorganisms, fungi, roaches, and other insects recycle plant and animal detritus which then can be absorbed by roots. These lucky roots (along with the beating tropical sun) support the growth of tall trees that host the larger heterotrophs which ultimately (along with plants) become food for those detritivores I mentioned before.

On the reef this process is more cryptic, since it prominently features microbes. Here highly abundant and productive autotrophic bacteria photosynthetically fix carbon within their cells. Along with dead microbes and larger organisms, the exuded photosynthates from these bacteria become food for heterotrophic bacteria, abundant in the water column and more so on the reef benthos. This cycle of nutrients is so tightly linked that nutrients hardly exist free floating in the water for long. Larger organisms filter feed on these nutritious microbes, grow, and are then consumed themselves by ever larger organisms. All eventually die and become food for the heterotrophic bacteria that form the base of this microbial loop.

Belize is truly a biodiversity hotspot. A center for conservation focused research and legislation that promotes the sustainability  of such an environment. What we have in both of these locations in Belize is ideal specialization in an ideal habitat. Nothing goes to waste. Every necessary niche is filled by a diversity of life. This is only possible when anthropogenic extinction is limited and preservation is the top priority.

 

Glamorous Biology (#glambio)

I’m home. It’s strange to think that the two-week journey of tropical field biology has already ended. I feel that being in the Chiquibul forest and Glover’s reef has not only informed me knowledge wise about these two diverse ecosystems, but it has also changed me spiritually.

One thing I can’t help but see is how similar the Chiquibul and Glover’s are. Don’t get me wrong, they harbor completely different life forms and habitats, but both have incredible species specialization. Each organism on both places occupies a unique niche where they thrive in the competition for resources and reproduction. Just as some species are suited for the deeper reefs, other terrestrial creatures live their lives high in the forest canopy. The many possible ways life forms can occupy an available niche gives the opportunity for speciation, and with time and enough resources, a divers array of species can emerge.

Species diversity also depends on the amount of free resources in a given area. Surprisingly, both the reefs and the forests in Belize are low in nutrients, yet both areas have developed adaptations to ensure high efficiency of nutrient cycling. Organic matter in both places is quickly recycled into nutrients that sustain the reef and forest food chains. To me, the stars of the nutrient recycling goes to the detritivores of both the forest and the sea that turn dead material into accessible nutrients for primary producers like plants and algae.

Symbiosis is a common theme between forests and reefs. For example, corals depend on symbiotic algae that photosynthesize nutrients to the coral polyps, which provide housing and protection to the algae. In forests, acacia trees and ants share a symbiosis where the ants live within the tree and feed on protein buds provided by the leaves while tree gains protection from herbivores with its ant army.

One critical difference I’ve observed is how people talk about recovery and resilience for forests versus recovery for coral reefs. Even though both ecosystems are sensitive to changes, reefs can completely die out with only 2 degrees Celsius of change, something that affect the forests as much. The prospect of rising sea levels, temperatures, and human development seems to put more pressure on the reefs than on the forests. I often find the tone of forest conservation in the Chiquibul to be more optimistic than similar conversations in Glovers.

This course is nothing like I expected it to be. I never imagined being so excited to hear someone yelling ROACH from their restroom. My favorite parts of the course were the night walks and diversity dives which allowed for me to search for my taxa and learn about them and their ecology. I also enjoyed the guest lectures as they were very informative on either conservation efforts at belize, or simply giving a profound look into the tropical field biologist life. The least enjoyable part of the course was the crummy transportation organization, but I guess accidents happen! Other than that, I think it’d be a better idea to give lectures earlier on in the day than late at night, when it becomes difficult to stay awake. Plus giving taxon briefings earlier on would give each of us an idea of what to look for.

While I learned a lot of interesting nature facts, conservation efforts, and natural history of belize, I think the biggest growth I had here in Belize was spiritually. When I heard Lauren’s talk about the difficulties of managing camera traps in the Chiquibul and all the things that went wrong in her studies, I was amazed to see her bright personality still shine through. Her words “Don’t take life too seriously” made me reevaluate my priorities. To move on easily in life in the midst of failure and not freak out is a skill not many have and to see it manifest in a field biologist really left its mark. It’s definitely a new mantra I need in my life!

As the roach expert, I think the course has changed how I see cockroaches in my life. By forcing me to read on a “despicable” creature, I was given an opportunity to get out of my comfort zone and learn the true diversity of these creatures outside of stereotypical portrayals. I learned that cockroaches are a super diverse family of insects that come in all sorts of shapes, colors, and sizes, each adapted to a particular niche of its environment. I think it’s been particularly exciting to study a family that not many people are willing to look at. Each day, I learned about and saw new species with unique patterns and behaviors.

A final impactful point that has changed me is the beach cleanup project and marine debris lecture. I never expected such a pristine location to feel the effects of marine trash. The more I cleaned, the more sever I felt the problem become. I couldn’t help but feel convicted with guilt as I saw all the brittle plastics being sorted out of the island. It really made me see the urgency of action in a very relevant setting. The experience was nothing short of eye opening. I hope it’s something I can continue on my own and hopefully get more people involved.

La voie! La verite! La vie!
La voie! La verite! La vie! PC: Stephanie Zhao 😀

From canopy to understory

From shallows to depths

From surf to turf, from leaf to reef

Rise from Belize

New TFBs

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