All posts by akw6

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.

Last Day?

I’m sitting in the pleathery seat of a Southwest flight. It’s certainly strange to not be spending the day in the water. We did this morning, but now, not even being on land, but catapulted into the air, is discombobulating.

This morning’s snorkel was my favorite of the entire trip. We took the boat out with our two amazing tour guides (Herbie and Javier) to Twin Peaks. This is the name of a caye that is made up of mangroves and is separated into two pieces by a sea inlet. We walked through a portion of the land. This was quite difficult due to uneven ground hidden under a layer of seawater. We were falling into holes left and right. I fell in one that went all the up to my mid-thigh.

The best part, however, was when we got to snorkel through the inlet. I was shocked as to the community complexity that was happening on the roots of the red mangrove trees. (Unfortunately, the reign of the soft corals was over. I didn’t see any today.) The sponge symbiosis was so obvious. It was amazing to see something that was mentioned in both a taxonomic briefing and a topic lecture actually flourishing out in the field. The fact that the mangrove is an understudied ecosystem makes me even more interested in it. What if I end up there, studying evolution?

Our other stop of the day made the idea of continuing my studies out in Belize that much more attractive. We visited the Smithsonian research station. Despite being on an island that is only an acre, the facilities were beautiful. I can definitely see myself returning in some capacity. At the same time, there is so much of the world to be examined under the lens of evolution.


Day 14

The day is done. I think that the entire group is in disbelief. It’s hard to imagine not living 24/7 with these thirteen people always around. I, really all of us, have become accustomed to our daily routine of rising early and exploring the different natural features of Belize. If it were up to me, we would explore the other major ecosystems of this country (the Maya Mountains and the savannah). I would also be interested to see how Belize City differs from Houston, Philadelphia, or other international cities.
Anyway, today was mostly spent quantifying biodiversity on the back reef near to the research station. This means that we spent the morning wading around the shallow area searching for any organism we could find. I was particularly proud of myself for finding a cute, small snail that crawled all of the way up my dive skin. I was less excited about the dead fish that Randy stuffed in my dive skin. We found a least five different types of green algae, a sea cucumber, a sponge, lots of brown algae, red algae, a French grunt, a yellowtail damselfish, a goby, a couple molluscs, and a couple of jellies.
On another note, I did not see that many examples of my taxonomic group. On the brief times that the water was deep enough for us to snorkel, I saw (shocker) a lot of sea fans (Gorgonia ventalina). In the end, I think that I have seen all of the soft coral on the Glover’s field guide. I wonder what the relatively high abundance of soft corals means for the hard corals, in terms of reef accretion. Anyway, this trip has opened up numerous future research topics. I hope to learn more about them in the upcoming semester at Rice.

Day 13

As per usual, actually engaging with an issue gave us perspective today. The issue was marine debris. Yesterday, Stephanie gave us a briefing on the topic. It was a great overview of the many different ways in which trash enters the marine system, persists in the system, and is ultimately washed up onto shores across the globe. In the morning, we conducted an experiment around a beach clean up. Ultimately, we asked a question regarding the composition of trash in terms of its material. As we expected, the trash was dominated by plastics by weight and Styrofoam by volume.

What was staggering was just how little of a dent we made in just the four sites that we picked. Add to that the entirety of the island, the entirety of Belize, and then all of the other countries. The scale is just too large to comprehend.

While collecting trash, I noticed that there were so many dried up Gorgonia ventalina individuals. All of this continues to build up my thought that this species is the dominant soft coral on the Glover’s Reef Atoll.

The best part of the day, however, was the night snorkeling trip that we did. It was very logistically difficult due to the dark, the close proximity of the entire group, and the higher levels of suspended sediment. Nonetheless, the dive was great. The community composition was really different. I also saw a slipper lobster!

Tomorrow marks our last full day. I can’t really imagine going to back to the real world and Rice.

Day 12

My greatest accomplishment of today was conquering my inability to swim to depths. This day was undoubtedly the most physically demanding we have had so far. In the morning, we took the boat to the fore reef, outside of the bounds of the atoll. This meant that the water was much choppier than previously. I was worried that I would get sea sick, as the last time I was on a boat, I definitely did. In the end, I was one of the few that didn’t end up feeling bad at all.
The fore reef was amazing. It was in a completely different scale from everything that we have previously seen. According to Adrienne, the deepest part that we went to was about fifty feet. Of course we didn’t free dive that deep but we did in some of the medium depths. I was really excited about how much I improved from the first time that we entered the water. By the end of the day, I could make it down the bottom in places that were much deeper than I ever expected from myself.
I continued to see soft corals all over the reef. At this point, I don’t that the composition of this particular community dramatically changes over the different areas that we have been too. I am consistently seeing this community dominated by Gorgonia ventalina in every location.
While I don’t know what we are doing tomorrow, I think that it involves marine debris. This will be a good transition into more conservation-focused issues. I also can’t believe how few days we have left. As per usual I feel simultaneously prepared and unprepared. We shall see how the last couple of days go. I’m sure they will be just as amazing.

Day 11

I think that I am starting to get a much better grasp of how to maneuver on the reef. While I don’t think that I will every really be able to get over my sensitive ears. Depth does still hurt quite a bit. Anyway, I found today’s activities much easier than yesterday’s.

We had two projects to do today. First, we did a similar transect method as we did yesterday to estimate total coral cover on patch reefs inside and outside of the Marine Protected Area of Glover’s Reef. The second task was to collect as many urchin species as we could in 25 minutes for species ID, abundance, and diameter of test.

This has been one of my favorite days on the reef so far. The diversity that we saw was at the perfect depth for both quadrat measuring and for personal observation. I keep seeing so many examples of my taxonomic group, an encouraging sign. Today I saw a couple more examples of sea whips. I also noticed a lot of different sea plumes. I don’t know what exact species they are, but I believe that my taxonomic sheet has them.

Tomorrow we go to the fore reef, a more densely packed area. I hope to see even more soft coral and hard coral. These are encouraging to see because of their high contributions to reef framework growth. However, I’m sure that we will see lower levels of cover and diversity in the non-protected area. All will be revealed in the data tomorrow.


Day 10

Today was our first complete day on the reef. I can’t really put into words how lovely it is here. Sure I have sand on just about every surface of my body, but I am thoroughly enjoying my time here. The day was centered on two tools: the transect and quadrat.

First, we tried to quantify the percent cover of crab holes on the paths around the station (using the quadrats/transect on land). Honestly, my group did not get that much data (only one half of a square was covered over our entire transect).

This was then scaled up for our afternoon activity, transects searching for two geneses of green algae (Halimeda and Penicillus). We were trying to answer a similar question to the percent crab hole cover. We wanted to know if Halimeda or Penicillus would be more abundant in the sea grass bed.

Again, my groups struggled to find anything on our transect, with it being placed in some of the thickest grass. Either way, our data showed a significantly higher amount of Halimeda over Penicillus.

On the reef I continued to see Gorgonian sea fans, as well as whips and rods. I think that the future challenge that I will face is distinguishing between soft corals that are branching, yellow/brown, with them all being of similar morphology. Tomorrow on the more distant reef, I hope to see more.

Day 9

While some may not enjoy days in which we spend most the time in various forms of transportation, especially because they always seem to fail us, I find it to be very calming. After leaving The Education Center Lodge a bit late (classic), we drove across the country yet again to Belize City. I was very surprised as to how small it was, especially seeing as the two cities I live in are Houston and Philadelphia.
Anyway, the next challenge that we had to overcome was the boat ride to the actual marine sanctuary. I was a bit worried about the seasickness. I have previously experienced this on a ferry. In the end, it was not a big deal, a pleasant experience. I am now looking forward to being on the boat as we go on to explore the rest of the patch reefs.
The rest of the day was spent getting acquainted with the research station and the nearby sea grass beds. I immediately saw my taxonomic group (soft corals). My initial impression was that Gorgonia ventalina is extremely common the patch reefs. I also saw many other soft corals, including Briareum asbestinum and several species of sea rod.

Day 8

As per usual, something went wrong with the van. Our original plan for the day was to leave Las Cuevas early in the morning in order to make it to ATM cave for a swim and exploration. Then, we were going to drive across Belize to stay at the zoo. This is not how our day went at all.

Most of the morning was spent sitting on the porch, waiting for our van to show up. This went on for several hours. Rather than spend all our time waiting, we got the opportunity to tour other parts of the Las Cuevas research station and learn about their ongoing projects.

When our van finally arrived, we all climbed gratefully into its semi-air-conditioned space. Unfortunately, our massive time delay prevented us from being able to visit the ATM cave.

However, we did end up going on the night tour of the Belize zoo. Not only did we get to see two of the eighteen jaguars that they have, but we got to see margays, ocelots (so noisy), two types of owls (Rice!), a tapir, and three kinds of snakes.

Overall, I remain optimistic about the rest of the trip. Each thing that goes wrong does not faze our group at all. The new challenges that the reef will pose to us will be just new bonding experiences for us.


Day 7

On our last day at the Las Cuevas Research station, we spent most the morning and afternoon retracing our steps from the first day. All of this was in the effort to understand if species richness differed between natural and man-made clearings. I am proud to say that the hike was not nearly as exhausting as it was at the beginning. I also got the change to see an example of epiphytic Encyclia cochleata, the national flower of Belize. I think I have achieved my peak of epiphyte. It was one of the most satisfying moments of this trip to date.

After cleaning up and showering we went over to the classroom for taxonomic presentations, my presentation on NTDs/ethnobotany, and to look at what our camera traps caught. I really enjoyed my topic, especially because I had taken a research seminar in the previous semester on the topic. We then got into an interesting discussion on how Brazil should manage the threat of Zika and the upcoming influx of people for the Rio de Janiero Olympics.

Our pictures from the camera trapping experiment were a bit disappointing until we got the last one. On its memory card, we found both and ocelot and a WHAT WAS THIS. Overall, our data set was way to small to be able to really tell anything about the preferences of animals in the Chiquibul for man-made or natural clearings. All in all, these past experiment (while they don’t yield statistically significant data) are doing a great job of showing me how to trouble shoot ecological/evolutionary experiments.

On to Glovers Reef!