All posts by bw19

Tropical Field Biology Presents… Brendan’s Final Blog Post

spoiler alert: I have decided to become a sea turtle

I remember sitting in the first interest meeting and hearing past participants talk about this trip. At that time, I was definitely hesitant how a trip can be so influential and eye-opening. Few months later, we had our first group meeting as the 2019 cohort. I wondered what the workload would be, how the group would interact with each other, and what we will be seeing in Belize. 

When I chose ants and sponges as my taxonomic groups, I merely picked them because of familiarity. However, as I started to look into these groups more, I realized they shared many similarities. Ants and sponges are both often overlooked because they can easily blend in the background, but they are actually crucial in maintaining the health of the rainforest or reef. They both serve an important role of recycling nutrients in their respective ecosystems. Not to mention, to identity them to the species level is pretty difficult because they can appear so differently amongst each other. 

More broadly speaking, the rainforest and reef also share many similarities with each other. These ecosystems are able to host such diverse life. Both of these ecosystems have organisms that continuously cycle nutrients back to its environment, allowing other organisms to develop. These ecosystems have food webs and food chains in place to ensure there is a balance between predator-prey relationship. In many cases, removing top-predators, like big cats and big fishes, can disrupt the ecosystem greatly. 

One thing I also realized is to just avoid anything that begins with “fire.” In the rainforest, we avoided fire ants. In the reef, we avoided fire corals, fire sponges, and fire worms. I wrote in my first blog that I expect to be challenged when it comes to naming specific organisms. Of course, I ended up being challenged in all different ways. For instance, one challenge I did not expect was waking up at 5 or 6am every morning and struggling to stay awake past 9:30pm. 

A difference that I noticed between the ecosystems is actually the way in which research is conducted. In hindsight, being able to stand on the ground definitely is a lot easier than needing to stay afloat. Perhaps we were just out of our element, but I noticed that so many variables, such as wind condition and wave action, that dictate when we can go out and do research.

My favorite part of the trip was being able to capture photos of everyone. Watching everyone’s facial expression and their sheer amazement has been such a fun part of the trip. I, too, was amazed by all the things we saw, but I found shifting perspectives and observing people in the context of nature can be equally rewarding. 


Everyone taking photos of the “sticky butt cockroach”

My least favorite part of the trip was definitely the bug bites. By now, you have probably heard of everyone complaining, but those bugs are evil! In my packing list, I remembered to pack bug sprays to prevent getting bitten, but I totally forgot to pack medicine for AFTER getting bitten. I had to continually restrain myself from scratching the insect bites. 

Here are my three key takeaways from this course: 

  1. Importance of contextualizing our trip. While learning about Belize’s natural beauty, we were also able to understand Belize’s ties to Mayan culture. Thanks to Herbert, we also understood the overarching history and future of Belize. Though we came to Belize to learn about the environment, I think we also have to acknowledge the environmental impact of traveling to Belize and all the places as well. My hope is that we can translate this experience and inspire more sustainable practices. 
  2. Don’t forget the small things! I used to have this mentality of eliminating all ants in sight. After this trip, I realized just how amazingly complex ants can be. Seeing ant colonies and leafcutter ants traveling down the highway carrying freshly cut leaves have opened my eyes to these organisms. 
  3. The bug bite trade-off. As I am writing this final blog post, I am also trying not to scratch my bug bites. In the future, I will still not use insect repellent with 99% DEET, but I will remember to bring some anti-itch medicine for these nasty bug bites. The good thing is bug bites will go, but these memories will last forever. 


ants department: 

common name: 

fire ants


Pseudomyrmex sp.

Azteca sp.

Dolichoderus sp. 


Atta cephalotes

Strumigenys ludia

16 morphospecies:

ant morphospecies from Project P


sponges department: 

some type of rope sponge

Ailochroria crassa

Aplysina fistularis (Yellow Tube Sponge)

Callyspongia vaginalis (Branching vase sponge)

Callyspongia plicifera ( Azure vase sponge)

Chondrilla nucula (Chicken liver sponge)

Cliona delitrix (Red Boring sponge)

Xestospongia muta ( Giant Barrel sponge) 

Day 15: Yes Bueno!

Today’s general agenda: Glover’s Reef Research Station —> Belize Airport —> Houston, TX —> Los Angeles, CA

TFB is Yes Bueno! Bye Glover’s!

And just like that, we’re back on the boat, but this time we’re headed to the airport. It’s hard to imagine that in two short weeks, I was able to have an experience I will cherish for a lifetime. It feels like yesterday we were trying sour sop juice for the first time at Cheers. There are so many inside jokes and cool findings that I could not include in these blog posts. If you want to hear more of this amazing adventure and see more pictures, I will gladly respond through my email 

Now back to traveling shenanigans! As always, my airport journey would not be so smooth-sailing. My duffle bag actually ripped apart and some of my clothes came out. I also forgot to put my hot sauce souvenir back into my check-in luggage and almost had to throw them away when I went through security again. On the plane, however, this cute baby sat next to me, which made everything well worth it. 

Lastly, I wanted to take the opportunity to thank my family for giving me this opportunity to take the course. I am incredibly fortunate to experience Belize and work with such great professors and classmates. This trip helped me better understand not just tropical field biology but also who I am as a person. turns out..I am talkative? “not necessarily in a bad connotation way”

to TFB: yes bueno! yes bueno! yes bueno! 


spotted a rainbow on our way to the airport

Brendan Wong

Glover’s Reef Marine Reserve, Belize


Day 14: You must be lion.. something smells fishy

Today’s general agenda: Project Marine Debris —> Coconuts! —> lion fish dissection 

Our final project involves a little giving back to Glover’s Reef Research Station. We were looking at marine debris around the research station. Essentially, we turned beach clean-up into a research project! We wanted to examine which area of the island would have the most trash and what material makes up for all the trash we collect.

Dr. Shore, Bella, and I picked up a total of 700+ pieces of trash. We found everything from plastic bottles, toothbrushes, Crocs, etc.. We found mostly plastic and styrofoam debris. our group even found part of a metal fan. Knowing we were at such remote location, I was terribly shocked by how much trash that accumulated on the island. Trash can travel so far that even places that are seemingly untouched can be affected by it. 

My biggest takeaway is that the effects of trash on our environment can often feel very distant and removed. I certainly feel that way sometimes.  A plastic bottle goes into the recycling bin..then that gets taken somewhere…and then somewhere.. and the poof! no longer on your mind. I encourage you all to try cleaning up the beach at least one time to better understand how trash can impact our environment, and, hopefully, we can work towards more sustainable practices. A shameless plug: bring your own drinkware to Rice Coffeehouse! 

Picking up Marine Debris

In just six short days on Glover’s Reef, I was able to get more than 60 bug bites from mosquitoes and sandflies. On the flip side, we also got to eat some invasive lionfish and drink some coconuts. At the dinner table, we talked about what would be the first thing we were going to do once we got home. Some people said they would pet their cats, dogs, or possums, and I know I will be taking a *hot* shower for sure. 

Lionfish cevice! This invasive species is delicious

Brendan Wong

Glover’s Reef Marine Reserve, Belize


Day 13: ur chin is pointy

Today’s general agenda: Project “surchin” for urchin —> presentations —> night snorkel 

Ready.. Set… Go! 

In thirty minutes, each group wanted to find the most urchins. Our research project today focuses on urchins and how urchin communities might look different in Marine protected areas (MPA) and non-marine protected areas. MPA are places where fishing is restricted or prohibited. The idea is that understanding the urchin community can allow us to better understand the herbivores that live in those reefs and the overall health of reefs. In total, there were primarily five urchins we were looking for: the reef urchin, slate pencil urchin, western sea egg, long-spiked urchin, and rock-boring urchin.  

close-up of a long-spiked urchin

We would find these urchins in all types of crevices. After time was up, we would bring these urchins back to the boat and measure their lengths. Don’t worry- we later sprinkled them back onto the reef. Because we were so fixated on urchins, I was not able to find spot any sponges. Luckily, we had one last time to snorkel, which is the night snorkel! 

The majority of the afternoon was pretty much free time. I chose to spend my time on the dock, observing the ocean from the best spot on Middle Caye. I also had the opportunity to talk to Dr. Solomon, Kelsey, and Dr. Shore about future plans and reflect on the trip itself. I walked away the dock feeling more excited about the future than ever. 

All suited up for the last snorkel!

As our final snorkel this trip, we brought our dive lights and jumped into pitch-black water. I looked up and saw a sky full of stars, and I looked down a saw a spotted eagle ray quietly swim pass us. What a view! I felt like the luckiest person that day. My camera skills significantly decline in the dark, but I was able to take a somewhat artistic photo of another branching vase sponge (C. vaginalis) at night. The blur is *most definitely* intentional. 

“artistic” photo of branching vase sponge at night

Brendan Wong

Glover’s Reef Marine Reserve, Belize


Day 12: Welcome to Glover’s Reef Resort.. I mean Research Station**

Today’s general agenda: MPA and non-MPA reef transect —> fore reef —> presentations 

I woke up to yet another beautiful sunrise, and I can’t help but wonder whether I am on Glover’s Reef Research Station or Glover’s Reef Resort…then the mosquito and sandflies bites kick in. The waves were quite calm this morning, so we got suited up and immediately hit the water. We continued our research project by exploring another patch reef within the Marine Protected Area and one outside of the area. 

Welcome to Glover’s Reef Resort (?)

Anna and I once again rolled out our transect tape and starting taking data points using our quadrats. When we were collecting data for our second reef, our transect tape happened to go beyond the edge of the patch reef. We ended up having to dive deep into the ocean a few times to collect data. As we dove further down, I felt the thermocline and how cold the water became. 

Because weather can be so unpredictable, in the afternoon, we quickly headed to the fore reef, which is the area right outside of the reef crest, to observe the drop-off. I could not believe my eyes when I saw the drop-off because I was literally staring deep into the abyss. We saw a ray swim across the ocean floor and a nurse shark on the sea floor as well. 

In the sponge department, we got to see some incredible sponges! Javier pointed out the yellow tube sponges and Amanda pointed out the barrel sponges. These sponges were hard to spot at first, but, once I saw them, I could not take my eyes off them. They look just like the pictures when I searched them up, but they look more beautiful in person. 

Javier and Yellow Tube Sponges


Brendan Wong

Glover’s Reef Marine Reserve, Belize


Day 11: It’s a sponge type of day!

today’s general agenda: morning dive —> debrief —> seagrass exploration —> presentations 

Out first research project at Glover’s Reef involves us using transects to address a question about Marine Protected Areas and the reef. Marine Protected Areas (MPA) are designated areas where fishing is restricted or prohibited. We wanted to use this opportunity look at the amount of live coral in MPA and non-MPA reefs. The beauty of fieldwork is that you never know what to expect. This morning, since waves were generally calm, we quickly got geared up and went out to two different patch reefs. We got our clipboards, transect tape, and quadrats and started our data collection. 

Surprisingly, Anna and I were a lot faster today. In comparison to the first two days, we managed to stay afloat and communicate effectively with hand signals. As we were collecting, we were also trying to avoid getting stung by fire corals. I also came to terms that wounds are almost inevitable. I would swim around and another finger would randomly start feeling some sharp pain. Was it the crab, fire corals, or urchin? who knows! 

Anna signaling “corals” to me

While exploring the different patch reefs, we came across so many sponges! We saw Azure vase sponge, Ailochroria crassa, branching vase sponge, and red boring sponges! I want to highlight red boring sponges because they are literally embedded within corals. They compete with corals and cause a ring of dead corals where the corals and sponges meet. 

In the afternoon, we went to explore seagrass patches near the research station. Seagrass patches are good nurseries for animals, and it was shallow enough for us to swim around without fins. I was able to find a diadema skeleton and some chicken liver sponge. These sponges were scattered all over the seafloor, with some firmly attached onto seagrass. When we went back to the station, someone found what might be Aiolochrorio crassa, which is a lobe shaped sponge. 

me explaining types of sponges we found to the group PC: Dr. Shore

Of course, after we’ve examined them all, we scattered them back to the seagrass and called it a day! 

Brendan Wong

Glover’s Reef Marine Reserve, Belize


Day 10: Turns out, not all sponges live in a pineapple

today’s general agenda: morning land skeleton activity —> seagrass & patch reef exploration —> presentations! 

A way that biologists use to quantify and address questions about corals reefs is through using transects and quadrats. Basically, it is a measuring tape and a square! The idea is that you can lay down quadrats over a certain distance and make general observation about the reef. To practice these methods we were brought to a graveyard… a coral skeleton graveyard! Spoopy! 

We put on our imaginary goggle, pretended all the coral skeletons are live corals, and proceeded to counting them. We practiced using the transects and quadrats, and, while we were getting used to the techniques, I was actually fascinated by just how much coral skeletons there were. A lot of these coral skeletons may have eroded over time, but they generally still retained a defined shape. 

Anna and I counting corals PC: Dr. Solomon

In the afternoon, we once again headed out to the open water. This time, we are using the quadrats and transects to describe areas containing seagrass and algae. As a beginner in snorkeling, I tried my best trying to stay afloat, but I somehow keep getting water into my goggles. At one point, my goggles were entirely filled with water. Salty eyes! After being in the water for two hours and the last group to finish, Anna and I were completely exhausted. We, however, decided to celebrate by swimming to a nearby patch reef and observing coral reefs. Being able to see corals and an entire patch reef invigorated me, and I am more determined than ever to get better at snorkeling. 

Finally, the sponge-department, I present to branching vase sponges (Callyspongia vaginalis)! If you look closely, you will notice the ridges along the sponge. Sponges help filter water and recycle nutrients in the ocean, and they certainly do not live in a pineapple under the sea. 

branching vase sponges!

Brendan Wong

Glover’s Reef Marine Reserve, Belize


Day 9: AhhHhHhHhh!!

today’s general agenda: travel to Glover’s Reef —> Test snorkeling —> scavenger hunt —> presentations! 

On a scale from 1-10 with 10 being “I’M fREaKinG oUT aHHHH,” I think today was definitely an 8. 

After three long hours on the boat, we arrived at Glover’s Reef Research Station either a shade tanner or burnt. We got to meet Kenneth, the station manager, Annett and Jamel, our cooks, and Herbert and Javier, our guides. We also had the greatest pleasure of meeting CLIVUS, the water-less, composting toilet. Because the station is predominantly powered by wind and solar power, we had to be extra mindful of energy we consume.

Dr. Solomon and Dr. Shore on the boat ride to Glover’s Reef

Now that we’re at Glover’s, I have shifted gears and am now the “sponge” expert. Without much delay, we got suited up in our snorkel gear to test our gear and explore a nearby patch reef. Everything seemed fine until my gear started to malfunction. My snorkel tube would randomly close, preventing me from breathing smoothly. I was surprised how easy things can spiral downwards. I accidentally drank saltwater and I could feel myself get progressively more dehydrated. Luckily, we got back to shore and fixed my gear. In situations like these, I realized just how important it is is to remain calm.

Later today, we got to explore some coral colonies in shallow water. Sadly, I did not see any sponges today, but it was definitely exciting seeing corals for the first time. Moving forward, I am hopeful that my snorkeling experience will improve and there will be more sponges!

I counted 22 Anna’s. Introducing buddy pair Anna and Brendan. PC: Dr. Solomon

Brendan Wong

Glover’s Reef Marine Reserve, Belize


Day 8: Beyonce: “Okay ladies, let’s look at formations”

Today’s general agenda: leave Las Cuevas —> ATM Cave —> tropical education center —> Belize Zoo 

I am very tempted to use words like “amazing”, “incredible”, “jaw-dropping” to describe my experience today, but I think I should unpack my thoughts to give you a sense of why I am feeling exactly that way. Specifically, I am referring to our expedition into the Actun Tunichil Muknal (ATM) cave. 

As our pitstop between the rainforest and coral reef, we visited the ATM cave. Even before getting to the entrance of the cave, we had to cross three rivers. Certain parts of the cave required us wading in the shoulder-deep water and some climbing up tall, complex structures. 

I remember I audibly gasped as I looked at the cave formations all around me. When light is shone on these formations, they look like thousands of crystals all glistening back at you. At one point, I even lost a sense of where I was because I was merely taken aback by the view.

As we venture deeper into the cave, we got a better understanding of how caves play a role in Mayan culture. Historically, priests of mayan societies were in the caves performing rituals. Since we were the last group to explore the cave that day, we were able to switch off our lights and just listen to the cave. There was absolutely no light, so my eyes could not adjust to anything. We switched our lights back on, and one of us went missing! I’m just kidding- everyone got out of the cave unscathed. And the craziest thing of it all? Turns out, we only explored about 500m of the 5.3km cave.

Unfortunately, we were not able to document anything with cameras, so hopefully you have been well convinced to go explore the cave yourself. 

lunch at 2:40pm after a 3 hour cave expedition
night zoo with a boa constrictor

Brendan Wong

Belmopan, Belize


Day 7: chant with me: ants! ants! ants!

Today’s general agenda: retrieve camera traps —> finish poster for project mutualism —> check out leafcutter ant colonies —> look at camera trap photos 

Here’s a missed opportunity: Ant-Man should really be Ant-woman instead

Did you know that if you see an ant on the ground, you are most likely observing a female worker ant? These ants are infertile ants that do many important tasks to keep the colony up and running. Male ants only appear during mating season. Today was definitely another fruitful day in the ant department.  In the early afternoon, we got to make a poster and present on our project focused on Azteca ants and their mutualistic relationship with Cecropia tree. We found that, on average, uncolonized trees have tougher leaves, meaning they are less likely to be eaten by herbivores. However, we definitely need more data to validate our results.

In the late afternoon, Dr. Solomon, the actual ant-expert, took us around the research station to compare leafcutter ant colonies of different ages.  We were specifically looking at colonies of A. cephalotes. These colonies can have millions of individuals residing in them, and they can be seen as one of the earliest farmers.These ants collect leaves to grow fungus, and the fungus is then fed to ant larvae. When aggravated, these ants can use their sharp mandibles and actually chew through rubber boots. It was a surreal experience getting to observe what I have been researching in preparation for the trip. 

leafcutter ant soldier!

As our grand finale for the rainforest, we all sat in the classroom to look at the photos the camera traps took over the course of the five days we were in Las Cuevas. We were all on the edge of our seats because we just were not sure what to expect. I think we can all agree that the best picture that was taken was of a tapir walking on the path. On that note, I think we are all ready to further explore Belize and head to the coral reefs. 

camera trap viewing party! It’s a tapir!
unidentified male captured by camera trap

As a mid-trip reflection, I am already amazed by how much we have learnt in such short amount of time. Even though I was initially worried about having minimal internet access, I think the disconnection allowed us to be fully immersed in our environment. I 

Brendan Wong

Las Cuevas, Belize