All posts by ckb3

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

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

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

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

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

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

Day 15: Pilot Dad Part II

We had breakfast half an hour early this morning so we could leave Glover’s to head home. The cooks were super nice and besides making amazing food earlier than normal, they made us this delicious cinnamon cake to take on the way.

We got on the boat and left with all our stuff by 7. Our first stop was Carrie Bow Cay, a small island that has a field station run by the Smithsonian. We found a few Caribbean hermit crabs while there. There was a team of scientists there from Nova University. They were studying how staghorn and elkhorn coral hybrids are more resistant to heat. The professor who was there, Nicky Fogarty, talked to us about how she got permission to do research on the island and what changes she’d seen in the coral over the past few years (surprisingly not many) and then showed us the corals her team was testing. It was really cool to see another research station as well as some “actual scientist” studying reefs.

Our next stop was the mangroves of Twin Caye. We got out of our boat and snorkeled around for about thirty minutes. At first, it seemed like the mangroves didn’t have much going on besides algae, fire sponges, and small silver fish, but as we swam along the edge of the mangrove forest, I began to notice more and more colorful fish like we’d been seeing in the reef. The mangroves act as a nursery for some young fish. They’re a great place to hide out, grow, and avoid predators. The benthos around the mangroves was super mucky and full of dead leaves and algae, which makes both good material to hide among and good food.

After the mangroves, we rode the rest of the way back to Belize city. I took a long nap on the boat ride back which was nice, finally catching up on a little sleep. We ate lunch at a place called Calypso at the dock and then headed to the airport.

As we were walking out to the airplane that was taking us home, I was saying “I don’t think my dad is flying us home, but I’ve got this feeling in my gut…” I looked up at the cockpit and saw one of the pilots smiling and waving at me. I didn’t recognize him though, but as we walked past the first door, heading to the back door where everyone was loading into the plane, I saw my dad excitedly waving from just outside the cockpit. I smiled big at him as I got on the plane. One of the flight attendants came to say hi to me and tell me they’d been hearing all about me since they left Houston. My dad made an announcement about bringing us home on the speakers before the flight left. The weirdest part about the flight was not being near everyone else and hearing the constant banter, time to merge back into my normal culture I suppose.

When we got out of customs we all hugged and took pictures and said goodbye before heading our separate ways to get home. My dad and I flew back to Dallas and I finally got to sleep in my own bed again. I had a great Belizean adventure, made great friends, and learned a ton about field research. It was a great time and an experience I’m going to remember forever.

Day 14: Crab Jail and Meditation

This morning was super slow. After breakfast, we had a few hours to just chill while the 7 lionfish Scott had speared over the course of the week thawed. I probably should have written blogs, but instead, I took a nice nap on one of the hammocks.

Around 9, the lionfish we caught were ready to be dissected. Veronica and I worked with the largest one. It weighed 1.3 pounds and was over a foot long.

Lionfish are an invasive species in the Atlantic. They’re native to the Pacific ocean but were released into the Atlantic where they quickly began eating everything while having no natural predators. After weighing them and measuring their body length, the first part of the dissection involved removing the fish’s 13 poisonous spines. We then measured their mouth size before cutting open its body cavity. Veronica and I were supposed to figure out the fish’s sex and identify stomach contents, but we were mostly confused by this giant hard white mass in the middle of its body.

After a bit of reading the manual and confusion, we figured it was probably the swim bladder and stabbed it so it would deflate. We could then see the entirety of its organs. We found that it was male and that it had a mostly decomposed fish 2 and a half inches long in its stomach (only slightly smaller than the smallest lionfish we found).

When we finished dissecting all the fish, Scott began filleting them to prepare a ceviche. A ceviche is a dish in which raw fish is effectively cooked with acid (from limes or lemons etc) and then basically served in a salad. The ceviche was delicious. We had removed an invasive species, collected scientific data, and had a tasty snack, which is a pretty solid trio in my opinion.

After lunch, some of the class went out snorkeling in the reef near the island, but Kristen, Ceyda, Andressa, and I stayed back and instead played with the hermit crabs. We decided to dig a hole and put a bunch of hermit crabs in it. It may have been a somewhat childish activity, but it was a pretty great time. We collected about 25 hermit crabs, mostly from under the solar panels where they seemed to like to hang out. It was really funny to see them continue to climb up the steep sand walls we had dug. They always went out upside down, with their shell above them. I think this climbing strategy made it easier for them to carry the weight of their shells while climbing a difficult slope. When they made it out (and we stopped pushing them back in), they quickly walked off in all directions directly away from us and we got ready for our last afternoon activity.

Around 3, we got on the boat for one of the last times to head to a resort on one of the adjacent islands. We got to spend a few hours hanging out at a nice beach resort like we were actually on vacation and not a class. I found a few small true crabs running around.

We left a t-shirt behind (my “rice owls give back” shirt) signed by everyone on the trip, as was tradition at this resort. We were sad to head back to the research station because we knew it was almost time to leave Belize.

We ended our last night by meditating with Scott out on the pier. We all sat in a big circle and Scott led us in 10 minutes of meditation. 

We then stayed up way too late chatting and admiring the ocean. Sadly we never got a cloudless night at glovers, but honestly, it didn’t really matter. I had a great night talking with everyone and even with a few of the guys stationed on the island for the Belizean coast guard. Overall, it was the perfect last day.

Day 13: I Have Recovered from my Crustacean Blindness

It was absolutely pouring this morning when we woke up. We had to wait out the rain and wound up doing our presentations in the morning. When the rain died down, we walked out to the fossil corals again as well as the mangroves to collect trash off the beeches. Honestly, it was pretty depressing. We were collecting data on what types of trash were on each side of the island and how much, but I definitely just wanted to clean the beach. There were so many bottles and shoes and random pieces of styrofoam; it was really sad. We found way more trash at the mangroves, but that was mostly because we were counting the number of pieces and the pieces at the mangroves were much smaller.

On a happier note, we spent the afternoon snorkeling through a few different reefs. There were way more fish than we’d seen at the other spots we visited. Scott found a big lobster just like yesterday and I could sorta see it, but it was definitely mostly just darkness, then he found two yellow arrow line crabs which I sorta saw the antennae also but didn’t really see. Scott accused me of crustacean blindness and made fun of me for being the only person on the trip who doesn’t need glasses (which is true, 20/20 vision for the win). Then I found my own yellow arrow line crab and was super excited.

We then saw a bunch more hermit crabs running around on the sand, one of them was in a huge conch shell.

I think one may have been another star eye crab, but I’m not sure. I also found a small yellowish shrimp that wasn’t in our reef creatures book and another Caribbean spiny lobster. I overcame my crustacean blindness!

We also saw a lot of other cool species swimming around. There were these red fish with giant black eyes that Andressa referred to as devil fish that are actually called squirrel fish.

We also found another lionfish that we’ll dissect tomorrow. The most exciting thing we saw was a giant nurse shark. It was just chilling on the bottom of the reef. It was maybe six feet long and absolutely beautiful. It had a water bottle tied to its fin though, which felt thematic, but also really sad.

We thought about trying to remove it, but we didn’t have anything to cut whatever it was tied with and we didn’t want to get too close to the shark.

Tonight we stayed up late to finish our poster on the trash and then to write our blogs and notebooks. This trip has been so great and I’ve loved getting to know all these people and spend so much time with them.

Day 12: Mantis Shrimp are Freaking Aggressive

We spent the whole morning analyzing our data from the coral and urchin stuff we did over the last two days. It was nice to just sit in a hammock staring out at the water that is an unnatural shade of blue and talk about data. I was actually dry for a few hours too which was pretty exciting. On most of this trip, I’ve either been in the water, getting rained on, or super sweaty.

In the afternoon we waded out to the reef that’s right next to the island. At first, it was super hot and disgusting because of the decomposing matter and the fact that our feet just went right into the ground respectively. But as we got out farther into the reef, it started to get cooler and we found super cool stuff. We picked up a ton of conchs, both alive and empty shells, tiny crabs, algae, and coral rubble. We brought everything back to the wet lab, where we have running ocean water, to get a better look at what we found. While we were still out collecting stuff we found a gigantic Caribbean spiny lobster. It was hiding under some coral. Scott spent at least 10 minutes trying to show it to me. I couldn’t see it because it was dark and because the lobster filled up literally the whole space and because apparently, I have crustacean blindness. When I finally saw it, I realized it was at least 3 feet long. It had long spindly antennae and stripy legs. On the way back to shore, we flipped over a piece of coral rubble and found 3 different lobsters. They skrted pretty quickly, but I think they were spiny spotted lobsters. There was one that was about 10 inches long, one that was 5 inches long, and one that was an inch and a half long. They looked like they might have been shrimp, but I knew they were lobster because of their thick antennae. In the tropics, you don’t find lobsters with the big claws like the ones in the supermarket, instead, they all have large antennae, either thick and spiny or wide and flat.

We had SO MANY CRUSTACEANS in the stuff we collected. We got a star eye hermit crab, whose eyes were gorgeous, and a white speckled hermit crab, who had slightly less gorgeous eyes.

There were a ton of crabs. Most of them were small green red ridged clinging crab, as in they were green but their common name is the red ridged clinging crab (because common names are useless). There were also a few other crabs one of which I think may have been a furcate spider crab which is a decorator crab. It was sorta fuzzy which I think was various algae it had covered itself in. We also had three tiny (<1cm) shrimp. One of them was a bumblebee shrimp which was kinda squat and covered in black and white stripes. I wasn’t able to ID the other two, one was super transparent and I have no clue what it was. The other had red and white striped arms and I think it was a sea anemone shrimp, but there are lots of small shrimp with red and white arms. There were a ton of tiny hermit crabs that I couldn’t identify too.

The most interesting thing that we found, I would argue, was a common mantis shrimp. It was about an inch and a half long. Mantis shrimp are known for either punching or spearing their prey. The common mantis shrimp is a spearing mantis shrimp so it has really sharp arms it can use to stab shrimp and what not. It would spend most of its time hiding under the large hermit crabs. But whenever it was disturbed, it would sometimes run up to one of the crabs and start attacking it. You could hear the pop as it punched the crabs with its arms and the crabs would totally freak out. I was showing all my crustaceans to the coast guard guys who are on this island with us and they thought the mantis shrimp was really cool. I really enjoyed teaching all these guys about the crustaceans that live in the ocean that is basically their backyard. I want to go into science communication and getting to talk to these guys about the crustaceans was a really cool chance to do it a little. There was a little bit of a language barrier, but I still got to show them the mantis shrimp and how violent it was and how beautiful the hermit crabs were and how pinchy the tiny crabs were.

Day 11: Crab Derby

We started the day by going out on the boat to look at the outer reef. We spent all morning swimming around looking at the fore reef (without collecting data) which is outside the lagoon. We saw an eel, a few stingrays, lots of fish and lots of coral. It was really cool to see all the life. Scott caught a lionfish which is invasive here. We’re going to get to dissect and eat it later which I’m super excited about.

This afternoon was spent collecting sea urchins to estimate reef health in and outside of the protected zone. We found a bunch of a few different types, mostly reef urchins, slate pencil urchins, and black sea urchins. We timed how long we were looking for urchins to keep constant how many we were collecting. At the very end of time for the patch reef inside the protected area, I found an east indies sea egg.

It was 9.2 cm in diameter, two to three times the size of the other urchins. It had white spines and a black body. Its spines moved so beautifully when I picked it up and it stuck to me with its tube feet. I named it Jerry and it is my patronus. We took so many pictures with the urchins and the brittle stars we picked up. They were beautiful and cute and surprisingly friendly despite their spines. It’s really sad to think we may be the last generation to see the reefs like this.

We finished the day by spending a lot of time with my taxon (crustaceans). In the afternoon I saw a blue land hermit crab on top of a bush which was really startling. I’m sure it just climbed up through the branches, but anywhere off the ground still isn’t where crabs belong in my head.

After lectures, everyone went and found hermit crabs to race. We’ve been talking about doing a crab derby for days and it finally happened. Elena and I grabbed blue land crabs while everyone else grabbed hermit crabs from the compost area. We drew two lines in the sand and then let all the crabs go. Lots of the hermit cabs never moved or started walking in the wrong direction, but quite a few actually mored along in the race. Elena’s blue land crab, Rihanna, was way faster than all the other crabs, but it walked off the course and then hid under a building.

My crab, Angus, disappeared into the night. But three of the hermit crabs had a pretty neck and neck race to the finish line. Sami’s crab Alejandro ended up winning; we rewarded him with coconut. Every night we’ve been here it’s been stormy, which has looked pretty cool, but I really want to see the stars out here. I’ve heard (from previous TFBs) that you can see the milky way out here which would be really cool. Regardless, today was a pretty great day.

Day 10: I Miss Adrienne

This morning started with breakfast, which was a nice change from birdwatching. Breakfast was delicious. All the cooks we’ve had on this trip have been great.

We then started practicing using our quadrats and transect tape (PVC pipe and rope grids and measuring tape). We first used them on land to measure leaf cover (at first we were going to measure crab holes, which there are a ton of, but they were all off the path, they’re mostly used by blue land crabs).

Next, we practiced in the nearby seagrass measuring the benthos (the ground, but underwater) cover of worm sand mounds. I found a few mangrove tree crabs on the posts of the dock which aren’t mangroves obviously but are effectively pretty similar when you’re a crab.

After lunch, we went to the fossil coral graveyard. There were just mounds of fossilized corral everywhere that we tried to identify. It’s crazy that these fossilized corrals that are millions of years old are still identifiable as species. This spot is supposed to be Adrienne’s favorite, so we were all really sad she wasn’t there. Scott did try to channel Adrienne today, but I think he only got to saying benthos about 4 times instead of the 7-sometimes we predicted Adrienne would say it.

We later went out to a patch reef farther away from our island. We used the transect tap and quadrat to measure the cover of live hard corals within a protected area and then outside of it. We got to see a much of cool fish, an eel, a few squids, one of which was maybe an inch and a half long and so cute, some sea urchins, a sea cucumber, but sadly no crustaceans. I think they were probably all under the corals where I couldn’t quite see or hiding in plain sight like decorator crabs.

After all our snorkeling, one of the coast guard guys gave us some fresh coconuts that were amazing. I ground up the inside with this fancy coconut grinder after drinking all the juice. I then discovered that the hermit crabs eat coconut. They were all hanging by the coconut grinder. When I gave them coconut they would get super possessive and aggressive towards the other crabs, then put the meat gently in the mouths.

I meant to post all these blog posts today, but the internet was out this morning because of the big storm we had last night. Then this evening, the internet was out again so apparently, I’m back to extremely late blog posts. In other news, I didn’t get burned by the sun today!

Day 9: Under the Shade I Flourish

We left the Tropical Education center early this morning to head to Glover’s Reef. When we arrived on the coast, we got on a boat to ride out to Glover’s. The view from the boat was spectacular. I loved seeing the islands slip away into the horizon. 

We arrived at the station in time for lunch (which was delicious) and then immediately went snorkeling. We saw lots of great creatures and it was cool snorkeling for the (mostly) first time. (I think I’ve been snorkeling before, but I don’t really remember it.) Of course, now, I get to become an expert. We saw a baby nurse shark, lots of corals and fish, some conch shells with the conchs in them, and a Caribbean spiny lobster. The lobster (my taxon now is crustaceans) was hiding under some coral, we were able to spot it because of its long spiny antennae.

I definitely had a few sunburn spots when we got out of the water. There always seem to be a few spots you failed to apply sunscreen. It’s also pretty hot here, along with the bright sun. I’m definitely feeling the phrase on the Belize flag “Sub Umbra Floreo” (which my brother would despise the presence of, btw good luck on your AP test bro) but I’m excited to get out in the water and do some research.

Back on the island, we found a ton of Caribbean hermit crabs.

We decided to name them all George. Their size range was incredible: from the size of a fingernail to just over the size of a fist. There were also a bunch of other small crabs hiding in holes along the pathways. I think they may be blue land crabs. We definitely did see one big blue land crab. It was hiding under a log and had a slight blue tint identical to the pictures I found online

Day 8: The Cave of the Stone Sepulcher

We got up early this morning to leave Las Cuevas. It was really cool to hear the earlier birds since we were up earlier than we had been for birding. We drove out of Las Cuevas around 6:30 to head to ATM cave. Along the drive, we saw some cormorants on a river we crossed, last birds for my taxon on the trip! ATM is the shortened Mayan name for the cave, Actun Tunichil Muchnal It’s this super amazing cave that has a lot of Mayan artifacts and preserved skeletons.Image result for crystal maiden atm

You can’t bring cameras in, so I have an excuse for not having pictures. It was really cool to do ATM because I did it last year with my family. I was going through the cave with everyone else and I was definitely less surprised as we went along, but I still really enjoyed the adventure. It’s lots of fun to climb across rocks in the dark in cold mountain water and see dead people apparently.

After ATM, we drove to the tropical education center where we stayed the night and also took warm showers which were amazing. I definitely missed having hot water to wash with. Also, we have internet here. It was simultaneously nice and annoying to be able to access the internet again, it’s definitely been nice to be completely unplugged, especially because we’ve been busy enough not to feel bored without it.

The last thing we did today was a night tour of the Belize Zoo. This zoo is unlike any American zoo. You can touch and feed a lot of the animals and generally get way closer to them. I got to feed a tapir which was awesome. I love their big awkward trunk noses. We also saw a spectacled owl and a ferruginous owl. The ferruginous owl was so tiny, maybe only a hand length long, which I didn’t realize despite their being on my taxon sheet.

Tomorrow we’re heading to Glover’s Reef early again. Time for team surf and the infinite struggle to avoid sunburn.

Day 7: Resurrected Hatchlings and Magic Cameras

We didn’t go bird watching this morning so I didn’t see very many birds in the morning. Instead, we got up early and hiked to the bird tower. The climb was tough but definitely worth. When we climbed the tower, we could see the clouds rolling across the mountains and the sun shining across the forest. There were no man-made structures beyond our research station in any direction which was a really crazy thing to realize.

We spent the rest of the morning collecting camera traps. The hike was long, but not nearly as long as it felt the first day. Along the way I kept smelling Hemipterans, I definitely learned their weird licorice-cyanide scent from the bugs I found before. We were able to collect them all by lunch. In the afternoon we caught up on our journals and blogs. I noticed a plumbeous kite building a nest up in the main tree which was interesting. It kept returning to this one Y in the branches with dead sticks.

I also watched the nest in the satellite some more. I thought that the sulfur breasted flycatcher was coming to the nest without food and sticking its head in with no response to the babies. I was skeptical of what was going on, so I walked around the satellite to the side you could see into, not the one where the birds were entering, and couldn’t see any of the hatchlings. I assumed the sulfur breasted flycatcher had eaten them, although that seemed strange based on its name. But then I was watching the nest some more and, contrary to what I previously thought, the sulfur breasted flycatcher brought something and then the babies started squawking. This was shortly followed by the slaty ant wren bringing something and the babies squawking. It now seems clear that both these species are feeding the antwren babies, but I’m still very confused. On the bright side, the hatchlings aren’t dead.

In the afternoon, Scott took us out to see fungus chambers of leaf-cutter ant nests. We started with a one-year-old nest and with a bit of work digging found a small ball of fungus and the queen. I was surprised to realize that the fungus chambers are three dimensional, which makes sense, I just wasn’t expecting it. I was amazed to see how large the queen was. She was huge and it was impossible to imagine that she could live for 25 years with her colony just producing eggs. We followed the one-year-old nest with the ginormous 20ish-year-old nest that we found while placing our camera traps. We dug for a long time, but the ants barely seemed to respond. We eventually hit some chambers, but they weren’t fungus chambers. They were trash chambers filled with beetle larvae and dead fungus. It was really strange and surprisingly warm and Scott was amazed that it was so high up. Normally trash chambers are deeper beneath the colony.

We finished our last evening here at Las Cuevas looking at our camera trap photos. With the very first camera we opened we found a tapir, which we all screamed and gasped at.

But the picture that took the cake was the next one, a jaguar.

We were so startled to see the perfect side picture of a jaguar walking down the trail right next to our camera trap. We also wound up catching a bunch of peccaries, a puma, a second Jaguar, a nine-banded armadillo, a rice mouse, and a coatimundi. We also caught a few Great Currasows (my taxon!).

The species variety and picture quality were crazy. We were surprised to notice the same richness at both our on and off trail camera traps, but a much higher abundance at our on trail traps. My theory is that trails feature animals that are easier to catch on camera traps. As a result, I think we caught most of the species generally found on the trails, however, I think we caught very few of the species living off trail. I think if we left the traps out longer we would wind up with a higher abundance on trail but a higher diversity off trail because the animals that choose to use the trail are mostly the large mammals of which there aren’t many species. We’ll never really know the answer though because tomorrow mornings (5AM) we get up and leave for Glovers Reef! Goodbye turf, hello surf.