I’m sitting at the back of the dorm building in the perfect temperature, listening to the sounds of scarlet macaws and watching everything turn a misty gold as evening rolls in. I love fieldwork.
Day 6 proved another successful day for mammal spotting. During another early morning walk, we spotted coatimundis just off the trail. At least two individuals were climbing and jumping through the trees, sometimes at spectacular heights. After some careful observation, we also noticed some Central American spider monkeys in a tree a bit further away. The monkeys seemed to be foraging, and their somewhat trill calls could be heard if we listened closely. We also heard Mexican black howler monkeys very close by, but did not see them. I swear that they’re taunting me.
While we spent a lot of time indoors today, we also learned a lot about scientific practice. After collecting the urine and water pit fall traps that had been set up yesterday, we sorted through the arthropods collected in them. I found many species of ants, a spider, a cricket, and a roach. We then calculated the numbers of species and individuals in urine versus water traps in both the canopy and on the forest floor. Depending on the statistical tests used, we got different results as to which community sought out the nitrogen-rich urine more. This demonstrates the importance of choosing the correct statistical metrics when analyzing data.
We are also doing a lot of lectures today in order to open up time when we head to the Belize Zoo in two days. Tonight, we will have a presentation by one of the researchers stationed here at Las Cuevas who is studying jaguars. I am really excited to meet her and hear about her work! We are also going to take a night hike later in the night. I’m hoping to see some mammals on this trek (or at least some eye shines), as many species are nocturnal.
Today was the best day at Las Cuevas thus far. In comparison to most other days, I saw many mammals today of various new species. The most exciting viewing occurred at the very beginning of the day, during an early morning walk in the forest. As I neared the entrance to the research station clearing, a tayra (type of weasel) walked across the path about 15 to 20 meters ahead. The tayra looked very typical, with a dark brown body, paler head, and yellowish chest patch. Upon seeing me, the animal raised its tail and began to growl softly. After taking a few steps forward, it calmly decided that I was not worth its time and walked off into the forest. Amazing!
We had a few other mammal encounters today. As has occurred the last few days, we heard Mexican black howler monkeys from the research station. Today, the howling was more frequent and louder. I’m hoping that this means that we can actually find them in the forest soon.
Additionally, we saw two species of bats when we visited the Las Cuevas caves. The nine-chamber system used to be an ancient Mayan ritual site, as can be seen by the built structures and pottery sherds (sherds for pottery, shards for glass, as I learned today). While crawling through the caves, we came across a small group of wrinkle-faced bats roosting in the cave ceiling. In another chamber, we saw a larger group of what were likely gray fruit bats hanging upside down from the ceiling. The high-pitched sounds made by these animals was really cool to experience.
We also started another project today that we will conclude tomorrow. We set up vials of urine (produced locally) and water (as a control) as pit-fall traps for insects and other arthropods. We put half of these in trees and half in the ground to test whether tree species are more attracted to the nitrogen-rich urine due to nitrogen limitation in the canopy. Hopefully we’ll catch some cool creatures overnight!
Finally, one of tonight’s lectures was given by Boris Arevalo, a biologist for Friends for Conservation and Development. He discussed the various challenges and opportunities associated with the Chiquibul forest, and how conservation involves an understanding of social, political, and ecological issues. I found this very fascinating, especially as he discussed the delicate situation between Guatemala and Belize at the border. I look forward to hearing more from other researchers here at the station tomorrow!
Today was all about ants! The day started with the developing and testing of hypotheses regarding the Cecropia tree and the Azteca ants. Azteca ants live in Cecropia trees, providing protection for the tree against herbivory. However, young Cecropia trees do not yet have these ant symbionts, so we looked at how these juveniles might avoid herbivory without their ant defenders. In the afternoon, we learned about leafcutter ants by digging up three ant nests at different stages. The first was about a year old colony, the second about 5 years, and the third at least 10 years of age. Learning about these ant societies was really interesting, as they effectively function as one super-organism.
Evidence of two species of mammals was definitely observed today. On our way back from the final leafcutter ant nest, we heard Mexican black howler monkeys from afar. However, the howling got significantly louder over the next half hour. We guess that the primates were likely about 100 meters from us at their closest proximity. I loved standing in the forest when some others had moved ahead, just listening to the roars of the howlers. We also saw a wrinkle-faced bat after dinner that had been caught in a mist net by another group at the station. The bat was much smaller than would be expected, and had a pug-like face. Some other animal sightings included army ants and a tree frog (on my clothing that was hanging to dry!).
I also gave my first presentation today on cave life. I’m very excited to put this knowledge to practice tomorrow in the caves! Hopefully we will see many more bats and other specialized cave species.
Day 3 gave us all a true sense of what hard-core field work is like. The entire day was spent hiking through the forest to set up camera traps. Half of the hike was relatively flat, while the other half was filled with steep ups and downs. Overall, we trekked well over 13 miles.
Before heading out on the trails, we had to decide what we wanted to test using the camera traps. By placing camera traps on both human roads/trails and in naturally open areas, we can explore the differences in species composition and richness along man-made pathways and natural areas. This may demonstrate the effects of human interference on these species measures in the Chiquibul.
We saw no mammals on the hike, which was a bit disappointing but not surprising. As a group of 16 tromping through the forest during the dry season, we make quite a bit of noise, and thus animals can move out of sight long before we arrive. In addition, many mammals are most active at dawn, dusk, or night, and thus spotting mammals during day hikes will be more difficult. I am hoping that we will see at least some mammals during night hikes, in the mornings, or in camera trap images. Some animals that we did see included a plumbeous kite, scarlet macaws, morpho butterflies, and nymphs of an unknown bug species.
I had some crazy mishaps during today’s activities. I must have sat on a congregation of ticks at some point during the hike because I was covered in them. Thankfully, not many had actually bitten me, though the ones that had were relatively difficult to find! Then, once we had returned for the day, I discovered a large red rash going down both my legs. We think it’s just heat rash or something similar, as I feel fine otherwise and it isn’t really painful, but definitely counts as a bit of a mishap!
Today the remoteness of the trip has begun to feel amazingly real. We’ve seen Mayan temples in the jungle and animals abound, despite the fact that we haven’t even really gone looking for them yet. Some fantastic non-mammal sightings included a blue-crowned motmot, a great black hawk, oropendola, and a slender brown scorpion (in a bathroom, unfortunately).
Today’s main activity was a visit to the Mayan ruins at Caracol. Caracol was once assumed to be a smaller city dominated by other Mayan powers such as Tikal. However, it is now known that Caracol was actually a large metropolis supporting somewhere around 150,000 people. Caracol was designed like a wagon wheel, with a main center and road “spokes” leading to the more rural agricultural areas. Most of the pyramids were used for religious rituals, as was the case with Caana, the sky palace that we climbed. After 1100 AD Caracol had collapsed, but the Maya people still live in Mesoamerica. It is amazing to me how many different kinds of people live in this part of the world. Mayans and other natives share the land with people of European or African ancestry, and further divides are made as people are sorted into nationalities (Guatemalan, Belizean, Mexican). It is perhaps no wonder that tensions between peoples at times run high.
Today also marked the first wild mammal sightings of the trip! During breakfast (6am…), we spotted a Yucatan squirrel in a nearby tree. Some other students may also have seen an agouti, though I was not able to see or identify it reliably. Later, on the road to Caracol, a coatimundi was spotted travelling on the side of the road. Although I had to jump over some seats in the van to get a glimpse of the coati, it was well worth the effort. The coati was a brown-red with characteristic white rings on its erect tail. At Caracol, some other tourists reported a Mexican black howler monkey sighting, though we did not see any signs of the primates.
Some of the mishaps of the day included lunch drinks breaking in the cooler and a van break down. After Caracol, the plan was to visit some pools and waterfalls for a refreshing swim. However, it was not to be as our van was forced to quit due to lack of transmission fuel and oil. Luckily, we were not too far from Las Cuevas Research Station (where we will be staying until we leave for the coral reef) and we were able to improvise with some pick-up trucks. In true TFB (Tropical Field Biologist) fashion, a bunch of us piled into the bed of a truck and had a fun ride into the beautiful wilderness!
Day 1 has been quite the bumpy ride, both literally and figuratively, but a blast all the same. After getting through security at Hobby Airport, we found no water and no food due to a water main break! The quick flight to Belize City was relatively smooth, until the very rough landing. And then it was into a van for two and a half hours, down some bumpy roads to the Crystal Paradise Resort.
We had a few wildlife sightings today, though none were wild mammals. At a convenience store stop we saw an egret overhead and house geckos near lights. At dinner (a wonderful meal prepared at the lodge), we saw huge cicadas and a cockroach or two. Later in the night, we accidentally stepped on the path of some leaf cutter ants carrying bright green leaves. We also saw a boa constrictor in a tree branch right next to the main lodge area, which was fantastic to see up close.
In terms of mammals, we did see some livestock, horses, and dogs throughout the car ride. I’m looking forward to spotting more wild species once we are deeper in the forest, and once we can utilize the camera traps. These domestic mammals were part of a landscape of karstic hills and underdeveloped communities, as poverty seemed to be common. The forest also looks somewhat starved of water due to many months of dry season.
Overall, what an amazing day. I’m soaking up as much information as I can, but there just aren’t enough hours in the day to see it all!
After a year and a half of wanting to travel to Belize on this trip, it’s finally almost here. With the past week of frantic packing and last-minute assignment completions, I’ve barely had time to contemplate what it has all been for. Belize will be my first real field experience, and will hopefully start me on the path to becoming a competent field biologist and conservationist.
I’ve visited the true tropics only once, on a family trip to Guatemala in middle school. Perhaps my most unique animal experience comes from that trip: a group of Mexican black howler monkeys hanging feet from our faces, hooting with incredible volume. On this trip, I’m hoping that I’ll get to see this species again, along with as many other species as possible. While I know seeing wild cats is extremely rare, I sincerely hope we can at least catch some with the camera traps that we will be using. A jaguar would be incredible, but any of the other felid species would be amazing to see as well!
I am really looking forward to learning more about how coral reefs function, and I expect that my very limited knowledge will increase greatly in the second week of this trip. I am a little nervous about swimming in fins for such long periods of time (especially since my feet tend to cramp), but I am looking forward to learning how to deal with any sort of mishap in the field!
After getting all my gear, packing tons of bug spray, and doing hours of research, I expect to be tired, dirty, and unbelievably happy on this trip!