All posts by Maya

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

Return to Civilization

Smithsonian research station at Carrie Bow Caye.

Our final day in Belize dawned bright and early, as always. With sandwiches and snorkels in hand, we said our final goodbyes to the palm trees and composting toilets of Glover’s Reef and made our way out of the atoll. Our first stop before Belize City was Carrie Bow Caye, a Smithsonian research facility housed on a speck of an island in the Caribbean. We were able to meet a crab researcher that’s been studying the incredible diversity of Belizean reefs for over 30 years at Carrie Bow.

We then stopped at Twin Caye, an aptly named mangrove island that’s split in two by a channel. We first walked and then snorkeled through the muggy mangroves, carefully picking our way through their stilted roots. Mangroves may just look like odd trees from above the surface, but underwater they’re an important habitat for sponges and act as fish nurseries. I wasn’t able to identify any herbivorous fish species, but the mangrove roots were swarming with tiny juvenile fish for this reason. I even saw an adorable baby barracuda! (I think this trip has given me a new definition for cute).

And with that, we were off to the marina in Belize City. After an incredibly long lunch at the infamous Calypso restaurant, we made our way to the airport. Before I knew it, we were waving goodbye to this beautiful country, several bottles of hot sauce heavier than when we arrived.

So Long, Glover’s

Doctorfish (Acanthurus chirurgus).

Our time in Belize has nearly run its course, and while I’m excited at the prospect of a hot shower, I can’t believe how quickly two weeks have passed. For our final day at Glover’s Reef,
we set out to find as much diversity as possible in the back reef close to the shore of Middle Caye. In my final snorkel here, I found a
huge number of herbivorous fish. Ocean surgeonfish (Acanthurus bahianus) and doctorfish (Acanthurus chirurgus) swam right past me in pairs and groups, and I found an abundance of cocoa damselfish (Stegastes variabilis) in between the corals. I also saw several French angelfish (Pomacanthus paru), a large black and yellow fish that feeds on algae, as well as some invertebrates.

Cocoa damselfish (Stegastes variabilis).

We also collected a number of species from the shallow seagrass beds by the shoreline and sorted them by taxonomic group. Using just nets, we were able to catch two yellowtail damselfish (Chrysiptera parasema) and another fish that I believe was a species of goby. We ended the morning by presenting a colorful array of macroalgae, echinoderms, jellyfish, and mollusks.

 The afternoon’s activity was our long-awaited lionfish dissection. We were only able to capture four specimens of the invasive species, but each one was dismembered and analyzed by its stomach contents. Hopefully, the more we can learn about the lionfish, the better we can manage its invasion of the Caribbean.

For the perfect ending to our last day on the reef, we visited Southwest Caye, another island inside of the atoll. From the comfort of the dock, I watched the sun set on my Belizean adventure (at least for the time being).

The Professor Who Cried Mosquito

Ocean view of “mangroves of death.”

It sure is one thing to learn about conservation, but seeing it in action is a whole other story. And this morning’s experiment was really all about doing conservation. After learning about marine debris, we spent the morning on a task that was part data collection and part beach cleanup. In just an hour, we picked up an incredible 90 pounds of trash. But the real kicker is that the same beach is cleaned every week, so everything we collected today had accumulated in just one week. Talk about mass consumerism.


In the afternoon, we tackled the much-awaited “mangroves of death.” Prepared by horror stories of mosquito clouds in years past, we were ready to sprint through the mangroves, snorkel and all. But our mangrove run turned into a leisurely stroll, as we encountered a total of zero bugs. A classic case of the professor that cried mosquito. 


After our safe passage, we said a tearful goodbye to our quadrats with one last coral experiment. We conducted our study on the back reef just beyond the island’s shoreline, where I saw much fewer herbivorous fish than on the patch reefs inside the atoll. The corals in this area seemed much more spread out and covered less area, which might explain the smaller number of fish.


To wrap up, we did our first night snorkel today. The reef is a whole other world at night; instead of seeing brightly colored parrotfish and small damselfish darting among the corals, I found a whole slew of other creatures. Some notable sightings included several huge spiny lobsters, a Nassau grouper, a yellow stingray, and several Caribbean reef squid. However, I did also find what looked like a blue tang surgeonfish (Acanthurus coeruleus); it had the characteristic spine on its caudal fin, but also had thick, vertical white stripes over its blue coloring.


To summarize, this is what I learned today: the ocean is filled with our trash; don’t use Styrofoam; and the reef is pretty damn cool in the dark.

Team Surf

Spotted eagleray.

I’ve come out of day 12 of this trip with a whole new appreciation for land. We leveled up on our boating expedition today by traveling outside the reef crest and the calm waters of the Glover’s Reef. The morning’s topic was reef zonation, so we ventured into the open ocean to check out the coral ecosystems beyond the atoll. In these deeper reefs, I saw a lot of larger herbivorous fish, especially terminal phase parrotfish. I was able to identify conspicuous males of the striped parrotfish (Scarus croicensis) and some female/primary male stoplight parrotfish (Sparisoma viride). But the real excitements of the morning were our carnivore sightings; we watched a giant spotted eagle ray fly across the benthos and a nurse shark glide through mountains of coral.

Nurse shark.

However, the choppy waves weren’t as appealing from the boat as they were on the reef. Thankfully every TFB came out of this experience unharmed, but I think a few of us might be jumping ship from team surf for the moment (sorry, Adrienne).

The afternoon’s snorkel was spent on back reef just in sight of the island, ending our boating adventures for the day. Though we couldn’t have been in more than 3 feet of water, the mix of seagrass and corals produced a scene reminiscent of Finding Nemo (sorry again, Adrienne). I swam right

Dusky damselfish (Stegastes fuscus).

past a whole school of ocean surgeonfish (Acanthurus bahianus) and found tons of small dusky damselfish (Stegastes fuscus) tending to their algae gardens. Since these reefs were much smaller, I didn’t see any large parrotfish here, but I did find a number of tiny juvenile striped parrotfish (Scarus croicensis)—these seem to be common on shallower reefs. But the primary objective on the back reef was spearing lionfish, an invasive species from the Indo-Pacific. We managed to collect quite a few specimens for studying (and cooking) later in the week.

All in all, today gave me a new appreciation for both the ocean’s beauty and the wonderful stability of turf.

Searchin’ for Urchins

Today we continued with our quadrat theme to look at stony corals inside Glover’s Reef Atoll. For our first boating expedition, we ventured to a marine protected area (MPA) to study the health of coral reefs. Our day was entirely dedicated to data collection, but I still found a huge amount of herbivorous fish hiding among the corals. The dusky damselfish (Stegastes fuscus) is definitely the most common, but all three species of damselfish mentioned in my last blog are very easy to find on the patch reefs. I also found several ocean surgeonfish (Acanthurus bahianus). Like all surgeonfish, this species has a scalpel-like spine on their tail used for slashing predators that’s fairly easy to see in the water.

Initial phase stoplight parrotfish (Sparisoma viride).

I also managed to find a red and brown stoplight parrotfish (Sparisoma viride) in what is known as its initial phase. Parrotfish are unique in that they can change their sex; initial phase parrotfish are either females or primary males. However, the large, conspicuously colored parrotfish are actually supermales, or females that later became males. Guess even fish can be transgender.

West Indian sea egg (urchin).

We also spent a good portion of the day collecting sea urchins to assess reef health. You can find urchins in all the nooks and crannies of a reef, but it turns out getting them out is the hard part. We managed to collect a fair number (sustaining only minor injuries) before measuring them and sorting them by species.

Each day on the reef, we learn about a different taxonomic group, adding them to our arsenal. It’s incredible how each presentation adds yet another dimension to my next visit to the reef. Two days ago, I wouldn’t have been able to tell you what Acropora cervicornis was, but now I’m able to spot it (both alive and dead) out on the reef.

And finally, we ended it all by laying on the dock under the stars. The ocean and sky merge together here, forming an infinite black canvas littered with pinpricks of light. Forgive me for the romance, but I might’ve even seen a shooting star. Isn’t it pretty to think so?

Quadrats and the Coral Graveyard

Our first day out on the reef started with a scavenger hunt. We search for all sorts of reef creatures and their various interactions on the patch reef just beyond the island. Many species of herbivorous fish feed on algae here; I was able to spot another blue tang surgeonfish and several species of damselfish. Damselfish can be seen patrolling their gardens, which are small patches of algae that they feed on. I found cocoa damselfish (Stegastes variabilis), dusky damselfish (Stegastes fuscus), and threespot damselfish (Stegastes planifrons). The patch reef also contained a number of initial phase striped parrotfish (Scarus croicensis) and even a brightly colored stoplight parrotfish (Sparisoma viride).

Mandy inspecting a carefully placed quadrat.

The real science started when we learned the art of using transects and quadrats to collect quantitative data on the reef. We began on land and then transitioned to an exploratory study of green algae (spoiler alert: we didn’t find any).

We finished the day with a visit to what can only be described as a coral graveyard. Coral skeletons litter the shore of Middle Caye, their polyps perfectly preserved due to mineralization. We studied the common reef species, using the dead corals to learn their morphologies and create a search image for the reef. Though I’ve visited reefs before, I’ve never been able to do much more than say that corals are colorful. Thanks to our grave digging adventure, I’m now able to appreciate the diversity of corals and might even be able to name some of them.

Sunset from Middle Caye.

And then, with a beautiful sunset in the background, our first day at the reef was done.

(Not So) Smooth Sailing

We spent our final night on land at the Belize Zoo’s Tropical Education Center, an oasis featuring hot showers (!!!) and plenty of wildlife. On my last day searching for reptiles, I was able to spot several green iguanas (Iguana iguana) and a striped basilisk (Basiliscus basiliscus) wandering near our rooms. Both iguanas were a mottled green color, likely because they were hiding amongst shrubs and trees; iguanas can change their coloration based on health, temperature, and even mood.

View of Princess Marina from the Calypso Restaurant.

From there, we began our amphibious transition at the Princess Marina in Belize City. We first sailed south over clear blue waters, protected from the open sea by Belize’s barrier reef. But the real journey began when we crossed the choppy waters of the reef crest to travel east towards Glover’s Reef Atoll. Who needs roller coasters when you have a boat in the middle of the Caribbean?

We took our first snorkel once we reached Middle Caye, the island where the research station is housed. I began looking for herbivorous fish (my taxon for the week) in the nearby patch reef and was able to find a blue tang surgeonfish (Acanthurus coeruleus) and a dusky damselfish (Stegastes fuscus). Both are common reef fish that feed on macroalgae growing on coral.

The laundry of Glover’s Reef Marine Reserve.

Now that our work for the day is done, I finally get to enjoy the ocean breeze from the comfort of a hammock under the stars. I don’t know what I was expecting here at Glover’s, but it sure wasn’t paradise.

Everything Goes Wrong (pt. 2)

Mishaps and miscommunication have become somewhat regular on this trip, and today’s adventure was no exception. We were supposed to say our forlorn goodbyes to Las Cuevas and the Chiquibul at 7am this morning and set off for a day of archaeological exploration at the ATM Cave near San Ignacio. But in true TFB fashion, absolutely nothing went according to plan.

After several hours of suspense, it became evident that our van was nowhere near Las Cuevas. Instead of wasting away the morning though, we learned about the fascinating conservation issues surrounding endangered scarlet macaws in the Chiquibul and enjoyed a surprisingly tasty lunch of peanut butter and cheese sandwiches (see me for more details on said sandwich). Our trustworthy van and driver arrived only 5 hours after its scheduled arrival, and so we set off by noon for our next caving experience.

Alas, my hopes of spelunking were dashed; we skipped the ATM cave and instead enjoyed an afternoon of wifi, souvenirs, and fresh fruit juices of the Orange Gallery. Despite our misadventures, our day ended with an incredible nocturnal tour of the Belize Zoo.

Morelet’s crocodile.

Among reptiles, we were shown both a Morelet’s crocodile (Crocodylus moreletii) and an American crocodile (Crocodylus acutus). The American crocodile was substantially larger and had a much longer snout, although both were definitely creatures to avoid in the dead of night. We were also able to see a boa constrictor (Boa constrictor), which paled in comparison to the boa we saw on day 1, as well as a Central American rattlesnake (Crotalus durissus) and a yellow-jawed tommygoff (Bothrops asper). Given that we didn’t find many of these species in the forest, this was a great opportunity to see them up close.

Ocelot jumping to catch meat.

And in case the reptiles weren’t charismatic enough, we also had the chance to see the different cat species found in Belize and a Baird’s tapir. If you were wondering, a hungry ocelot sounds a bit like an angry housecat, jaguars can be trained to do somersaults, and tapirs enjoy being fed carrots.

Adios, Las Cuevas

TFBs on the Monkey Tail Trail of the Chiquibul Forest.

Our final day at Las Cuevas began bright and early as always; we were out the door for our morning hike by 8am. We retraced our steps over 13 miles to collect our camera traps in record time, much more mentally prepared for the trail this time around. Though our picture count was low, we remained optimistic that our cameras had caught some animals (besides us). We also managed to spot what was most likely a Middle American ameiva (Ameiva festiva). I had never come across this lizard species before but was able to identify it using a field guide by its coloration. The lizard was about 12 cm long (which made it too long for an anole) and was a dark brown with white lines on its side broken into spots.

We had to wait until nightfall for the day’s real excitement: our camera trap analysis. The prospects seemed poor as we sifted through endless photos of ourselves or even of leaves flapping in the wind. But our first big find was a giant curassow, casually strolling past our camera in the middle of the road. Soon after, we discovered a picture of a Baird’s tapir, and the group cheered ecstatically at our first mammal sighting. Suspense rose as we tested the final camera; our expectations were low since it was placed in the center of a giant leaf-cutter ant nest. But to our surprise, the very last camera first held a photo of an indistinct rodent, which we guessed was an agouti. As we flipped through the final photos, the characteristic markings of a jungle cat suddenly appeared on the screen. Our final sighting was of an ocelot, one of the elusive large cat species of the Chiquibul.

Though our findings may have been few and far between, just the fact that we were able to capture such diverse species in four short days is incredible. And with that, a week in the Belizean rainforest is already done. Next stop: Glover’s Reef.