All posts by pjk4


The drop

May 30th, 2019

The tropical rainforest and the coral reef are two very biodiverse and seemingly opposite ecosystems; however, I’ve learned that they are quite similar.  One similarity is that both ecosystems are actually nutrient poor, however they are able to support a wide array of organisms through very efficient nutrient cycling. In the rainforest, the nutrient cycling is due to the rapid decomposition of leaf litter. In coral reefs, the nutrient cycling mainly happens in nearby mangroves.

Also, in both the tropical rainforest and coral reefs, there is a wealth of symbiotic relationships that help organisms flourish. For example, we learned about the Pseudomyrmex ants and their relationship with the Bullhorn Acacia. The ants defend the acacia, while the acacia provides shelter, carbohydrates, and protein. While in coral the skeleton provides shelter for Symbodinium, while the algae provide food for the coral.

Quite honestly, I don’t remember what my expectations were for the course as the start of it seems so long ago. From what I can remember, I took this course as an indicator to see if I would like doing reef fieldwork and to see if that’s what I would like to do post-graduation, which I can say I want to. What I didn’t consider was how much I would love doing fieldwork in the Chiquibul. I think my favorite part of the course was diving the fore reef. Being able to swim over and stare into the drop-off was just a surreal experience. I also loved the night hike and the night snorkel; the familiar trails and reefs looked very different in the dark and it was a chance to see a lot of predators out and about. I don’t really think I have a least favorite part of the course, except for running through the Mangroves of Death and getting over 50+ bug bites.

One thing that I learned that still haunts me almost is the fragility of both ecosystems and their vulnerability. Both the tropical rainforest and coral reefs rely on a careful balance, such as the balance of coral and macroalgae, and if that balance is interrupted both ecosystems can collapse. I also did not expect how difficult it would be to perform fieldwork underwater. Despite having to deal with wind, current, and the ever-present fire coral, the hardest part was communication. Yet despite the difficulties, I loved the reef fieldwork. Last but certainly not least, I learned that every day things that I take for granted are commodities not necessities. I ended up missing things like a well paved road or warm shower, things that I had never missed before.

Rainforest Mammals seen in the wild

Alouatta caraya

Ateles geoffroyi


Dasyprocta leporine (possibly)

Didelphis virginiana

Taprius bairdii (camera trap)

Puma concolor (possibly on camera trap)


Herbivorous reef fish


Acanthurus bahianus

Acanthurus coeruleus

Aacnthurus chirurgus

Stegastes planifrons

Abudefduf saxatilis

Stegastus fuscus

Stegastus partitus

Sparisoma viride

Stegastes leocostictus

Trash…a lot of it

May 27th, 2019


Today started off with probably the most crushing activity that we had done thus far, marine debris (trash) collection at different sites on the island. I chose to be in what we call the Coral Graveyard, a site that is on the windward side of the island near the open ocean. I expected to find a lot of trash, but what I saw just dumbfounded me. Even on an island 28 miles offshore, there’s still so much plastic, Styrofoam, and other things that accumulate on the shoreline. At the end of our collection time (which was only 30 minutes) we had filled a large trash bag to the brim and still saw so much trash that we didn’t pick up. I even found a hermit crab stuck in a bottle, completely out of its shell. It seemed like it was roasting alive in the bottle. Another group found a hermit crab using a plastic bit as its shell.

To lift spirits, we performed a lionfish (which is an invasive species) dissection after. The dissection was fun and very interesting. My group was able to sex our lionfish (which was an immature male), and cut open its stomach to examine the contents. Fortunately, our lionfish hadn’t had a meal recently. Lionfish are piscivorous and tend to eat small fish, which many herbivorous fish are. Since the lionfish has no predators in these reefs, they can reproduce quickly and thus eat more fish. If the herbivorous fish populations decrease too much, then macroalgae could overtake coral populations and outcompete them. This is why, as a little PSA, it’s important to not release your aquarium fish or other pets into the wild as they can become invasive species and can severely damage an ecosystem.

Some caught lionfish

Urchin Huntin

May 26, 2019

Possible urchin hiding spot?

Another good weather day, and another project to be done. Today we examined the difference in sea urchin community structure in and out of the marine protected zone. We decided to log the species, number of each species, and the size of individual urchins (via diameter of their round bodies called a test) at patch reefs in and outside the MPA. Our first stop was actually the MPA reef we went to on the first day. Each group was given a pair of tongs and picked a different direction to start in. We had 30 minutes to catch as many sea urchins, and as soon as Professor Solomon yelled “GO!” it was a mad dash to the coral. Scanning every nook and cranny took some time, but the urchin spines would eventually come into focus and you would have to squeeze your hand or tongs in the crevice to grab them. I grabbed several small Reef Urchins and a West Indian Sea Egg (an urchin with a large center and short white spines).


After logging the data, we released the urchins and it was onto the next site. The next site was out of the MPA, and had more Long Spined Urchins (have long black or white striped spines and are a little venomous). I also noticed a Bicolor Damselfish protecting its territory from me as I tried to un-lodge an urchin from the coral. It was quite colorful, with a yellow and black front half which fades to a white back half. This small fish, which can at max grow to a measly four inches in length, was trying to charge at me and chase me away from its patch of coral. It did not take too kindly to me trying to take a sea urchin from its home and kept flitting about, trying to get me to leave.


The day ended with a short night snorkel after dinner. Surprisingly, I felt no anxiety or trepidation when jumping into the dark water. The highlight of the night was a Spotted Eagle Ray gliding into view from the darkness. It was an eerie and ominous sight, as it seemed to just appear out of the dark. After swimming for a good while, we reached the patch reef and immediately saw multiple Spiny Lobsters out and about. There was a large trunkfish meandering across the sand, and what looked to be a Red Hare (snapper) sitting on the bottom.



A Doctor(fish)’s visit

May 25th, 2019


The weather was sunny with barely any wind, and after breakfast we hopped onto the boat to survey a protected site called the Aquarium. Upon arriving and getting into the water, I was struck by just the sheer amount of coral around me and all the fish that were swimming about. Our transect went smoothly and my group had time to explore. Almost immediately, I noticed all of herbivorous fish that were swimming about. I saw a school of blue tangs, a few stoplight parrotfish, and a new species that I haven’t mentioned in this blog…a Doctorfish! Doctorfish are a species of surgeonfish, so they have the caudal peduncle spine, and are usually grey with dark vertical stripes on its side. Doctorfish can also grow up to a foot in length. I also saw a few damselfish species, two of which were the Three Spot Damselfish and the Dusky Damselfish. Both, and all damselfish, are highly territorial and both of the individuals I saw of these species were actually chasing away blue tangs from their patch of reef. After exploring for a bit more, seeing a Yellow Stingray and a scorpionfish, we headed back to the boat to go and survey a site out of the protected area.

The ray


We actually had to vacate the first unprotected site we went to, due to the presence of a multitude of Moon Jellyfish, which can sting. Our 2nd site was a bit farther away and our survey went quite quickly as well. Although it was deeper at this site, it was a lot easier to work in due to having more separation from the coral. Unfortunately, I didn’t have time to swim around the site due to an incoming storm that we were trying to avoid.


After lunch, we traveled beyond the reef crest (out of the atoll) and dove the fore reef (where the drop off is). The drop off is itself is surreal, a coral wall that drops off into just pure navy blue. It was just absolutely awe-inspiring. After having my breath taken away by the drop off, we swam to a nearby reef and observed some of the differences between this deeper water reef and the shallow water ones we had surveyed earlier. I saw bigger parrotfish and taller corals. There also seemed to be more variety of organisms, ranging from eels to a nurse shark.


Herbivorous Fish Everywhere!

May 24th, 2019


Today we embarked on a lengthier project, measuring percent live coral cover in marine protected area reefs vs. reefs outside of them. After breakfast and a boat safety talk, we climbed into a whaler and travelled to our protected area reef. The weather was perfect for snorkeling, barely any wind and cloudy due to approaching rain.

Jumping into the water and swimming to the sandy center of the reef (where our groups met up), I already saw so many colorful corals with different little wrasses darting amongst them. I reeled out my groups transect line, swimming though different sea fans (a soft coral) and over top of the coral heads (careful to avoid the stinging fire coral). Swimming over the corals was just an amazing and surreal experience, seeing all the different colors in the crystal clear was breathtaking. After finishing our quadrats, we got a chance to swim around the reef and explore.


The reef was full of herbivorous fish. There were Blue Tang Surgeonfish, what species Dory is from Finding Nemo with their characteristic blue bodies and yellow caudal spines, munching on some algae that was in the coral. There were also a lot parrotfish swimming in and under the coral heads. A very prevalent species was the colorful Stoplight Parrotfish. Parrotfish are special in that they have two “phases” of coloring and can be hermaphroditic (can change sexes). The initial phase of the stoplight parrotfish has a red orange underbelly and speckled body scale. There were also terminal phase Stoplight Parrotfish, which have a green head and body with yellow scales at the base of the tail and have orange/red scales on their tail. They also have a pink strip near their pectoral fin. In both phases, Stoplight Parrotfish are quite spectacular, and often feed in groups so they are easy to see. I also saw more Ocean Surgeonfish and Three-spotted damselfish. I also saw an adult Dusky Damselfish swimming through the coral, with its brown/black coloration and its rounded, continuous dorsal fin.

A Stoplight Parrotfish
Stoplight Parrotfish (initial coloring)

After around fifteen minutes of swimming, we loaded onto the boat and went to the unprotected reef and performed the same task. Per usual, we ended the day with lectures.




The First of Many (quadrats)

May 23rd, 2019

So surprise, I figured out that I’m used to having breakfast at 6:00 am (we did most days at Las Cuevas) because I woke up at 6:34 and had a mini heart attack thinking that I was 34 minutes late to breakfast. After my initial panic, I got up for a good breakfast and we started the day in the classroom explaining transect techniques to use when underwater in conjunction with the quadrat (square grid made of pbc pipe and string). To practice, we went to a apart of the island that was littered with dead coral amongst other things, and tallied up the amount of coral vs. other.


After lunch, and waiting for the wind to calm down, we went into the water and swam to nearby seagrass beds to see if we could quantify community changes using quadrats. This involved counting the seagrass, algae, and neither. Once done, the group was asked if we wanted to swim to a patch reef so of course I immediately said yes. Upon approaching the reef, our instructor pointed out a brown Nurse Shark laying under an overhang. After snorkeling around for a but, I began to see some herbivorous fish. I saw a brown Ocean Surgeonfish swimming amongst the coral heads and a bright yellow, juvenile Three Spotted Damselfish, it has single spots on its dorsal, caudal, and tail fins. It looked like it was picking at some algae and seemed to stay on that coral head, which could mean it was tending to an algal garden although this is usually done by adults. It could have just been eating the algae.

Living the dream


We ended the day with presentations on echinoderms (sea stars, brittle stars, sea urchins, and sea cucumbers), red and green algae, and an overview of mangroves and their importance to coral reefs.


TFB and the Deathly Mangroves

May 22nd, 2019


Today we left The Tropical Education center to embark on our journey to Glover’s Reef, a world heritage site and atoll, off the coast of Belize. The boat ride was three hours and the scenery around us was breathtaking. The water color changed from the marina brown, to a seafoam green, to a pure aqua. As the land disappeared behind us and when we crossed a barrier reef, the water below turned a deep dark blue. Soon the reefs of Glover’s came into view along with the island we would be staying on, Middle Caye at a WCS marine research station. We dropped off our bags in our dorms and were given a tour of the station. After a short tour and a little talk about the composting toilets they have, each called Clivus, we ate lunch. The food was amazing and after that we went on a snorkel to test out our gear.


It was honesty great to be in the water again and the water was as warm as heated pool water. We were going to try and swim to a patch reef near island, but due to some equipment difficulties in the group we had to swim back to the dock. Even at/near the dock there were groups of yellowtail snapper, and some upside-down jellyfish. Thinking that the current would be less and the wind more or less null we traversed the “Mangroves of Death” to get to the leeward side of the island. The “Mangroves of Death” we soon found out are infested with mosquitoes and biting flies. Everyone ran through the mangroves, careful not to trip but fast enough to evade the mosquitoes, but it was to no avail. All of us ended up getting bit, myself getting upwards of 20 bites on my back. Once we reached the water, we shuffled through some sea grass and made looked at some very shallow coral beds. For this portion of the course I’m the expert on herbivorous fish, and I saw a couple species today. In essence, herbivorous fish are fish that eat algae or vegetation, however some of them can be omnivores. Today I saw what appeared to be a very small juvenile Dusky Damselfish. It has a white lower body and a bright orange body, complete with blue spots on its head. I also saw what appeared to be a small Ocean Surgeonfish, these fish eat the algae off coral and are bluish grey in color.


After that excursion, we made a mad dash through the death mangroves and eventually reached the station. We washed off our equipment with freshwater and after dinner, which consisted of tender chicken with rice and lemon pie, we ended the day with presentations on sponges, coral, and the different kinds of microbes in coral reefs.

A juveniel damselfish (beaugregory, juvenile)

Goodbye Las Cuevas!

May 21st, 2019

The last morning at Las Cuevas!!! It’s gone by so fast and the last session of bird watching did not disappoint. Four grey foxes appeared out of the clearing, what appeared to be two adults with their kits. The kits were chasing each other and ran down the trail with one parent romping after them. The other parent tried to ignore them and then yawned, as if sighing, and walked over to find the kits. Two toucans flew into view and we spotted them with a bird scope, as well as a large parrot.

My last glimpse of the resident kite

We then said goodbye to Las Cuevas and were off to ATM Cave, Actun Tunichil Muknal, to traverse into the cave to look at Mayan artifacts and human sacrificial remains. Our journey started with a 35 minute hike out from a parking area, traversing three river crossings until reaching an area before the cave entrance. Armed with headlamps and helmets we swam into the cave and climbed up some rocks to begin our journey. The cave has a stream running through it, with constant standing water. Our guide pointed out some crystal formations (don’t touch them!) which made me wide eyed with amazement at the size of them. We continued farther into the cave until we saw two small mammals, two fruit bats. The bats were in a crevice of the cave, hanging upside down sleeping. These fruit bats are quite large and only come out at night to feed on different fruits. Further on into the cave, we climbed up a boulder to reach the central dry chamber, where they Maya conducted rituals.


The chamber was littered with different clay pots, some completely smashed and some with only a small hole poked into them. Our guide explained that it was to release the spirit held inside the object. We saw skulls of those that had been sacrificed and the grand finale. What people dub as the “Crystal Maiden” (it’s actually the remains of boy). It is a mostly intact skeleton of a boy who was brought in the cave possibly after death.


After leaving the cave we went to the Tropical Education Center, where we are staying for tonight, which is right near the Belize Zoo. We were fortunate enough to get a night tour of the zoo and saw so many cool animals. First, we saw a Tapir, the largest terrestrial animal in Central and South America. These mammals can get up to 600 pounds and prefer riverine forests, luckily, they are herbivores. We fed it carrots and watched as its mobile nose moved around. We then saw an Ocelot, the third largest cat in central America. They can grow to 35 inches in length and are carnivorous, feeding on wide range of prey such as iguanas and rodents. They can hunt on the ground and climb trees, and have superb eyesight and hearing. It had tan fur and a spotted pattern along its body. Next, we saw a Puma, the 2nd largest big cat in Central America, it was a spectacular animal. I have never said this about cats but it was beautiful. It had a brown coat and eyes, and was focused on the food that our guide had. The Puma is known as a cougar, mountain lion, and panther around the world. They can reach a little more than 5 feet in length and can be around 140 pounds. Nearly all cougars in the Midwestern and Eastern United States were eliminated by farmers and hunters around the beginning off the 1900s. Fear not for their extinction though! Since the rebound of the white-tail deer population though, puma populations have started to rebound and they are moving back into their normal ranges. Moving on, we saw the small Margay. Margay look similar to ocelots but are much smaller, around house cat size. They are very adept at navigating the canopy, their ankles allowing them to turn their feet 180 degrees outward. They also can climb headfirst down vertical tree trunks.

The Last Day at Las Cuevas

May 20th, 2019


The morning was spent collecting camera traps that we set up day 2. While we were collecting our first traps on the 50 hectare plot trail, a troop of Central American Spider Monkeys were swinging in the trees and were at first trying to intimidate us by asking the trees near us. However, after a while, that initial intimidation turned into curiosity as the younger ones swung to trees right above us to get a closer look. The monkeys displayed great usage of the prehensile tails, with one of the littler ones at one point hanging completely upside down just by its tail. The monkeys also seemed to be communicating each other through quieter calls, and what seemed to be glances at each other.

Spider Monkey

After that, we presented our data that we collected yesterday regarding the Sapodilla tree and leaf toughness. We found that the uncolonized trees’ leaves required more force to puncture but our standard deviation was so large that we couldn’t validate this result. We then went to excavate leaf cutter ants, whom cultivate fungus to eat and survive, and got to see the fungus first hand.


Lastly, I presented my presentation on rainforest mammals in which I talked about 5 species of mammals in the Chiquibul, there are a total of 97, and common characteristics that mammals have. These characteristics being mammary glands, hair, a hinged lower jaw, and three middle bones in the ear. We then looked through the camera trap pictures and we were surprised with a tapir(a mammal)! It was most likely a Baird’s Tapir with its short legs, and barrel shaped body. They are the largest herbivore in Central America and are actually endangered.


Tomorrow we head to ATM Cave and stay the night near the Belize Zoo at the Tropical Education Center.

The Ants Come Marching in (or really out in this case)

May 19th, 2019

My day started off with the usual, morning birding the grey Plumbious kite was in its usual spot and the Social Flycatchers were chirping about. A lone Scarlet Macaw flew into view and started to preen itself, all I could see was it’s a large silhouette with its trademark long tail feathers. We also saw a Keel-billed Toucan today, with its blackbody, oversized green beak, and its yellow throat.  After birding and some much-needed breakfast, we set off on a busy day.


First, we investigated how hurricanes affected the biodiversity in the Chiqibul forests. We used the point intersect method, which is picking a specific length of trail, and a length off trail and counting and categorizing plant species that touch the tape measure. We did this in a hurricane damaged area (disturbed) and an undisturbed area. What we found was that the species composition of the areas were very different but the biodiversity levels were very similar. However, as a whole, disturbed areas add more biodiversity to the forest due to allowing different species to flourish. After presenting our findings and eating lunch, we went off on a trail to find sapodilla trees. These trees have a symbiotic relationship with ants where they provide shelter and food while the ants provided detection. However, it does take some time for the ants to colonize so the sapodilla may use leaf toughness to ward off herbivores (making leaves hard to make a hole into). We measured the grams of force needed to puncture a whole into 11 uncolonized trees and 11 colonized trees, data that we will be analyzing tomorrow. The ants came flooding out of the colonized trees and packed a small but very painful bite.

The biting ants

We then went on a hike to the bird tower, a metal and wood tower that is on a 400-foot-high hill. The view from up there was absolutely amazing, you could see the research station and the surrounding forest. You could even see the Mayan Mountains in the background. We walked back in the dark and I spotted a Jumping Pit Viper and a grey rat. Yes, rats are mammals as are all rodents. Rodents actually make up a large part of Mammalia and are found on all continents except for Antarctica.


We ended the day with dinner and presentation on reptiles, beetles, and: tropical diseases, parasites, and medicines.