All posts by sms14

Final Post

One of the most striking similarities between the rainforest and the coral reef is that both are nutrient-poor environments. This seems strange considering that both are such rich in life and diversity. Contrary to popular belief, just because the soil and water are nutrient poor, doesn’t necessarily mean the environment is. It would be more accurate to say that nutrients are being constantly cycled through the many different kinds of organisms that live in the matrix. Additionally, organisms in these oligotrophic environments tend to be slow growing and have specific adaptations or symbioses that allow for greater and more efficient nutrient uptake. Both the rainforest and coral reef are complex three-dimensional networks that allow for a wide variety of physical and biochemical niches. Producers and consumers exist in a delicate balance that can be easily disrupted, a common problem when these environments are disturbed by human activities and byproducts.

In the reef especially I felt as though these conditions were most easily observable. The clear waters were an obvious indication of the oligotrophic conditions, as was the slow growth rate of coral. There were no bare surfaces and every inch of substrate was covered by coral, macroalgae, or sponge. Fish, urchins, marine worms and crustaceans filled cracks and crevices, and it seemed like every space was accounted for. In the rainforest, plants, vines and epiphytes competed for sunlight and moisture, while spiders, roaches, and ants crawled about the leaf litter. The constant activity of producers, consumers and decomposers was palatable.

This course exceeded my expectations on all accounts. I could not have imagined all of the things we got to see and do on this trip; I felt as though I finally got to really experience the reef and rainforest, as opposed to the snatches and glimpses I have received before. Partially this was due to the fact that we were able to visit places accessible only to researchers, rather than the areas that are usually overrun by tourists. I was also pleasantly surprised by the level of comfort we experienced on this trip. My time in Panama had prepared me for pasta with ketchup and spam, and stinky bucket showers. Instead we had delicious Belizan food, running water, electricity, and clean, comfortable living quarters. Also, having everything planned out for you was a real treat which let us immerse ourselves in our surroundings rather than worrying about logistics. Finally, I felt as though I had a thorough introduction to various field methods and the types of problems one might face when doing research in such an environment.

It would be hard to pick a favorite part of the course, so I’ll try to name a couple. Seeing the big cats at the zoo at night was really incredible because it was something you couldn’t see anywhere else. Sharks and rays are some of my favorite animals so seeing those on the reef made my day more than once. And, however cheesy it may be, the friendships I developed on this trip were really special. As for a least favorite, I don’t have a good answer. Sometimes trying to work on a project in such a big group was challenging and some people got their feathers ruffled while others felt they couldn’t contribute (too many cooks in the kitchen). At the same time, I felt this was a valuable lesson in collaboration and I’m not sure I would change it.

I don’t think I’ll ever forget all I learned about my taxonomic groups and topic lecture. While amphibians and annelids were never something I was interested in before, now they hold a special place in my heart. I also really value the practical knowledge I learned on this trip. Experimental design, problem solving on the spot, working smart, analyzing data in a way that reflects your research question, and my pro snorkeling skills are all things I look forward to utilizing in the future.

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Sophia Streeter (certified TFB)


Back to reality

Even on our way to the airport we managed to squeeze in one last snorkel. This time we went to the mangroves and swam around their roots, which many organisms use as a substrate to grow on. Fish also use mangroves as a nursery where they are fairly sheltered from larger predators. Upside-down jellies bobbed along the bottom of the sea bed and fire sponge glowed orange through the murky water.

I finally saw the magnificent feather duster, recognizable by its larger size and double crown of radioles. Their tubes were attached to the mangrove roots, among the encrusting algae, sponges and hydroids. They were various shades of brown and white and tucked their filter-feeding radioles into their tubes if you touched them. Unlike the other feather dusters I’ve seen, they didn’t tuck their radioles in all the way, and the tips of the crown poked out of the tube. I am guessing this is because they are too big to fit all the way in.

Time has never passed so quickly as it did on this trip. We were so busy and there was so much to do and see that the two weeks were over before I knew it. I was never bored for a second. Being back in Houston is so strange and claustrophobic. I already miss the fresh air and pristine nature. I’d take that over clean laundry any day!

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Sophia Streeter


Wrapping up

Our last day at Glovers has been bittersweet. We wrapped things up by collecting specimens from the backreef and bringing them into the wet lab for sorting and identification. While I did see several split crown feather dusters they are not the kind of thing you can remove from the reef without killing the organism because of how they attach to the substrate. However, we collected several fish, blue crabs, tiny brown crabs, all kinds of green, brown, and red algae, mantis shrimp, jellies, clam shells, and a huge hermit crab.

Yesterday we collected data on specific coral colonies for a long term study. We measured live coral coverage, and today we looked at the data for the same corals taken last year to compare the results. We found that coverage seemed to have decreased at the sites, but it was hard to tell because of discrepancies in data collection. Lastly, we dissected lionfish that were caught throughout the week to look at size, sex and stomach contents to get an idea of what the population of this invasive species looks like in Glovers atoll.

I wish I had more time on the reef and in this course. Middle caye and the surrounding reefs are beautiful and I feel like I could stay here for a long time. I may be salty, all my laundry is filthy, and I definitely have a whole new threshold for dirty, but I’m still happy as a clam.




Sophia Streeter


Beach cleanup and backreef

Beach cleanup was on this morning’s agenda, and, being Rice students, we also weighed and separated all the types of marine debris and analyzed the results. The amount of garbage on the shore was astounding; we filled 6 garbage bags in an hour, and this is on a beach that is in a protected area and cleaned weekly. We only made a dent in the amount of debris accumulated on the island’s shores. I guess the take-home message to anyone reading this would be to limit your use of plastics as much as possible, stop using styrofoam, and be very careful about where your waste ends up (even properly disposed of trash often ends up in the ocean).

We went out to the backreef again today to document some coral colonies. I saw some more split crown feather dusters, spaghetti worms, a christmas tree worm, a teeny tiny star horseshoe worm, and finally a free-moving worm (as opposed to the others, which are tube dwelling). The fireworm is a marine worm that belongs to the same class as the feather dusters and fan worms but looks more like a caterpillar. It is red with white tufts, and, true to its name, will sting you if you touch it.


Sophia Streeter


Sharks and corals and rays, oh my

Today checked two more things off my Belize wishlist—sharks and rays. We had seen some smaller stingrays around but today, snorkeling on the fore-reef, we saw a huge spotted eagle ray gliding underneath us. Then, during our drift snorkel a nurse shark came and swam under us three separate times. It was a dream come true. We also had the opportunity to see the stag horn and elk horn corals that have been mostly destroyed over the last decade. There have been so many times during this trip that I was blown away by the things we have gotten to see or do. Truly a once in a lifetime opportunity.

The first two snorkel excursions were a little too deep for me to find many annelids but on our short trip out to the back-reef I found three split crown feather dusters. There were also spaghetti worms buried into cracks and crevices all over the place. There has been fire coral fairly evenly dispersed over every reef we’ve been to, both the branching and bladed formations. Looking forward to more christmas tree worms!




Sophia Streeter


Comparative study

We leveled up today on our length and difficulty of our snorkeling projects. We visited patch reefs inside and outside the protected area and did transects for comparison. We also collected sea urchins in a 25 minute period, then measured and ID’ed them. Compared to the no-take zone, the unprotected zone had drastically fewer urchins, which starts to give you an idea of the breadth of human impact on some of these reefs.

To be honest, I got a little distracted during the urchin collected period because there were so many worms around! I saw about 20 christmas tree worms, two social feather dusters and one split-crown feather duster. They’re really beautiful little things. There was one coral in particular covered by about 10 christmas tree worms in a variety of colors—from blue-grey to yellow to orangeish-brown. If you wave your hand in front of them they tuck themselves inside their tube to hide, then slowly reemerge after a moment. There will be pictures to come.

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Sophia Streeter


Patch reef

This morning we all improved our skills clearing our mask and snorkel without surfacing while on a reef scavenger hunt. There were many annelids around but you have to be looking for them because of their small size, and sometimes they were under corals or in crevices. I saw the same star horseshoe worms, but also a light orange-ish christmas tree worm and a brown and white social feather duster. They are beautiful little creatures. I also spotted some fire coral around the patch reef. Aside from the annelids and hydrozoans I saw corals, sponges, sea fans, fish, urchins, barracuda, and a nurse shark today.

This afternoon we practiced using a transect and quadrants to survey things on the reef or ocean floor. It’s tricky but I’m getting the hang of it. We also got the chance to walk to a part of the island covered with thousands of fragments of old, fossilized corals. This was really helpful in practicing identifying them based on their corallites and overall shape. I am ready for what tomorrow has to bring!


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Sophia Streeter


Glovers Atoll

Today we left land and moved out to sea. I enjoyed our long boat ride out to Glover’s Atoll, its been a while since I’ve been on the ocean and the waves felt great. It’s a beautiful place out here. After orientation we hopped in the water for a quick snorkel on the patch reef. I ended up having a few technical difficulties towards the end that hopefully practice will resolve.

I am already having more luck with this taxonomic group. I saw two orange Pomatostegus stellatus (star horseshoe worms) growing on a coral, and apparently Grace found Spirobranchus giganteus (christmas tree worms) as well. Besides annelids I saw staghorn coral, a queen conch, a ray, and a ton of fish, soft coral and sponges I couldn’t specifically identify.


Sophia Streeter


Belize zoo

Today we experienced some unforeseen vehicular complications but we all came our the other side as weathered tfb’s (tropical field biologists). We’re spending the night at this beautiful lodge right next to the Belize zoo. Last night we were taken on a night tour of the zoo to see all the nocturnal animals at their most active. This meant jaguars, a puma, an ocelot, a margay, paca, and a tapir. It was truly incredible, I feel very lucky to have gotten to get so close to these beautiful big-cats. The jaguars have huge heads to crush their prey’s skull, but you can’t appreciate how big and powerful they are until they’re right in front of you. I couldn’t wipe the smile off my face.

Tomorrow we make our way out to Glovers reef! Soon I will be updating you on annelids rather than amphibians (still no more of those by the way). If you are curious as to what those are, I’d look up christmas tree worms and social feather dusters. Those are my favorites and they are not at all what you would expect worms to look like, they’re actually quite beautiful.

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Sophia Streeter


Last day in the Chiquibul

We finished out the last day with another 13 mile hike to pick up all our camera traps. It took us about half the time it did on Thursday and I wasn’t nearly as tired. It’s amazing what your body can adjust to after just a few days. Even though I’m running on less sleep I feel great because of all the exercise and activity.

Checking the photos from camera traps was more exciting than you could possibly imagine. Most of it was nothing but when something popped up on screen we were elated. One of our cameras got a picture of a Tapir (!!!!) and another of an Ocelot (!!!!). Even though we only had a little taste of it I think I am starting to understand how difficult field work can be, but also how rewarding. I will miss the rainforest and all of its colors and scents and noises.

Even though we didn’t see many amphibians out here I didn’t feel too disappointed or bored because it meant I got to bounce around and look at everyone else’s taxonomic groups. The end of the dry season can be tough for herpetology but getting to watch birds, ants, mammals (I saw an agouti this morning), reptiles, and insects made up for it. Not to mention the plants! The diversity was incredible and I saw many more organisms than I was expecting.

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Sophia Streeter


Happy birthday Mom! You too Elena, sorry I missed them.