All posts by ss167

Bring Belize Back

Tropical rain forests and the coral reefs are not only textbook examples of high levels of biodiversity, but are picturesque ecosystems that the world at large has accepted as exotic and fantastic. Think of the Red-eyed Tree frog and the Clownfish swimming above sea anemone.

Image result for red eyed tree frogImage result for coral reef

These were the images that came to mind when I prepared myself for Belize. Things we only see on nature documentaries will finally be seen by our naked eyes, I expected.

Although I did not get to see either of these popular symbols of the ecosystem I was in, I saw many other species that were simply awe-striking.  5 years from now, I bet, I will still remember the first photo of a jaguar on our camera trap, and our immediate screaming chorus.


Also, I will remember the coral snake that emerged from its home underneath a log as I turned it over. And, the boa constrictor that Adrienne was too busy to see. And, the unexpected contact between my hands and the warmth that radiated from the trash dump of Leaf-cutter ants. These close engagements with other lifeforms are among some of my favorite experiences from this class.

As much as we joke about being elite gentlemen naturalists of the 1800’s, many of us were simply in awe at the amount and different types of life we got to experience. Like some of them, we set out to categorize and zero-in on the type of species we were seeing. Veronica’s incessant hunt for the Blue Morpho can be likened to past naturalist’s desire to collect specimen for further study, or to simply show the world. Being in proximity to these alien (to us) lifeforms, it was like exploring a new world.

Or new worlds. Although the tropical rain forest and the coral reefs shared many similarities (such as dependence on microbial-plant interactions, abundance of solar energy and large energy output), they were different.

Much of the life in coral reefs depended on water for movement. Many species of plant and animals rely on the dispersal ability of water for survival. Water carries the reproductive cells of many species and gametes are formed in open water. Sea urchins uses powerful wave energy to move from place to place. In the tropical rain forest, the relative lack of wind means that most movements must be provided by individual organisms.

We also felt this first hand. Although snorkeling and hiking both are actively tiring activities, with snorkeling one can simply float and carried by the waves. If there is only one lesson I learn from being in the ocean, it is that I need more of it in my life. Having gone from being afraid of water to being in love with it, I feel at ease in this new element in such a way I have never felt before. This was totally unexpected, too. These new worlds at the very least gave me new experiences. Though I would willingly opt-out of the sand fly experience. That sucked.

Seeing a new world has its biases. We developed a search image for the “exotic” and for certain species we come in with expectations to see. It’s interesting that as a group we had such wild reactions to the jaguar but only showed only slight amusement or even annoyance to orchid bees.  Both species offer necessary ecosystem services though it seems our predisposition towards mammals biased us against non-mammals. I wonder if I would have a different or better experience if we were able to develop more fully our appreciation for species we had less appreciation for going in.

Coming out Belize and into Houston’s concrete jungle, I haven’t been as awe-striken by lifeforms here. But I think back to a paper by William Cronin titled “The Trouble with Wilderness; or, Getting Back to the Wrong Nature”. He tells us that there is wildness and nature in every place.

“Wildness (as opposed to wilderness) can be found anywhere: in the seemingly tame fields and woodlots of Massachusetts, in the cracks of a Manhattan sidewalk, even in the cells of our own bodies. As Gary Snyder has wisely said, “A person with a clear heart and open mind can experience the wilderness anywhere on earth. It is a quality of one’s own consciousness. The planet is a wild place and always will be.”

Although it might easier to spend thousands of dollars on a trip to see cool nature, ecotourism has its negatives. It can prevent us from seeing interesting lifeforms (that is all lifeforms) in our backyard and in our bodies. I am not sure how my thinking about wilderness will change in 5 years, but at least for right now, I think it is my challenge to incorporate the experience of Belize into my everyday life, much like continuing the sense of meditation after meditating.










Why must good things come to an end? 

  • Why must good things come to an end? 

    Today was a day of many lasts: snorkeling at Glover’s Atoll, sitting at the pier with the squad, and interacting with the lion fish. The post-Belize depression will be real but I will be sure to return to this lovely, peaceful, and unbelizeable place (credit: Sami).

    First things first: food was amazing today. After dissecting the lion fish we have gotten from the surrounding reefs, Chef Scott turned the white meat fish into a delicious bowl of ceviche, lime-marinated fresh fish mixed with diced onion and tomato.

    10/10 would eat again!

    Even the vegetarians helped finish the fish, an environmental friendly act due to the lionfish’s devastating effect on native fish species. Nonnative to this region, the piescivorous lion fish feed on smaller fish that are native to the region, at a disproportionally high rate. This causes up to 70% decrease in 

    native fish populations.

    A similar trend can be said of brown algae, Sargassum seaweed in particular, which has crowded out large populations of coral because of its ability to grow from dissembles parts of itself and its tolerance to hot water.

    At the Southwest Caye of Glover’s Atoll, we hung out at the resort and savored the beverages that the Caribbean had to offer, including Belizean pineapple Fanta which instead of using corn syrup as sweetener uses cane sugar. We noted the amount of conch shells on the island and thought about the regulations in place at this region for conch fishing. We hope they weren’t collected from restricted fishing zones, weren’t undersized, or caught during the mating season. 

    As our pilot research project has shown, marine protected areas support more corals and number of species, which can be worthy contributions to the coral reef ecosystem. Illegal harvesting of conch would instead be a detraction.

    In the waters around Southwest Caye, we observed the abundant sargassum seaweed. They are especially obvious because of they float free on the surface of water. Under water around the patch reefs near Middle Caye, I saw a lot of lobophora and White scroll algae. Most of these algae communities are near or inside coral communities, and share their habitat with many species of fish, spiny brittle star, and anemones. If one made a conclusion about the role of algae in the coral reef ecosystem from these observation, it may be that algae seems to be living in good relationships with its neighboring corals. However, comparing the algae and coral compositions of today to that of the last couple decades, the correlation between algae growth and coral decline can be alarming. We wonder if our grandchildren will see the corals that we got to see today.

    For about a week now we have been coordinating  a group mediation.

    Alas, tonight we meditated together as a class and some of us mentally prepared ourselves for the end of what feels like an era.


Today was a day dedicated to the use of a systematic sampling method, utlilizing measuring tapes and a large physical grid. We answered questions like: What proportion of the patch reef contains some portion of live hard coral and what proportion of the seaweed benthos contains some portion of worm sand mounds?

To remind us of the importance of our work, and mostly to educate us on the overarching context of coral reefs, Ceyda Sidd ’19 explained that the percent cover of corals in Belizean waters is 13 – 15% and declining. Tomorrow we will be analyzing the data we collected today on percent cover of live hard corals to estimate the degree of decline in coral cover. One of the things that we have learned about working with corals is that it is in our best interest to not touch them. We saw fire corals, that upon contact can sting, and all corals are sensitive to human touch, such that it can destroy or stop the growth corals. The difficulty is real, though, as many of the patch corals exist in waters less than 3 ft deep, and some areas are too shallow to even swim across without touching some corals. Even conservation workers sometimes will cause harm to the things they wish to conserve; the act of quantifying and observing is sometimes inevitably an act of slight destruction. In snorkeling lingo, we all aim to be horizontal (floating) and not vertical (standing).

In the evening, we laid in hammocks with the company of incroaching lightning storms, which provided us with fantastic views and some rain. If we did end up stranded, which we are 80-95% likely to (someone jokingly said),I think none of us would be too distraught. The days here sucks out your energy, but in the best way possible: in the sun, under the water, above the benthos, and next to marine creatures.

This is from our last day in Belize, but is our best hammock group photo.  We’re serious about biology.

Quadrats, not quadrants!

Day 1 of Beach Days, 5/23.

My day began in the savanna cabanas of the tropical education center and it is about to end in a hammock on the Middle Caye of Glover’s Atoll. The view has changed drastically. Compared to the 100 meter visibility in the savanna, my view here at Glover’s is only cut short by the horizons. In this grand view, I see faraway lightning that may be associated with a brewing tropical storm. But because it is likely more than hundreds of miles away, I cannot hear the thunder.

This is our first day at the beach and it has mostly felt like vacation. We travelled to a marina in Belize City to catch a 3-hour boatride to Glover’s. On the way we saw the difference between deep and shallow water, and a myriad of other islands in the area. One constant object I observed was the availability of Sargassum on the ocean surface, some of which were cut up by the motors on our boat. Before I knew exactly what I was looking at, Scott and Jessica yelled out to me asking me to identify the green floating algae. With the amount of intensity and excitement they yelled at me, I understood it must have been something obvious: they are the Sargassum seaweed that has been infesting many coral reef areas, outcompeting many other species of corals and causing their decline. They are a group of brown algae that utilizes fouaxin to photosynthesize which gives them a slightly redder and browner color, although they also have the green pigments that come with chlorophyll. They are also the only species of red and brown algae that has air bladders, allowing them to trap air within the organism.

After arrival, we practiced snorkelling, a follow up to to first practice we had on campus in the recreational pools. This time we were surrounded by bone fish, nurse sharks, stingrays, corals, and jellyfish. The most difficult aspect of this practice was not touching things we should’t touch: corals, stingray and wildlife in general. Compared to the rainforest, where we were able to put our hands on almost anything that we were able to catch, the corals here are very fragile and many animals here are hidden and able to be aroused if touched, such as stingrays. With the construction of marine-use guadrats, we will be exploring and initiating contact with corals and perhaps a Echinoderm or two. The key is to not destroy the wildlife and no let the wildlife destroy us.

Stay tuned to find out how to best place quadrats on corals!



You’ve been good to us, Belize!

Last of the Belizean days-

Today’s theme is goodbye. This morning we said goodbyes to our beloved research station, our marine safety officers, our boat captains. This afternoon we said goodbyes to Belize and tonight we said goodbyes to EBIO 319. Surely. This won’t be the last of it.

A Smithsonian tropical field biologist we visited today has been conducting research on her island, Carrie Bow Caye, for 13 years, and will plans on returning year after year. This station has been doing some very cool research on the effects of increasing temperatures on corals. Specifically, researchers there have been testing the heat tolerance of a type of hybrid between two species of coral: the staghorn and the elkhorn corals. When hybridized, the coral are able to withstand high temperatures without bleaching. The scientists there perform tolerance tests in tanks of sea water heated up to different temperatures using different replicated hybrids and nonhybrids.

This is crucial today

, in a time when the global temperatures have been rising and upsetting the intricate, interconnected ecosystem of coral reefs. Without an intact ecosystem, food production, air quality, tourism, and economies will all suffer. A resilient coral may pave the way for future developments in resilient coral reefs.

Although coral reefs have been a widely known ecosystem fundamental to many aspects of our life, mangrove forests are a lesser known, but arguable equally important ecosystem. Mangrove forests are composed of communities of mangrove trees, trees that are able to extend their roots deep into the sea water and sprout leaves above water. While exploring one of these mangroves this morning, we saw first hand the types of life that is supported by these forests: upside-down jellyfish, crustose coralline algae, y-branch algae, blistered saucer-leaf algae, schools of fish, and starfish. A unique feature of the mangrove forest is that it filters marine waters so that surrounding organisms live in more-purified water. Combined with extra

shade provided by mangrove leaves and nutrients that come from decomposing leaves, this forest gives many organisms a habitat, some for a period of their life time, and others for their whole life time.


At the airport, we all looked for souvenirs to signify our time in Belize, but truly we knew that the type of life we lived in Belize cannot be fully captured by  items. The closest thing that may come to represent our Belizean day are these blog entries. Everyday has been new, and each encounter has been different. Belize, you have been great to us, truly. Now. Until next time!

ANGUS crab

Day 3 of Beach Days

Today’s activity definitely took a toll on us — but our Dermit Rab made it all better.

Me and Aungus prior to the start of the race, 3rd and 4th from the right.

We woke up, ate, and swam to the edge of the thousand-feet-drop in the benthos (sea floor). On the way, the supposedly calm waters rocked us to differing degrees of sea sickness. In the water we went in all different directions with regards to the waves, on which we bobbed up and down while we looked in the deeper ocean for interesting life forms. One of the forereefs we explored was geographically filled with canyons of corals. Centuries of wave engergy shaped the current-day grooves filled with hard and soft corals, among other life forms. We observed an especially problematic species of fish, called the lion fish, camouflouging in the corals today. Their presence in this region, which is far from their native rainge, has caused up to 70% decline in native fish populations. Obviously, we speared them and brought them back to dissect, fry, and eat. Which is a prospect even the “vegetarians” are supporting.

In the afternoon, we quanitified the degree of biodiversity of Echinoderms (particularly sea urchins) in a protected and an unprotected marine area. Which means we spent an hour spotting and picking off the spiny sea urchins from dead corals and algae on which they are grazing. While searching for sea urchins, I saw two types of brown algae, specifically, they were two types of white-scrolled algae. One has a darker base and the other a lighter color, but both have a characteristic curly shape that resembles a scroll. In addition, we came into contact with Sargassm seadweed again, which is more or less impossible not to come into contact with due to their prevalence and distribution on the ocean surface. In addition we observed many blister saucer algae, both attached to corals and floating on the surface. Interesting, they too, like the Sargassum, are able to keep some air within their chambered body so that when squished air bubbles are released. Although they do not have a characteristic air bladder like the sea weed, these saucer algae had triangular bulbous organs to hold air.

In the evening, we had one of the best meals we’ve had yet — consisting of flan, spiced chicken, banana bread, lemon cookies, homemade bread, and mashed potato. After our lectures, we collected blue crabs and hermit crabs to race in the sand. Among 5+ competitors, one travelled in the opposite direction, 1 paused, and 2 finished close to each other. It seems like the large hermit crabs are the best for Dermit Rab. Also obvious that blue land crabs are not the best as they walk side ways and are prone to going to dark places to hide. Angus, me and Claire’s contestant, although big, did just that. :/

The communal nap I have been predicting and advocating for — also happened today! Our tiredness has come to an all time high, but with proper rest, i.e. communal naps, we seem to be a very resilient group.

Brown Algae, Red Algae

Day 4 of Beach Days

Today occured in sort of a reverse order: we processed sea urchin and coral data from yesterday, presented our finding, taught ourselves about tropical biology taxonomic groups and went to the ocean.

One of the interesting interactions in marine life is one between the chub crab and brown algae. Chub crabs depend on epiphytes (organisms growing on alga) for their diet and the algae benefit from having epiphytes growing on its thallus (the entire body of an algae). While in the ocean, near a reef crest on our island, I was surprised to see this interaction in play. While looking for crustose coralline algae (a red encrusting algae that grows on corral rubble), I turned over rubbles and saw this interaction before my eyes: a tiny 2 cm blue-greenish crab picking off green dots of epiphytes living on top of red algae the size of my palm. Another aspect of crustose coralline algae is that it supports a number of animals that utilizes algae as habitat. Within mounds of these algae are 2 E. Leu sea urchins and 1 brittlestar that hid within pyramids of algae.

Back at the wet lab of our research station, I presented to the

Live Sargassum fluitans floating above sea grass

class 12+ species of red and brown algae, many of which I did not expect to see here, and many of which I realized were different species only after I had collected and viewed the specimens with greater detail and attention at the lab. After an incredible dinner of shrimp and rice, we heard our wonderful marine safety officer talk about Belizean culture. Despite its current political situation with Guatemala, Belize has been one of the most peaceful countries in the region and has been a destination for many victims of civil wars in the surrounding area. By the end of the class, we learned a couple phrases in the common unofficial language of Belize: creole. To say “what are you doing?” you would say “wat yu d do?”.

Instead of “yes” you would say “yeh mann”.

When life gives you sharks, you swim as fast as you can and take a selfie.

The nurse shark below me

When life gives you sharks, you swim as fast as you can and take a selfie.

It hit us today that some of the things we did today were among the last things we will do. We gave our last taxonimic briefings and made our last poster. Although it is surely sad, we did contribute to our island in a real way. We picked up trash that has been washed up on Middle Caye, on two sides of the island, one windard and the other leeward. Yesterday, we learned that humans have contributed immensely to the amount and type of debris in the ocean. Depending on the trash (whether it is very or not very transportable, bouyant, and degradible), it can have variable amount of presence on our environment. Plastic like size of a shoebox, for example, can be broken up to millions of smaller pieces, called microplastics. Their degrability is extremely low and can last for thousands of years.

We set out to see what kind of trash we will find on the island and found that the leeward side of the island received more individual pieces of trash and more kinds of trash, including cloth, metal, and paper. However, the windward side received less of the more transportable debris like hard plastic and styrofoam. The transportability differential likely contributes to the leeward side’s receiving more pieces and more kinds of trash because easily transported trash are more likely to end up in areas that do not receive as much wave energy and hence have a higher chance of being stuck there.

After trash collection, we went out to a portion of the reef inside the atoll called “the aquarium” due to its abundance and diversity of marine life. Huge mounds of coral and human size sharks are found here, and when we found nurse sharks, we all kicked our fins as hard as we could toward the shark. Don’t worry, if you are worried, because nurse sharks are not known to be actively aggressive to humans. Their main response to humans is to flee, if they notice close human presence. In other news, we tracked down schools of blue, silver fish as they travel through and sometimes knock themselves into coral. Our excited tracking of the fish caused the fish to swim fastly before us, as if we were herding them. When surprised of our presence, some reacted by fleeing so quickly that they scraped against coral rubble in the process, with their collision audible to us.

Another unexpected encounter was when I observed a large fat parrot fish eat a handful of the wrinkled brown algae. It was so disproportionally big to the fish that I laughed out loud underwater. Fortunately, this reef was covered in this type of brown algae, in addition to a lot of crustose coralline algae and blistered saucer-leaf algae. A lot of y-branched red algae also grew on other types of algae, which often grew on limestone deposited by corals. Life on life on life has been a big theme of this trip and it has really come to a culmination in today’s trip to reefs and channels in the atoll. The geography of the water also lent very well to my practicing diving to the benthos, and I am very happy to say I am not only comfortable in the water, but extremely fond of being in the water, and not to mention swimming with sharks. That is one thing I owe to this place, my new relationship to water, going from barely able to swim to doing all sorts of tricks 15-20 feet underwater all the while avoiding the burning fire coral.

Shout out to my swim instructor Mahdi!

Day 3

Killer bees were spotted around the camp and on Elena’s hair. There is only one species of ‘killer bees’ in Belize that are particular aggressive: Africanized Western Honey Bee. When provoked, more individuals from a single colony is likely to sting a intruder than non-Africanized bees.

Africanized Honey Bee pollinating flowers

After breakfast, we set up camera traps to capture large mammals, hoping to find jaguars, pumas, and other wildcats. We hypothesized that off trail activity would be greater for these mammals because human activity discourages the presence of other mammals. 10 locations were chosen, 5 on trail and 5 off trail. Adrienne made special appearances on some of these traps as we were setting them, I wonder what they will look like once we collect our traps. As we walked on trails and loitered around traps, we set off the motion sensor and took many selfies in the process.

After carrying out our experimental methods, we listened to a lecture presented by the leader of Friends of Conservation and Development. Rafael updated us on the status of the forest conservation and the unique challenges faced by the conservationists because of the forest’s proximity to Guatemala. Poachers and loggers from Guatemala have been found in the Chiquibul extracting endangered species from the field for sale as products. Poor residents close to the boarder have few incentives to observe rules of the forest, as a single successful poach can give them the amount of money many day’s worth of work can provide. However, in the recent past, things have been improving due to rangers that patrol the area.


It was a day of much walking and we were more than ready for the night to come, and for much needed sleep.

Free-range Dogs and other unexpected animals

Today was definitely a day of travel, from Crystal Paradise, to Caracol (a Mayan ruins) and then to Las Cuevas.

On the road we kept seeing animals we weren’t exactly experts on. Our guide described the animals we saw on the road side as we drove through urban and rural Belize: free-range dogs, free-range chickens, horses, dairy and beef cattle. There were trails on the side of the road for horse riders, and also cattle just hanging out. Dogs in Belize are kept as kept as pets, but not usually as indoor pets. Most owners feed their dogs in the day and at night, but either keep them on a leash in the yard or let them freely roam if they’re in a rural area.

At Rio on Pools (which translates to River on Pool) we encountered leeches that none of us expected to. When we found them on our skins and inside our swimwear. If left undisturbed, they would chew an opening into our bloodstream and feed on our blood until they expand and grow circular. Because of the pain-killers they release when they chew into human skin, they can be undetectable to us. Also, amidst natural water slides formed by granite and water,

At Caracol, we walked through the ruins that were the housing, playing grounds, and political meeting places for the Mayans. Before they abandoned this site, a whole kingdom met periodically in a rectangular plaza to hear the announcement of a king. The construction of the plaza reflected this purpose, where a hushed whisper from one of the pyramids can be heard in the plaza hundreds of feet away clearly and loudly.

Now in the abandoned plaza, a species of Stingless bee live in 30+ mounds that are evidence of underground nests and tunnels. These bees do not have a different castes, whereby one’s job may be to reproduce or to collect nectar, and live in small colonies no larger than 10-20.