All posts by tah7

Wrap-up blog

The tropical rainforest and the coral reef are two of the most biologically diverse ecosystems on earth. What similarities exist between these two ecosystems, and how might these similarities relate to high levels of biological diversity? What personal observations have you made about the similarities and differences between these two ecosystems?

We discussed in a lecture once that one of the most interesting similarities between coral reefs and tropical rainforests is that they’re both nutrient-poor, yet they support so many different species. This is all a guess, but I think that might be because low levels of nutrients are a limiting factor that prevents certain species from taking over- for example, when excess nutrients are put into coral reefs, algae tends to dominate and biodiversity decreases. Maybe low nutrient levels give slow-growing organisms like coral and large fauna a chance to mature without too much competition from faster-growing organisms like algae and insects?

Additionally, both coral reefs and tropical rainforests encompass many different physical habitats. Animals in reefs may live in the open water, on sponges, corals, or algae, or under rubble and rock. Likewise, tropical rainforests are stratified into 4 layers, the emergent, canopy, understory and forest floor. These are all different niches that a variety of species can fill.

One difference I noticed is that animals in the rainforest were more fearful of humans than those in the reef. It might have just me? But I was really surprised that while snorkeling around, I could basically swim into a school of fish and they wouldn’t be too alarmed, they would just swim a couple of feet away. Some cleaner fish even came ad nibbled on my hands and flippers! But in the rainforest, it was impossible to see any large fauna like big cats, herbivores, and birds up close. I wonder if that’s because generally large fauna in the rainforest are more intelligent than animals in the reef? I think the most intelligent animal in the reef would be an octopus, and we didn’t see any of those up close (except Squishy), so that would make sense.

How did the course compare with your expectations? What were your favorite—and least favorite—parts of the course? Describe three things that you learned in the course that you consider to be the most important or surprising (i.e., what did you learn that you will remember five years from now)?

I expected, for some reason, much less snorkeling! I think because I was nervous about going into the ocean, I must have blissfully ignored that half of the course going in. But I was happy to have gained experience and confidence in the water over the week we spent at Glover’s; now I’m pretty sure I can put on my dive gear in my sleep. Otherwise, I came with a very open mind, knowing that my idea of the tropics mostly comes from movies and books.

One of my favorite parts of the course was definitely the downtime I had to just explore and look for animals, particularly at Las Cuevas. I loved being able to look down, dig through the leaf litter and find a millipede or something that I’d only seen before at the science museum. Another of my favorite things about this course are the people I was able to meet. It was amazing to hear Scott, Adrienne and Therese talk about their research- I’ve been thinking about doing some kind of ecology research since I was a kid, and I could finally meet a real live ecologist and hear how passionate they are about their work. Also, I loved getting to meet all of the people who helped us during our stay: Javi, Adolfo, Kenneth, Tiffany and Apache to name a few!

My least favorite part of the course was probably the lack of sleep and hygiene. I think that may be all part of doing field research- but I think I much prefer the city life!

With that said, I think after this course I’ve learned that I really do want to stay and work in the city. I’m very passionate about educating the public about the environment and preserving Texas’s native flora/fauna, and I think that working in a foreign country, kind of disconnected from the community isn’t for me. So, being able to experience tropical field research firsthand has somewhat clarified my career goals. (Maybe I’ll create Houston’s first moth zoo?)

Secondly, and though this seems kind of odd, I feel like I’ve learned the power of time management… it was incredible the amount of things we achieved every day in Belize. That was definitely a sharp contrast to my usual summer routine of lazing around on the couch, and I really enjoyed it! So I’m planning to do a lot more with my summer than I usually do, like taking some classes, exploring the city, reading in Fondy (I know how to have fun okay…), trying to sell my drawings??

And finally, one of the biggest things that will stick with me are the people I’ve gotten to know on this trip. I never expected to become part of such a great group of people and I’m excited to poke all of you for years to come!

Day 15: last day :( and JUMBO JUICES

Just like the flight into Belize, I don’t think it hit me that I was going back home until we got to the airport! I think it was the AC and wifi that did it.

We spent the first half of the day driving to the airport, with a stop at Cheers! With a Tropical Twist for lunch. We had an INSANE lunch budget of 20 USD. I know that doesn’t sound like a lot, but for reference, my cheeseburger was about 3.50 USD. So we went kind of nuts and got on average 4 items each (may be skewed because of outlier Alessi, who ordered multiple entrees, appetizers, and sides). I personally got a burger, 1 fruit punch, and 1 jumbo watermelon juice, which equalled at least a liter of juice total. IT WAS THE HAPPIEST LUNCH OF MY LIFE. I even took some watermelon juice to go in my Nalgene.

We boarded the plane at around 5, and arrived around 8:30 Houston time. I had to say goodbye to most of the class at the airport, and then Jordan, Mikey, Damien and I (along with Turiez and Scott) took a shuttle back to Rice.

Now that I’m back home, reeking of citronella, sweat, and super old seawater, Houston feels so surreal. Where’s the endless tea and hot water jug, and Clivus, and the squeaking of the mouse in our wall? 🙁 I’m going to miss everyone on this trip, and I am eagerly awaiting our coral reef/rainforest themed crawls!

Day 14: return of the camera traps

We made the treacherous journey again to retrieve our camera traps today, and it was surprisingly not as horrible as the first time-Scott was right! That may have been because we strategized our route better, so that we didn’t have to walk back and forth over the same trail. Also we didn’t get lost in the jungle at night.

Annnd the fruits of our labor are:

2 ocelots!!!

1 great curacao

several pacas and peccaries

1 red brocket deer

literally thousands of pictures of grass and our legs

Still, the ocelot pictures were worth it!!

The Daily Moth

Same diversity of moths as always; I’m noticing more and more green eggs, and still the window screens are dominated by Sphingidae! I’m tempted to bring one of those eggs home to see what kind of moth it is.

Note from future self: Don’t worry Belize customs and TSA, I’m completely egg-free

A new lepidoptera that I thought was kind of cool because of the asymmetrical, ruffly wings!

Day 13: lectures in high and low places

We had an interesting time this morning collecting all our pee traps, and then emptying them into a tub, and smelling each other’s day-old pee. It was a real bonding experience. We tallied up the arthropods we caught, and couldn’t draw a solid conclusion because of one outlier: we got 100+ of 1 ant species, while we only got 1 of most other species! However, we could conclude that on both the canopy and forest floor, there was a clear preference for the pee vial over the water.

In the afternoon, we hiked down to the entrance of a cave- we couldn’t go much further because it was closed for archaeological excavation.

But our guides Ronan and John kindly let us do lectures in the cave on Scott’s laptop! Ellie and Isaac’s lectures on amphibians and reptiles were pretty amazing in the pitch black echoey-ness of the cave.

CAVE SNAKE

 

To top that off, we hiked to the (terrifying) bird tower after dinner to listen to Therese’s lecture from 40 feet off the ground at sunset.

Needless to say, those were the coolest lecture settings I’ve ever been in.

After the lecture it was perfect timing for a night hike back to the station. We saw a few big arthropods including a fluorescent scorpions, glue-butt cockroaches (that’s the scientific name I think), and a millipede.

And now for the daily moth report! Whoa! Are you excited yet?!

I feel like this one has been hanging around in the same spot for days.
This one has gained the status of second-favorite moth.

Some pics of the red and white lappet moth in daylight!

I’ve been noticing more and more of these green eggs lately, starting last night. I think they might be Sphingidae eggs, because those are also becoming more and more common on the window screens?

Day 12: presentations, pee, and pelvic exercises

We had a bright start to the day when Scott asked us to pee into 50-mL vials for unknown reasons… it was eventually revealed that we were going to use out nitrogen-rich pee to study nutrient availability in the forest floor vs. canopy.

So we hiked out to set out vials of water and our pee at arthropod traps- we reasoned that if arthropods were more attracted to the pee than the water, that would be a sign that nutrient availability is low in a particular area. We hypothesized that nutrient availability would be higher in the canopy since tropical soils are usually low in nutrients. 24 hours until we find out the results!

Since we got lost yesterday and hiked for 5 hours, yesterday’s presentations have been postponed to today, for a total of 8 lectures after lunch (2 for me). It’s gonna be a long afternoon…

Moth update after dinner: there were plenty of moths again attacking everyone during lectures, and my good friend Ceratomia undulosa is still the most common.

Day 11

Omg. My feet are dying right now. We set up camera traps scattered around Las Cuevas today, in order to compare the amount of prey vs big cat activity on paths vs off paths. (Our hypothesis is that big cats will be more active on paths, and prey will be more active off paths.) So, we hiked 3 hours before lunch, then had lunch, then headed back out… and got lost in the rainforest just as it was getting dark. Finally we made it back to the station at 7:30 pm, for a total of 8 hours of hiking for the day.

I drank a gallon of water and I think I lost it all via sweat.

Thankfully, Scott has taken pity on us and presentations are delayed until tomorrow!

Taxon sightings in the rainforest include a small venomous snake, several blue morphos, and a coati. And I saw so many cool moths at the station again!

This guy is everywhere. (Sphingidae, Ceratomia undulosa?)
My absolute favorite lepidoptera on the trip, a red and white lappet moth? Look at his little face!

I’m actually wondering if maybe I should study Belizean moths… there’s so little information on them, and I think I would be happy staying here staring at moths for a few more years!

Day 10: the nuptial flight of the termites

Today we finally moved in to Las Cuevas! We first stopped at the Rio On swimming hole on the way here, although I just waded and explored because I never want to be in a wet swimsuit again. On the bus we also found out that we are all terrible at BS, because none of us are honest and we love calling each other out on it.

I saw swarms of unidentified black and orange butterflies on the side of the road in dirt clearings, and when we reached Las Cuevas I found about 6 dead swallowtails in the grass.

After putting our bags in our rooms, we had a quick introductory hike around the smallest loop at Las Cuevas. I felt quite stylish in my field outfit of rubber boots, hiking socks, and field pants tucked into hiking socks. Halfway into the hike, as we encountered a steep hill, Scott informed us that we were standing on Mayan ruins! The hill was a pyramid, and a Mayan ball game court was nearby. We all climbed the pyramid, but there was nothing of note at the top.

Notable sightings on the trail were katydids and oropendola, a type of bird that makes sac-shaped nests hanging from trees.

One personal goal achieved today: I ate a live termite! They were having (? is this the correct word) their nuptial flight on the porch outside our rooms, and Scott told us to just grab them out of the air, pick off the wings, and eat them. It didn’t have much of a flavor–I definitely wouldn’t be opposed to having some as a last resort snack in the jungle.

There were lepidoptera everywhere tonight, especially in the classroom where they were harassing everybody during the lecture. My personal favorites:

Arctiini??

“Your taxon is on my leg!!”

They all had amazing patterns, most of them mimicking leaves-the last one even had transparent holes in its wings to mimic holes in dead leaves.

Note from future self: I’m finding it pretty difficult to identify my moths; my main source is this guide to moth silhouettes from bugguide.net.

Day 9: spelunking!

We had an amazing first day of caving. Our tour guide led us through a risky but SO FUN route through the ATM caves, where we had to swim through the underground river and climb barefoot over rock formations. We got inches away from Mayan ceremonial artifacts, like pottery shards and a fully intact skeleton of a 17-year-old girl (or boy?). Deepu also scraped his knee and appeased the rain gods, as we left the cave to a massive thunderstorm.

No pics, as someone dropped a camera on a Mayan skull last year and now they’re strictly forbidden. 🙁

After lunch provided by the ATM park, we drove to San Ignacio and explored the town for snacks and supplies for the rest of the week. I’m still so happy about the random Chinese people and stores everywhere (and buffets)! I never would have expected to see them in Belize. I bought bug spray from a nice couple from Guangdong and was tempted to get a jar of fermented tofu too… so I could import tofu that was imported from China to Belize into Houston.

Then we drove to our luxurious eco-lodge, Crystal Palace, and had a fancy 3-course dinner in the outdoor dining room. I approve of these accommodations!

Oddly, no moth sightings at night, just one unidentified butterfly at the ATM jungle area.

Day 6: show and tell

The wind is too strong so we did minimal snorkeling today, but I am really loving all the free time we’re getting! First we collected specimens from the reef to identify at the wet lab. I got 7 identified species of brown and red algae, which was quite exicting: Dictyopteris deliculata, Turbinaria sp., Sargassum fluitans, Jania capillacea, crustose coralline algae, Amphiroa sp. and Hincksia mitchelliae. I also had 3 or 4 WTF? (unidentified).

Several of my brown/red algae, plus other taxons.

And, it was great to finally see everyone’s taxons laid out neatly and identified.

The green algae tub.
A mix of taxons living in harmony: 2 mollusks, 1 echinoderm, 1 herbivorous fish, 1 green algae.
An anemone turning itself inside-out in its death throes. Yikes.

The 2 celebrities of the day were Squishy the baby octopus and Trash Crab (formerly known as Hermy)!

Squishy, slightly off center in the picture. He’s kind of transparent. I LOVE HIM

Trash Crab was a tragic example of the effects of marine debris…

He wasn’t able to properly curl into his plastic shell, so he dessicated and died soon after we found him. RIP Trash Crab, you will be missed.

Just before dinner, we had a speedy 30-minute snorkel, which was honestly above my skill (fitness) level. The current was incredibly intense and when I finally reached land, I’m pretty sure I flopped onto the dock gasping for air like a dying fish. Team Turf! But I’m proud that I at least tried that snorkel and made it out alive!

Day 5: Mangroves of Averageness

In the so-called Mangroves of Death, I wasn’t attacked by a single mosquito! What a disappointment. I took two trips through the mangroves today; first we hiked through to count Christmas tree worm populations on different species of coral on the back reef. Ellie and I found zero on our section of the reef, as did most of the other groups, so we couldn’t really draw conclusions about Christmas tree worm host preference.

However, we did find a huge donkey dung (sea cucumber).

Then a small group of us did a trash pickup in the mangroves… even after 30 minutes of 4 of us working we barely made a dent in the amount of trash in one small area. 🙁 The totals that the class picked up around the island turned out to be 2460 pieces (18.46 kg) of plastic, 488 pieces (3.98 kg) of foam, 36 pieces (5.80 kg) of glass, and a few more kilograms of rubber, fabric, metal and wood. It was really impactful to actually go out and try to clean up all the litter on this environmentally protected island– imagine the total amount of trash in the oceans if 11 of us were able to pick up 25+ kg within 30 minutes on Glover’s. And it shows how much sanitation depends on a country’s wealth and infrastructure, because clearly Americans produce much more trash per person than the inhabitants of Glover’s.  It makes me wonder where all of our trash goes in the US?

After dinner, We had several hours of free time (whaaat) and played beach volleyball, caught up on journals and blogs, and at around 8, we hung lights off the dock into the water to watch the ocean nightlife. It was the most relaxed night I’ve had in a long time, watching the glow of the light through the water and swarms of silver fish, while being cooled off by the strong breeze.

As for my brown and red algae, I unfortunately didn’t notice any in the back reef as I was too focused on not bashing against the corals; sorry corals!!