Category Archives: 2019

I can’t Belize It’s Over!- Wrap-up Blog


Some of my favorite pictures:

Chiquibul Forest
Golver’s Reef Research Station
Sunset over Glover’s Reef

Outside of the fact that both the reef and the rainforest are two of the most biologically diverse ecosystems on the planet, another similarity is that they both exist in nutrient-poor areas and depend on effective nutrient cycling in order to thrive. Additionally, both ecosystems are nitrogen limited. One difference is that invasive species in the reef are much more destructive than in the rainforest. These two areas are likely so biologically diverse due to their effective nutrient cycling which allows for enough energy transfer to support an incredible amount of species abundance and richness.

My personal observations regarding the similarities and differences between both the reef and rainforest were that at both I was able to find my taxon relatively quickly; however, at the reef, it was much easier to identify them because I could get much closer. It seemed that I was also able to much more easily identify damage to the reef  (trash, etc.) than the rainforest. The rainforest seemed healthier.

This course greatly exceeded my expectations. For one, I didn’t think they we would see anywhere near the number of species we did, and I had no idea we would get to traverse through a place as amazing as the A.T.M. Cave. Also, the research stations were gorgeous and weren’t as unlivable as I thought they would be. My favorite part of the course was finding out that we had gotten a Tapir on camera trap, and my least favorite was getting seasick on the way back from the Forereef and feeling off for two days.

The most important things I learned in the course are that these ecosystems are in danger and that it is up to us to help them, that Belize is a country which truly cares for its natural resources and does everything it can to protect them, and I was surprised by both the immense amount of trash we found on the island we were staying on as well as the commonality of poaching in both the reef and rainforest. Overall, the trip was fantastic and I won’t be forgetting it anytime soon!!

Rainforest Taxa Seen: Keel-Billed Toucan, Plumbeous Kite, Vultures, Scarlet Macaw, Pauraque, Parrots, Social Flycatcher, Montezuma Oropendola, Spectacled Owl, Pygmy Owl, Barn Owl, Mottled Owl, Chachalaca, Curassow, and the Melodious Blackbird

Reef Taxa Seen: Reef Urchin, West Indian Sea Egg, Long-Spined Urchin, Brittle Stars, Red Heart Urchin, Slate Pencil Urchin, and the Donkey Dung Sea Cucumber

Wrap-up blog

It has been an amazing two weeks exploring the tropical rainforest and the reef. One similarity between these two ecosystems are they both have low nutrient conditions, but are able to be so biologically diverse because of efficient cycling loops. For example, the rainforest has nutrient poor soil, but has rapid decomposition, so the nutrients don’t spend much time in the soil. This efficient cycling of nutrients allows many different organisms to survive in the ecosystem. Another similarity between these ecosystems is the many mutualistic relationships that allow organisms to survive in their environment. In the reef, we learned about the microorganisms that live in coral. In the rainforest, we learned about the Acacia ants that live with the Bullhorn Acacia and there are so many more examples.

At this point I can barely remember what I expected from the course. I know I expected to see and learn a lot of new things and I definitely did. I don’t think I expected or realized that I would be able to see so many different and amazing plants and animals. I was so focused on Orthoptera, and non-reef building Anthozoans that I didn’t have many expectations about different organisms I would see. I was blown away by the birds, fungi, frogs, coral, fish, sea urchins, and many others that I got to observe in real life.

My favorite parts of the course were when someone in the group found something cool and everyone would rush other to see. A few examples of this were the reef shark, the octopus from the touch tank, the Morelet’s tree frog, and when Liz caught the Blue morpho. It was fun to be around people who were so excited to see these amazing things and learn from others. It was cool when someone would get excited about something from their taxonomic group like when Kelsey saw the Flamingo Tongue snail because it made me appreciate what I was seeing more. My least favorite parts were picking off ticks and being attacked by sandflies, but it was worth it.

Flamingo Tongue snail

It was  interesting to learn about the mutualistic relationships between organisms and see them in action. The most memorable relationship is the Cecropia tree and Azteca ants because my hand was surrounded by the ants when trying to measure leaf toughness. These ants protect the Cecropia tree and in return the ants get a carbohydrate source and a home from the tree.

Learning about marine debris and the basins in the ocean was very important to me. I knew a lot of it already, but actually picking up the trash gave me a concrete experience that changed the way I thought about the negative impact debris can have. It’s just hard to care as much about something when it feels very far away and this experience brought it a lot closer. I saw the fish, hermit crabs, and other organisms that could be directly affected and I saw how such a remote island could still be covered in trash.

The view from a Maya structure.

Lastly, it was interesting to learn about the Maya by looking at their structures, pottery, and even skeletons. It is hard to believe that archaeologists can learn about their religion, social structure, economy, and a lot more from these artifacts. One thing that sticks with me is how they built structures on top of existing structures until it was too small to live on because of their religious beliefs. I love being able to see things in person that I have heard about for years in school which I got to do a lot on this trip.

Orthoptera species list

Taeniopoda eques

Tropidacris cristata

Orophus tesselatus


Non-reef-building anthozoan species list

Condylactis Gigantea

Palythoa caribaeorum

Stichodactyla helianthus

Post-Belize Reflection

Wow! What an amazing experience! Our class of 11 was constantly at work hiking, setting up pit fall traps, collecting data with transects, snorkeling, collecting data with quadrads, interpreting data, putting together poster presentations among other activities. In total, we accomplished 6 research projects with poster presentations for each of them. For each research project, we learned something new and interesting about the unique environment that we were living in for half a month. The experience involved a lot of hard work both physically and mentally, but it rewarded me with knowledge, fun, friends, and a lasting appreciation for the beauty of this world. It is nice to be home, where there’s air conditioning, WiFi, warm showers, less mosquitoes, no sandflies, but I will be thinking about Belize and my experience there for a long time to come. Thank you Dr. Solomon, Dr. Shore, Las Cuevas Research Station, and Glover’s Reef Research Station—for this one-of-a-kind opportunity!


  • Eurytides marcellus, Zebra Swallowtail
  • Morpho peleides, Blue Morpho
  • Ascalapha odorata, Black Witch Moth
  • Sphingidae genus, Sphinx Moth
  • Heliconius hecale, Tiger Longwing
  • Eacles imperialis, Imperial Moth
  • Papilio polyxenes, Black Swallowtail

Piscivorous Fish

  • Ocyurus chrysurus, Yellowtail Snapper
  • Pterois volitans, Red Lionfish
  • Sphyraena genusBarracuda
  • Halichoeres bivittatus, Slippery Dick Wrasse
  • Hemiramphus brasiliensis, Ballyhoo
  • Ginglymostoma cirratum, Nurse Shark

Above is a list of the different species I saw from my taxons while on the trip. Below is a picture of a different species that I see at home. Glad to be reunited with my house cat (Felis catus) pictured below in his natural habitat!

Day 15: Traveling home

It’s hard to believe that I started today on a small island off Belize and am now in my house in Austin. Today was a long day of traveling by boat, van, plane, and car. I was a little worried about making my connecting flight home, but ended up having plenty of time especially since one of the armrests needed repair on the plane.

View of Belize City on the boat ride back from Glover’s

It is nice being home and I’m excited to tell my family about my trip. I am still extremely itchy, but at least I’m not getting any new bites!

On the Road Again!- Day 15

Today we said goodbye to Belize and arrived back in Houston. Glover’s Reef is now a memory, as are our other experiences on our trip, but I’m sure we’ll all look back on them fondly. We had a long day today, and it all started when we met up at 5 a.m. We ate cinnamon rolls which the cooking staff had kindly prepared for us and then we hopped on a boat which took us back to Belize City. Once on land, we said goodbye to Herbi and Javier, two people I will definitely remember from our trip thanks to all they did for us.

Sunrise while leaving Glover’s


We then took a van to the airport where we made our way through customs and security and boarded a plane which thankfully didn’t seem to have any problems with its trays. We were then in the air and finally going back home. We landed, said goodbye to a few people who had connecting flights and then were on a bus back to Rice. Once there, we unloaded and everyone said their final goodbyes. We went in our separate directions and everyone headed home to catch up on some air conditioning, sleep, and probably take a much-needed shower.

We didn’t see any echinoderms today, and that’s probably a good thing because I don’t think any of them can fly.

It’s crazy to think that we’re already back home, but the trip was full of experiences I’ll never forget. We had to get comfortable being uncomfortable and we learned a ton in a mere two weeks. Although I’m happy I’ll be able to sleep with blankets again, I’ll definitely miss the people I met, the friends I made, and the experiences we shared. Thanks for everything Belize, see you soon!

Hello Clivus my New Friend!- Day 14

Today was our last full day in Belize (cue the sad violin music), but we definitely made the most of it. After breakfast, we jumped straight into a research project which involved picking up marine debris (trash) from all over the island. Our goal was to determine its composition. It was kind of depressing seeing the immense amount of trash that had accumulated on this small remote island, but I’m glad we were able to clean it up a little bit. Most of the trash we collected ended up being plastic (surprise!).


The trash we found

In the afternoon, we were able to perform a lionfish dissection! Scott, Herbi, and Javier had been hunting them at the reefs we visited since they are an invasive and harmful species. We used the fish they caught in our dissection. We determined sex and even looked at their stomach contents. One of the lionfish had a completely intact fish in its stomach! Afterward, Herbi turned the lionfish into ceviche. It was delicious.

The Lionfish ceviche


As we spent our entire day today on land, we, unfortunately, weren’t able to see any echinoderms. My dreams of finding sea stars and chocolate chip sea cucumbers never came true, but the echinoderms we did see were really interesting and my favorite was definitely the Donkey Dung Sea Cucumber.

I can’t believe we’re already leaving tomorrow. It feels like our two weeks here have flown by. We had a sendoff get together on the island’s dock tonight, and it was nice to get to just talk, look at the stars, and relax. I’m definitely going to miss all of the great food we’ve had as well as the incredible experiences. I’ll even miss my new friend Clivus (the composting toilet). This trip has really allowed me to appreciate the world’s biodiversity, and I can’t wait to talk about and share all that I’ve learned and experienced!



1 Urchin, 2 Urchin, Red Urchin, Blue Urchin!- Day 13

Guess what we got to do during our research project today. Did I hear COLLECT SEA URCHINS, because that’s exactly what we did! I was worried about even seeing echinoderms today, but then we had a whole research project centered around them! We visited two reefs, one inside and one outside the Marine Protected Area. We collected as many urchins as we could within 30 minutes, placed them into a bucket, measured and identified them, and then placed them back into the ocean.

A bucket of urchins we collected


We found a bunch of different species, including the Slate Pencil Urchin, a lot of Reef Urchins, the Red Heart Urchin, West Indian Sea Egg, and a good amount of Long-Spined Sea Urchins (Diadema Antillarum), some of which were HUGE! We saw a much larger number than we collected, but many of them were either too far into crevices or stuck onto rocks so tight that it was impossible to get them. I didn’t realize how fast urchins could be until I tried catching them!

Tonight, we were even able to go for a night snorkel to a nearby patch reef! It was way darker than I thought it would be but we all had dive lights so seeing wasn’t an issue. We were able to see a lot of species which we wouldn’t usually see during the day. We saw a bunch of lobsters, shrimp, a Southern Ray, and even a puffer fish. I also saw two Donkey Dung Sea Cucumbers! They were laying on the ocean floor and if I wasn’t looking for them, I definitely would’ve missed them.

The night snorkel was the last time we’ll be in the water since tomorrow we will be entirely on land. Being able to visit reefs and explore a small bit of the ocean’s diversity was amazing, and an experience I’ll remember for quite some time. Tomorrow is our last full day in Belize, which is crazy!



In the Corals and the Trees (Reflection Post) with species lists

The coral reef and the rainforest are the most diverse marine and terrestrial ecosystems, respectively. They both represent what seems on the surface a paradox—nutrient poor soils in the rainforest and nutrient poor waters in the reef, despite the incredible diversity of organisms in each place. Coral reefs actually rely on the low nutrient density of the water, because when there are more nutrients available, algae tends to outcompete corals. In the rainforest, the nutrient poor soils are due to the rapid nutrient cycling and wide diversity of decomposers facilitated by high temperatures and rainfall and necessary for the incredible growth present there. In addition, my taxon groups in the rainforest and on the reef were somewhat parallel: the trees in the forest and the corals on the reef. Each of these is the foundation of the ecosystem, photosynthesize (or have a symbiotic relationship with photosynthesizing organisms), and are incredibly abundant.

I took the wide diversity of each species as a challenge, and tried to identify as many as I could, although in each case some of the organisms looked incredibly similar to one another and occupied similar niches.

Unfortunately, when I set out to take this course, I saw the obstacle of my food allergies first and any academic challenges second. The result of this was that I was thoroughly prepared to avoid food allergens, and less prepared for the actual coursework. Despite this, I learned more in these two weeks than I think I ever have in two weeks before in my life: about the rainforest, the reef, and research in the field. Interestingly (maybe this is TMI) I have a skin condition and thought it would get worse on the trip. It did the opposite and flared up as soon as we returned to Houston. Allergies also turned out to be easy to deal with, as the cooks on the island and in the rainforest were very careful and had limited ingredients in the kitchen to begin with (fewer contaminants).

It’s hard to choose a favorite part of the course. We saw spider monkeys shaking trees at us to get us to go away (we just thought they were cute); a tapir on one of our camera traps (we all cheered!), scarlet macaws almost every day in the rainforest, the inside of a leafcutter ant nest. I think the most intriguing things I saw were zombie ants. Zombie ants are ants that are infected with a fungus that somehow compels the ant to climb up (in this case on a palm). The ant then clings to the inside of the palm and slowly dies as the fungus eats it from the inside out, then sends out a fruiting body (mushroom). We saw several of these, and some ants that were still moving but appeared lost on the bottom of palm leaves, possibly controlled by the fungus. The phenomenon is incredible and frightening, as when I’ve related it to friends and family one of the first questions they ask is “can that infect humans?!” The answer to that question is no. At least, no known fungus will do that to humans.

In addition to the course content, I think we all learned how to split up the work to get something done, and not obsess about the details (for those of us inclined to do so). For example, the first research project we did took all day to analyze. We spent the morning making sure each morphospecies (“species” identified as “species A” based on observable characteristics when the species name is unimportant) was carefully identified, and the entire afternoon making a poster. We had all of our graphs on a laptop instead of the poster itself, and had the one person with some of the best handwriting and drawing skills (Liz) draw the entire poster (no printing facilities in the jungle!). By the end of the two weeks, we could whip up a poster in a few hours, max. A few people would work on each section, and at least two people would write and draw on the poster. We were much more efficient, and still conveyed our work effectively.

Scott requested a species count for each taxon in the reflection post, so here those are:


Elephant Ear/ Guanacaste (Enterlobium cyclocarpum)

Trumpet tree (Cecropia peltata)

Caribbean Pine (Pinus caribaea)

Rosewood (Dalbergia stevensonii)

Billy Webb (Sweetia panamensis)

Nargusta (Terminalia amazonica)

Mahogany (Swietenia macrophylla)

Spanish Cedar (Cedrela odorata)

Bull Thorn Acacia / Bullhorn Acacia (Acacia/Vachellia cornigera)

Basket Tie-Tie (Desmonicus schippii)

Banana (Musa sapientum/paradisiaca)

Prickly Yellow (Zanthoxylum sp.)

White Poisonwood (Sebastiana tuerckheimiana)

Black Poisonwood (Metopium Browneii) (Tropical Education Center)

Fiddlewood (Vitex gaumeri)

Kapik/Ceiba (Ceiba pentandra)

Horse’s Balls Tree (Stemmadenia donnell-smithii)

Guava (Psidium guajava)

White oak sp. (Quercus insignis) (Tropical Education Center)

Sapodilla/Chicle (Manilhara zapota)

Give-and-Take Palm (Crysophila staurocantha)

Gumbolimbo/ Tourist Tree (Bursera simaruba)

Jobillo (Astronium graveolens)

Bay Cedar (Guazuma ulmifolia)



Elkhorn Coral (Acropora palmata)

Staghorn Coral (Acropora cervicornis)

Mustard Hill Coral (Porites astreoides)

Thin Finger Coral (Porites divaricata)

Grooved Brain Coral (Pseudodiploria labyrinthiformis)

Boulder Brain Coral (Colpophyllia natans)

Pillar Coral (Dendrogyra cylindrus)

Symmetrical Brain Coral (Pseudodiploria strigosa)

Golfball Coral (Favia fragum)

Lettuce Coral (Agaricia sp.)

Mountainous Star Coral (Orbicella faveolata)

Massive Starlet Coral (Siderastrea siderea)

Additional Siderastrea sp., maybe stellata, dead coral

Boulder Star Coral (Montastrea cavernosa)

Day 15: The city is too… city

We woke up before 5 to meet, with bags packed, at the dining building. Breakfast was a cinnamon roll for most, but since that contains milk and I have an allergy, mine was fresh papaya. The mood was subdued; in part, it was 5 in the morning. In addition, we were worn out and ready to be back home. We took a calmer three hour boat ride back to the coast, then took a van to the airport.

We had time at the airport to buy souvenirs. Some of the popular ones included Marie Sharp’s brand jam, of various tropical flavors, and Belizean hot sauce. A couple of the hot sauce names were No Wimps Allowed and BEWARE. They also sold Mayan carvings and weavings, some at pretty steep prices. The prices were a mix of Belizean dollars and US dollars; a US dollar is worth twice that of a Belize dollar.

Marie Sharp’s Jam from the airport

The plane was a bit delayed, but not so much I think that the three connecting flights were too much of a problem. Once we got to the Houston airport (IAH), we had to say goodbye to the three students who were catching connecting flights to go home. Since three of the students on the trip were from Vanderbilt and Baylor, respectively, there is a good chance we may never see each other again. After two weeks in close quarters, we got to know each other pretty well, and it was sad to see everyone depart. Although, I will say that by the end of two weeks in such close quarters, with everyone exhausted and itching, we were beginning to step on each other’s toes a bit.

The rest of us took a bus back to Rice. The city was a bit of a shock after the island and the forest—so noisy, rushed, and concrete! Despite a packed schedule, there were fewer worries in the jungle than in the city.

Day 14: We found a boat in the Mangroves of Death

This morning we combined a research project with an exercise in awareness, in addition to helping the island with a major problem. You see, an island that is in the middle of the ocean (not near shore) still, perhaps surprisingly, collects debris.

We split up into four groups and went to different sides of the island: The Dock, The Touch Tank (named such because we collected animals for a touch tank there on Day 11), The Coral Graveyard (where corals wash up on the shore; this is the windward side of the island), and an area we termed the Mangroves of Death. For some unknown reason—okay, because few people were willing to go—I went to pick up trash in the Mangroves of Death. For the uninitiated, Mangroves of Death are full of mosquitoes and also, in this case, sand flies. Our group of three students went out there to the jungle gym of mangroves and alternated picking up old rags, plastic bottles, plastic bags, and other trash and slapping ourselves to rid our skin of mosquitoes. Having anticipated this, I was covered except for my face. As it turns out, the sand flies didn’t care and bit me all over anyway, but the mosquitoes just clustered around my face. I tried to get them off with my arms, because I was using my hands to pick up trash and didn’t want to rub the dirt on my face.

The highest count of marine debris was at the Coral Graveyard, and we decided this could be caused by the fact that this was where trash would hit the island when the surface of the water was moving with the wind. However, the second highest count and the largest volume of trash was found in the Mangroves of Death. This was partly due to the large metal and foam boat pieces we found and dragged back with us. Another reason this could be the case is that the mangroves form a maze of roots that collects, in addition to water, trash. Trash becomes tangled in the roots, so we had larger pieces of trash in general, leading to a larger volume despite a slightly lower number of pieces. We also found mostly plastic. Despite 12 people spending half an hour collecting trash, we all felt like we hardly made a dent in the marine debris washed up on the island, despite the fact that the staff on the island regularly collect what washes up.

Kaela and me counting marine debris from the Mangroves of Death

After lunch we dissected lionfish. Lionfish are invasive in the Atlantic (native to the Indo-Pacific) and have few predators here, so they proliferate and are destructive to competing carnivorous fish populations and eat young commercially harvested fish species. That could potentially have an impact on the fishing industry. We measured them (ours was 21.5 cm, or about 9 in, long) and pulled out the stomach. Ours looked pretty full but the contents were not identifiable. Another group found a whole fish in the stomach of their lionfish.

Herbie with a lionfish

We then had a snack of lionfish ceviche, made with the same fish we dissected, and took a break to pack until dinner.

In the evening we had a brief social gathering on the dock, looking back on our experiences. But it wasn’t just socializing—Amanda tied her dive light to the dock and attracted lots of tiny shrimp. This attracts fish that feed on the shrimp, and fish that will eat those larger fish. Eventually we saw a few stingrays and a shark, all right under our feet on the dock!