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The Calm Before the Storm: <24 Hours Until Departure!

Hi everyone! Welcome to my very first blog post (disclaimer: I’ve never written a blog before but I’ll do my best) about my soon-to-be tropical field biology adventures in Belize! I, along with thirteen other students and two professors from Rice University, fly out tomorrow (!!!), and I am both excited and nervous.

Oddly enough, a part of both of those emotions come from not quite knowing what to expect. Though I have been speaking with other students who went on the trip last year to try to prepare myself and gain insight on what might be useful to bring/do, I feel like there is no way to completely know what is going to happen these next couple of weeks.

That aside, most of my excitement stems from being able to explore new ecosystems and learning firsthand about a variety of organisms that live in those ecosystems. I hope to learn a lot about the different aspects of the rainforest and the coral reef and be able to identify some species that live in each of them. On the other hand, I am slightly nervous because some of those organisms are definitely not things I would normally prefer to interact with (i.e. spiders and snakes) and because I have no previous experience conducting research in the tropics.

In an attempt to prepare myself for such an adventure, I have been doing some research on my assigned topic (marine debris!) and taxa (echinoderms and beetles!) to prepare for the presentations we will be giving, but I am sure that the actual experience of finding and identifying these species will be quite the learning experience in itself. I have also purchased all of the required equipment (and lots of other things we may or may not need) and practiced with the snorkel gear. Still, I know that despite any and all preparations I could make, there will undoubtedly be surprises once we arrive and are actually immersed in both the rainforest and coral reef.

For right now, my bags are packed, my presentation PowerPoints are finished, and by the time I make my next post, I will be in Belize amongst the rainforest creatures! See you all on the other side! 🙂

~Stephanie

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^Everything is clean at the airport on day 1. 🙂

16 Hours To Go…

In just 16 more hours, I’ll be on my way to my first-ever experience as a tropical field biologist. Though I’m nervous about my foray into the world of TFBs, I’m extremely excited to have this opportunity during my college career.

I hope to come back in two weeks with a better grasp of what it means to be a field researcher, and hopefully an inkling of whether or not I’d like to pursue ecology research in the future. I know I’ll return with a wealth of knowledge of the tropical ecosystems in Belize; I’m probably most excited for the random animal facts I will undoubtedly accrue on this trip and can use to annoy my friends/family in the future. (Did you know some parrotfish make cocoons out of mucus??)

Though I’ve spent the past several weeks knee-deep in research on the venomous snake species of Central America, snakes are the least of my worries right now (I’ll have my trusty rain boots to protect against them). Instead, I’m a bit nervous about immersing myself into the world of EBIO. I’ve never experienced research in the field, and I hope to keep up with all the organisms and topics we discuss. I’ve never been a fan of insect biology, but I hope this course can help me overcome some (irrational) phobias and learn to appreciate the importance of insects in rainforest ecology.

Though I’ve traveled to both reef and rainforest ecosystems before, I’ve never gone into a trip with this much knowledge of the flora and fauna. As I searched journal articles for my presentations, I found numerous studies conducted in places like Costa Rica, in sites that I had actually visited! On past vacations, I may have encountered some incredible wildlife without even realizing it; one paper told me that I might’ve even heard the odd call of the Montezuma Oropendola while visiting the Arenal Volcano in Costa Rica! I’ve sincerely enjoyed uncovering facts like this in my preparations for this course. I’ve never been so knowledgeable about a country’s ecology before visiting, and this will help me make the most of my travels.

And finally, my greatest fear is that I’ll return to Houston without seeing any of the incredible species I’ve studied so far. Here’s hoping the next two weeks offer a tommygoff or even an ocelot sighting!

Here I am sitting on a sofa, sipping a bottle of Shiner and watching Django: Unchained, with all the hopes, excitement, and worries dangling on back of my head. First time in Central America, first time without an tourist-agenda, first ever to be in the rainforest and coral reef. This trip to Belize will be a challenge and a great opportunity. Venturing among the rainforest and reefs, getting the idea of field biology which I aspire as my career. This trip will be an opportunity for me to see if I am fit for field biology. The best outcome of this trip would be finding myself liking field biology over all things.

I can’t say I have done any exceptional preparation beyond what is expected. But even from that preparation I learned quite a bit about the rainforest. I researched about the delicate state of the rainforest and the soil which it is supported on. I researched about the ants and brown algae. I am hoping that these will stay in my mind while the trip in Belize and help others identify them.

My biggest worry is indeed about my safety. As natural rainforest and coral reefs are as dangerous they could be. Malaria, rabies, venomous snakes and what not, I pray I come home in one piece.

Well, only 12 hours before I head for IAH. My luggage are packed, and I will finish the movie and go to bed, gearing myself to mindset of a traveler and a scientist.

Pumped for Belize

Tomorrow I will be fulfilling the promise I made to myself a little less than two years ago by going back to Belize. After my first experience in Belize, I am more than excited to return solely for the purpose of studying the country’s biodiversity, especially its coral reefs.

Experience is the greatest teacher and I am prepared to go into this trip with an enthusiastic mindset in order to come away with a greater understanding of the tropics. This lab course is the result of a culmination of many months of preparation and reading. I purposefully chose to take EBIO 213 and Coral Reef Ecosystems this past spring semester, and also chose stony corals and bleaching as my topics for lectures, in order to glean as much as I could this semester.

I have several goals: attract an orchid bee, find an Acropora palmata or Acropora cervicornis, and identify at least seven different species of stony corals correctly. The only thing that makes me nervous is the bugs. I know they are there, just waiting to bite me. That is one of the reasons I love the ocean. No bugs. I am most excited to stay at Glover’s Reef.

My experience in the tropics is minimal I would say. I’ve been to Hawaii, Belize, and the Bahamas. In every location I have sustained numerous, if not catastrophic, amounts of bug bites. This time I am armed with hydrocortisone. The good news is that I love humidity and can adapt fairly easily to hot and muggy conditions.

I am so excited for this trip and I hope to soak up information like a sponge! Get it 😉

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Photo by moi. Jun 9, 2014.

Here is the sea turtle I met from my first visit!

T minus 36 hours

I don’t think that I’ve fully processed the fact that I’ll be in a completely different country and culture in less than 48 hours. Going into this course, I am extremely excited to have the opportunity to explore a region that I have never experienced before. The closest I’ve been to the tropics is Hawaii, which is different from continental tropics because it is so isolated and the land mass cannot support the same level of biodiversity.

I am expecting Belize to have an amazing amount of biodiversity, which makes preparing the taxon identification cards very difficult. All I can hope for is that we’ll spot most of the trees and green algae that I included on the cards! I can’t wait to see what all of my classmates have been learning about for their taxa. I feel like I’ve learned so much from A Natural History of Belize but I’m sure that I’ll learn much more during our stay at Las Cuevas Research Station. I also was able to take a course on coral reefs this spring with Adrienne Correa. I am looking forward to using what I learned during our stay at Glover’s Reef.

One of the things that I am most excited for is staying at the Belize Zoo. It will be interesting staying in the midst of so many animals – and knowing that they’re there! I wonder if I’ll feel more or less surrounded by animals in the zoo than at Las Cuevas…

I have to admit, I am a little nervous about insects and spiders that we aren’t looking for. I should be protected from biting creatures, what with my new field pants, rubber boots, long shirts, and bug spray. I’m still expecting to get bites, but not serious ones.

I can’t wait to be immersed in the forests and reefs of Belize!

Two Days!

As someone who came into Rice knowing exactly what she wanted her major to be, I have been looking for ways to work this course into my curriculum since the beginning. While my certainty in EBIO has never wavered, I am not a place to definitively say what kind of research I want to go into. That’s where EBIO 319 comes in. I expect that this course’s broad nature will give me a more comprehensive view of the field that I will eventually be going into. Do I want to focus on terrestrial or marine systems? Ecology or evolution? What specific system? These are questions that I hope to at least make some progress on. I also expect that I will be underprepared for the trip in some large way. On similar trips, I have found this to be true. I’m not too worried about this; everything works out in the end (and you get great stories!) I love going on trips like this not only because of their educational value, but because of how they bring the participants together. I fully expect that we will find the trials and tribulations of the rainforest and coral atoll material for bonding. I cannot wait to get to know these people better.

The last couple of days have been very hectic for me, as I’m sure they have been for all of my classmates. I think we are all feeling increasing pressure to have everything perfectly in order. Getting proper fins has been a particular struggle for me. I think that I might end up carrying them in my lap on the plane! While there have been many logistical hurdles to clear, I have also been preparing my knowledge of the country.  The book, while definitely long, has been a valuable resource in explaining the important biotic and abiotic factors in the region. At the same time, I don’t want to remain too reliant on the book to prepare me. Words can only do so much. I’m prepared to have many of my assumptions be proven wrong upon arrival.

In addition to hopefully providing some clarity on what I want to focus on in my EBIO curriculum, I hope that this course give me a immersive view into an ecosystem. After spending two years learning about ecosystems interactions from afar, I am excited to be right in it for two weeks. I think that this will greatly flesh out my current EBIO knowledge.

On the other hand, I am worried that I’ll get all of the way out there and be completely lost in the myriad of topics that we will be covering. It is possible that the breadth of the course will further my confusion on my specific interests. On the logistical side of things, it is very possible that I will forget something crucial (deodorant? pants?). Ah well, neither of these worries overshadows my overall excitement for the course!

I know that I am going to enjoy this trip. Travel is one of my favorite things to do and when combined with the subject that I love, I know that this will be an experience that will remember even when I have left Rice. A couple of years ago, I went on a scientific/tourist expedition to the Galapagos Island with National Geographic. While I was probably too young to fully appreciate the impact, it definitely peaked my interest in the biological sciences. Later on, I traveled with my high school to Peru for a more service oriented trip. Both trips to Latin America were great experiences. I am looking to continue this trend. In the end, I am most excited to simply be in Belize. I can picture myself waking up for breakfast, not in Martel College but in the rainforest/coral reef. The calmer moments before we leave for the day’s research will likely be what I remember most. Well that and the academic clarity I hope to find. I can’t believe it’s only two days away!

 

Leaving in 5 days already?!?

As excited as I’ve been about this trip all semester, it has never seemed fully real until this week.

In preparation, I have procured all the appropriate equipment, including two different kinds of bugspray because I was concerned in the store that one might not work. I’ve spent the last few weeks finishing up the book: A Natural History of Belize: Inside the Maya Forest, and researching arachnids and molluscs.

There’s only so much a book or the internet can teach you, however, and I’m very excited about the opportunity to see first hand all the diversity I’ve read about. I’m especially excited to be able to see and learn about first hand how the medium level of disturbance that the Chiquibul (and all the forests of Belize) experience leads to more biodiversity and the growth of species that would normally be outcompeted.

I also want to understand first hand how the spiders who do not use webs hunt. The Wolf Spider and the Fishing Spider specifically seem really interesting, and I hope to get to see them in action.

I’m nervous about being on the constant look out for dangerous snakes or bugs. I’ve spent a fair amount of time in the tropics (in Belize itself and also in neighboring countries in Central and South America), and the one thing I’ve noticed the most is that you have to maintain a constant level of respect for the potential dangers around you in order to keep yourself alert and safe. The cryptic nature of the snakes and arthropods in the jungle make it extra important to stay alert in this environment.

Admittedly, though, the thing I’m most worried about is being eaten alive by mosquitos and other biting insects. Mosquitos seem to love me, so I’m hoping there’s other people on the trip who they also love and can distract them from me.

The jungle is one of my favorite places to be. As a kid my parents took me to some amazing places including Belize, and I loved the feeling that the jungle has. It feels like a completely separate world, so I’m very excited to be back in that world. The best thing about the jungle in my opinion is the respect it commands, and how small the trees and noise can make you feel.

I’m also really excited about the possibility of seeing some really cool fauna.

And I will be detailing all my exciting experiences here whenever we have internet.