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Day 2: Getting to Las Cuevas

Today we left San Ignacio and made our way to Las Cuevas Research Station, visiting Caracol on our way. As we were driving to Caracol, we saw a coati and a great black hawk along the road. The roads were pretty bumpy, but the drive was really pretty. As we started our drive we saw Cecropia trees and also saw some gumbo-limbos. The gumbo-limbos are also called ‘tourist trees’ because they are red and flaky, like sunburnt skin. So far none of us have begun to look like the tourist trees, which is good. Hopefully it’ll stay that way.

A gumbo limbo tree with bark resembling a tourist’s sunburnt skin

On our way to Caracol we drove through Mountain Pine Ridge, an area that was different from other places we’ve seen because of the large number of pine trees. The region was more open and seemed drier, with more grasses and fewer vines.

Once we arrived in Caracol, we walked around the archaeological site to observe the ruins and the flora and fauna of the area. The site is absolutely amazing, with towering pyramids and dense forests. It’s amazing to think that more than a million people used to live in the region, when closer to 250,000 live in all of Belize today. At Caracol the guide pointed out a number of trees, including breadnuts, allspice, and avocado. There also were a lot of Chamedorea plants around Caracol. Chamedorea is sold as an ornamental leaf. The large security presence at Caracol was in part to protect the Chamedorea leaves from poachers.

Chamedorea plant at Caracol
Chamedorea plant at Caracol
Avocado tree at Caracol

Tomorrow we venture into the forest around Las Cuevas. I’m looking forward to the start of our field work!

Caracol City Exploration + (Another Bumpy) Journey to Las Cuevas

Hi everyone! I’m checking in today from the porch of Las Cuevas research station after another busy and fun day. It began with an early morning open air breakfast at 6 am filled with cool bird sightings (we saw a blue-crowned motmot and a brown jay among other things) followed by travels to Caracol and an exploration of the ruins of the Mayan city.

It was really neat to climb to the top of the different ruins and learn a lot about the history of the area from our awesome tour guide. He told us about balsa bark and how it cleanses blood, about how the Mayans climbed up the ruins on their hands and knees to humble themselves before the Gods, and the structure of the old city and how it resembled the spokes of a wheel with the elite living in the capital at the middle of the spoke and the agricultural peasants living around the edges as well as many other topics.

After our picnic lunch, our plans to swim in the waterfalls at Rio On got deterred due to the lack of transmission fluid in the van, so we took a break in the middle of the dirt road and learned about termites as one of the taxa presentations for the day. Eventually we made it here to Las Cuevas research station, where we will be spending the next week. Sitting here sweaty and satisfied with the day’s activities thus far, I have to say I am equally excited for the shower tonight and for the next week ahead! 🙂

A quick note about any taxa sightings before I end today’s post: Other than a small click beetle (family Elateridae) I spied among the dead leaf litter at the base of a large tree in the ruins, observations of my taxa were not prevalent today, but I am sure there will be more to identify during this upcoming week in the rainforest. Species sightings did abound today in other taxa. We saw are a coati (small mammal), a gumbo limbo tree (nicknamed tourist tree because of its red peeling bark), and an anole (a small brown lizard) on the way to Caracol, many lichens, birds, and a philodendra fruit (which we sampled) while in the ruins, and toucans and butterflies on the road to Las Cuevas.

Caracol was beautiful.
We made it to the top!

Day 2: Moving Right Along

After starting the day off right with coconut scrambled eggs we set to the road again. I had two more Lepidoptera moments before we even left the resort. I found another deceased Hermeuptychia sosybius (Carolina Satyr). Aside from that I saw a cocoon that appeared to have a chrysalis inside. We loaded up and headed over to the Caracol archeological site. We climbed the tallest stairs I have seen- more so than the scary Wortham Center top tier. I was chasing butterflies (I haven’t identified any moths so far) and have found I can identify some of the butterflies quite easily, but am having a hard time with fast-flying butterflies. They never sit still long enough for me to get a good look. There’s also been a few that I don’t have on my Identification sheet. So far I have positively identified an East Mexican Banner, White Northern Segregate, and a Banded Peacock butterfly. We have seen a lot of interesting birds like the Oropendula with hanging nests and bright yellow tails. We also saw a coati while driving. After leaving the Caracol site, the van started to struggle even harder.
And it died when we reached the Tapir military checkpoint.
On-the-spot backup plan: load everything [and everyone] into two pickup trucks and make the rest of the drive to Las Cuevas Research station. From the back of the truck we saw more Oropendula and a few toucan. A bit dusty-but in one piece-we arrived at the research station in time for dinner. I am hoping to see a macaw at the research station while we are staying here. I still haven’t seen some of the butterflies I am hoping to either (I want to see a blue morpho).DSCN0016

(Nakian) May 18 Caracol x Atta x Sustainability

DSCN2151 DSCN2133 DSCN2125

I could observe Atta cephalotes (Leaf-cutter Ants) in the morning. They had orange-brown body, long limbs, and butt-shaped head with horns. There were less of them working than last night, I am guessing that A. cephalotes might be nocturnal. This is supported by the fact that at Caracol Archaeological site, I could only see recent work trail of A. cephalotes without the laborers themselves. Also I could find them in their mound but not working outside. Unlike other ants I have observed until now, I could distinguish between the minor and major workers.

In the morning I could also find an ant from genus Pachycondyla which the locals call “tiger ants.” They say its well developed sting is 10 times stronger than that of fire ants. They were at least 15mm up to 20mm, shiny dark-gold body with hair, with very strong-looking mandibles. Scott says Pachycondyla ants are not polymorphic.

Other than Atta and Pachycondyla, I found two more kinds of ants which I could not identify at the moment, including the one described in the last blog post. The other species was black overall, short and fat overall body, hairy abdomen.

After breakfast, we headed for Caracol Archaeological Site. Named because of the frequent excavation of shells (which in Spanish is caracol), is a major Mayan city state which once had the power enough to defeat well-known city of Tikal. The city is designed so that suburbs, than peasant district will spread radially from the rulers’ center. The center comprised of humongous temples, apparently still the highest structure in Belize. A population matching half of that of today’s Belize occupied Caracol. It is amazing that such megalopolis was supported in such remote and highly vegetated area. What is more, I am amazed by how such vast ecosystem could recover from long disturbance by the Mayan cities in just 1000 years.

The guide explained that Mayan cities disintegrated gradually as people abandoned them. If human civilization expand, extract, and exploit unsustainably, similar fate of chaos and disintegration seems obvious. Unlike, however, the Mayans, we will have no where to go after abandonment because our planetary influence have extracted everywhere on Earth so dry.

Travels + First Day at (Crystal) Paradise

Hello from a lovely room at Crystal Paradise (the name of the resort we’re staying at) near San Ignacio, Belize! Today was mainly a day of travel and adaptations, from the lack of running water and food at Houston Hobby airport to the technological difficulties with the projector during lecture time.

Nothing too noteworthy to mention about the plane or car ride, but after landing in Belize and going through customs, we took a van to this resort (stopping at a small grocery store along the way for snacks), had a delicious homemade dinner prepared by the locals, and then listened to presentations. Today’s lecture covered life in the canopy, and the taxa presented were trees and epiphytes.

As for my taxa, no beetles were spotted today, but I am confident that there will soon be plenty of them to see and identify once I have the opportunity to take a closer look at the trees and ground in the rainforest. Suffice it to say, it was a pretty great first day despite all of the adjustments we had to make! I’m looking forward to all the adventures sure to come over the next two weeks here. 🙂

A trail of leaf-cutter ants that had formed a path outside Crystal Paradise
Ready to explore 🙂

Day 1: Surprises at Every Corner

Today was filled with unexpected surprises. First day at Belize and I’m already feeling the heat (and humidity) of the class, with everything from the water crisis that closed every restaurant at Hobby Airport, to the crazy looking trees like the Ceiba during our drive to the hotel, to seeing a boa right outside the Crystal Paradise Resort dining room, to the cane toad that peed on Scott’s hand in defense. The Ceiba trees grew in plain view and were readily distinguishable from a distance. The Bridgewater book mentions that these types of trees tend to proliferate in disturbed areas of rainforest, like the sides of streets. To be able to see the example in person is like finally getting to meet your number one celebrity.

The boa Dr. Solomon located this evening was particularly active. According to one of the staff working here, the boa seemed to be on the hunt, periodically moving and stopping in the stems of trees.

But despite all the excitement in seeing these bizarre yet textbook creatures, I finally got to see what I came for, the cockroaches! Sure they’re disgusting, and I don’t really enjoy them, but witnessing one crawl down Adrienne’s leg during our outdoor dinner at Crystal Paradise, startling her in the process, made my day and got me pumped to document more of these unstudied and unappreciated insects. The cockroach we saw had a black body, but the small hood above its head, called a pronotum, had a black spot in the middle, leading me to guess it’s of the genus Blaberus, which is quite common in Central/South America. Alas, I didn’t snap a photo when I could have, serving as a reminder for me to keep my camera handy at all times. Typical of cockroaches, the insect slipped away into the crevices of the dining rooms wooden planks, out of sight.

Day 1: Houston to Belize

At 10:30 this morning our adventure began. We met up at Rice before going to Hobby Airport and then flying to Belize City. As we descended into the city, it was already clear that we were entering a different country. The houses here are painted every bright shade imaginable, which makes everything seem more festive and exciting.

The number of trees is amazing. Wherever wasn’t developed was being lost to the forest. We noticed lots of small fires as we traveled from Belize City to San Ignacio. The current theories are that they are for burning trash and for slash-and-burn agriculture. Hopefully we’ll be able to get a better idea of these fires when it is light out in the future.

A stand of bamboo at Crystal Paradise
A stand of bamboo at Crystal Paradise

We saw many species of trees. The most common were palms, which seem to be able to rise above other trees to take full advantage of the light, and Cecropia species, which have large palmate leaves. The leaves look somewhat like hands, with multiple lobes originating from the center. I haven’t seen any algae yet because we haven’t been by water, and I’ll give an update on more trees that we find tomorrow!

Day 1: A Bumpy Ride(literally)

Well we made it to Belize! And we made it to the resort we are staying at for the night. After landing in Belize City we had to a drive for a few hours. The van was bouncing like it was on a dirt road…but the road was paved…and got rather hilly. I did find a Lepidoptera today- I almost stepped on it. On a porch at the resort,I found a dead Carolina Satyr butterfly(Hermeuptychia sosbius). With the angle the wings had settled, initially I thought it was a moth. When I looked closer(it’s wingspan is about 2 cm) I saw the eyespots on the bottom side of the hindwing. I flipped the butterfly over to examine the upper and saw the solid brown. Definitely a Carolina Satyr- one I had added to the Lepidoptera identification sheet. With the lighting the camera was having trouble focusing on the tiny butterfly.DSCN0012

Day 1: Wow

Where did the day go? I woke up on my friend’s couch this morning exhausted and now I’m falling asleep to crickets in Belize! (Still exhausted)

I’ve had plenty of time to catch my breath today and do some personal observations. My favorite thing to do in the field right now is to listen. There are hundreds of voices in the darkness, each belonging to a different organism, determined to have his pulses or drones or chattering chirps heard by a mate. How romantic, no? Let’s not think about their creepier, crawlier side just yet—I’ll have close-up pictures of that tomorrow.

I heard a fascinating lecture on life in the rainforest canopy. One point stuck out to me, as I listened to Sam. These paradoxically nutrient poor soil conditions produce the most astounding variety of plant life on Earth, which in turn supports the entire trophic web here. In turn, without the wealth and diversity of life in the rainforest, each organism with an integral role to play in this game, these plants could not survive such oligotrophic soils. If you don’t think about it, you could take for granted the unique biodiversity hotspot we are in.

Simply put: Life… UHHHHH … finds a way. (Pictured: me, today)960

P.S. Mom and Dad, our accommodations are like paradise. Dinner was outstanding, but also represented the only substantial meal I’ve eaten today. Hobby airport had no water, which meant restaurants were all closed; even the toilets were roped off. But here I am, stomach full and brain active all the same.

“Inauspicious Beginnings”

In the words of Dr. Scott Solomon, our group has reached Belize with “inauspicious beginnings.” Our journey began with a mix-up in buses, but eventual transportation brought us to Hobby airport for our departure. Alas, a water main break in the airport terminal proved unfortunate for the growling stomachs of biologists, but by mid-afternoon, our group of 16 had safely arrived in Belize City, Belize.

Our travels continued by van to the town of San Ignacio in the Cayo

Body of boa constrictor.

District. The two-hour drive proved to be a great opportunity for “deer” sightings and views of the limestone karst of the Maya Mountains. A pit stop for snacks even yielded my first reptile sighting: a common house gecko (Hemidactylus frenatus), an invasive species from Asia.

Our final destination was the tropical Crystal Paradise Resort in San Ignacio where we enjoyed a much-needed meal and birthday celebration. Misadventure followed with lost laptops and a dysfunctional projector, but even as I write this, the forest reveals even more of its wonders.

On a tip from a local, we uncovered a 7+ foot long boa constrictor (Boa constrictor) that has made its home here at the Crystal Paradise. The enormous snake slowly made its way down a tree just off the hotel’s balcony, amidst a chorus of chirping crickets and croaking frogs.

Head of boa constrictor.

Maybe our beginnings weren’t so inauspicious after all.