The morning Macaws

May 18th ,2019

I woke up this morning not to my alarm but to the rumble of howler monkey calls in the forest. Unfortunately, I couldn’t tell if they were near Las Cuevas or not as their calls can be heard for miles. We had an absolutely spectacular display before going off to collect the pitfall traps we had set the day before. Two Scarlet Macaws were flying around the clearing, giving us. A good look at their red, yellow, and blue feathers. At one point of the macaws was feeding the other fruits and they even landed on the roof of our cabin!

 

While collecting the traps I spotted a Morelet’s Tree Frog, a critically endangered species of frog. They have all black eyes and have spectacular orange coloration on the sides of its limbs. Also on the way, we went past the same shaft that had the bats within it. One almost came right up to me. They seemed to be less active as it was around 7:00am and only one bat came up to me. A little fun fact is that bat’s echolocation is so precise that they can tell the shape, trajectory, size, and distance of an object just based off echoes. There are also 46 species of bats in the Chiquibul, 14 of which live in caves.

 

We then presented our findings of the experiment with a poster that took forever to formulate and make. The day ended with presentations on amphibians, ants, and Communication in the Rainforest.

 

You Bat-ter Believe it

May 17, 2019

Per usual, my day started at 5:00 am bird watching. It was a clear morning and the birds we saw were absolutely spectacular. The forest came to life as the Plumbious Kite took its regular perch and parrots flew overhead, two even landed in a tree right in front of us. The Melodious Blackbirds hopped onto the ground and the Social Flycatchers were chirping away.  The highlight of morning was the sighting of two toucans. Their bright colors were absolutely stunning, with red and white tail feathers and a green eye ring. Another exciting event was the Plumbious Kite soaring down and catching an unfortunate moth.

 

After breakfast we devised an experiment utilizing pitfall traps, traps that an arthropod can fall into but not get out of. We’re comparing the nitrogen limitation, limitation of an environment to provide useable nitrogen to its organism, of the forest floor and the canopy as well as the arthropod species abundance and diversity. At each site we placed four vials, which were vials containing nitrogenous liquid in a tree and the floor and vials with just water in them. On the way we came across a shaft that led into a cave system right in the middle of the path! Looking down and imitating bat calls (kiss the top of your hand to create a high-pitched nose) we saw bats fly up almost out of the shaft. Since I’m the mammal taxon specialist, I tried to identify but to no avail. I couldn’t get a good picture and they wouldn’t let us me them long enough to identify them. They had light brown bodies and large dark brown wings and seeing them was absolutely amazing.

 

We returned to the station for lunch and then went to explore Las Cuevas Cave. The cave has a large entrance and is covered in bat guano. The ground is littered with Mayan Pottery, and there is a cenote (sinkhole exposing ground water). There, we had three presentation. The first was on Butterflies and Moths, the next was about Crickets, Katydids, and Grasshoppers, and lastly I gave my lecture on Cave Life. It was a very cool experience, especially to see a few things (like stalactites forming) that I had researched in real life.

After exploring the Mayan ruins above the cave and dinner, we ended the day with a night hike. We saw so many spiders and small critters that we hadn’t seen before and it was very eerie to hear all of the noises in the darkness.

A Spectickular Day

Today, May 16th 2019, I had an early morning with 5:00 early morning birding. There was eerie mist surrounding the clearing and it was almost ominous to hear the jungle amongst suddenly come alive with bird calls. It started with the hoots of the Blue Breasted Mot Mots. The grey form of a Plumbious Kite flew into a tall tree and a pair of parrots flew overhead (flapping their wings rapidly and almost screaming) (this is completely normal and it looks like they’re panicking). Some Melodious Blackbirds and yellow breasted Social Flycatchers also made appearances. Perhaps the most surprising site was a Grey Fox slinking back into the forest at the edge of the clearing. The display that took the cake was the Plumbious Kite sweeping down from its perch to catch an insect and feed it to what I assume was its baby that was in a tree right in front of us.

Part of the 50 hectare trail

After, we had breakfast and an orientation and we started our experiment. In short, we’re investigating if the presence of the research station impacts species richness and abundance at different distances from Las Cuevas using images from camera traps (movement sensitive cameras). First, we hiked up a 50-hectare plot, a rectangular plot (50 hectares in area), and after 45 or so minutes we placed our first camera trap. On the way, we saw so much life such as beetles and crickets. Excitingly, we saw a couple instances of mammal scat (feces) and a game trail (a trail created by a large animal running through the forest to find food). A good indicator of a game trail is snapped vegetation with a compressed path through the forest. On the way back along the trail to place some other camera traps we saw a troop of Central American Spider Monkeys dwelling amongst the canopy. They shook trees, a behavior used to intimidate, and used their prehensile tails and great climbing skills to follow us until we exited their territory.

 

We then hiked up a longer trail called Monkey Tail Trail to place more camera traps and saw many ants (some of which bit people) and attracted the attention of a multitude ticks.

 

With a long day of hiking behind us, we ate dinner and ended the day with presentations on epiphytes, arachnids, and an overview on life in the rainforest canopy.

 

Tomorrow we have a project to construct in the morning and may go on to explore a nearby cave which is exciting beyond belief.

Belize day 2

May 15th, 2019

I had a nice 5:50 wake up to the sound of birds and a particularly loud woodpecker. We ate breakfast at 6:15 which consisted of eggs, papaya and pineapple, fry jacks (fried dough) with jam, and some beans. After a little more than an hour, we left the ecolodge to head to the Caracol ruins.

Caracol used to be a large Mayan city that flourished. On the way we passed into the Pine Ridge region of Belize where the dominant tree species are Caribbean Pines. We stopped for a swim at Rio on Pools, water pools that have been formed by flowing water whittling away granite. The rocks were slippery and treacherous but somehow I made it through the whole time, only falling once.

We left Rio on Pools and arrived in the Chiquibul region and reached Caracol. There were so many beautiful butterflies at Caracol and the calls of birds permeated the surrounding jungle. Once there we were given a brief overview of the Maya’s. Our guide went through a typical city layout, their religion, the cause of the abandonment of Caracol, and how excavations started. We explored the Caracol ruins, climbing up the tallest building in Belize (besides some small skyscrapers in Belize city), seeing temples and tombs, as well as seeing an original piece of painted wood supporting one of the temple archways.

As we were walking back from the Mayan ruins, we saw a troop of Black Howler Monkeys hanging in the trees above us near a reservoir. Black Howler Monkeys get their name from the loud and low call that they produce due to an enlarged Adam’s apple and the male’s black hair. Besides seeing them for the first time in person, one interesting thing is that I did not see any females in their troop despite seeing a juvenile monkey, the females have blonde hair.

After eating lunch, we set off to Las Cuevas Research Station. Not counting getting stopped at a military checkpoint for a few minutes, we got to the station without a hitch. Once we settled in we were greeted by intense but brief rainfall followed by a multitude of birds flitting about. There were several vultures, a grey Kite (a raptor), and the crown jewel a Scarlet Macaw.

Rio on Pools

We ended the day with dinner and lectures about trees, birds, and tropical soil. We’re going hiking to place camera traps and I can’t wait to see the rainforest first hand.

Day 1: Better Belize it we’re here

May 14th, 2019

After an hour on the runway (due to first class tray table problems) and as sometimes bumpy tow hour plane ride we’re finally in Belize!

Much of the day was spent driving with stops for lunch and to get last minute supplies,  even the did we observe a lot. For example, there was a termite nest in a tree at lunch, and hummingbirds flying around us.

I even saw a couple mammals today one was an agouti, a rodent species, that was darting into the brush, another were some dogs that hang around the ecolodge

The day ended with a quick dip into a river and dinner. Tomorrow we head off to Las Cuevas and some Mayan ruins as we slowly move out of a civilization.

Pre-departure blog

 

All of my snorkeling gear and the giant rubber boots

After the slog of finals its finally time to head on a two week trip to Belize to the Las Cuevas research station and Glover’s reef. I really hope to see first hand what research in these environments is like, as I’m very interested in eventually pursuing a career in Marine Biology. Furthermore, I’m really interested to see if I can identify rainforest animals with limited resources. I’d also like to learn how to quickly identify an animal in the field using the i.d cards, which I’ve never had to do because I’ve always had access to a database.

I’ve prepared by reading more about the biodiversity of the rainforest as well as trying to identify certain species of birds that I see in my backyard (most of which are house sparrows and robins).

The one thing that I’m nervous about is caving. I’ve never actually been in a cave before so I’m not sure how I’ll react to the confined space or seeing cave crickets. I’ve had some experience in the tropics, mainly snorkeling in the Cayman Islands which are very close to Belize.

 

Still itchy

The tropical rainforest and coral reef are similar in that they both survive on very nutrient-poor soil and ocean water respectively. This is because there’s very rapid nutrient cycling in the leaf litter of the rainforest and the mangroves near coral reefs.

I also noticed a lot of interesting interactions between species in these environments outside of simple predation. In the rainforest, there were organisms like ticks (which surprisingly don’t bother me anymore) that act as parasites and the Azteca ants that live symbiotically in Cecropia trees. And in the coral reefs, there were organisms like Christmas tree worms that extend deep inside the corals and stay there for life and clownfish that live symbiotically in anemones.

It’s hard to remember what I expected from the course after I already experienced it, but I guess that’s why we wrote our pre-departure blogs. In mine, I wrote that I was “anticipating a fascinating (but incredibly busy) two weeks.” I’d say this was pretty accurate to the trip, except it was even more fascinating and busy than I imagined.

One thing I certainly didn’t anticipate was our incredible experience at the ATM cave, which was most definitely my favorite part. I had no idea tourists were allowed to cave like that (i.e. swimming through small spaces and even scaling a small wall at one point). My least favorite part was probably running through the Mangroves of Death on our first day at the reef. The amount of mosquitoes there is unbelievable, and I was pretty impressed when three other students volunteered to go there for our marine debris collection.

One thing that I learned that I won’t forget is the Mayan history that we heard about. I was fascinated by the elaborate rituals performed by the priests. Another thing is that the only way to kill a tick is to sever its head from the rest of its body (which you can use your fingernails to do). The third thing that I learned and won’t be forgetting is to avoid fire coral!

Rainforest species seen: Homaeotarsus pallipes, Enema endymion, Pyrophorus noctilucus, Euchroma gigantea, Calopteron discrepans, Hegemona lineata, Eburia pedestris

Reef species seen: Millepora alcicornis, Millepora complanate, Millepora squarrosa, Kirchenpaueria halecioides, Dentitheca dendritica, Cassiopeia xamachana, Aurelia aurita

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!

Lepidoptera:

  • 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!

Rice University