Wrapping it up like a tortilla

Wow I can’t believe I’m writing the final blog post. Since I went straight into the work force after coming back from Belize, I feel like being in Belize was such a while ago- but before I start rambling, I will address the questions before I get off-topic:

Although the tropical rainforest and the coral reefs are vastly different at first glance, they share many similarities. For example, the coral reefs and the rainforest are habitats with immense biodiversity. Factually, we can see that coral reefs cover less than 1% of the benthos but is a home to 25% of marine species (as per my lecture) and the rainforest is a place with so much biodiversity that many types are species are even yet to be identified. It was very surprising to know that even Scott didn’t know about all the ant species that I asked him about because that’s how many species of ants there are! Anecdotally, we saw that in the coral reefs in areas such as the “aquarium” had many types of fish, sponges, algae, corals, and other species that thrived there. I don’t think there was even a day that we didn’t see sting rays or sharks, which I thought were going to be an incredibly rare find for my taxon. It was an important reality check that I learned because it made me realise that the ecosystems are very diverse if they are protected. Furthermore, the rainforest was also full of surprises because our “To Pee or Not to Pee” project had so many morphospecies (physically distinctive types) of insects that we had to use three different systems of combinations of the alphabet to label them.

Additionally, the tropical rainforest and the coral reefs are also similar because they are vulnerable ecosystems. In Belize, they are preyed upon by neighbouring countries. Politically speaking, this makes sense because many wars have been fought over resources and ideologies – Belize has an approach that proactively protects the ecosystems while Honduras and Guatemala do not. The coastal guards have captured Hondurans illegally fishing, and the rangers have apprehended Guatemalans for illegally clearing land and picking fishtail palms. Although unfortunate, it intuitive why neighbouring, developing countries will take advantage of the biodiversity and try to profit from it. Personally speaking, I’ve found the political aspect of conservation very interesting, and the observation of seeing the similarities between the two ecosystems has been important because it shows how important international relations is to ecosystems and also because it ties my majors together perfectly.

I never expected myself to enjoy this course as much as I did, and I didn’t think I’d get so comfortable with myself and other people as well. My least favourite thing about the course were the bug bites- I was destroyed by leeches, ticks, mosquitoes, sandflies, and other insects. However, that allowed me to experience my favourite part of the course, which was the bond I made with the other people. We all became good friends after comparing bug bites, complaining about them, checking each other for ticks, and putting benadryl on each other. I am quiet around people that I don’t know, but by the end of the trip I was definitely one of the most obnoxiously loud people, which was definitely a surprise for me because I didn’t expect to get so close with others. I learned a lot about myself and how I interact in group dynamics, so the happiness I felt during this experience is something that I will definitely treasure and remember in the future.

Thank you all for a wonderful trip:

Day 15: Pilot Dad Part II

We had breakfast half an hour early this morning so we could leave Glover’s to head home. The cooks were super nice and besides making amazing food earlier than normal, they made us this delicious cinnamon cake to take on the way.

We got on the boat and left with all our stuff by 7. Our first stop was Carrie Bow Cay, a small island that has a field station run by the Smithsonian. We found a few Caribbean hermit crabs while there. There was a team of scientists there from Nova University. They were studying how staghorn and elkhorn coral hybrids are more resistant to heat. The professor who was there, Nicky Fogarty, talked to us about how she got permission to do research on the island and what changes she’d seen in the coral over the past few years (surprisingly not many) and then showed us the corals her team was testing. It was really cool to see another research station as well as some “actual scientist” studying reefs.

Our next stop was the mangroves of Twin Caye. We got out of our boat and snorkeled around for about thirty minutes. At first, it seemed like the mangroves didn’t have much going on besides algae, fire sponges, and small silver fish, but as we swam along the edge of the mangrove forest, I began to notice more and more colorful fish like we’d been seeing in the reef. The mangroves act as a nursery for some young fish. They’re a great place to hide out, grow, and avoid predators. The benthos around the mangroves was super mucky and full of dead leaves and algae, which makes both good material to hide among and good food.

After the mangroves, we rode the rest of the way back to Belize city. I took a long nap on the boat ride back which was nice, finally catching up on a little sleep. We ate lunch at a place called Calypso at the dock and then headed to the airport.

As we were walking out to the airplane that was taking us home, I was saying “I don’t think my dad is flying us home, but I’ve got this feeling in my gut…” I looked up at the cockpit and saw one of the pilots smiling and waving at me. I didn’t recognize him though, but as we walked past the first door, heading to the back door where everyone was loading into the plane, I saw my dad excitedly waving from just outside the cockpit. I smiled big at him as I got on the plane. One of the flight attendants came to say hi to me and tell me they’d been hearing all about me since they left Houston. My dad made an announcement about bringing us home on the speakers before the flight left. The weirdest part about the flight was not being near everyone else and hearing the constant banter, time to merge back into my normal culture I suppose.

When we got out of customs we all hugged and took pictures and said goodbye before heading our separate ways to get home. My dad and I flew back to Dallas and I finally got to sleep in my own bed again. I had a great Belizean adventure, made great friends, and learned a ton about field research. It was a great time and an experience I’m going to remember forever.

Day 14: Crab Jail and Meditation

This morning was super slow. After breakfast, we had a few hours to just chill while the 7 lionfish Scott had speared over the course of the week thawed. I probably should have written blogs, but instead, I took a nice nap on one of the hammocks.

Around 9, the lionfish we caught were ready to be dissected. Veronica and I worked with the largest one. It weighed 1.3 pounds and was over a foot long.

Lionfish are an invasive species in the Atlantic. They’re native to the Pacific ocean but were released into the Atlantic where they quickly began eating everything while having no natural predators. After weighing them and measuring their body length, the first part of the dissection involved removing the fish’s 13 poisonous spines. We then measured their mouth size before cutting open its body cavity. Veronica and I were supposed to figure out the fish’s sex and identify stomach contents, but we were mostly confused by this giant hard white mass in the middle of its body.

After a bit of reading the manual and confusion, we figured it was probably the swim bladder and stabbed it so it would deflate. We could then see the entirety of its organs. We found that it was male and that it had a mostly decomposed fish 2 and a half inches long in its stomach (only slightly smaller than the smallest lionfish we found).

When we finished dissecting all the fish, Scott began filleting them to prepare a ceviche. A ceviche is a dish in which raw fish is effectively cooked with acid (from limes or lemons etc) and then basically served in a salad. The ceviche was delicious. We had removed an invasive species, collected scientific data, and had a tasty snack, which is a pretty solid trio in my opinion.

After lunch, some of the class went out snorkeling in the reef near the island, but Kristen, Ceyda, Andressa, and I stayed back and instead played with the hermit crabs. We decided to dig a hole and put a bunch of hermit crabs in it. It may have been a somewhat childish activity, but it was a pretty great time. We collected about 25 hermit crabs, mostly from under the solar panels where they seemed to like to hang out. It was really funny to see them continue to climb up the steep sand walls we had dug. They always went out upside down, with their shell above them. I think this climbing strategy made it easier for them to carry the weight of their shells while climbing a difficult slope. When they made it out (and we stopped pushing them back in), they quickly walked off in all directions directly away from us and we got ready for our last afternoon activity.

Around 3, we got on the boat for one of the last times to head to a resort on one of the adjacent islands. We got to spend a few hours hanging out at a nice beach resort like we were actually on vacation and not a class. I found a few small true crabs running around.

We left a t-shirt behind (my “rice owls give back” shirt) signed by everyone on the trip, as was tradition at this resort. We were sad to head back to the research station because we knew it was almost time to leave Belize.

We ended our last night by meditating with Scott out on the pier. We all sat in a big circle and Scott led us in 10 minutes of meditation. 

We then stayed up way too late chatting and admiring the ocean. Sadly we never got a cloudless night at glovers, but honestly, it didn’t really matter. I had a great night talking with everyone and even with a few of the guys stationed on the island for the Belizean coast guard. Overall, it was the perfect last day.

Reflection

Final Blog Post

Reflection

Written at 5:32 pm on May 31st

 

We’ve been home a little over a day now, but my brain is still reeling from this incredible experience. We may have been bitten by bugs or burned by the sun, but this trip is one I’ll always remember. I relished the opportunity to learn about field work and to do science experiments in new environments with people who are just as passionate as I am (if not even more!).

 

I had never really visited a rainforest in its pristine quality such as the Chiquibul area around Las Cuevas. There were just so many hymenopterans, insects, and plant diversity. My expectations were high due to the Planet Earth’s wonderful episodes, but wow, I was still floored.

 

Similarities wise, when comparing the rainforest to a reef, there is an equal amount of diversity—there are plants and coral that are common or rare (for their respective ecosystems), and the same seems to apply to animals/fish in both places! It’s just wild to me how such brilliant ecosystems can support as much life as they do. I was also shocked at just how much rain affected the rainforest. The first heavy rain ignited the nuptial flight for some termite and ant species! I know that rain affecting the rainforest seems obvious, but this nuptial flight and predictability of some fauna presence made the whole phenomenon magical.

 

Despite the obvious difference of salt water vs. freshwater and marine vs. terrestrial, I felt that there wasn’t much that differed. Of course, the biological diversity and make-up of the ecosystems are totally different. But if one were to equate a tree to a coral, and a reptile to a fish, one might find similar compositions and proportions of those species. However, now that I think about it a little more, there are SO MANY undiscovered arthropods in the rainforest, and probably just as many microscopic organisms in the coral reef. If I had to guess which ecosystem has greater biological richness, my money would be on the rainforest.

 

This course was everything I hoped it would be and more. I surely expected more mosquitos in the rainforest and less on the island, but the opposite was true. On a more serious note, I am really pleased with how our group got along, how we approached each poster/project, and just hung out in the downtime. Academics wise, I really felt like I learned a lot about ecology, which as a BioSciences major, I don’t have to study in total depth. If I had to pick three things that will stick with me forever… humm

  • Scarlet macaws are endangered due to poachers who steal their babies to sell as pets. This was surprising to me because finding their nests must be pretty hard already!
  • Frogs are really hard to find in the rainforest, especially during the dry season. Also, their sounds can deceive the human ear, and it sounds like they go in all different directions. I was actually shocked by the chorus of the rainforest at night, and I couldn’t really distinguish which animals were making what sounds.
  • Corals can form viable hybrids that could help increase genetic diversity and resilience of global warming effects in the ocean. This is just incredibly crucial to the future of coral reefs.

 

If I really had to pick a favorite part, I would say that snorkeling in the forereef and in the backreef, with such still water, was truly a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. There was just such a range of fish—in age, size, color, and species. And the coral/sponges were also spectacular. And the water was so blue. And the list could go on.

 

My “technically” least favorite part was the humidity in the rainforest. So dense and thick, I almost found it harder to breathe. Now, this also could have to do with my being out of shape from the semester, but either way I was surprised.

 

And truly, if that is the worst thing I can say about this trip, then amen—this was truly an incredible trip. I am so thankful to have had the opportunity to go to Belize.

Day 14: maroon me on this island

We had a surprising amount of free time today, which hasn’t really happened in… ever. After dissecting a little lionfish (invasive species!) and promptly eating it in Scott-made ceviche, we were effectively left to our own devices. After a quick nap on the hammocks, we had lunch and then some of us went out snorkeling in the fore reef. I wasn’t necessarily excited to put on my dive suit and fins for the seventh day in a row, so I stayed on the shore and we spent about an hour collecting hermit crabs and putting them in a hole we dug. Sami and I thought it to be a little abusive but we watched anyway.

Ceyda and I preparing to dissect our lionfish. PC: Claire

Afterward, we all piled into the boat and sailed off to our final activity at Glover’s, and a TFB tradition. This was maybe one of my favorite parts of the whole trip. We arrived at Southwest Caye, an island that houses a fairly traditional Caribbean resort. It was just us at first, and I commandeered the music (against Ceyda’s wishes, but with the support of everyone else). We ordered drinks around a picturesque wooden Tiki bar, and sat on the pier overlooking the water and talking. Rose taught us how to dance in the Belizean way (kind of similar to the Brazilian way). We walked around the island and took lots of pictures. We all signed a Rice t-shirt, with different sketches next to our names, and the tiki bar put it up on the wall.

The shirt we signed and put up in the bar.
Some of the crew posing at a palm. PC: Sam

We sailed home under a beautiful sunset, the sun setting on one side and the moon rising directly opposite. We spent the rest of the night after dinner sitting on the pier, talking to the coast guard guys and writing our journals under the light of the dock’s only lamp. I briefly taught Chloe and Claire how to fence. We told stories and joked until about midnight, and I fell asleep already missing Belize.

The unreal sunset we saw from the tiki bar.

As a note–I didn’t see any green algae today because I didn’t go in the water, but I’m sure if I had I would’ve seen many Halimeda tunas  and Rhipocephalus pinecones.

Day 13: I Have Recovered from my Crustacean Blindness

It was absolutely pouring this morning when we woke up. We had to wait out the rain and wound up doing our presentations in the morning. When the rain died down, we walked out to the fossil corals again as well as the mangroves to collect trash off the beeches. Honestly, it was pretty depressing. We were collecting data on what types of trash were on each side of the island and how much, but I definitely just wanted to clean the beach. There were so many bottles and shoes and random pieces of styrofoam; it was really sad. We found way more trash at the mangroves, but that was mostly because we were counting the number of pieces and the pieces at the mangroves were much smaller.

On a happier note, we spent the afternoon snorkeling through a few different reefs. There were way more fish than we’d seen at the other spots we visited. Scott found a big lobster just like yesterday and I could sorta see it, but it was definitely mostly just darkness, then he found two yellow arrow line crabs which I sorta saw the antennae also but didn’t really see. Scott accused me of crustacean blindness and made fun of me for being the only person on the trip who doesn’t need glasses (which is true, 20/20 vision for the win). Then I found my own yellow arrow line crab and was super excited.

We then saw a bunch more hermit crabs running around on the sand, one of them was in a huge conch shell.

I think one may have been another star eye crab, but I’m not sure. I also found a small yellowish shrimp that wasn’t in our reef creatures book and another Caribbean spiny lobster. I overcame my crustacean blindness!

We also saw a lot of other cool species swimming around. There were these red fish with giant black eyes that Andressa referred to as devil fish that are actually called squirrel fish.

We also found another lionfish that we’ll dissect tomorrow. The most exciting thing we saw was a giant nurse shark. It was just chilling on the bottom of the reef. It was maybe six feet long and absolutely beautiful. It had a water bottle tied to its fin though, which felt thematic, but also really sad.

We thought about trying to remove it, but we didn’t have anything to cut whatever it was tied with and we didn’t want to get too close to the shark.

Tonight we stayed up late to finish our poster on the trash and then to write our blogs and notebooks. This trip has been so great and I’ve loved getting to know all these people and spend so much time with them.

Day 12: Mantis Shrimp are Freaking Aggressive

We spent the whole morning analyzing our data from the coral and urchin stuff we did over the last two days. It was nice to just sit in a hammock staring out at the water that is an unnatural shade of blue and talk about data. I was actually dry for a few hours too which was pretty exciting. On most of this trip, I’ve either been in the water, getting rained on, or super sweaty.

In the afternoon we waded out to the reef that’s right next to the island. At first, it was super hot and disgusting because of the decomposing matter and the fact that our feet just went right into the ground respectively. But as we got out farther into the reef, it started to get cooler and we found super cool stuff. We picked up a ton of conchs, both alive and empty shells, tiny crabs, algae, and coral rubble. We brought everything back to the wet lab, where we have running ocean water, to get a better look at what we found. While we were still out collecting stuff we found a gigantic Caribbean spiny lobster. It was hiding under some coral. Scott spent at least 10 minutes trying to show it to me. I couldn’t see it because it was dark and because the lobster filled up literally the whole space and because apparently, I have crustacean blindness. When I finally saw it, I realized it was at least 3 feet long. It had long spindly antennae and stripy legs. On the way back to shore, we flipped over a piece of coral rubble and found 3 different lobsters. They skrted pretty quickly, but I think they were spiny spotted lobsters. There was one that was about 10 inches long, one that was 5 inches long, and one that was an inch and a half long. They looked like they might have been shrimp, but I knew they were lobster because of their thick antennae. In the tropics, you don’t find lobsters with the big claws like the ones in the supermarket, instead, they all have large antennae, either thick and spiny or wide and flat.

We had SO MANY CRUSTACEANS in the stuff we collected. We got a star eye hermit crab, whose eyes were gorgeous, and a white speckled hermit crab, who had slightly less gorgeous eyes.

There were a ton of crabs. Most of them were small green red ridged clinging crab, as in they were green but their common name is the red ridged clinging crab (because common names are useless). There were also a few other crabs one of which I think may have been a furcate spider crab which is a decorator crab. It was sorta fuzzy which I think was various algae it had covered itself in. We also had three tiny (<1cm) shrimp. One of them was a bumblebee shrimp which was kinda squat and covered in black and white stripes. I wasn’t able to ID the other two, one was super transparent and I have no clue what it was. The other had red and white striped arms and I think it was a sea anemone shrimp, but there are lots of small shrimp with red and white arms. There were a ton of tiny hermit crabs that I couldn’t identify too.

The most interesting thing that we found, I would argue, was a common mantis shrimp. It was about an inch and a half long. Mantis shrimp are known for either punching or spearing their prey. The common mantis shrimp is a spearing mantis shrimp so it has really sharp arms it can use to stab shrimp and what not. It would spend most of its time hiding under the large hermit crabs. But whenever it was disturbed, it would sometimes run up to one of the crabs and start attacking it. You could hear the pop as it punched the crabs with its arms and the crabs would totally freak out. I was showing all my crustaceans to the coast guard guys who are on this island with us and they thought the mantis shrimp was really cool. I really enjoyed teaching all these guys about the crustaceans that live in the ocean that is basically their backyard. I want to go into science communication and getting to talk to these guys about the crustaceans was a really cool chance to do it a little. There was a little bit of a language barrier, but I still got to show them the mantis shrimp and how violent it was and how beautiful the hermit crabs were and how pinchy the tiny crabs were.

Day 14: I’d be Lion if I Said Today Wasn’t Amazing

I woke up this morning at, surprise, 6, before getting ready and eating breakfast. Scott brought out the lionfish to thaw before we began our dissection. Elena and I had two pretty small ones, names Bambi’s mom and Mufasa that we weren’t able to glean too much info from, but the dissections were still pretty cool. After, we had a really great time chilling in the hammocks and playing with the volleyball while Scott prepared the fish. We all took a taste of the lionfish ceviche after, which was pretty great.

Lionfish Dissection!

We ate lunch then I took some time to pack up my stuff, which was difficult because I managed to put stuff in every building. Afterward, we all packed up on the boat for one last outing to a resort on Southwest Caye. There, we chilled in the Tiki Bar, took photos, and danced with Rose. We all signed a t-shirt that would stay at the bar with little drawings of our time here. Overall, it was a really great way to celebrate all that we’ve done.

My Husband And I

We came back an ate a quick dinner before going to the dock for some Scott led meditation. We spent ten minutes mediating with the wind and the waves in the background, which was really nice. After, we put the dive lights into the water off the dock and worked on our notebooks. We all sat on the dock and chatted with some of the guys on the island, which is where I learned that I’m a koolie gial so life goal made. Afterwards, we went to sleep for the last time on Glover’s Reef ☹No corallimorphs, zoanthids, or anemones seen today

Day 13: A Shore so Trashy that You’d Think We Were in Jersey

I woke up to thunder and rainy skies, which was a surprise since last night was the only clear night we had had. I went to the lecture hall to work on blogs before traversing the flood to go to breakfast. We all came to the lecture hall for our last round of lectures by Claire on crustaceans, Jessica on sponges, and Elena on mangroves and sea grass beds.

Scott gave us our topic for today, which would be to look into marine debris. We decided to look into the different compositions and amounts of trash on the windward and leeward sides of the island. We headed out to the dead coral graveyard to start collecting the trash for 15 minutes. The amount of trash was really disheartening, but we tried our best to pick up as much as we could in that time. We sorted as we went, with Andressa writing it down. We finished up the windward side and moved to the leeward side where we repeated the process. We were all pretty sad after, but lunch cheered us right back up again.

After lunch, we geared up for our last boat snorkeling trip. We went to the Aquarium, which was an area of patch reefs with a bunch of cool fish, a deeper spot above a coral reef, then a shallow sea grass area. We got to see a lot of great species, like a reef parrotfish an eagle ray, another donkey dung sea cucumber, a starry eyed hermit crab, and, most appropriately, a nurse shark with a plastic bottle attached to its fin. We swam around for a few hours before getting in the boat and heading back for dinner.

A Giant Caribbean Anemone Peaking Out

 

We finished working on our poster of our findings from this morning, titled Talk Dirty to Me, and presented to Scott. Afterwards, we all hung out in the lecture room to finish up our blogs and notebooks and listen to everyone’s surprisingly great taste in music.

Multiple Anemones in the Patch Reef

Corallimorphs, Zoanthids, and Anemones seen: 4 giant Caribbean anemones, all larger than the ones yesterday at over 15 cm and hidden in the crevices of the shallow coral reefs. 1 flower anemone on the side of a reef in the 1st dive spot, next to fan coral at about 5 cm at the opening. 1 yellow polyp rock seen on top of a piece of dead coral, about 50ish polyps on it. 2 White encrusting zoanthids, both on the bottom of the benthos, not surrounded by anything. One was about 75ish polyps and the other was a few hundred.

Day 12: We Shore Love Snorkeling

I woke up at 3:45 this morning to prove that I was able to naturally able to wake up at whatever time I wanted before waking up at 6:00 to actually start my day. We ate breakfast before moving to the hammocks to work on our poster on our findings from day 10 and 11 about the hard coral coverage and sea urchins. We spent about three hours analyzing our data and writing up our poster before presenting to Scott and Javier. Afterwards, we started lectures with me giving my presentation on corallimorphs, zoanthids, and anemones. We ran out of time and had to break for lunch but came back and Sam gave his lecture on brown and red algae and Jessica gave hers on invasive species.

After lectures, we geared up sans fins and waded out off the shore into what felt like boiling water. As we got deeper, the water became colder and more and more organisms came out. We picked up conch shells to look for any small creatures that we put into Scott’s bucket. I focused on finding anemones and corallimorphs but I stumbled across a few cool green algae and conchs. We swam farther to the barrier reef, where the corals contained a ton of really cool critters. We saw two nurse sharks, a puffer fish, plenty of damselfish, a giant lobster, and some really cool corals. We swam around for about an hour and a half before heading back to the shore to analyze our creatures.

2 Sun Anemenomes, Chilling on a Conch Shell, 5 cm apart Cuz They’re not Friends

We took our buckets back to the wet lab and began sorting out our taxons. We found a big surprise with two small octopi that had been hiding in our shells and a small wrasse that seemed terrified of us. I took all of the anemones and the medusa worm into my bucket and worked to identify them. Sam, Jessica, Andressa, and Claire identified their critters as well before we presented to the rest of the class.

After we ate dinner, I showered and we all sat on the dock to watch the sunset, which was really nice. After, Javier gave us a presentation on the history and culture of Belize, which was super interesting, We all chilled by the hammocks after to work on notebooks while listening to music.

Corallimorphs, Zoanthids, and Anemones found: 7 giant Caribbean anemones seen in the shallow reef of both color morphs. They were either on conch shells or in the crevices of hard corals in the reef. They were mostly alone but a few were in close proximity to each other. Sun anemones, saw 3 10cm ones, 2 20cms and 1 40 cm one, either on the benthos or attached to rocks in the reefs. Many of these grew close to each other. Brown sponge zoanthid found in the coral near the barrier reef, hidden in a crevice. It formed a small mound near the floor of the coral.

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