Day 11: Trade-offs (5/26/2017)

Today we set up camera traps throughout the forest neighboring Las Cuevas. The entire process took all day, from 10 am until 1:30 and then 2:30 to 7:30. Needless to say, the process exhausted me. Hiking on and off trail in a humid tropical environment for hours on end is certainly different from the comparatively cushy lifestyle of an American college student.

About a third of the way through the endeavor, another student proposed that we shorten the distance between camera traps so that we can set up more in a given amount of time and head back earlier. I supported the motion but the class did not. So we marched onward.

By the time we were halfway through, my boots felt so heavy that I wasn’t even walking, I was just swinging them over the ground with each step, hoping that I did not hit anything. I was panting and completely drenched in sweat. “Damn, I am out of shape,” I thought as my classmates marched onward. Despite my desperation to stop, I marched onward too. I didn’t really have a choice.

Hours later, we made it back to the station. Although I stayed well hydrated in the field, I had a splitting headache and could barely stabilize myself when I was standing upright. I had reached my limit.

As an economics major, every moment I had to think on the trail, I spent trying to calculate the expected value of moving onward. I tried to compare the benefit and probability of seeing an interesting animal with the benefit of calling it quits. I never thought it all the way through, though. I was too damn exhausted.

Despite causing me so much physical despair, the hike granted me many gifts – yellow prickly trees (Zanthozylum spp.), monstrously large strangling figs (Ficus aurea), Mexican porcupine, green tree anole, tommygoff snake, a Mexican tree frog, abundant lianas reaching up to the canopy. The yellow prickly were numerous and had sharp spines, an adaptation to keep away herbivorous arboreal megafauna. The largest strangling fig I saw completely overtook its host tree and was hollow on the inside. The Mexican porcupine I saw was climbing the tree through this hollow interior. The most vivid encounters were with blue morpho butterflies (Morpho spp.), whose radiant sapphire blue wings contrasted greatly with the browns and greens of the understory.

Lianas often stretch from the forest floor to the canopy.

Today pushed me to my limits, but it also awarded me with many of the rainforest’s treasures.

The first principle of economics is that there are trade-offs. Despite my incomparable exhaustion, I am satisfied with trading off comfort for adventure. That’s why I came to Belize.

Day 10: Flow (5/25/2016)

Our morning was spent at Rio-On, a cluster of pools, creeks, and waterfalls within the Coastal Pine forests. The water trickled, funneled, or whirlpooled – navigating around, over, or under well-established rocks. Rio-On was beautiful, like an interactive postcard.

The water at Rio-On

My class and I left Rio-On for Las Cuevas Research Station. En route, our van’s passenger side window rolled all the way down and would no longer roll up. To avoid insects flying in, our driver secured the window closed by jamming a stick in between the window and where it attaches to the car. The window stayed close, and we were off.

Later, I was disheartened to hear that the cave we were going to explore later this week was closed for archeological research. Exploring that cave, which is only open to educational groups and researchers, was one of the major attractants that compelled me to sign up for this trip.

Obstacles and changes of plan are inevitable. Even with a an issue with the van and some bad news, my class and I made it to Las Cuevas and were soon hiking the Maya Trail, which meanders through high-rising trees and unrecognizably overgrown Mayan religious sites. Was this experienced diminished by unexpected incidents and news earlier today?

Absolutely not.

The Chiquibul Forest was breathtaking, like a fantasy land; it didn’t even seem real. My ears were entertained my bird chirping and singing, and eyes by the endless emerald-green only found in a lush tropical forest.

We encountered numerous give and take palms (Chrysophila argentea), easily recognizable by the sharp obsidian-colored spikes adorning their trunks, commonly interspersed between taller trees. There was also a kapok tree (Ceiba pentandra), which had a thick trunk and stretched vertically through and beyond the rainforest canopy. Some palm leaves were four feet in diameter… simply unreal.

Sometimes we don’t have a choice but to flow onward. Like the Rio-On, life can trickle, funnel, or whirlpool, and it is our attitudes that determine whether we navigate around, over, or under any obstacles we face.

I do not know what tomorrow holds, but even with my seemingly rigid expectations, I will readjust and immerse myself in the experiences before me. I have to go with the flow; it’s my only option.

 

Day 15: last day :( and JUMBO JUICES

Just like the flight into Belize, I don’t think it hit me that I was going back home until we got to the airport! I think it was the AC and wifi that did it.

We spent the first half of the day driving to the airport, with a stop at Cheers! With a Tropical Twist for lunch. We had an INSANE lunch budget of 20 USD. I know that doesn’t sound like a lot, but for reference, my cheeseburger was about 3.50 USD. So we went kind of nuts and got on average 4 items each (may be skewed because of outlier Alessi, who ordered multiple entrees, appetizers, and sides). I personally got a burger, 1 fruit punch, and 1 jumbo watermelon juice, which equalled at least a liter of juice total. IT WAS THE HAPPIEST LUNCH OF MY LIFE. I even took some watermelon juice to go in my Nalgene.

We boarded the plane at around 5, and arrived around 8:30 Houston time. I had to say goodbye to most of the class at the airport, and then Jordan, Mikey, Damien and I (along with Turiez and Scott) took a shuttle back to Rice.

Now that I’m back home, reeking of citronella, sweat, and super old seawater, Houston feels so surreal. Where’s the endless tea and hot water jug, and Clivus, and the squeaking of the mouse in our wall? 🙁 I’m going to miss everyone on this trip, and I am eagerly awaiting our coral reef/rainforest themed crawls!

Day 14: return of the camera traps

We made the treacherous journey again to retrieve our camera traps today, and it was surprisingly not as horrible as the first time-Scott was right! That may have been because we strategized our route better, so that we didn’t have to walk back and forth over the same trail. Also we didn’t get lost in the jungle at night.

Annnd the fruits of our labor are:

2 ocelots!!!

1 great curacao

several pacas and peccaries

1 red brocket deer

literally thousands of pictures of grass and our legs

Still, the ocelot pictures were worth it!!

The Daily Moth

Same diversity of moths as always; I’m noticing more and more green eggs, and still the window screens are dominated by Sphingidae! I’m tempted to bring one of those eggs home to see what kind of moth it is.

Note from future self: Don’t worry Belize customs and TSA, I’m completely egg-free

A new lepidoptera that I thought was kind of cool because of the asymmetrical, ruffly wings!

Day 13: lectures in high and low places

We had an interesting time this morning collecting all our pee traps, and then emptying them into a tub, and smelling each other’s day-old pee. It was a real bonding experience. We tallied up the arthropods we caught, and couldn’t draw a solid conclusion because of one outlier: we got 100+ of 1 ant species, while we only got 1 of most other species! However, we could conclude that on both the canopy and forest floor, there was a clear preference for the pee vial over the water.

In the afternoon, we hiked down to the entrance of a cave- we couldn’t go much further because it was closed for archaeological excavation.

But our guides Ronan and John kindly let us do lectures in the cave on Scott’s laptop! Ellie and Isaac’s lectures on amphibians and reptiles were pretty amazing in the pitch black echoey-ness of the cave.

CAVE SNAKE

 

To top that off, we hiked to the (terrifying) bird tower after dinner to listen to Therese’s lecture from 40 feet off the ground at sunset.

Needless to say, those were the coolest lecture settings I’ve ever been in.

After the lecture it was perfect timing for a night hike back to the station. We saw a few big arthropods including a fluorescent scorpions, glue-butt cockroaches (that’s the scientific name I think), and a millipede.

And now for the daily moth report! Whoa! Are you excited yet?!

I feel like this one has been hanging around in the same spot for days.
This one has gained the status of second-favorite moth.

Some pics of the red and white lappet moth in daylight!

I’ve been noticing more and more of these green eggs lately, starting last night. I think they might be Sphingidae eggs, because those are also becoming more and more common on the window screens?

Day 12: presentations, pee, and pelvic exercises

We had a bright start to the day when Scott asked us to pee into 50-mL vials for unknown reasons… it was eventually revealed that we were going to use out nitrogen-rich pee to study nutrient availability in the forest floor vs. canopy.

So we hiked out to set out vials of water and our pee at arthropod traps- we reasoned that if arthropods were more attracted to the pee than the water, that would be a sign that nutrient availability is low in a particular area. We hypothesized that nutrient availability would be higher in the canopy since tropical soils are usually low in nutrients. 24 hours until we find out the results!

Since we got lost yesterday and hiked for 5 hours, yesterday’s presentations have been postponed to today, for a total of 8 lectures after lunch (2 for me). It’s gonna be a long afternoon…

Moth update after dinner: there were plenty of moths again attacking everyone during lectures, and my good friend Ceratomia undulosa is still the most common.

Day 11

Omg. My feet are dying right now. We set up camera traps scattered around Las Cuevas today, in order to compare the amount of prey vs big cat activity on paths vs off paths. (Our hypothesis is that big cats will be more active on paths, and prey will be more active off paths.) So, we hiked 3 hours before lunch, then had lunch, then headed back out… and got lost in the rainforest just as it was getting dark. Finally we made it back to the station at 7:30 pm, for a total of 8 hours of hiking for the day.

I drank a gallon of water and I think I lost it all via sweat.

Thankfully, Scott has taken pity on us and presentations are delayed until tomorrow!

Taxon sightings in the rainforest include a small venomous snake, several blue morphos, and a coati. And I saw so many cool moths at the station again!

This guy is everywhere. (Sphingidae, Ceratomia undulosa?)
My absolute favorite lepidoptera on the trip, a red and white lappet moth? Look at his little face!

I’m actually wondering if maybe I should study Belizean moths… there’s so little information on them, and I think I would be happy staying here staring at moths for a few more years!

Day 10: the nuptial flight of the termites

Today we finally moved in to Las Cuevas! We first stopped at the Rio On swimming hole on the way here, although I just waded and explored because I never want to be in a wet swimsuit again. On the bus we also found out that we are all terrible at BS, because none of us are honest and we love calling each other out on it.

I saw swarms of unidentified black and orange butterflies on the side of the road in dirt clearings, and when we reached Las Cuevas I found about 6 dead swallowtails in the grass.

After putting our bags in our rooms, we had a quick introductory hike around the smallest loop at Las Cuevas. I felt quite stylish in my field outfit of rubber boots, hiking socks, and field pants tucked into hiking socks. Halfway into the hike, as we encountered a steep hill, Scott informed us that we were standing on Mayan ruins! The hill was a pyramid, and a Mayan ball game court was nearby. We all climbed the pyramid, but there was nothing of note at the top.

Notable sightings on the trail were katydids and oropendola, a type of bird that makes sac-shaped nests hanging from trees.

One personal goal achieved today: I ate a live termite! They were having (? is this the correct word) their nuptial flight on the porch outside our rooms, and Scott told us to just grab them out of the air, pick off the wings, and eat them. It didn’t have much of a flavor–I definitely wouldn’t be opposed to having some as a last resort snack in the jungle.

There were lepidoptera everywhere tonight, especially in the classroom where they were harassing everybody during the lecture. My personal favorites:

Arctiini??

“Your taxon is on my leg!!”

They all had amazing patterns, most of them mimicking leaves-the last one even had transparent holes in its wings to mimic holes in dead leaves.

Note from future self: I’m finding it pretty difficult to identify my moths; my main source is this guide to moth silhouettes from bugguide.net.

Day 9: spelunking!

We had an amazing first day of caving. Our tour guide led us through a risky but SO FUN route through the ATM caves, where we had to swim through the underground river and climb barefoot over rock formations. We got inches away from Mayan ceremonial artifacts, like pottery shards and a fully intact skeleton of a 17-year-old girl (or boy?). Deepu also scraped his knee and appeased the rain gods, as we left the cave to a massive thunderstorm.

No pics, as someone dropped a camera on a Mayan skull last year and now they’re strictly forbidden. 🙁

After lunch provided by the ATM park, we drove to San Ignacio and explored the town for snacks and supplies for the rest of the week. I’m still so happy about the random Chinese people and stores everywhere (and buffets)! I never would have expected to see them in Belize. I bought bug spray from a nice couple from Guangdong and was tempted to get a jar of fermented tofu too… so I could import tofu that was imported from China to Belize into Houston.

Then we drove to our luxurious eco-lodge, Crystal Palace, and had a fancy 3-course dinner in the outdoor dining room. I approve of these accommodations!

Oddly, no moth sightings at night, just one unidentified butterfly at the ATM jungle area.

Day 6: show and tell

The wind is too strong so we did minimal snorkeling today, but I am really loving all the free time we’re getting! First we collected specimens from the reef to identify at the wet lab. I got 7 identified species of brown and red algae, which was quite exicting: Dictyopteris deliculata, Turbinaria sp., Sargassum fluitans, Jania capillacea, crustose coralline algae, Amphiroa sp. and Hincksia mitchelliae. I also had 3 or 4 WTF? (unidentified).

Several of my brown/red algae, plus other taxons.

And, it was great to finally see everyone’s taxons laid out neatly and identified.

The green algae tub.
A mix of taxons living in harmony: 2 mollusks, 1 echinoderm, 1 herbivorous fish, 1 green algae.
An anemone turning itself inside-out in its death throes. Yikes.

The 2 celebrities of the day were Squishy the baby octopus and Trash Crab (formerly known as Hermy)!

Squishy, slightly off center in the picture. He’s kind of transparent. I LOVE HIM

Trash Crab was a tragic example of the effects of marine debris…

He wasn’t able to properly curl into his plastic shell, so he dessicated and died soon after we found him. RIP Trash Crab, you will be missed.

Just before dinner, we had a speedy 30-minute snorkel, which was honestly above my skill (fitness) level. The current was incredibly intense and when I finally reached land, I’m pretty sure I flopped onto the dock gasping for air like a dying fish. Team Turf! But I’m proud that I at least tried that snorkel and made it out alive!

Rice University