Tag Archives: 2019

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

Day 15: Traveling home

It’s hard to believe that I started today on a small island off Belize and am now in my house in Austin. Today was a long day of traveling by boat, van, plane, and car. I was a little worried about making my connecting flight home, but ended up having plenty of time especially since one of the armrests needed repair on the plane.

View of Belize City on the boat ride back from Glover’s

It is nice being home and I’m excited to tell my family about my trip. I am still extremely itchy, but at least I’m not getting any new bites!

On the Road Again!- Day 15

Today we said goodbye to Belize and arrived back in Houston. Glover’s Reef is now a memory, as are our other experiences on our trip, but I’m sure we’ll all look back on them fondly. We had a long day today, and it all started when we met up at 5 a.m. We ate cinnamon rolls which the cooking staff had kindly prepared for us and then we hopped on a boat which took us back to Belize City. Once on land, we said goodbye to Herbi and Javier, two people I will definitely remember from our trip thanks to all they did for us.

Sunrise while leaving Glover’s


We then took a van to the airport where we made our way through customs and security and boarded a plane which thankfully didn’t seem to have any problems with its trays. We were then in the air and finally going back home. We landed, said goodbye to a few people who had connecting flights and then were on a bus back to Rice. Once there, we unloaded and everyone said their final goodbyes. We went in our separate directions and everyone headed home to catch up on some air conditioning, sleep, and probably take a much-needed shower.

We didn’t see any echinoderms today, and that’s probably a good thing because I don’t think any of them can fly.

It’s crazy to think that we’re already back home, but the trip was full of experiences I’ll never forget. We had to get comfortable being uncomfortable and we learned a ton in a mere two weeks. Although I’m happy I’ll be able to sleep with blankets again, I’ll definitely miss the people I met, the friends I made, and the experiences we shared. Thanks for everything Belize, see you soon!

Hello Clivus my New Friend!- Day 14

Today was our last full day in Belize (cue the sad violin music), but we definitely made the most of it. After breakfast, we jumped straight into a research project which involved picking up marine debris (trash) from all over the island. Our goal was to determine its composition. It was kind of depressing seeing the immense amount of trash that had accumulated on this small remote island, but I’m glad we were able to clean it up a little bit. Most of the trash we collected ended up being plastic (surprise!).


The trash we found

In the afternoon, we were able to perform a lionfish dissection! Scott, Herbi, and Javier had been hunting them at the reefs we visited since they are an invasive and harmful species. We used the fish they caught in our dissection. We determined sex and even looked at their stomach contents. One of the lionfish had a completely intact fish in its stomach! Afterward, Herbi turned the lionfish into ceviche. It was delicious.

The Lionfish ceviche


As we spent our entire day today on land, we, unfortunately, weren’t able to see any echinoderms. My dreams of finding sea stars and chocolate chip sea cucumbers never came true, but the echinoderms we did see were really interesting and my favorite was definitely the Donkey Dung Sea Cucumber.

I can’t believe we’re already leaving tomorrow. It feels like our two weeks here have flown by. We had a sendoff get together on the island’s dock tonight, and it was nice to get to just talk, look at the stars, and relax. I’m definitely going to miss all of the great food we’ve had as well as the incredible experiences. I’ll even miss my new friend Clivus (the composting toilet). This trip has really allowed me to appreciate the world’s biodiversity, and I can’t wait to talk about and share all that I’ve learned and experienced!



1 Urchin, 2 Urchin, Red Urchin, Blue Urchin!- Day 13

Guess what we got to do during our research project today. Did I hear COLLECT SEA URCHINS, because that’s exactly what we did! I was worried about even seeing echinoderms today, but then we had a whole research project centered around them! We visited two reefs, one inside and one outside the Marine Protected Area. We collected as many urchins as we could within 30 minutes, placed them into a bucket, measured and identified them, and then placed them back into the ocean.

A bucket of urchins we collected


We found a bunch of different species, including the Slate Pencil Urchin, a lot of Reef Urchins, the Red Heart Urchin, West Indian Sea Egg, and a good amount of Long-Spined Sea Urchins (Diadema Antillarum), some of which were HUGE! We saw a much larger number than we collected, but many of them were either too far into crevices or stuck onto rocks so tight that it was impossible to get them. I didn’t realize how fast urchins could be until I tried catching them!

Tonight, we were even able to go for a night snorkel to a nearby patch reef! It was way darker than I thought it would be but we all had dive lights so seeing wasn’t an issue. We were able to see a lot of species which we wouldn’t usually see during the day. We saw a bunch of lobsters, shrimp, a Southern Ray, and even a puffer fish. I also saw two Donkey Dung Sea Cucumbers! They were laying on the ocean floor and if I wasn’t looking for them, I definitely would’ve missed them.

The night snorkel was the last time we’ll be in the water since tomorrow we will be entirely on land. Being able to visit reefs and explore a small bit of the ocean’s diversity was amazing, and an experience I’ll remember for quite some time. Tomorrow is our last full day in Belize, which is crazy!



Peanut Butter and Jellies!- Day 12

We spent most of our day today in the ocean, which was both super tiring and super fun. This morning the conditions were nice, so right after breakfast, we hopped onto a boat as soon as we could and took off for a reef inside the Marine Protected Area. We conducted similar surveys to the ones we did yesterday, but this reef was COVERED in fire coral. It felt like everywhere I turned there was another patch of fire coral and I was worried I was going to run face first into one (luckily it didn’t happen). We then headed to another reef but this one was infested by moon jellyfish which sting, so we had to scramble to get back onto the boat and it felt like being in the Matrix while we were trying to dodge the jellies.

Branching Fire Coral
Moon Jellyfish (hard to see)


Luckily we were able to find a suitable reef and we conducted our survey there as well. This reef was outside of the MPA, and I noticed there was a lot of algae but also way less fire coral which was much appreciated. We then took a break on the island and then headed out to the forereef, which was much deeper and had much larger coral than the other reefs we had visited. Also, we got to swim along the reef wall which was right next to the drop off (we didn’t get to touch the butt).

Between all of the reefs we visited, we saw a nurse shark, some squid, butterflyfish, parrotfish, pillar coral (super rare), Elkhorn coral, some southern stingray, and I even spotted dark spot disease on a coral! Overall, today was a full and exciting day!

I didn’t get to see any echinoderms though, but it’s alright since I was spoiled yesterday. Hopefully, we’ll get to see some tomorrow. Also, we might be doing a night snorkel depending on what the group decides tomorrow, but I think that would be awesome! Echinoderms at night??? Who knows?!

Day 14: Dissecting lionfish

Today was the itchiest day of my life. I have never been so covered in bug bites, so I am ready to leave this island. Today we collected trash in different areas of the island and analyzed its composition which was mostly plastic and Styrofoam.

In the afternoon, we dissected a lionfish and it was used to make ceviche. I normally don’t like seafood, but I thought it was pretty good because it didn’t taste like fish.

The small fish was found inside the stomach of Liz and Cassia’s lionfish.

I didn’t see any sea anemones, zoanthids, or corallimorphs because we didn’t spend any time in the water today.

EchinoderMania!- Day 11

The weather was nice this morning, so we tried to do as much as we could. While I could still taste the tortillas from breakfast, we were on a boat to a patch reef in the Marine Protected Area (MPA). There we conducted a survey looking at the reef’s coral coverage which we will later use to compare MPA’s and non-MPA’s (where fishing can occur). At this reef, I was able to see what looked like some kind of heart urchin test, as well as what may have been a Reef Urchin or possibly a Rock-Boring Urchin since I found it in a hole in a rock (I couldn’t really see its color). We then boated over to a non-MPA reef where we conducted a similar survey, and there I was able to see some massive Diadema Antillarum, a Slate Pencil Urchin, and even a Brittle Star. I also saw a flamingo tongue which was really cool.

A Slate Pencil Urchin



A Brittle Star

After lunch, we were able to do a collection activity where we waded into the shallows on the windward side of the island and tried to collect as many “safe to touch” things as possible within about an hour. We collected way more interesting specimens than I thought we would, including some awesome echinoderms! We were able to find a Slate pencil Urchin, a Reef Urchin,  a Red Heart Urchin, a couple Brittle Stars, a Diadema Antillarumtest, a large West Indian Sea Egg (which I was able to find and when I picked it up it was covering itself with seagrass using its tube feet), and even two Donkey Dung Sea Cucumbers which Kaela found (plus it’s her birthday WOOO)!!! We were also able to find a bunch of different algae- including pink segmented algae- as well as a lot of conches, a mantis shrimp, and even an octopus!

Me and the Donkey Dung Sea Cucumber


We were able to see a lot of echinoderms today and it was a stark contrast to the previous two days where we didn’t see any, and I’m definitely not complaining. I’m super excited to get back out there and see what else we can find.

I’m hoping that we’ll be able to see a Chocolate Chip Sea Cucumber or some starfish like the Cushion Star at some point! Maybe we will tomorrow!