Tag Archives: amphibians

Holy Smokes! (A look back at the past two weeks)

In both the rainforest and the reef we observed great amounts of biodiversity. Both these places are located in the tropics which receive more direct sunlight than more northern ecosystems. Having lots of available sunlight allows for more plants and therefore there is more energy available to species that eat plants which could be why we saw so many different levels of herbivores and carnivores. Wow, that’s some science right there.

In both places, trees formed a vital part of the ecosystems (canopy and mangroves) and in both species have developed adaptions to compete and live in close quarters. In both areas we also found endangered species and invasive species, which though the causes for each habitat being endangered differ, both stem back to humans (sigh).

I expected more structure to our research, but was pleasantly surprised when we were allowed to pursue topics that interested us.  My favorite parts of the course were mostly in the rainforest- finding tarantulas at night, going into the cave, and getting to see all sort of different beetles, butterflies, and other things we don’t see around Houston. I found on this trip that I do not enjoy underwater research, in particular counting strands of seagrass was a low point, but it was still a good chance to learn what marine biologists do.

The most poignant moment for me on this trip was the trash collection activity on the last day- I was blown away by how much we collected and how much remained.  Also in preparing for my presentation, I learned about seagrass and mangroves and how they are actually vital for reefs and land ecosystems. I also went into the trip with a generally negative opinion of ants, but Scott’s passion and fun facts converted me to the cult of the ant. In particular I thought the leaf cutter ants were cool as they have super complex social structures, architecture, and they have little ant highway which somehow manage to be less chaotic than Houston’s own during rush hour.

Species seen:

Amphibians:

Morelet’s Tree Frog, Mexican Tree Frog, Broad Headed Rain Frog, Campbell’s Rainforest Toad, Gulf Coast Toad

Crustaceans:

Orange-tipped hermit crab, green climbing gall crab, giant hermit crab, furcate spider crab, spiny lobster, miscellaneous shrimp, blue land crab, blue land hermit crab

May 17th – Peeing in a Cup, Lectures in a Cave, and Catching a Glue Butt Cockroach

Today was our second full day at Las Cuevas, and unfortunately the rain appears to have stopped so the rainforest has become quite dry. Even when we went to the pond nearby it had dried up, so sadly no amphibians were spotted today.
Despite not seeing any members of my taxon group today, it was a very exciting day, and not just because we were surprised this morning with vials to collect our own urine. We spent the morning placing these vials of pee as well as controls containing water on tree trunks and in the ground the trap Arthropods and see if they prefer the nitrogen rich urine to water.
In the afternoon, we finally got to explore a bit of the namesake of this place- Las Cuevas (the cave). We went into the second of five huge chambers in the cave that are accessible from our station and when we turned off our headlamps there was no light. We stayed in the cave during our lectures because it is naturally cool underground, although we did get quite a bunch of bat guano on our pants.
My favorite part of today was going night hiking after dinner. I have slowly begun to fall in love with the huge red-rumped tarantulas that live in holes around our rooms and got to see a bunch more of those. We also found Glue-Butt Cockroaches, which are big black roaches with a sticky substance on their backs to dissuade predators. On the second try, I managed to catch one and it crawled all over my arm. We also found a stick bug and a different large spider with orange and black stripes. We saw our first snake and saw another scorpion- a Florida Bark Scorpion to be exact.


Hopefully tomorrow will be less hot and dry so the frogs come back out, but one things for sure, I’ll be out looking for tarantulas again tomorrow night!

May 16th – hundreds of ticks and a tarantula

Today was a long day of hiking for our team as we set up our 7 working camera traps along the trails near the research station to see what wildlife crosses the paths when we aren’t there. Though there were light showers in the afternoon, today was a fairly sunny and dry day. However, in the morning I did find a broad-headed rain frog under a log by where we deployed our first camera trap. Broad-headed rain frogs can be easily identified as they are often found in the leaf litter and have a distinctive side stripe that extends over its eyes, sort of like a bandits mask in old westerns. In the afternoon on our way up the Monkey Tail Trail, I caught a glimpse of a Mexican Tree Frog of a khaki coloration. Unfortunately, it was already high up the tree by the time I saw him. This was an abnormal siting as Mexican Tree Frogs are typically more active at night, though perhaps the rains brought him out.


Today was an exciting day for sitings from outside my taxon group too. We saw a group of spider monkeys before lunch and a bunch of us ate termites under Scott’s instruction. In the afternoon we got to observe first hand the mutualistic relationship between the Bull Thorn Acacia tree and their ant protectors plus we saw the fresh claw marks in the dirt on trail where a puma or jaguar had crossed. We also saw three scarlet macaws in the canopy and I even managed to capture a video of them as they swooped past.
Back at the station I found, no exaggeration, at least 100 ticks on me. I spent probably an hour tweezing them all out. Unclear how I got wrecked by ticks when everyone else just found a few, but tomorrow I’m going to use a LOT of bug spray.
After our lectures, it was dark, aka perfect conditions for tarantula hunting. We found a huge red-rumped tarantula in its hole and managed to coax it out, revealing the broken shells of beetles it had been eating. We also found a different arachnid, the Florida Bark scorpion in a sink, but if you are reading this, don’t worry mom, I didn’t get my hand close to either of them.

May 20th- We all get chased by soldier ants, a tapir photo, and (only) 44 tick bites

Today was our last day here at Las Cuevas and so we spent the morning going out to collect all the camera traps we had placed at the beginning of the week. When we were out, we ran into the spider monkeys again and watched for a while as they tried to scare us off by throwing sticks down. Today must have been a good day for monkeys, because we could also hear the sound of howler monkeys calling off in the distance all day, which sounds to me a lot like we are in the movie Jurassic Park. I also managed to rack up 44 ticks pulled off of myself after our second trip down the monkey trail, and that is WITH bug spray. Certainly less than the hundreds I got at the beginning of the week though. 

In the afternoon, we finished processing the data from yesterday afternoon’s experiment before going back out into the field one last time to examine young and old leaf cutter ant mounds (which mostly involved watching Scott digging holes to look for the fungus gardens and running from the giant soldier ants that can bite through rubber). 

After dinner we had our lectures and then went through the pictures from our camera traps and found we had captured a picture of…. drum roll…. A TAPIR!!! We also had photos of some smaller mammals like a possum and skunk, and some birds, however one picture that didn’t turn out clear appeared to have some sort of large cat, perhaps a puma? Unfortunately because you can only see the faces silhouette, I guess we’ll never know what was out in the forest that night… 

Tapir Spotting!

Though an exciting day of mammal siting, the amphibian count for the day was zero again, likely because of the dry and hot weather we have been having. 

May 19th- Ant attacks, a venomous snake, and a bird I thought was a jaguar

Today was a VERY long day of field work and quite frankly I’m exhausted. In the morning we sampled plants in disturbed and undisturbed areas of the forest and compared the diversity we found there. After making our poster presentations and eating lunch, we went back out to the disturbed habitat to take measurements of the leaf toughness of the trumpet tree leaves that do and do not contain ant colonies to defend them, and in the process I got bit on the hand by a number of ants.

From the top of the bird tower

Because these measurements took so long, we went right into hiking uphill to the bird tower to try and catch the sunset, but alas it was a cloudy day. We hiked back after the sun went down and I walked right over a Mexican Jumping Viper before Pierce noticed it (Yes, it’s venomous, but no, I did not get bit). We also saw a cute tree rat, the biggest cockroach in the world (literally, they are one of the largest cockroach species in the world), and a bird with reflective eyes that we all thought was a jaguar until we got closer. And THEN, it was time for all our lectures for the night.

I didn’t see any amphibians today, which I would assume is because we did our field work in the drier sun-exposed disturbed area, so the amphibians were probably deep under the leaf litter to keep from desecrating, if they were there at all. Phew, I’m tired, so that’s all the words you get today. 

May 15th – Waterfalls, Mayan Ruins, and Scarlet Macaws

Today we had another early start as we had a lot planned and far to travel. We ate breakfast at the lodge we stayed and I got to try a Belizean specialty called Fried Jacks, which are kind of like a less sweet beignet, along with others staples like refried black beans, watermelon juice, and some sort of cheese. We all loaded back into the van and headed further along the gravel road until we reached a waterfall with pools formed in the granite rocks called Rio en Pools. While there we got to swim and play in the waterfalls, as well as observe the mountain pine region close up. While walking to the falls, our group found a super tiny toad which I identified as a Gulf Coast Toad, a pretty common species in the area. We also found a basilisk lizard, which is noteworthy for the funny way it runs and the fact that it can run across water (though sadly, we did not witness this feat). 

After our swim, we drove about an hour to the Caracol Mayan ruins. I was amazed by the huge size of the buildings, as well as the fact that you are allowed to climb up the stairs of the exposed buildings and the fact that ancient pottery was just littered about. Also, we climbed the tallest ruin which is actually the tallest building in Belize and was built in 650 AD! We could even see the border of Guatemala from up there because of the deforestation line. My favorite parts of our tour included seeing Montezuma’s Oropendola birds (which make these interesting hanging sack-like nests to protect their eggs from snakes) and getting to see a whole bunch of black howler monkeys above us in the rainforest (including a baby!). 

After we finished at Caracol, we rode to our final destination- Las Cuevas Research Station and arrived right as it started to pour. Perhaps the dry season won’t be as dry as we thought. After the rain stopped, we got to see a Scarlet Macaw up in the canopy (except Keegan who didn’t believe us until it was too late). I didn’t see any amphibians after the rain, but I’m excited to see some tomorrow when we head out into the Chiquibul for the first time since it is (hopefully) an early start to the wet season!

Caracol

May 18th – Morelet’s Tree Frog!

It was a great day to be a herpetologist today! This morning while we were out collecting the pit traps we set to collect arthropods, we spotted a green tree frog asleep on a fishtail palm. When he opened his eyes he revealed his orange underside and large black eyes- it was a Morelet’s Tree Frog! The holy grail of frog hunting because it’s a critically endangered species. He remained very zen as we all took his pictures and even went back to sleep. I was surprised how big and flat he was and how sort of fleshy his legs were. I’d only seen pictures, which really don’t do them justice. What great luck! 

When we got back to the lab we spent the afternoon sorting our specimens and analyzing arthropod diversity on the ground and canopy as well as looking at species attraction to nitrogen in our urine. We found a huge amount of diversity on the forest floor, but not quite as much in the canopy. We also found out that canopy species were more attracted to the urine, showing that the canopy is more nitrogen bare, which makes sense given the relative lack of decaying matter in the branches of trees. After presenting our findings and eating dinner, I gave my taxon ID talk about amphibians. 

The darkness brought another opportunity for tarantula hunting, but this time not only did I find a bunch of big fuzzy spiders, but also some whistling birds with eyes that reflect purple in the light of my headlamp. Under the dorms I also found a fairly large sized toad with gold around its eyes. At first I thought it was a cane toad because of the eyes, but upon further inspection, it’s back markings proved it to be a Campbell’s Rainforest Toad. 

May 14th – Traveling to Belize

This morning, the entirety of EBIO 319 boarded a plane and headed to Belize City, and luckily TSA did not take away a single one of the 6 animal trapping cameras I had in my carry on. Once we we had all passed through customs, complete with a vague recollection of where we were going to the customs officer who made the mistake of asking where exactly Las Cuevas Research Station was “in the jungle,” we all boarded a 15 passenger van and headed down the road to our first destination: lunch. As we drove, the smoke from several wildfires lighting up the grassland clouded the sky. May is towards the end of the dry season, so wildfires are a common occurrence during this time, however unlike in the US there were no firefighters trying to put out the flames.
Though haggard from our 5:30am wake-ups, a delicious meal complete with a variety of fresh fruit juices woke us up, plus the venue- a roadside open-patio style restaurant was adorable. While we were there, Scott pointed out a huge termite nest in a nearby tree and the tunnel the termites built down to the ground to protect themselves from the elements. After lunch, we rode about an hour to a roadside grocery store where we picked up some last minute snacks and the elusive cold drink. As we drove through Belize, it was interesting to see the flat savanna land turn into scrubland, and finally into more densely forested areas.  Also, I kept seeing these super beautiful orange flowering trees along the side of the road, which turned out to be acacias (tree ID cred to our resident tree expert Amy).

When we finally made it to our destination for the night- an eco lodge part of the way to Las Cuevas, we were all very glad to be out of the van and to check into our rooms. After we saw another group at the lodge head down the hill, we decided to follow them in search of the promised river. It was an idyllic tropical river, though the people on the rope swim killed the nature vibe for me. While the others hiked back up the hill to get their swim suits and join the other group, I elected to chill out in the hammock outside and listen to all the birds as the sun set. Because of all the time we spent traveling today, I didn’t have much time to look for my assigned taxon (amphibians), however one girl in the group found a toad that based on her size description sounds like it was a gulf coast toad. Hopefully tomorrow will be a better day for amphibian hunting…

In 24 hours we’ll be in Belize!

My snorkel gear has been bought, the rain boots packed, and now I have a blog… it looks like I’m ready to go. Tuesday, May 14th, I’m going to be heading out to study ecology in the rainforests and coral reefs of Belize. More specifically, our group will be spending the first week at Las Cuevas research station in the Chiquibul Forest before moving to Glover’s Reef Atoll for the second week. This is an experience which I hope will help me decide whether I’d enjoy field research in ecology after graduation.

My two previous experiences in the tropics consist of a family cruise I went on in high school in which we were whisked between touristy beaches and all you can eat buffets, and a mission trip I went on to urbanized Honduras in which I spent the week knocking cockroaches off my suitcase and desperately trying to avoid ingesting tap water while in the shower. Neither of these experiences lend me much relevant knowledge for our research, however, the former did provide me with at least a background in using a snorkel and fins.

In preparation for this trip I have read A Natural History of Belize: Inside the Maya Forest by Samuel Bridgewater, a book that gives a broad overview of the history, geology, and biology of the area of rainforest we are studying. If nothing else, the book has provided me with enough fun facts about exotic plants and animals to last a lifetime. I also have read up a bit about types of corals and the threats they face due to storms and human activity. I am going to be focusing on amphibians in the rainforest and crustaceans when we go to the reef, and so have prepared cards to help me identify them. I’ve come to the conclusion that there are a seemingly endless variety of frogs and toads that I could see, well 22, but that’s still a whole lot of frogs. Do a rain dance for me so they all come out, because I would love to see a Mexican Burrowing Toad.

A couple weeks ago we practiced our snorkeling skills in the Rec center pool (I’m sure much to the delight of those who wanted to take a swim) and went to the Houston Zoo as a group to get a visual for the kinds of snakes to expect, especially the ones that are venomous. Not usually one to feel uneasy in the woods, the idea of a lancehead bite has certainly given me much to think about since then.

In addition to not wanting to be medevaced out of Belize, another source of uneasiness in my preparations is about the rigor of the schedule. Though I am one to appreciate nature and am excited for this adventure, I’ve been informed us that the days tend to be quite full and so I’m a little worried about not getting enough sleep. But, at the same time, it’s only 2 weeks, so even if it is exhausting I can tell myself that every morning when I am forced to rise before my prefered noon wakeup.

I am so very excited to get to go to Belize (and miraculously get credit hours while doing it!). Of the hundreds of things I am excited for, I am actually most excited to hear the noises of the Chiquibul at night, because at least according to what I’ve read, this is when you can hear the monkeys, frogs, and insects off in the distance, a chorus foreign to me, as I have only slept outside in east coast deciduous forests populated by few species of animal and many loud hikers.

 

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.