Tag Archives: andressa

Day 16: Encore

Rainforests and coral reefs have relatively similar ecologies. Both exist in poor nutrient conditions, wherein most of the nutrients are housed in the biotic as opposed to the abiotic. Both display disproportionate levels of diversity when compared to their total area—coral reefs cover only 0.2-1% of the seafloor, but sustain 25% of all marine species. Similarly, more than half of the world’s species of plants and animals live in the rainforest, which covers about 2-6% of the Earth’s surface. This means a very high proportion of Earth’s organisms depend on these two ecosystems alone, making deforestation and coral bleaching an even more urgent problem. Additionally, both of these ecosystems are distinctly tropical, which poses the question of why tropicality encourages and fosters biodiversity.

The answer may lie in the overlapping factors that allow both coral reefs and rainforests to provide for such drastic biodiversity. The lack of nutrients in the soil or water means nutrients are in the organisms themselves. In the rainforest, these nutrients are cycled around as decomposers extract nutrients from leaf litter that coats the rainforest floor. This means that every aspect of the nutrient cycle is dependent on organisms, allowing for many different niches of decomposers, producers, and consumers. In the reef, nutrient cycling is done by corals and sponges and other organisms, again creating niches for new species to occupy and providing nutrients to the entire ecosystem without relying on abiotic factors. This abundance of niches is important, as it encourages speciation.

New species form when a new role in the ecosystem opens up, and rainforests and reefs are constantly creating new niches and roles. This is because both have many different parts and portions that mean an organism can be doing the same thing as another, but in a different area, and so competition does not occur. The rainforest, for example, is divided into the emergent layer, the canopy, the overstory, the understory, and the forest floor. Each of these areas receives a different amount of sunlight and so sports a different ecology, which means each layer can be exploited by different organisms. This means that in only one square meter of rainforest, species can exist and develop on each layer without competing with each other, thereby rendering this one patch of land a lot more productive and biodiverse than in a savannah, tundra, or other ecosystem. Similarly, the reef is also divided into different layers, like the fore reef, the back reef, and the reef crest. Each of these layers presents different niches that do not overlap, and encourage speciation.

Another important factor is the tropicality of these ecosystems. The tropics receives more sunlight per square meter than any other ecosystem on Earth. This means that photosynthetic organisms in the tropics receive more energy than any other, and this energy is used and distributed throughout the ecosystems they are a part of. Every organism, directly or indirectly dependent on the photosynthetic foundation of these ecosystems, benefits from the energy of the sun, which in the tropics is abundant and strong. Additionally, note that both these ecosystems do in fact sport a photosynthetic keystone species or group of species that supports all other organisms. In the rainforest, this is the trees and plants that provide shade, habitat, food, and nutrients. In the reef, this is the corals themselves, which also provide habitat, food, safety, and nutrients. Deforestation and coral bleaching directly impact these photosynthetic foundations, and that is why they are so dangerous to the continued existence of these vital ecosystems.

This biodiversity was apparent to me from the first rainforest trail we hiked to the last patch reef we swam in. It was amazing how no matter where you stopped and observed, you could find dozens of species coexisting. Of course, there were differences—for one, the rainforest’s biodiversity can be communicated through sounds, and standing and listening to the hum of the forest was one of my favorite things to do. The reef is silent, but still sports similar levels of biodiversity despite the lack of communication. In both ecosystems I was most fascinated by the apex predators, perhaps in typical human fashion. The snakes and big cats of the forest captivated me, while the sharks and rays represented them in the reef. One of the most striking moments for me was snorkeling in one of the patch reefs, on a day where the water was crystal clear. Beneath me were schools of fish moving in harmony, and huge colorful parrotfish unlike anything I’d ever seen before. In the rainforest, larger creatures tend to be hidden and more difficult to find. But the stand-out moments for me was when we did find them—like the boa constrictor, or the jaguars caught on our camera traps, or the parrots and vultures that flew above us.

My favorite moment is difficult to pin down. The moment we saw the boa and Kristen screamed, the climb up the Mayan ruins of Caracol, or that first time when we all screamed, huddled around a laptop as the jaguar’s distinctive coat flashed across the screen for the first time. The hermit crab race, sitting at the edge of the pier while a tropical storm brewed above me, or every single golden sunset I watched settle over the Caribbean sea. The sea itself could be a favorite moment, as I’d never before seen such a clear turquoise. The specific moments of finding myself knee-deep in the rainforest and absolutely loving it, or maybe on the night hike, when we turned off our lights and I looked up and saw the stars, those tropical night-time stars that I can never seem to get used to. Total darkness in the Las Cuevas cave, or the look of the stalactites shimmering above me. All of these could be listed as my favorite moments from the trip.

My least favorite thing is likely the hundreds of bug bites I acquired, which still haven’t gone away. As far as expectations, I don’t think I really knew what to expect. The information I had on the trip itself wasn’t extensive, so I assumed it would be similar to when I visited the Amazon or the Caribbean with family, on vacation. Of course, it was nothing like a vacation. We were up from dawn past dusk, collecting data and working all day. But even then, the places we stayed at and the friendships formed made it almost seem like a vacation. If I had ever set expectations, they would’ve been exceeded. The amount that I learned about myself, my career, my interests, my existential questions, and ecology itself is unparalleled in any other course I’ve ever taken. One of the most important things I learned is what it really means to be a field researcher. You’re not spending your life in nature, you’re collecting data for weeks or months and then returning home, and doing lab work. It’s a bit of a dual life that I think fits my aspirations well. I also learned that I’m not as weak as I thought I was. As someone who didn’t start out loving nature, being capable in the outdoors is something I had to learn over the years. I had always doubted my abilities, but this trip taught me that I am in fact capable of living the more primitive, less wasteful lifestyle that I’d always romanticized. And lastly, this trip answered a lot of questions for me about humanity and our place in nature. We are animals, but we operate outside of natural ecosystems. We are an invasive species, eating and consuming without limits just like the lionfish. This is not necessarily our fault—any species in our position would do the same. But we have the advantage of having morals and ethics, allowing for some vague grasp of what is wrong and what is right. Because of this, we have a responsibility and a drive to protect the things we come from. It is sometimes difficult to remember every single thing around us comes from nature, that even what is man-made originated from the soil, in the ground, or in the sea. If anything, we should protect nature for ourselves. For me, though, nature is the closest thing to a spiritual home that I have found. This trip has showed me exactly what path I must take to fight for and reside in nature. A long time ago I resolved to reject the wasteful, selfish aspects of cities, and to turn to more abstract things like art and music and nature for comfort. These things had always been something on the side, something I could never rely on in any realistic, formulaic plan for my life. This trip is one of the many puzzle pieces that have helped me realize it’s totally possible for me to integrate my passions into my career. And this is something that will stay with me, something that in twenty years I can list as one of the major factors that pushed me into a lifestyle I can condone and not condemn—part one of my lifelong quest to understand the beauty of this planet and every single thing within it.

Day 15: finale

And so the final day has arrived. We all woke up early to pack, had a final breakfast, and loaded into Captain Buck’s fancy boat. Today was exceptionally hot—by 7 o’ clock I was already sweating, and normally the heat only begins around 9 or 10. So the wind in my hair from the boat trip was a big relief, and though I was sad to be leaving, I was happy to be doing it in such style.

We had two stops along the way. The first was at another research station, much smaller than ours, this one owned by the Smithsonian. It was an incredible island, you could throw a ball from one side of it to the other. The station itself was colored in pastel paints and very cozy. We got a quick tour of the place, and looked at their experiments. They had many tanks of clear water housing two common Caribbean corals and their hybrid, which tends to be more heat-resistant than either of the parent species. We also got a great view from their patio, at the sea beyond the reef crest.

The set up of Carrie Bow’s coral lab.
The view from the patio at Carrie Bow.

After this we went snorkeling in the mangroves for about thirty minutes before heading to the airport. We had lunch at the restaurant on the pier of Belize City along with Javier and Rose, and said our goodbyes and took pictures. The bus driver alerted us that the van’s air conditioning had broken, and that he was sorry for the inconvenience. We all cheered (and I internally laughed, as we hadn’t had air conditioning in two weeks) and piled in anyway, for the final stretch of road in Belize.

The flight was good, I listened to music for all of it. Claire’s dad flew us again! It was a surprise for all of us. He waved from the cockpit and I did a double take upon seeing him, and then he gave us another shout-out before he took off. We arrived in Houston at around 8 o’ clock, and I got home at around 10 o’ clock, exhausted and still full of saltwater. I took a shower and passed out, unable to believe we had really spent two weeks in Belize, in the rainforest and in the sea.

Day 13: sharks are the snakes of the sea

Today was the best snorkeling by far. We went to three separate sites to swim around, no project, no plan. The first was pretty and also marked the first time I properly dove down, and I was totally unaware that diving makes the snorkeling experience ten times better.

The second site was a lot deeper, probably an average of ten feet down, and that made diving a lot easier and more rewarding. The sheer amount of fish and my newfound ability to snorkel correctly made the experience a lot of fun. The most significant find at this site was a huge nurse shark, probably 6 or 7 feet long, sleeping in a coral cavern right beneath us. We could see the whole length of the shark, and we noticed a plastic bottle tied to a string attached to the shark’s fin. It was difficult to tell if the string was tied to the fin or not, but at one point the shark moved and the bottle went along with it. It honestly broke my heart, and we discussed removing the bottle  but we didn’t have scissors and pulling the bottle might hurt and anger the shark. We had to let it be, but the image of such a majestic shark with a bottle attached was horrible.

Me attempting and failing to take a picture with the sleeping shark below. PC: Chloe

The third site, though, was the real jackpot. It was a good mix of deep (10 feet and sometimes more) and very shallow (literally touching the rocks without reaching out), but the water was also insanely clear, almost transparent. I could see everything, and I swam with schools of fish, and above the most colorful parrotfish I’ve ever seen, and then swam right behind a black tip reef shark that went right up to us then turned away. Meanwhile, the sun was setting right above us, light streaming through pink clouds, and it suddenly hit me I was in the Caribbean sea swimming with sharks. Middle-school me would be so proud.

One of the beautiful reef patches we snorkeled at. PC: Claire
A pic of the third site we were at. PC: Claire

I saw a lot of green algae, but no new species. I only saw Halimeda tuna, Halimeda incrassata, Rhipocephalus phoenix, Penicillus pyramidis, and some species of Caulerpa. Yesterday was my green aglae today—I spent all of today enjoying the fishes and sharks. As you probably know by now, snakes are my favorite thing on land, and sharks are effectively the snakes of the sea.

Me posing with trash we found again, at the first site. PC: Sami




Day 12: what a wonderful world

Today was the day I really fell in love with the coral reefs. They were nice before, and the fish interesting and the many little things I couldn’t identify mysterious in a charming way. But I felt alien and vaguely invasive. I definitely didn’t belong, and all the fish could tell. (Also apparently I’m allergic to my own snorkel so that wasn’t a great invitation either).

Today we didn’t go out on the boat. We headed to the shore of our little island and waded into the sea. The water was burning, heated by the sun and the decomposition of leaf litter in the shallow water. But we kept wading through, the water cooled, and the murky seaweed gave way to corals and fish.

I swam with Javier and Rose (our water safety officers) for a bit, and we saw a porcupine fish, a huge black thing with piercing brown eyes hiding inside a cave. Rose called it a “big-ass fish,” and I agreed. Scott found a monster lobster, the size of a human torso likely. We also found an octopus, about the size of the palm of my hand, and it was by far the silkiest thing I’ve ever touched. We found a variety of tiny green crabs, molluscs, one small yellow fish, and a ton of green algae.

Me observing my second dearest taxon, trash. PC: Claire

At some point during this Finding Nemo-like experience, something clicked and I understood. It’s such a different ecosystem from the ones I know and love, but there are similarities—and maybe the foreign-ness is the most beautiful part.

We found a very large variety of green algae to bring back to the lab: Derbesia ousterhoutii, Cladophora prolifera, Caulerpa cupressides, Udotea flabellum, Penicillus lamourouxii, Halimeda increassata, and Rhipocephalus phoenix as some featured examples. I actually love green algae now. It is very charming how much they look like tiny underwater land plants. Rhipocephalus is a pine tree and Udotea a lettuce leaf and Halimeda a little bush. On land, I love plants and flowers and trees, so to see their morphological representation in the marine world is a delight.

My green algae set up. PC: Chloe
The little octopus we caught. PC: Chloe.

Day 11: kylie jenner

I woke up today with a swollen bottom lip, which I’ve never had before. I opted out of the morning snorkel because my lips were numb and my best guess was that I am allergic to the silicone in the snorkel.

I stayed in listening to music till about 11 am, when everyone came back. Apparently the seas were very choppy, and people were seasick. This snorkel was also not an official project, so I didn’t miss anything I had to note in my journal.

We had lunch, it was pizza and it was amazing. After a one hour rest, we headed out on the reef, and I came with this time. I opted to not use the snorkel, in case it was in fact an allergic reaction, and so went swimming with just my mask. This was actually a lot more fun than I expected, since it gave an edge to the breathing, and I had to calculate when would be the best time to take a breath. I actually enjoyed today’s snorkeling more than I did yesterday’s.

Me holding a brittle star while measuring urchins on the boat. PC: Chloe.

Today’s project was to look for sea urchins. I was not amazing at this, but did catch a few. I was mostly distracted by the green algae that I finally started seeing—and I once I saw one, I saw them all. I must’ve seen at least fifty or sixty independent colonies of Halimeda tuna. I also saw three Rhipocephalus phoenix in one corner of the reef, and two fans of Udotea flabellum.

Me looking uncomfortable while making our urchins+coral reef poster. PC: Sami

Apparently tomorrow will be at least partially dedicated to identification of algae, so I’m looking forward to my taxon’s spotlight.

Day 10: psa coconuts can fall and kill you

Today we went out on the boat and dove into the atoll, snorkeling in the real Caribbean ocean. After about three hours of practicing with our methodology, counting squares on the quadrat to determine proportions, we all piled into the boat and sailed away from our little island. About ten minutes away is another island, surrounded by patch reefs. We all dove in, holding our equipment, and were sent to explore the reef and collect data.

A stingray we saw gliding through the seagrass off the coast off our island. PC: Chloe

Diving from the boat into the water was one of the prettiest parts for me. As soon as you hit the water, you sink a few feet and all around is pure blue ocean. Sometimes you can see the bottom, twenty or thirty feet below you, and you feel suspended in mid-air, surrounded by nothing by cerulean water. This is the thermocline, where the passive margin that provides a shallow seafloor for the reef ecosystem drops off and is replaced by open ocean.

We collected data at two areas for comparison. The first one was distinctively shallower than the second. I was almost touching the corals right beneath me, and could stand up in the sand with half my body out. The second one was a lot deeper, the corals about seven feet down. This was a lot easier of an area to snorkel, though the data  collection was more difficult because we had to dive down to pick up our quadrats and transect tape. I attempted to dive down and was not particularly successful.

I didn’t take note of any green algae today. I saw a lot of what I thought might have been green algae, seaweed-like organisms anchored to the bottom of the sea, and I saw some non-calcified algae that clung to corals or rocks. But I didn’t identify any of them or take a very good, mainly because I was trying to get used to snorkeling. Tomorrow I’ll do a more thorough search for my taxon.

Day 9: snorkelers of the caribbean

Today was the official changeover from Turf to Surf. At a relatively late awakening of 6:45, we piled into the van with all of our things and drove for two hours or so to the pier. Immediately, we felt the change of scenery. Tall trees and yellow grasslands eroded into salt and sand, and I stepped off the van with a completely altered mindset. The sight of the boats, the swell of the sea, and the smell of foam hit me like an old memory, and I remembered my truest and most long-standing call-to-arms: piracy.

Me spending two hours staring at the sea. PC: Jessica

Yes, the boat trip reminded me of pirates, and I ended up with a decent amount of sunburn from spending the two-hour ride perched up on the side watching the waves crash against the side of the boat. I had a good period of self-reflection, and decided again to learn how to sail, something I keep meaning to do. But the view was spectacular, the clouds unreal, and the changing shades from the sea and the sky like nothing I’d seen anywhere else.

The view of the sunset from the pier.

Pulling up to Glover’s and to our little remote island, I genuinely felt like I was in a movie. This place may actually be paradise. The buildings form a self-sustaining picturesque neighborhood, the ground occupied by charming iguanas and hermit crabs, and the seas crystal clear. We practiced snorkeling in the water close to the pier, and I saw an Utodea green algae. I almost immediately recognized the distinctive fan-like texture of the thallus, and dove down to get a better look. It’s surprisingly difficult for me to distinguish green algae from other things, as I barely know what corals look like at this point. Hopefully tomorrow, and with more practice, I’ll be able to pinpoint my taxon better.

I must note this place is nothing like the rainforest. It almost feels like a completely different class. I must also admit that I am a little nervous about snorkeling and that the reefs slightly freak me out. I am much more terrestrial-y inclined, but I also very much want to learn to enjoy the ocean’s inside. Effectively, my current love of the ocean is superficial, based on outward appearance, and I’d like to get deeper in the relationship—more committed. I’m going to try and really get to know the ocean.

Day 8: civilizations r not us

We went to the supermarket, which was weird. The ability to buy things I needed was a foreign concept after five days in the jungle. The promise of a dry towel, the consumption of packaged snacks—all forgotten from a life past.

Leaving Las Cuevas was a bittersweet experience: on one hand jungles are the best places on earth, on the other I would like to be dry and not surrounded by insects for at least some time. I think I will definitely miss Las Cuevas in the future, but for now the change of scenery is welcome.

After the supermarket stop, we headed to ATM cave and did some more spelunking. I am learning quickly that I absolutely love caves. There were human remains and stalactites and calcified rock, and we spent three hours entirely entertained by the formations of the earth and the artifacts of a fallen civilization. There was also one singular cave cricket, Raphidophoroidea, which was a good find for the Orthoptera crowd. I couldn’t take a picture of it because we weren’t allowed cameras inside the cave.

Afterward, we arrived again in Belize City at around 6, where we are staying at the Tropical Education Center, near the Belize Zoo. After some time to get settled, we headed out to the zoo. It was amazing, and very distinctively un-American. The first thing we did was put a boa constrictor around our necks.

Me as the boa was placed around me. PC: Sam

We were allowed to feed exotic animals and touch them. It was a great experience, especially since I kept imagining how absolutely horrifying it would’ve been to have encountered them alone in the jungle, when no set of electric wires could’ve kept them from us. Civilization is a very different world, indeed.

A puma we saw at the zoo. PC: Jessica

Day 7: luck of the draw

Today we did a total of four things, each one more exciting than the last.

In the early morning, we hiked up a very steep hill to the bird tower, a two-story wooden structure that looks out across a huge expanse of raw rainforest. The hike was difficult, but the view absolutely worth it, especially since it was morning and blue mist settled over an endless horizon of canopy. We stayed for a while, then hiked back, stopping at a small cave along the way.

The view from the bird tower. PC: Sam

In the late morning, we set out to collect our camera traps. Though  the hike was long and strenuous, I found three hatched light-blue eggs under a tree slightly off-trail, which was new. Orhoptera wise, I didn’t  see as much as I usually do, but I did see one very large and bright green grasshoppers at the base of the bird tower. Though I didn’t see its wings, I assumed it to be a red-winged grasshopper from the size.

In the afternoon, we went out to excavate leaf-cutter ant hills, led by Scott. The Mississippi group of college-age kids staying with us at Las Cuevas came with us, too. We all watched Scott as pulled out a queen from the heart of a one-year-old leaf cutter ant nest. It was a large and disturbing version of ant that I wasn’t used to, but the whole excavation process was really interesting. We also excavated a much larger (25 feet or so) ant nest, hit a dump tank, and instead got to touch warm, decomposing fungus. During this hike, I did in fact see an actual red-winged grasshopper very up close, since the guy I was walking with saw it and picked it up. It was huge–likely 10 cm across, and flew away almost as soon as it was picked up so I couldn’t get a picture.

In the evening, we finally checked our camera trap cards. Already on the first camera we found a Baird’s tapir, and then, amazingly, a jaguar. All of us collectively screamed at the sight of the rosette patterning. The unbelievable part came later, however, when we caught yet another jaguar on a separate camera trap. Both were absolutely stunning, and I think I screamed louder on the second than the first. We also found three pumas, an armadillo, a coral snake, curassows, and a variety of other animals we hadn’t seen yet. But the jaguars were really the crown jewel of the whole piece.

Jaguar 1
Jaguar 2

Day 6: welcome to pee-lize

This was the only day that was relatively calm so far. Effectively, we only did one activity (which is far less than we usually do) and this was retrieving our samples for our second project on nitrogen limitation in the rainforest. Yes, this is the pee one. After finding and tagging our urine and water vials, we went back to the lab and spent approximately four hours sorting throuhg the insects we found in the liquid, dividing them into different categories based on appearance alone. This meant we were each assigned an insect group, to keep the identification standardized across the whole project.

I was assigned Orthoptera, as this is my regularly-assigned taxon, and this may as well have been the most Orthoptera I saw today. On our morning hike, there were no interesting Orthoptera organisms, though I did catch what seemed like a few quick, small crickets jumping throuhg the leaf litter. The lack of recorded Orthoptera for today may be partially due to the fact our morning hike was short, and I wasn’t paying close and particular attention to the leaves, since we were all preoccuped with collecting our samples.

Halfway through our four-hour analysis, a second group arrived at Las Cuevas Research Station. They were college students, here to study ecology and biology like us. We somehow got offered the opportunity to present our project to them, so we did—standing at the front of the lecture lab, holding a poster titled “To Pee or Not to Pee”, discussing our day-long analysis in front of a group of strangers. They were sympathetic and seemed genuinely interested in our study, which was reassuring and honestly very sweet. It was a good (if not slightly eccentric) introduction to the first outsiders we’d seen in days.

Besides this, it was a quiet day. At about 2 pm, it started raining in traditional rainforest fashion: brief, ephemeral torrents of rain, followed by open blue skies. We all stood on the deck of Las Cuevas and basked in the falling rain.

All of us standing in the rain at Las Cuevas.