Tag Archives: Anna Knochel


The rainforest and the reef are similar and dissimilar in several ways. Both ecosystems hold incredible biodiversity, experience similar negative anthropogenic impacts, and exist in oligotrophic surroundings. The reason biodiversity is high for each has to do with the location of rainforests and reefs. Both are found low latitudes, where weather and temperature are more constant than at higher latitudes and the impact of the sun is at its fullest. The structural complexity of each provides a wide array of niches to be filled by different organisms. Both habitats are under severe threat from human activities, even if those activities are different. Though, the goal is the same, to extract resources. The soils of tropical rainforests are nutrient and nitrogen poor and the same goes for reefs. The turnover rate in both ecosystems is so large that these nutrients are almost instantly ingested by the organisms living on the forest floor or in the benthos, where it is recycled in a microbial loop.

There are differences also in the environment, types of life, and in the effects of humans. As terrestrial organisms, we are built for living on land and can be quite awkward and clumsy in the sea. The ocean is an entirely different medium, made up of salty water. To fully explore the reefs, a human must strap on fake fins and be able to hold their breath for long periods of time, or utilize scuba. Land is a remarkably easier place to do field work for most people. The types of life found in each area are also different. Insects do not inhabit the oceans but are found on every single continent. While marine fish make up a great portion of the species in the sea, as do marine mammals, most if not all are absent from the rainforest’s rivers. Reefs are probably the more fragile ecosystem, since a large part of the functionality of a reef is dependent upon the health of its main reef builders, stony corals. The forests of the Chiquibul face a number of anthropogenic threats, such as selective and indiscriminate logging, harvesting of Xate, hunting, poaching, and mining. While these forests do face some threat from global warming, its main threat is extraction. But for reefs, human extraction, pollution, as well as global warming are likely all equally threatening. Stony corals live in symbiosis with tiny dinoflagellate algae, and this symbiosis is fragile and easily susceptible to stressors in the environment. If the stony corals are unhealthy, this can cause huge changes to this ecosystem, such as a loss of architectural complexity, harms to reef fish populations and dynamics, and erosion along coastlines. The ocean also serves as a dumpster for humanity’s trash and it seems that even a place like Glover’s can be affected, whereas trash cannot just drift into the Chiquibul.

Overall I observed all of these similarities and differences between these two ecosystems. The forests may stand taller than much of the reef landscape, but it is wise not to be fooled. The outer reef contains multitudes of boulders and nooks and crannies, creating this complex and diverse habitat. We were fortunate enough to see several colonies of Acropora palmata, a beautiful, large branching coral that was nearly wiped out by White Band Disease. Once, this species formed a zone that mimicked the forest, but now, these corals are dispersed across the outer reef. Noise is another factor to consider. The forest was never still and never silent. From crickets to cicadas, from howler monkeys to the sounds of the wind blowing through the trees, there was never a time when anything stopped. In the sea however, noises were harder to hear, and were occasionally absent. Down in the depths of the outer reef, an eerie but calming silence envelops you and nearly makes you forget that you have to go back to the surface in order to draw another breath.

I am quite biased towards the reef and must say that was my favorite week. I love the ocean, and the challenges that it presents to a land creature like myself. I enjoyed every aspect of the entire trip however, and found that hiking 13.25 miles in rain boots isn’t so bad as long as you have a chipper attitude and an amazing group of people surrounding you. Michael and Sam, in their enthusiasm for insects, and Adrienne’s funny antics towards them, made me more fully appreciate their existence. While I will never pick up a cockroach, I still have a newly found respect for them. I also think that monkey hoppers are actually pretty cute. My baseline for ant size has definitely been shifted to a larger perspective. I’m excited to go home and see tiny ants and be thankful they aren’t the large soldier ants we so lovingly harassed. The reef though, is where I think I am the happiest. The large colorful and beautiful birds of the Chiquibul morph into colorful reef fishes. The large trees turn to acroporas and boulder mounds. Predatory jaguars and other cats turn into the sharks and barracudas that silently cut through the water. In the end though, I love both places, and would never turn down an opportunity to explore both even more.

A few things surprised me. Hiking 13.25 miles in one day in rain boots wasn’t so bad after all. I learned that trying to count intersect points of a quadrat in five feet of water is extremely difficult, even in the slightest of waves. I can never un-see Michael putting that bee larvae in his mouth. I also learned I am definitely not a morning person. I would tell myself literally every night that I would get up early to go bird watching or to write my blogs, but I always got up at the last second, threw on some clothes, and headed to breakfast. Cold showers are necessary and will make you wonder why you ever took a hot shower. Bees are really cool and are diverse and variable in form, and I’ll never forget that little metallic green orchid bee. I may never see one again. I shall never forget our friend Clivus. Most of all, what will definitely stick with me over the years is the awesome group of people I got to explore Belize with. This group was amazing and every person played a part in making the dynamic fantastic and crazy. Throughout my time in Belize, I met some amazing people, from Lauren and Boris at Las Cuevas, to Javier and Herbie at Glover’s Reef. I wouldn’t change anything about this course (even though the transportation was definitely not on par, our group made the best of it!) because each activity is meant to challenge our perceptions of nature and how to turn observations and experiments into usable data. I will look back on this trip with fond memories.

Postcards from Randy. See me. Pupae. Where is she (Batman voiceover). Mrrph.

Orbicella annularisDSCN3473

The last day, Day 15 :(

Today we woke up extra early and hopped on our boat. We went straight to Carrie Bow Caye and met the volunteer managers of the Smithsonian’s research facility there. Surprise surprise, they are from Bois, Idaho! Perhaps this is a sign that I should return to here next summer. The island is so tiny, only about an acre and a half, and it grows smaller and smaller every year as sea levels rise. A lot of researchers go there to do there work, and I can see why. There is easy access to seagrass beds, mangroves, the fore reef, and back reef.

After that we went to Twin Caye and explored the mangroves. I cut my leg a little on accident but oh well. Mangroves, 1 and Anna, 0. We went snorkeling after that and I saw a shortnose batfish! It was one of the weirdest things I have ever seen. I also saw a little barracuda, so many sponges, and many starfish. No stony corals. This is because we were in mangrove territory.

We loaded back up on the boats and headed to Belize City. I fell asleep in the sun and consequently have a light burn all over my arms and back. We ate at Calypso again and then headed to the airport. The flight was fast and before I knew it, we were all saying goodbye. I felt pretty sad but that’s only because it was such an awesome trip with awesome people!

Lionfish, Day 14

So today we went to the back reef for a very brief period in order to essentially say goodbye. I felt very sad swimming through the shallow patchy reef, realizing I won’t be on a reef until next year. I said goodbye to the stony corals. But as a last gift, I got to see four amazingly large queen triggerfish, and then I was content.

We traipsed through the shallow flats for a spell to find some interesting critters and organisms from our taxon assignments. Some of my favorite critters were the large hermit crab, the mantis shrimp, blue crab, and sargassum algae.

Then came the lion fish dissection. We caught a total of four lionfish. We weighed the lionfish, measured total length and standard length, had the spines cut off by Adrienne, measured the gape width and height, and then dissected the fish. Specifically, we wanted to look at stomach contents, weigh the fatty parts of the fish, and then sex the fish. My group had trouble finding the gonads, so we couldn’t sex the fish.

After that, we went to Southwester Caye for a fun excursion and then packed up and headed to bed.

Lionfish, taken shortly before being speared

Traveling to Glover’s, Day 9

I drank freshly brewed coffee for the first time this morning since leaving Houston and it was amazing. Never underestimate the power of real coffee. (Instant was very nice to have in the forest and I was happy we had it, but the real deal is pretty sweet). We headed to the zoo this morning for a bit. Charlie, the scarlet macaw, spoke to me! He said “hello” three times and only talked to me. I saw the spider monkeys and howler monkeys and then we had to leave. Our van was late again, but only by 15 minutes this time instead of 5 hours.

We drove into Belize City, had lunch, and then headed out to Glover’s on the boat. It took about three hours and I am so happy to say I did not get seasick. We quickly put on our snorkel gear and headed out to a small patch reef that was close to the dock. I saw so many stony corals: Orbicella faveolata, Orbicella annularis, Pseudodiploria strigosa, Pseudodiploria labrynthiformis, Porites astreoides, and Porites porites. I saw many fish as well, like the Threespot damselfish and blue chromis. Afterwards we had dinner and then had a few lectures.

There are hermit crabs and land crabs everywhere! The sand flies are horrible and leave these weird markings on my skin. But falling asleep to the sound of the waves is great. Check back in tomorrow!

Photo has been rotated left for some reason. Spider monkey perfectly showing off his or her prehensile tail!
Belize Zoo
Belize Zoo
Middle Caye
Middle Caye

Quadrats and Transects, Day 11

Today we woke bright and early and headed out to a patch reef in the lagoon on a boat. We laid out transects with partners and used quadrats to gather data on the live stony coral cover on a reef located in Glover’s Marine Protected Area. We also did another experiment and gathered as many sea urchins as we could in 25 minutes. We repeated all of our experiments on other patch reef that was outside of the MPA.

So today I did see some new corals. I saw an Acropora cervicornis!!! It was very beautiful and I was thrilled when I saw it. I also noticed that some of this coral was infected with white band disease. There was a patch of recently dead white skeleton on a branch and also old dead skeleton that had been overgrown with turf algae. I also saw a Montastraea cavernosa today, which does in fact look like a mat of zoanthids but I could tell the difference between the two.

That’s all for today. Tomorrow we are learning about reef zonation and heading to the reef crest. Hopefully I will not get seasick.

Acropora cervicornis
Acropora cervicornis. Notice the larger, white apical polyp on the ends of the branches.

First Full Day at Glover’s, Day 10

Today we had a scavenger hunt on the reef. So I saw all of the corals I saw yesterday but today had some new surprises. I saw a few parrotfish. I only recognized the initial stage of the spotlight parrotfish and then I saw a parrotfish in the terminal phase but I was so excited I forget to actually look at its distinctive markings.

Quick side note. At lunch today we had a vanilla cake for desert and I kid you not that it was the fluffiest, softest, most wonderful cake I have ever eaten. Okay, moving on. We designed a study and went out to the seagrass beds. We quickly realized how difficult it was to lay down a transect and quadrats in six feet of water and count halimeda and penicillus green algae. This required multiple dives down the bottom, which was difficult not because I ran out of breath, but because I kept floating back up.

After that we went to a coral skeleton graveyard. I finally learned how to distinguish the skeletons of Pseudiploria strigosa, P. clivosa, and P. labrynthiformis apart. We also saw huge Acropora palmata branch shards, which made me a little sad. Back in the heyday of the Caribbean, before the Acropora genus was largely wiped out by disease in the 1980s, these corals formed forest-like structures throughout the reef. I cant help but think how amazing that must have been. We also saw a piece of Pillar Coral, a coral I didn’t think we would see because my sources said it was rare to occasional with few concentrated areas. But apparently it is here!

EBIO 319 crew at the graveyard.
2016-05-26 17.52.09
Dendrogyra cylindrus!

Marine debris cleanup, Day 13

For the first half of the day, we cleaned up the marine debris on the windward side of Middle Caye and then analyzed the composition of the trash. It turns out that 50% of the trash we collected was plastic by mass, 21% was styrofoam, 14% was rope, and 15% was other. However, we collected nearly the same volume of styrofoam as plastic, which was something I did not predict. We found many plastic bottles and bottle caps, as well as personal toiletries and medicine containers. The amount of Styrofoam was insane. A large majority of humans and our societies are built around consumption and waste, so much so that it doesn’t faze us anymore to throw something away. Ella brought up a good point today that though there are grassroots movements away from waste and towards reusable bags and recycling, people still don’t see the conflict in bringing a reusable bag to the grocery store and filling it up with water bottles and packaged foods.

After that project, we listened to lectures and then went to another backreef to measure a coral colony in three dimensions. I didn’t find it particularly fun, because the water was warm, the sky was cloudy, and there were a lot of sediments in the water. After dinner we went night snorkeling, which was again very cool. However, my mask kept fogging up and I felt claustrophobic in the water surrounded by people. We saw a slipper lobster, and two spiny lobsters, as well as several fish. The stony coral polyps were also extended on the Orbicella annularis and O. faveolata, species in which the polyps are usually retracted during the day.

2016-05-26 12.45.14
The area near our dorms. We didn’t clean up this side of the island, but you can see the amount of stuff that just washes up onshore.
More marine debris, located near the coral graveyard.

Outer reef and back reef adventures, Day 12

This morning we loaded up the boat really early and travelled a short distance to the reef crest and fore reef near Middle Caye. I took Dramamine an hour before we left and I will spare you the wait and just tell you that I in fact felt queasy out on the ocean. Once we got to the first site, we all got off and it was quite deep, around 50 feet. I was able to dive all the way down and stay long enough to get some really cool photos. After that we moved to the reef crest, where we saw a few stingrays and an eagle ray (which was humongous!) I saw a new coral, Agaricia tenufolia and also spotted quite a bit of the Orbicella faveolata and O. annularis, as well as Montastrea cavernosa.

I tried to be the last person on the boat, but even then I still felt crappy due to the swells. We headed to the second site and jumped in. All of a sudden I hear people exclaiming that there was an Acropora palmata! This coral has been nearly wiped out in the Caribbean due to White Band disease and so I had really wanted to see one. I think I saw about six different colonies during this snorkeling adventure. I can only imagine how magnificent the reefs must have looked over one hundred years ago when A. palmata was a dominant reef builder that loomed over the reef like trees in a rainforest.

I was happy to get back to shore and immediately collapsed into my bed with peanut M&M’s, plantain chips, and oreos all by my side. That afternoon we went over our results from the reef health assessment experiment (coral cover and urchin data). Then we explored the backreef and that was really awesome. I saw so many interesting things, such as a coral with a tumor, a recently dead skeleton of a Siderastrea siderea that was of mysterious origin, and another giant lobster. Scott and our water safety officers were also simultaneously catching lionfish. We caught four and at the end of the week we are going to measure them and then prepare and eat them.

I feel very tired at the moment, most likely from all the swimming from today. Au revoir.

Acropora palmata
Acropora palmata Location: Forereef
Forereef coral
Eusmilia fastigiata
Agaricia tenufolia
Agaricia tenufolia
Colpophyllia natans
Colpophyllia natans

Missed Adventures, Day 8

By now I am sure you’ve read everyone else’s blog posts and know that we didn’t get to go to the ATM cave yesterday because our van was five hours late. Since we run on group time (meaning we are always never on time), I figured today that we definitely wouldn’t be leaving at 7am. Time passed by and then we learned that they would pick us up at 11am. So we took another tour around Las Cuevas and got back and listened to another taxonomic briefing. Then I went and rinsed off in the shower, which puzzled a lot of people because we were supposed to go caving that day. But somewhere deep inside I figured the clock had time out and we probably wouldn’t be going to the cave.

And I was right. Everything got mixed up but in the end I enjoyed a nice glass of iced chocolate milk and bought a lot of snacks. We arrived at our lodging for the night and proceeded to our night tour at the zoo. I’ve been to this zoo before during the day and loved it. We met Indy the tapir. I must say I thought his penis was another foot, and then I realized that it is actually that large. I’ve met Lucky Boy the black jaguar before and things don’t really change. We saw the ocelot, who was pretty irritable and I guess you could say he was growling and starting making “nom nom nom” sounds as he ate his strips of meat. We also met some pacas (adorable) another jaguar, some owls, and a margay. I was also attacked by a wasp during the tour and it crawled down my shirt and stung me. I killed it of course and squashed it in my panic and shook out my shirt. I can say that I am a little traumatized.

No bees today! Most likely because we were driving around all day. We leave for the reef tomorrow. Super excited!

We had to wait in our van for 45 minutes while our tour guides, Adrienne and Scott, and the van driver talked out what we were going to do since we were five hours late. Meanwhile we were contemplating what we were going to do if the driver actually kicked us out!

Ocelots, Orchid bees, Curassows, oh my! Day 7

Finally I saw a green orchid bee today while we were out collecting all twelve of our traps. We decided to hike the route backwards today, climbing the hardest hills first, which I found was significantly easier today. We also had an early start and it was cool in the morning, so I didn’t think hiking the same 13 miles was as bad as the first time. As we were retrieving our first camera trap, Sam pointed out this beautiful iridescent green bee to me. It was definitely an orchid bee and I can tell you, they are as beautiful as the photos they appear in.

After we collected all the traps, we headed to the classroom after dinner to search through all the photos. Most of the photos were of us and the other group staying at Las Cuevas. We felt pretty sad, until we saw a tapir in one of our photos! We screamed with excitement, and then discovered that we also had a photo of an agouti, curassow, and an ocelot. I had originally just wanted to capture a cat, and so I am happy with the result of our 26 mile hike.

View from the Bird Tower