Tag Archives: annelids and molluscs

Final Thoughts – My three souvenirs from Belize: Knowledge, memories and friends

Having been exposed firsthand to both the tropical rainforest and the coral reef in the past two weeks, I now have a much better understanding of both ecosystems and their similarities. They both have very complex structures. The rainforest has multiple layers from the forest floor to the canopy, with varying light exposure and nutrient availability. On the other hand, the reef structure created by the stony corals give rise to nooks and crannies with varying light exposure and nutrient availability as well. This creates a multitude of microhabitats where organisms with different adaptations can colonize and flourish in, which gives rise to high level of diversity.

Both ecosystems rely on a specific base organism as their foundation, which are trees for the rainforest and stony corals for the coral reef. Similarly, we’ve learned that both the trees and stony corals flourish in a relatively nutrient-poor environment, and when there is nutrient enrichment, they tend to be outcompeted by other organisms such as ferns and green algae respectively.

From observations, the two ecosystems are different in their possible height. Coral reefs seem to be unable to grow to too deep, possibility due to light being unable to penetrate deep waters. However, forest canopies are able to stretch up to 30 meters high. The two ecosystems seem to also differ in their floor diversity. I found many organisms roaming the forest floors when I was hiking. However, the sandy floor of the coral reef seems to not hold that much life. It might be because of the presence of leaf litter in the rainforest which is a source of nutrients for organisms.

I came into this course with a pretty high expectation already because I had talked to Randy from the previous class. However, there are certainly many things that words cannot describe and I definitely experienced a lot more than what I heard about. The favorite part of this course, besides gaining so much new knowledge about the two ecosystems and EBIO in general, was getting the opportunity to work with and learn from so many individuals who are passionate about their fields of study. I could listen to Adrienne talk for hours about the different aspects of the coral reef and the stories of her experience working out in the field. I was inspired by Scott’s digging of the ants nest and his careful explanation of the social hierarchy of leaf cutter ants. I marveled at Therese’s journey through Gabon and her overcoming of the obstacles she faced while doing research there. Besides them, there were so many experts who I have met and learned from, such as Aimee from Loyola University who taught me how to fish for tarantulas in their holes, and Javy who gave me a better understanding of Belize’s national history. Meeting and working with such passionate people have inspired me want to keep learning every day.

My least favorite part of the course gotta be those moths that kept divebombing me in the face in Las Cuevas but that’s just a small matter and hopefully I can become more zen in the future like Tian-Tian was.

Having been through this course, I have firstly gained a deeper understanding of the importance of coral reefs and rainforests both to nature and to humans. I have seen firsthand the beauty of both ecosystems and hope that future generations will get to see them too. The second important thing I have gained from the course is the ability to snorkel and dive. This is not to be taken literally as I came into the course as a complete novice with regards to snorkeling, and struggled badly in the first few days. I did not even attempt a dive into the seafloor until towards the end of the second day. However, I kept trying and kept pushing to overcome the psychological barriers I had and eventually became more comfortable in the sea and so I felt that this was one of my major achievements in this course. Last but not least, I came into the class not knowing anyone and I certainly was not expecting to get along so well with my course mates as I did. It is interesting to look back to the first day and remember how reserved everyone was. Over the two weeks, we started opening up to one another, playing pranks on each other, and making memories together that we’ll never forget. It was awesome how much we have bonded over the two weeks, and I certainly look forward to continue building these friendships that I have made.

Signing out,


Day 8 – A Day of Change

Hi friends,

Today we bid farewell to Glover’s Reef. It was amazing while it lasted. And I got to see the sunrise in the morning which was beautiful!

Sunrise in Middle Caye.

After leaving Glover’s Reef, we visited a neighboring field station run by the Smithsonian Institute on Carrie Bow Cay. The station manager didn’t expect us there and was supposedly busy so he was going to turn us away but Adrienne convinced him otherwise. And we got a really long tour in the end which turned out well. It was interesting to have another field station to compare with, and I could definitely see myself volunteering to be a station manager when I retire in the future.

We then went to the mangrove nearby for our last ever snorkel in the class. It felt kind of bittersweet but it was exciting too being in a different environment. The feather dusters over there were as magnificent as they come by, as seen in the picture:

Magnificent Feather Duster (Sabellastarte magnifica) in the mangroves.

It was definitely eye-opening to observe the schools of fishes hiding in the mangrove roots and how they would weave in and out of the roots. There were also a variety of organisms that I saw more abundantly here than in the reefs, such as echinoderms and anemones. Below are some cool pictures of organisms I saw:

Seahorse! Apparently a rare find.
Sea star on the seafloor.

We then sailed to Belize City and ate a meal at a local restaurant which was a fun change of surroundings. We travelled to TEC after and settled in, and as a bonus, my friend and TFB alumnus Lucrecia happened to be at TEC today too, as she was on her way to a Belizean forest to do her independent field study. It was great seeing her as she had been studying abroad at Tanzania and it was fun catching up after so long. After dinner, we went to the Belize Zoo! Apparently, as we were seeing the zoo at night, there were animal activities that we wouldn’t have seen if we had visited in the morning, and so it was certainly fascinating. I saw 10 species of mammals out of the 21 on my taxon ID chart, so that was fun. The ocelot was especially interesting as it was making totally unexpected noises when feeding, saying “NOM NOM” in a really low growling voice like a lead singer of a metal band. I was surprised at how tame most of the animals in the zoo are, with the jaguar even trained to do several tricks. I got to feed a tapir which had a really fuzzy nose that goes haywire as food approaches it. All in all, the Belize zoo was a fascinating short look into the variety of creatures in the Belizean land, and it has helped prepare me to face the Las Cuevas forest.

Jaguar (Panthera onca) in the zoo.

Till next time,


Day 7 – It’s already the last night here???

Hi friends,

Wow, and one week has past. It’s a weird feeling of sadness knowing that I’ll leave this place at the same time I’m pretty excited to be checking out the rainforest. What to feel?

We started the day checking out three different reef types: one on the channel, one called The Aquarium and a deep patch reef off Middle Caye. I was expecting The Aquarium to be the prettiest one with the most organism variety but apparently not. The channel reef was the one that impressed me the most, with magnificent stacked coral reefs that looked like mountains underwater. It was fun swimming around and through it observing all the organisms in their natural habitat. I finally got to see a full nurse shark and followed it for a little bit. It exuded silent charisma as it swam about slowly and menacingly. I followed a school of blue tang around for a bit and that was fun too, picking out the non-blue tang species swimming with them.

Nurse shark just chilling on the reef.

In The Aquarium, I was slightly disappointed as the standard was set too high from the first reef. I guess the lack of species variety was due to the shallowness of the area, which prevented the corals from forming intricate structures where species can live in. It was still cool finding new organisms around, and there were many more of my taxon species there compared to the channel reef. I saw a lot more Christmas Tree Worms (Spirobranchus giganteus) and some hugeee Magnificent Feather Dusters (Sabellastarte magnifica). And apparently another nurse shark was hanging out around sipping tea but I wasn’t there to see it.

The Aquarium is pretty shallow as seen here.

In the last deep patch reef, there were only a few patches, but there were similar to the channel reef in that they were very tall and the corals were all big. There was one particularly big one which looked like a comfortable bean bag which everyone took turns taking pictures with.

After lunch, we did presentations and then dissected the Lionfish. It smelled like a fish market for a little bit and I gutted fish for the first time which was fun. We rushed through making the poster to report our findings on the Lionfish measurements as we really wanted to visit a neighboring island, which was the reward for finishing the poster quickly. Eventually we did visit the other island which was a chill time and we relaxed for the rest of the afternoon and enjoyed the last day here. I’m gonna miss the quaint little village which has been my home for the past few days, the relaxed vibes of sun, beach and snorkeling, and last but not least, Clivus. It’s been an unforgettable time for sure. Here I come, Las Cuevas!

Till then,


Day 6 – Eat, Snorkel, Sleep, Repeat.

Hi friends,

The highlight of today was checking out the same patch reef we did on the first day. Except with stronger currents and more experience. And that worked out pretty well!

In the morning we checked out a backreef on another side of the island. It was very shallow compared to the one yesterday but it had a larger variety of organisms there which was awesome! Unfortunately I did not take my camera with me so I do not have photographs of them. I’m pretty sure I saw a Nassau grouper, and most of the organisms in my annelid taxon ID card. We then collected many of them to bring back for further examination in the wet lab. I picked up a queen conch (Lobatus gigas) on the way back to add to the collection.

Queen conch (Lobatus gigas) that I caught! You can see its eyes clearly in this picture.

We then split up the organisms we caught and presented on them. We caught several bearded fireworms (Hermodice carunculata) and I gotta say I spent too much time trying to provoke one of them and bristle its parapodia. It was interesting seeing the organisms that we have learned about and watching their behaviors. I witnessed a hermit crab actually changing its shell which was so cool!

Bearded fireworm (Hermodice carunculata) that we caught.

After lunch, we returned the organisms back to the sea, had some presentations and did data analysis on the trash that we collected yesterday. We finished our report efficiently and as a reward, we got to go out to the patch reef which we examined on the first day. I was surprised by the strength of the current and it was challenging even swimming out. However after a while I managed to find inner peace and stopped struggling to swim. Instead, I decided to drift with the current to the patch reef which I eventually did. Being in the same area brought back memories of the first day and how I was struggling so badly with just staying afloat, and it felt really good to know that it took just a couple of days for me to be able to confidently snorkel and dive down to check out a patch reef. Reflecting on a deeper level, I realized that I have learned and grown so much these past few days. I’m able to identify so many new aquatic organisms now, feel more confident snorkeling, and understand so much more about field biology. Additionally, the whole group of us have been growing closer and sharing more stories with each other, and that’s always fun.

Looking forward to tomorrow,


Day 5 – So trashed today…

Hi friends,

Today we really got down and dirty. In the morning we got into the backreefs which was beyond the mangroves on the other side of Middle Caye. So we had to waddle through the mangroves, making sure to shuffle our feet to avoid stingray stings. Reaching the backreefs, initially I felt sad seeing that the reefs were much smaller than the ones in the patch reef areas which we have been snorkeling in the past few days. However, after snorkeling around for a little bit, I feel like a huge reason for that was probably because of the stronger currents in the open ocean. That said, I became impressed at how life can survive even in these harsh conditions.

We were supposed to look around to study the host preference of Christmas tree worms (Spirobranchus giganteus) in the backreef, which suits me perfectly as it was my taxon group! However, we completed the study quickly as there weren’t that many worms about.

After the backreef study, we came back for lunch and had a presentation on marine debris. Which led us to our land activity of the day: picking up trash around the coastal areas of Middle Caye and doing a project on the types of trash found. In half an hour, the 11 of us managed to pick up 38 kg of trash around the coast. There was trash of all types, from plastic bottles (a lot of them) to Styrofoam to McDonald toys and Lego pieces. I’m glad that we did this and helped (however much slightly) make this island a better place.

At night, because of the strong currents, we did not do night snorkeling. Instead, Scott and Adrienne set up naval lamps by the dock and we sat there to observe the fishes that were attracted to the light. It was fascinating to see the different species that come out at night that I don’t see in the day and definitely mesmerizing fishwatching and stargazing at the same time. Kind of sad that we have to leave this island in a couple of days… In any case, I’m done for today.

Till next time,



Hi friends,

Today was similar to the previous day in terms of the diving activities, as we redid the patch reef data collection and sea urchin collection on an area outside of the marine protection zone. We then compared the two data sets, analyzed them based on our project hypothesis and came up with a final poster to showcase our results.

My first takeaway of the day was how adorable sea urchins are. After seeing how they move about using their spines, my perception of them changed completely. And having to handle and measure them also made me like them so much more. Just see the picture below to see how close we’ve gotten.

Black sea urchin (Diadema antillarum) on my back!

It was also fun surveying another patch reef area, and after the experience from the previous day, I was much more confident with collecting data and also identifying organisms in general. Below are some of the creatures I managed to capture (with my camera)!

It’s a Christmas Tree Worm (Spirobranchus giganteus)!

There were Christmas tree worms everywhere!!! And I saw a new mollusk species which I have never seen personally, the Cyphoma gibbosum (flamingo tongue shell):

Flamingo tongue (Cyphoma gibbosum) right in the middle

Exciting times. I’m looking forward to the next few days because we will get to check out other reef types such as the backreefs and forereefs, and I’m eager to see how different they will be from path reefs.

After snorkeling, we spent the afternoon analyzing our data and creating our poster to present to Adrienne and Scott. And then right before dinner we had a friendly pickup game with some of the island staff. Got to sweat it all out! I have to say, Alessi is pretty tenacious when it comes to fighting for the ball, and Therese and Isaac are great technical players. Meanwhile, Deepu is definitely the star striker like Cristiano Ronaldo, scoring 2 of the goals for us. This is my brief analysis of EBIO 319’s soccer team.

All in all, today went by really quickly and I thoroughly enjoyed both the snorkeling experience and the free time to mingle with the other people in Middle Caye. Looking forward to more tomorrow!

Till then,


Day 3 – Who lives in a pineapple under the sea?

Hi friends,

Today was so much better, and yes, I have indeed survived!

We started the day with a lesson on field sampling, and we were taught how to use the quadrat that we made the night before, together with a transect, to get rudimentary field data. It was a nice touch the way we were taught, where we started with a case study on land, before moving to a case study in the nearby seagrass, and finally to a patch reef area which we have to take a boat to. From each case study, we reflected on the problems that popped up, and constantly refined our technique to make the case study more focused each time, and also make the data collection method more accurate. This is how engineers design our systems too! Using iterations of testing and refinement to finally reach a satisfactory end product.

From chasing down hermit crabs in the morning, I moved to avoiding interesting looking inverted green jellyfish right before lunch. I certainly preferred the latter as at least I got to finally see organisms in my taxon! And I definitely felt myself getting better at snorkeling and in general being more comfortable in the aquatic environment. Below are pictures of organisms from my taxon group that I saw in the seagrass:

Mollusc I found
Bad photo of bearded fireworm on the pier.

I was particularly excited to see the bearded fireworm (Hermodice carunculata) as I was expecting it to be swimming around among corals, and not sticking itself to the side of the dock! It looked really gorgeous though I’m well aware of its danger. Actually “though” shouldn’t be the right word to use here as those two things do come together frequently.

After the seagrass experience, we had lunch, and got ready for the second dive. We decided to study the distribution of corals in patch reefs, and counted the amount of live stony corals, dead stony corals, soft corals, sponges, and sand areas in each quadrat sample. Adrienne convinced us to separate the corals into two groups and also to identify sponges though it clearly wasn’t part of the study. Little did we know… it was all part of the grand scheme of things which will be revealed later!

Anyway, after doing the study, I saw more creatures that are part of my taxon groups! Here are some pictures for my eager fans:

A Christmas Tree Worm (Spirobranchus giganteus) on a coral.
A Star Horseshoe Worm (Pomatostegus stellatus) right in the middle.

Yes, that is what you think it is. It is the beautiful Christmas tree worm!!! The one that I wanted to see so much. It actually took a while for us to become friends and it retracted into the coral that it was perched on when I went in for a closer look, and took its own sweet time to come back out to say hi.

With that, I’ve seen 3 of the 9 species of annelids found in Glover’s reef. I’m gonna find them all!

After that, we went sea urchin catching. It felt like hide and seek except when you find and catch the hiding ones, they prick you. Not that painfully though, and I managed to catch 4 of these little pin cushions. Proof that I actually caught one of them is below:

I caught this cute little sea urchin

After dinner, we had a guest lecturer called Dr. Alex Tewfik who talked to us about his work in Glover’s Reef. He talked about the importance of sponges in the coral ecosystem and how they may have been overlooked in the past and may actually be the key to completing the food web in this ecosystem. Adrienne then referenced the earlier case study when we were only going to count corals but were suggested to count sponges too, and how these additional data often can turn out to be useful. That was cool how she tied it back to what we learned in the day!

Oh by the way, as I am sitting down typing this right now, I feel like I am still on the boat, as I feel the drifting sensation in my mind even as I am sitting down here. Kind of disorientating, but kind of interesting too! And it’s been a long day, so I shall end here for now.

Till next time,
Damien the slightly-improved snorkeler


Hi friends,

Today was my first day snorkeling and it was quite an experience. My only snorkeling experience before this was in the Rice Recreation Center swimming pool and that is definitely not even close to what we went through today.

Before analyzing my snorkeling experience, I will go through chronologically the events that led up to it. I woke up at 5am (!), and we had a quick PB&J breakfast before heading to the dock to take a boat to Glover’s Reef. From the dock, the journey to Glover’s Reef took about 2.5 hours. While it was long, it was fascinating to see some of the things that I have been learning so much about, such as the reef crest and atoll formation. It was obvious when we were entered the lagoon of Glover’s Atoll, as the water became really shallow and the captain of the ship had to navigate carefully to avoid hitting reefs or accidentally running the boat ashore.

Looks like the start of something beautiful.

After some careful navigation in the lagoon, we reached Middle Caye, which is where the Glover’s Atoll research station is located. Middle Caye is a quaint little island with a very rustic feel to it. I was pleasantly surprised by the amount of self-sustainability the island community had integrated into their daily lives, with a wind turbine and a solar panel array to generate electricity, recycling toilets named Clivus, and desalination facilities as a few examples of this.

Solar panel array looks magnificent.

Walking around the island, I was reminded of a video game that I used to play back before college, Assassin’s Creed Black Flag, which is an action game set back during the Golden Age of Piracy. A huge part of the game was spent exploring atoll islands such as this, hunting iguanas and finding dead pirate skeletons on lush tropical sandy beaches, so strolling around the island definitely took me back a little bit to my younger days.

What I think I look like in my mind.

Pardon me for digressing! And let me continue with the rest of the day. After settling in on the island, we finally got to snorkel! Getting into the ocean waters was reprieve from the sweltering weather, and we edged our way out into the open ocean, swimming to the closest patch reef that we could find. And having not seen coral reef systems in person before, I have to say, IT WAS BEAUTIFUL!!! The ecosystem is so vibrant as expected, and while floating on the surface I stared in awe at the creatures just minding their own business and milling in and out of the crevices created by the corals. I saw fishes that I couldn’t name (though I found out thereafter that I had at least seen parrotfishes and surgeonfishes), I saw a spiny lobster which was part of my partner’s taxon group, so that was great! I saw many corals of different sizes, which I would get to know in much more detail in the afternoon courtesy of Adrienne’s passionate tour of Middle Caye’s coral graveyard. After the snorkel trip, I was handed a shell from Adrienne, which I believe is a triton and belongs to my taxonomic group.

Looking back, while the coral reefs were really fascinating to explore, it would have been much better if I knew what I was doing. Then again, it comes with experience and I am looking forward to the next few days with renewed hope. I’ll let y’all know how it goes in the next few days.

Till then,

Damien the land animal


Day 1 – Iguanas are pretty cool

Hi friends,

FINALLY HERE IN BELIZE WOOHOO!!! I wish I had pictures to show off the place but my camera is experiencing some issues now hmm. So I only have my first selfie to share with y’all.

But anyway, I have landed safely and soundly and can’t wait to start my journey as a budding tropical field biologist. The first thing we did after getting off the plane was to go to a general goods store to stock up on supplies and to pick up things that people forgot to bring. And now we’re all ready!

We reached out accommodations after a short bus ride. We’ll be staying at the Tropical Education Center (TEC) for a night before leaving 5.30am the next day for a long trip to Glover’s Reef. So the theme of the day is lots of travelling and then resting for more travelling. Nice.

I did not manage to see any animals that are part of my assigned taxon groups. But we definitely saw some animals even just in the TEC. Officially, the first organism that I saw in Belize in a really fat green iguana perched on a thin tree branch feeding on the leafs and looking very satisfied with its meal. As a mechanical engineering major, I was amazed just by the fact that the branch could support all its weight.

Besides the precariously perched iguana, we saw a trail of leaf cutter ants, as well as some frogs and insects.  Oh we saw a bunch of interesting looking plants as well. More to come when we go out into the actual undisturbed habitats!


Excited like howler monkeys during sunrise

Hi friends!

Well, I finally am able to sit down and write this blog post. The past few days have been a hectic mess of finishing up the assignments for this class (should’ve heed Scott’s advice on starting the assignments early in the semester…), moving off campus, and packing for Belize. Only now can I say that I am done and ready to go!

I am so looking forward to going to Belize, and the taxon assignments have definitely enhanced this excitement. Having been researching on the mammals, annelids and molluscs of Belize and seeing pictures and videos of them, I’m eager to finally see them live in their natural habitat. Having been fortunate enough to live in the same suite with an alumnus of this course (Randy with the man bun), I’ve had the opportunity to discuss my taxon research with him and apparently we will get to see a lot of the annelids and molluscs while snorkeling. Very pumped for that!!

My research into tropical diseases, on the other hand… let’s just say it has made me more paranoid about my chances of survival in the two weeks.

Having talked to Randy a lot about the course, I gathered that my time at Belize will be physically intensive but at the same time a very memorable learning journey. I hope to learn as much as I can about the rainforest and the coral reef, as this will probably be the best opportunity I will ever have to do so. When will I ever get to stay a week in a research station and another week in one of the world’s most well-preserved reef and learn from experts in the field again?

That said, I’m slightly worried that my lack of knowledge in biology might hinder my experience there. Being a mechanical engineering major, I took this class because this is my last summer in college and I wanted to use this last chance to explore outside of my field of expertise. I hope that I am able to keep up with the rest of the class in terms of understanding biology-related concepts. We’ll see how that goes.

Lastly, having lived in Singapore all my life, I would say that I’m used to the tropics. But I’ve lived in a concrete jungle and not the actual tropical rainforest so maybe not. Living in the tropics have certainly helped me during my tropical disease research though, because I have already been aware of most of the diseases that I was supposed to do research on.

Now, I shall get a good night’s sleep, and immerse myself in a whole new world starting tomorrow!

Good night y’all,


P.S. Had Whataburger for my last dinner before Belize cuz it’s awesome.