Tag Archives: ants

So Many Reflections I’m Basically Mulan

After spending two weeks in Belize immersed in coral reef and tropical rainforest environments, I’ve gotten much deeper insight into these two ecosystems which have always fascinated me. I was surprised to learn that such biologically diverse ecosystems exist in nutrient-poor conditions. I always imagined that there would need to be a nutrient-rich foundation to sustain the plethora of organisms that live within each ecosystem, but that’s not the case – actually, for the coral reef it can be quite harmful. The stony corals that form the reef thrive in nutrient-poor environments and, as Ellie told us, if too many nutrients enter the system, the reef will undergo a phase shift which means that it will become overrun by algae. In the case of the rainforest, Sarah T. gave us the lowdown about how there is only a very thin layer of soil (the topsoil) which contains most of the available nutrients. The low levels of nutrients are caused in part by rapid nutrient recycling; as nutrients become available, they are quickly used by the many organisms that inhabit the two ecosystems.

Another similarity I noticed between the two ecosystems is how many symbiotic relationships there are. This is likely because the high species density in coral reefs and rainforests brings many organisms into close proximity, resulting in more specialized niches. An example in coral reefs that Sarah G. talked about is the mutualistic relationship between dinoflagellates and corals. The dinoflagellate provides photosynthetic products to the coral, while the coral provides shelter to the dinoflagellates. In the rainforest, a symbiotic relationship Scott and I discussed is when leafcutter ants cultivate fungus gardens. The fungus breaks down the leaves that the ants can’t digest, producing nutritious swellings called gongylidia. In return, the fungus receives shelter and protection.

Ultimately, the two ecosystems are more alike than I realized at first sight. Even though I had been to both a rainforest and coral reef before this course, I had never really connected the dots between the two. I had always separated them in my mind due to the obvious difference that one ecosystem is on land and the other is underwater. It was really interesting to look at them comparatively. Although there are some differences like coral reefs being more sensitive and susceptible to changing environmental factors when compared to rainforests, it’s become obvious to me now how much more they have in common.

This course went above and beyond my expectations which were to learn about field work and to look at coral reefs and rainforests through a more scientific lens than I had while on vacation. While I did come away with a greater knowledge of the ecosystems and a better understanding of being a field biologist, I also created friendships and had the most fun I’ve had in a while. I feel extremely lucky to have been part of such an amazing group. It was so interesting to watch everyone become comfortable with each other to the point where it became non-stop laughing and joking around. That was definitely the best part of the trip for me. Honestly, the only downside I can think of is that the weather didn’t permit for a night dive. With all the snorkeling and scuba diving I’ve done, I have never gone in the water at night which I thought that would be neat, but oh well.

I’ll definitely hold on to a lot of the things I’ve learned throughout the course, especially the experiential learning aspects of how science is done out in the field. It was fascinating to consider how many different directions a project can take, and how one observation can spark years of research. It’s kind of like how Therese’s work on defaunation in Gabon lead to her new project on seed-dispersal in Peru. I’ll also remember how important it is to talk to other people about their work. Scott and Adrienne really encouraged us to take advantage of where we were and to talk to the researchers at the stations. I’m normally not one to approach people I don’t know, but I made it a point to go out of my way to talk to the researchers at Glover’s and the archeology team at Las Cuevas. I’m glad I did because I got so much out of hearing their stories and listening to what they were working on. Lastly, I was completely surprised with how awesome ants are. To be honest, I wasn’t thrilled that I got ants as my taxon but I was quickly converted. I always thought it odd that my grandmother never killed the ants that crawled along the windowsills in her house, but now I understand. This trip ruined me –  I’ll never be able to squish an ant again.

Until next time, Belize. Hopefully I’ll be back soon to dive the Blue Hole and swim with whale sharks. Sorry Scott, Team Surf for life.

A Budget for Bulging Bellies and a Goodbye to Belize

5.30.2017

Today began much like any other day, except instead of leaving Las Cuevas on foot to hike through the Chiquibul rainforest, a van pulled up to drive us across Belize back to the airport.

Last goodbye to Las Cuevas

We made two stops on our way: a gift shop called Orange Gallery and a restaurant called Cheers. I bought plenty of Belizean hot sauce to bring home (safe to say I’m hooked), but was kind of disappointed that there weren’t any machetes. As far as lunch goes, I made the most of the $40 Belizean dollar limit we were given, eating three different entrées. Never underestimate the stomach capacity of a small human.

Once we got to the airport, we swiftly made our way through some very lax security. There was wifi at the gate meaning that five days of messages streamed in, which I proceeded to ignore except for the ones from my family and closest friends. I was definitely not ready to reenter reality.

The plane ride was quick and painless, but claiming my bags was quite the opposite. My luggage emerged on the conveyer belt with the zipper broken and articles of clothing tossed about. Thankfully nothing was lost and I made my way to my hotel and then to Target to purchase a new bag.

It’s crazy to think that less than 24 hours ago I was at Las Cuevas and now I’m back in Houston.It’s funny because I feel like I’m going to still have my eyes peeled for ants in my daily life. It feels so odd being at the hotel airport, like it’s some acclimation period between rainforest and city. Although I’m going to miss Belize and the great friends I’ve made on this trip, I’m excited to finally go back home to Miami.

You Better Belize I’m Not Ready to Leave

5.29.2017

The theme of the final day here at Las Cuevas was exactly like the first: hiking and more hiking. Today was surprisingly less exhausting, though, except for the part where I got vine thorns in my head, finger, and knee then felt lightheaded. I drank the rest of my Gatorade and ate a really delicious energy gummy which perked me up soon so I didn’t miss out on much at all.

Goofing off before hitting the trails

While hiking, I didn’t see all that much but I did sight an Acacia tree with ants (Pseudomyrmex sp.). During lunch, I also saw a praying mantis which slightly unnerved me when it tried to attack Ellie’s camera but with some patience I got it to model for me without attacking me too.

Acacia tree housing ants in its thorns
Praying mantis, part 1
Praying mantis, part 2

The seven hours of hiking place to place to collect the camera traps was not in vain, though. We got an amazing shot of an ocelot as well as some peccaries, a brocket deer, and a Great Curassow bird among others.

Ocelot caught on camera trap

It’s sad that tomorrow we are leaving Belize, but tonight I’m going to spend as much time as I can with everyone. I’ll definitely miss this.

Tales of My Abund(ant) Taxon

5.28.2017

The first order of business this morning after breakfast was recovering the vials we placed out yesterday on the trails, and man was it a day for ants… or maybe not so much since they were dead. Anyhow, I sorted through 151 specimens of ants and found 11 different species!

It was rough on my neck to look at so many ants through the microscope, but it was also fascinating to see all the detail distinguishing the various species. Some of the notable specimens were a queen trap jaw ant (Odontomachus sp.) and an ant (Cephalotes sp.) that is known to direct its flight through the air to its home tree when it falls from the rainforest canopy.

Queen trap jaw ant 
Cephalotes ant under microscope

The rest of the afternoon was packed with fun activities and lectures in the oddest locations. We went to the cave right by Las Cuevas but because of the ongoing archaeological study, we could only go as far as the first chamber. That didn’t stop us from taking full advantage, and we decided to do a couple taxon lectures in the cave.

Group picture in hard harts at the mouth of the cave
Interior chamber of the cave
First EBIO 319 cave lecture on amphibians

After that, we hiked to the Bird Tower to watch the sunset and had yet another lecture way above ground with the forest canopy all around.

Lecture in bird tower near Las Cuevas

By the time we wrapped up and hiked back to station, it was nightfall. Slowly walking through the sounds of the rainforest with the stars above was incredibly relaxing. Some fascinating creatures also came out that we didn’t see in the daytime.

Dusk falling over the Chiquibul rainforest
Fluorescent scorpion on log

I’m having such an amazing time being out here in nature with a group of people I’ve become surprisingly close with. It’s hard to accept that tomorrow is our last full day here in Belize. 

Urine for a Treat

5.27.2017

You know you’re going to have a good day when you’re handed two vials at breakfast and told to give a personal donation (aka urine) without revealing the reasoning. We were to find out after lectures that the pee was for our next study about arthropod diversity and nutrient availability in the rainforest. While setting out the vials along a trail leading to the bird tower, I saw plenty of ants – most notably a queen ant of the yet to be identified species of ant.

Ant queen about to take flight

After lunch, I used my free time to check out a specimen of one of the unidentified ants under the microscope. Turns out the species was actually one of the species I had on my taxon ID card which made me super happy. I’ve been seeing these types of ants everywhere and now I can positively say they are Dolichoderus bispinosus!

The rest of the afternoon (besides the time spent catching up on cancelled lectures from yesterday) was dominated by ants. Yay! Never did I think I’d get excited about ants but I’ve been converted. We went out to three different leaf cutter ant (A. cephalotes) colonies and dug around them to see their structure. It’s unbelievable how complex the nests can get, and seeing the fungus gardens and watching the workers cutting leaves was fascinating. I even serendipitously saw a species of Pheidole in the leaf litter by the first nest.

Leaf cutter ant foraging on trail
Fungus garden from a young leaf cutter ant colony
Leaf cutter ant soldier from a mature colony

When the ant fun was over, we headed back to the station for dinner then lectures. A group of us decided to walk around looking for tarantulas once we were dismissed for the night. We saw plenty of red rump tarantulas, which I found slightly creepy but funny enough not as scary as the guys found the moths. Before heading to bed, I decided to talk to the group of archeologists (one of which is Cuban!) heading an expedition into the Chiquibul cave system. They showed me some of the pictures they’d taken and talked to me about their adventures, which included rappelling down steep rocks and jaguars roaming their campsite. It was a great way to end the day and I’m hoping that I’ll get a chance to talk to them more before heading home.

Camera Traps in Las Cuevas

5.26.2017

Today marked the first full day here at Las Cuevas and an interesting one at that. The day started bright and early with birdwatching. Although I heard many bird calls, I only saw vultures and a Plumbeous kite (a lot like a rainforest pigeon) which prompted my tired self to go back to sleep before breakfast.

After breakfast, we were given our task for the day: to go out and set camera traps in the area surrounding the research station. We planned for an hour or so and then set out to the 50 hectare path to set out six of our fourteen cameras before lunch.

Hiking on the 50 Hectare trail

On the way, I saw so many ants! I saw leaf cutter ants (A. cephalotes), army ants (E. burcellii), and ants that Scott and I have yet to identify. There were also Acacia ants (Pseudomyrmex spp.) on a small tree with Beltian bodies (nutrient-filled swellings on new leaves).

Young colony of leaf cutter ants
Beltian bodies on Acacia tree sprout

Besides ants, I also saw a blue morpho butterfly, a longhorn beetle, a millipede, a scorpion-eater snake, and a Mexican porcupine. I also saw some beautiful orchids.

Millipede
Orchids

We arrived back at the station late for lunch, ate, then headed right back out onto a different trail – the Monkey Trail – to set out the rest of our camera traps. We decided to set them out a kilometer apart, which kept us out there in the rainforest past sunset for a total of five hours during which I saw more leaf cutter ants (A. cephalotes), noticed scat (poop) and scratches likely from a jaguar, and came face to face with the most dangerous snake in the Chiquibul rainforest – the Fer de Lance .

While setting out our last camera, we got slightly lost trying to find our way back to the trail. Thankfully, we had a GPS and a machete to help us but it was still pretty intense; the staff at the station told us they were about to send rescue in after us. Walking back in the dark was neat, despite the fact that I tripped over a branch and pulled a ligament in my left foot after trying to jump over a fallen tree trunk blocking the way.

The long trek left not only my feet sore but also my stomach grumbling, so I had two full plates of food at dinner. It seems that I’m not the only exhausted one, because evening lectures were cancelled. Now I’m icing my foot which I hope will be better by tomorrow so that I don’t miss out on any other activities. Although today has been tiring and crazy, it definitely makes for a great story to tell once I get back home.

Smiling through the soreness in my feet

Off the Grid at Rio-On

5.25.2017

This morning was the last opportunity to have any sort of connection to the outside world before heading to the rainforest. Although I’m going to miss talking to my family and friends, it’ll be nice to disconnect for a few days.

On our way to Las Cuevas from Crystal Paradise, we stopped at the Rio-On Pools which were really incredible. I got to climb around on rock formations, stand underneath a small waterfall, and ride a “slide” into a pool of water. The scenery was beautiful and I loved photographing it all. Despite hurting my butt on a rock going down the slide, I had a great time. I even got to see what Scott called the “Golden Butt Ant” (C. siriceventris).

Waterfall at Rio-On Pools
Me sliding down and bruising my tailbone, ouch
Scott holding a “Golden Butt Ant”

Once we made it to Las Cuevas, we settled in and had lunch before hitting the trails. Going along with the Maya theme of the Belizean forest, we climbed a Mayan pyramid structure and saw a ball court. During the hike, I saw the clear-cut foraging trails of leafcutter ants (A. cephalotes) and a pretty large nest of them, too. Scott stomped on the nest to provoke the soldier ants, and it was really cool to see them all pour out of the nest even though a few made their way into my boots. I also got to hold a green anole.

Me holding a leafcutter ant soldier
Me holding a green anole

The day ended with lectures, which were really difficult to stay awake through even though I gave one myself. Definitely ready to go to sleep.

Team Flying Pizote Explores the ATM

5.24.2017

Today was the first full day away from Glover’s and it has been a bit of an adjustment. Adrienne said it best when she compared the transition to the terrestrial portion of this course to the first amphibians transitioning to life on land. I wasn’t ready for hot, muggy air untempered by the ocean breeze. Bugs were flying into me while walking and falling into my dessert at dinner. But besides the small impracticalities, today has been incredible.

After a brief hike during which I struggled to doggy paddle through a cold river and slipped on algae covered rocks, I finally got to the mouth of the first cave I would ever traverse: the Actun Tunichil Muknal (ATM) cave. The experience was etherial. The cold, clear, bluish-grey water of the cave shocked my senses and the crystals sparkling in the formations of the cave entranced me. I wish I could have taken a picture, but the images in my mind will have to do.

Besides just the structure of the cave itself, the contents it held were remarkable. The Mayan ceramics and especially the skeletal remains sent chills down my spine. It was a bit concerning, however, that the last and most complete skeleton was my height exactly.

I didn’t see too many ants today because of all the rain, but I did manage to see a male army ant (E. burchellii). I hope tomorrow I’ll have better luck with ant sightings and will have some interesting anecdotal information to include in my taxon briefing.

Note: The lack of photos in my blog post has been brought to you by the tourist who dropped his camera on an ancient Mayan skull.

On the Ground and Away from Glover’s

5.23.2017

Leaving Glover’s today was so sad that I asked if I could permanently live in the snorkel shed. I felt like I was finally getting to know everyone on the island, finding a rhythm and place there. I was even recognized by one of the staff as “the girl who scored the beautiful goal.” I’m truly going to miss the island lifestyle, especially a small island like Glover’s, and the way that everyone gets knows each other and becomes connected.

Speaking of small islands, after leaving Glover’s we visited another research station operated by the Smithsonian on a tiny speck of sand called Carrie Bow Cay. We got a tour of the facilities and a rundown of the research projects taking place on site, as well as interesting insight into the nature of toilets in the field.

Shore of Carrie Bow Cay
Boats used by researchers at Carrie Bow Cay

After that stop, we headed on toward Twin Caye. The mangrove forest there was made up of entirely of red mangrove (R. mangle) from what I could tell.

Red mangrove forest on Twin Caye
Red mangrove roots

We walked through the peat which was goopy and gross, then snorkeled around the edge of the mangroves.  The snorkel was much more enjoyable. I saw schools of small snapper, a starfish, a juvenile sting ray, sponges, and even a seahorse.

Starfish found along edge of mangroves
Juvenile stingray in sand along mangroves
Seahorse spotted on mangrove roots

Once we finally made it to Belize City, we had lunch and drove down to the Tropical Education Center (TEC) for the night. We walked some paths on the grounds before dinner and saw some Acacia ants (Pseudomyrmex sp.). After about an hour, we went to dinner then to the Belize Zoo which was such a cool experience, especially because the nocturnal animals were active. My favorite was seeing the big cats: the puma, ocelot, and jaguar. Tony the Tiger’s frosted cereal has nothing on Junior the Jaguar’s somersaults. I even got to hold a boa constrictor!

Junior the Jaguar finishing a somersault
Me holding a boa constrictor

All that excitement still hasn’t convinced me to switch from team marine to team terrestrial, though. Fair to say that a frog falling from the ceiling and almost landing in my hair, as well as having to share shower time with a moth, a beetle, and a lizard keeps me skeptical. Let’s see if the caves tomorrow have me singing a different tune.

Warm (Make that *Hot) Welcome from My Taxonomic Group

5.16.2017

Today started bright and early at 4:00 am to catch a flight from Miami to Houston without much of a break since. Needless to say, the lack of sleep and full day of traveling has left me completely exhausted. That’s why I am excited to report that I get to sleep in until 5:30 am tomorrow when breakfast starts! Note the hint of sarcasm?

All jokes aside, today has been really incredible. I am usually a proponent of aisle seating on planes, but I decided to take the window seat and I’m glad I did. I got a beautiful bird’s eye view of Belize and all the tree canopies that blanket its terrain.

After landing, we swiftly made it through customs and our driver met us outside to take us to the Tropical Education Center (TEC) where we are staying for the night. On the way, we stopped at a small store where I bought some snacks (I’m super excited that they had mariquitas, aka plantain chips) and much needed shampoo and conditioner. I do not need to come out of this trip sporting dreadlocks.

Spotting and identifying species of my taxonomic group has been quite challenging today as you can see from the picture below.

“Leaf Cutter Ants Crossing” sign at TEC

It was really neat that within minutes, I was able to come across members of a key species of my taxonomic group, leaf cutter ants (A. cephalotes),  doing what they do best –  foraging for leaves to take to the fungi in their nest. It was also nice that the type of ant was pointed out and identified for me. Can that be the case at Las Cuevas too, please?

Leafcutter ants (A. cephalotes) carrying leaves

Another key find while walking to dinner was a juvenile green iguana up in the branches of a tree alongside the gravel pathway. I hope that all these sightings in such a short amount of time are an indication of the diversity I will get to see in the rainforest part of the course.

Green iguana hungrily eyeing some leaves

For now, I am extremely excited to be making the boat ride to Glover’s Reef tomorrow. Time to rest up for an early wake up call and another busy (but hopefully incredible) day in Belize!