Tag Archives: ants

Tropical Field Biology Presents… Brendan’s Final Blog Post

spoiler alert: I have decided to become a sea turtle

I remember sitting in the first interest meeting and hearing past participants talk about this trip. At that time, I was definitely hesitant how a trip can be so influential and eye-opening. Few months later, we had our first group meeting as the 2019 cohort. I wondered what the workload would be, how the group would interact with each other, and what we will be seeing in Belize. 

When I chose ants and sponges as my taxonomic groups, I merely picked them because of familiarity. However, as I started to look into these groups more, I realized they shared many similarities. Ants and sponges are both often overlooked because they can easily blend in the background, but they are actually crucial in maintaining the health of the rainforest or reef. They both serve an important role of recycling nutrients in their respective ecosystems. Not to mention, to identity them to the species level is pretty difficult because they can appear so differently amongst each other. 

More broadly speaking, the rainforest and reef also share many similarities with each other. These ecosystems are able to host such diverse life. Both of these ecosystems have organisms that continuously cycle nutrients back to its environment, allowing other organisms to develop. These ecosystems have food webs and food chains in place to ensure there is a balance between predator-prey relationship. In many cases, removing top-predators, like big cats and big fishes, can disrupt the ecosystem greatly. 

One thing I also realized is to just avoid anything that begins with “fire.” In the rainforest, we avoided fire ants. In the reef, we avoided fire corals, fire sponges, and fire worms. I wrote in my first blog that I expect to be challenged when it comes to naming specific organisms. Of course, I ended up being challenged in all different ways. For instance, one challenge I did not expect was waking up at 5 or 6am every morning and struggling to stay awake past 9:30pm. 

A difference that I noticed between the ecosystems is actually the way in which research is conducted. In hindsight, being able to stand on the ground definitely is a lot easier than needing to stay afloat. Perhaps we were just out of our element, but I noticed that so many variables, such as wind condition and wave action, that dictate when we can go out and do research.

My favorite part of the trip was being able to capture photos of everyone. Watching everyone’s facial expression and their sheer amazement has been such a fun part of the trip. I, too, was amazed by all the things we saw, but I found shifting perspectives and observing people in the context of nature can be equally rewarding. 

 

Everyone taking photos of the “sticky butt cockroach”

My least favorite part of the trip was definitely the bug bites. By now, you have probably heard of everyone complaining, but those bugs are evil! In my packing list, I remembered to pack bug sprays to prevent getting bitten, but I totally forgot to pack medicine for AFTER getting bitten. I had to continually restrain myself from scratching the insect bites. 

Here are my three key takeaways from this course: 

  1. Importance of contextualizing our trip. While learning about Belize’s natural beauty, we were also able to understand Belize’s ties to Mayan culture. Thanks to Herbert, we also understood the overarching history and future of Belize. Though we came to Belize to learn about the environment, I think we also have to acknowledge the environmental impact of traveling to Belize and all the places as well. My hope is that we can translate this experience and inspire more sustainable practices. 
  2. Don’t forget the small things! I used to have this mentality of eliminating all ants in sight. After this trip, I realized just how amazingly complex ants can be. Seeing ant colonies and leafcutter ants traveling down the highway carrying freshly cut leaves have opened my eyes to these organisms. 
  3. The bug bite trade-off. As I am writing this final blog post, I am also trying not to scratch my bug bites. In the future, I will still not use insect repellent with 99% DEET, but I will remember to bring some anti-itch medicine for these nasty bug bites. The good thing is bug bites will go, but these memories will last forever. 

TAXON 

ants department: 

common name: 

fire ants

genus: 

Pseudomyrmex sp.

Azteca sp.

Dolichoderus sp. 

species: 

Atta cephalotes

Strumigenys ludia

16 morphospecies:

ant morphospecies from Project P

 

sponges department: 

some type of rope sponge

Ailochroria crassa

Aplysina fistularis (Yellow Tube Sponge)

Callyspongia vaginalis (Branching vase sponge)

Callyspongia plicifera ( Azure vase sponge)

Chondrilla nucula (Chicken liver sponge)

Cliona delitrix (Red Boring sponge)

Xestospongia muta ( Giant Barrel sponge) 

Day 8: Beyonce: “Okay ladies, let’s look at formations”

Today’s general agenda: leave Las Cuevas —> ATM Cave —> tropical education center —> Belize Zoo 

I am very tempted to use words like “amazing”, “incredible”, “jaw-dropping” to describe my experience today, but I think I should unpack my thoughts to give you a sense of why I am feeling exactly that way. Specifically, I am referring to our expedition into the Actun Tunichil Muknal (ATM) cave. 

As our pitstop between the rainforest and coral reef, we visited the ATM cave. Even before getting to the entrance of the cave, we had to cross three rivers. Certain parts of the cave required us wading in the shoulder-deep water and some climbing up tall, complex structures. 

I remember I audibly gasped as I looked at the cave formations all around me. When light is shone on these formations, they look like thousands of crystals all glistening back at you. At one point, I even lost a sense of where I was because I was merely taken aback by the view.

As we venture deeper into the cave, we got a better understanding of how caves play a role in Mayan culture. Historically, priests of mayan societies were in the caves performing rituals. Since we were the last group to explore the cave that day, we were able to switch off our lights and just listen to the cave. There was absolutely no light, so my eyes could not adjust to anything. We switched our lights back on, and one of us went missing! I’m just kidding- everyone got out of the cave unscathed. And the craziest thing of it all? Turns out, we only explored about 500m of the 5.3km cave.

Unfortunately, we were not able to document anything with cameras, so hopefully you have been well convinced to go explore the cave yourself. 

lunch at 2:40pm after a 3 hour cave expedition
night zoo with a boa constrictor

Brendan Wong

Belmopan, Belize

5/21/2019

Day 7: chant with me: ants! ants! ants!

Today’s general agenda: retrieve camera traps —> finish poster for project mutualism —> check out leafcutter ant colonies —> look at camera trap photos 

Here’s a missed opportunity: Ant-Man should really be Ant-woman instead

Did you know that if you see an ant on the ground, you are most likely observing a female worker ant? These ants are infertile ants that do many important tasks to keep the colony up and running. Male ants only appear during mating season. Today was definitely another fruitful day in the ant department.  In the early afternoon, we got to make a poster and present on our project focused on Azteca ants and their mutualistic relationship with Cecropia tree. We found that, on average, uncolonized trees have tougher leaves, meaning they are less likely to be eaten by herbivores. However, we definitely need more data to validate our results.

In the late afternoon, Dr. Solomon, the actual ant-expert, took us around the research station to compare leafcutter ant colonies of different ages.  We were specifically looking at colonies of A. cephalotes. These colonies can have millions of individuals residing in them, and they can be seen as one of the earliest farmers.These ants collect leaves to grow fungus, and the fungus is then fed to ant larvae. When aggravated, these ants can use their sharp mandibles and actually chew through rubber boots. It was a surreal experience getting to observe what I have been researching in preparation for the trip. 

leafcutter ant soldier!

As our grand finale for the rainforest, we all sat in the classroom to look at the photos the camera traps took over the course of the five days we were in Las Cuevas. We were all on the edge of our seats because we just were not sure what to expect. I think we can all agree that the best picture that was taken was of a tapir walking on the path. On that note, I think we are all ready to further explore Belize and head to the coral reefs. 

camera trap viewing party! It’s a tapir!
unidentified male captured by camera trap

As a mid-trip reflection, I am already amazed by how much we have learnt in such short amount of time. Even though I was initially worried about having minimal internet access, I think the disconnection allowed us to be fully immersed in our environment. I 

Brendan Wong

Las Cuevas, Belize

5/20/2019

Day 6: we did not want to take any risks

Today’s general agenda: project leaf diversity —> project mutualism —> bird tower 

Having given my presentation on ants, I was beyond excited that we were going to focus on ants even more on this trip! In particular, today, we were tasked to examine the relationship between Azteca ants and Cecropia trees. These two different species form a mutualistic relationship where both parties benefit by working together. The ants get food while the tree gets protection. We wanted to know how Cecropia trees, before hosting these ants, protect themselves from being eaten. 

click for video showing the Azteca ants and Cecropia trees

720p

We have been constantly examining organisms on the ground that we decided to change up our perspective this evening. Near the research station is a bird tower that is three stories high. From the bird tower, we got to observe the Chiquibul forest in its entirety. We also got to see the Belize sunset. I don’t know if it was the wind, the greenery, or sunset, but, in the moment, I never wanted to get off the tower. Of course, all good things have to come to an end, so we turned on our headlamps and hiked back. 

selfie on the bird tower!

As I was carefully walking in the front, I hear Pierce call out “snake!” in the back. The snake turned out to be a venomous jumping viper hidden in the leaf litter! Though the snake was small in length, we did not want to take any risks. We kept our distances and safely moved forward.

Each night, as you may know, we give presentations that focuses on either specific taxonomic groups or topics. Today, Liz addressed tropical diseases. I was excited to learn more about Dengue Fever because the disease is somewhat prevalent in Taiwan. We even talked about how climate change can affect Dengue Fever. In short, climate change can exacerbate Dengue Fever and increase its range. 

Brendan Wong

Las Cuevas, Belize

5/19/2019

Day 5: “You’re in” good hands

Today’s general agenda: project P —> presenting project P —> lectures 

Right before we were about to head out to collect our vials in the forest, we had an unforeseen circumstance. This situation was probably one of the most unique situations I have been in- we were stopped by two Scarlet Macaws that were roaming around the research station. We looked at them through the scope once again, and this time I was able to capture their interaction on camera! It’s hard to imagine having your plans delayed because of Scarlet Macaws but that is essentially what happened. 

Morning interruption: Scarlet Macaws!

I was the first to collect my samples and boy was I surprised. My urine sample actually had two beetles in them! We took all our vials back, and, as part of our methodology, I was tasked to examine and group ants that shared similar body structures. Through a microscope, I was actually able to look super closely at the facial and body structure of the ants that we collected. Keegan’s vials contained a Strumigenys ludia, which is this really small ant, roughly 2.5mm, with a yellow coloration. In total, I sorted the ants into 16 different groups or morphospecies. We unfortunately were not able to draw any definitive conclusions for our research because we need more data points to support our question. 

my “powerful” and nitrogen-rich urine sample PC: Dr. Solomon

Prior to this trip, most of us were not too familiar with each other, but I was so impressed how we were able to put together a presentation. I think having to pee in vials definitely brought our whole group closer together as well. Tonight was also the night that I gave my presentation on ants to the class. After learning so much about ants in such a short period of time, I was able to draw connections to my presentation. I am very lucky to have very supportive classmates, and hearing their presentations have been so much fun. Moving forward, I look forward to presenting my other two presentations on sponges and coral reef formation. 

Brendan Wong

Las Cuevas, Belize

5/18/2019

Day 4: Peez in the Trap

Today’s general agenda: project P —> mayan trail exploration —> cave expedition —> night hike 

“ It has to be a joke” – Michael at 7am breakfast

At 5am, I woke up bright and early to watch birds at Las Cuevas. To our delight, we actually spotted some toucans! These toucans have very bright beaks, and, luckily, through the telescope, we were able to capture them preening themselves. 

 

5AM Bird-watching: Toucans!

As we were eating breakfast, we were presented with vials and asked by Dr. Solomon and Dr. Shore to pee in the vials. Two vials each with 25mL of urine is what we were told. Drug test? Not quite! We were actually using our urine sample to test the diversity and nitrogen levels in the rainforest floor and canopy. I present to you.. project P! 

In short, nitrogen is an important resource for organisms to function properly, and nitrogen can come from any decomposing plants, animals, and other organic matter that you commonly find on the rainforest floor. Using our urine as a nitrogen source, we wanted to test  We set up these pitfall traps with either our urine or water around Las Cuevas to see which ones bugs and other organisms preferred. 

Setting up my traps! PC: Dr. Solomon

At night, I actually was able to observe ants hard at work. Leafcutter ants are specific ants that exhibit leaf cutting behaviors. They lay out this path on the ground, which is basically a highway for them to transport to leaves back to their nest. 

Brendan Wong

Las Cuevas, Belize

5/17/2019

Day 3: and they came out of nowhere!

Today’s agenda: Las Cuevas research station —> exploring trails and setting up camera trap —> Las Cuevas Research Station 

Part of our trip objective is to conduct a research project around Las Cuevas Research Station. Our group came up with the plan to examine how the research station itself may serve as a disturbance for species diversity around Las Cuevas. To give some context, we are currently in a circular shaped clearing surrounded by the rainforest. We think that as we move farther away from the research station, we will see more diverse animals in numbers and species. 

We are using this technique called camera trapping where we pick certain locations and set up a camera to take pictures of anything that moves in front of it. I am hopeful that we would be able to spot some big cats (jaguar or puma) because on our way to our first camera trap spot, we saw what appeared to be some recent paw print on the floor. 

one of our camera trap locations

Speaking of travels, we hiked a total of 5 hours today, climbing up and down hills. With our field gear on, we were able to explore the rainforest in-depth. We saw spider monkeys, blue morpho butterflies, spiny orb weavers, Xaté fishtail palm, and so much more! In the ant department, we spotted army ants, Pseudomerymex ants, Dolichoderus ants, and fire ants. Somehow, twice today, I had ants all over me. One even bit me under my shirt. These ants are not so forgiving when you come across their nests. Oh, and did I mention that I also ate a termite, but we’ll just have to save that story for another time. 

At the end of the day, after seeing almost something from each taxonomic group that each of us had, we ended up finding ourselves with either a few ticks or maybe 100 of them! They came out of nowhere! Turns out, ticks are hard to kill. To effectively kill them, you have to use your nail on one finger and press it against your other finger so it effectively cuts ticks in half. 

 

Spotted two upside-down Scarlet Macaws

Brendan Wong

Las Cuevas, Belize

5/16/2019

Day 2: “More scientific way of describing their golden butt”

Today’s general agenda: Crystal Paradise Ecolodge —> Rio on River —> Caracol —> Las Cuevas Research Station 

It’s another day in Belize, meaning we got to eat more rice and beans! Rice and beans is a traditional Belizean cuisine, and, to my surprise, there is a subtle but not so subtle difference between rice and beans and beans and rice. Rice and beans have beans incorporated in the rice; beans and rice have separate rice and beans. Now, you know the differences! I recommend trying the rice and beans and most certainly with Marie Sharp’s hot sauce. 

I would say what makes today unique is that we were able to contextualize our trip through understanding more history of Belize. Belize is rooted in Mayan culture and artifacts. We had an in-depth tour by Leo, our tour guide, in Carcaol, a Mayan ruin. We explored how social class translates to how and where buildings were built. We also got to explore Mayan structures used for astronomy and religious purposes.

group at Caracol

While we were exploring Mayan structures, we got to see Montezuma oropendola nests hanging from the tree. These nests were woven by the birds themselves and are very sturdy structures. I was very fascinated by these nests because I have never seen birds build these type of basket-like nests. This trip is continuously opening my eyes to more to amazing animals! 

Low-Hanging Montezuma oropendola nest

Finally, today, in the ant-identification department, I present to you the “Golden Butt ant” in the Camponotes genus. These ants were found on tree trunks when we were on our way to Rio on River. They were roughly 2cm long, and they had golden-colored gaster region, which is just a more scientific way of describing their golden butt. Next stop: Las Cuevas Research Station! 

“Golden Butt Ant”

Brendan Wong

Las Cuevas, Belize

5/15/2019

Day 1: Ant Man? Not quite!

Today’s general agenda: airport —> lunch at Cheers —> grocery shopping at New Flags —> Crystal Paradise Ecolodge 

We have only been in Belize for less than 24 hours, but it definitely feels like we have experienced so much of it already. What may have been long car rides between destinations actually turned into interesting observations and discussions. 

For instance, we spotted the Taiwan ICDF and Taiwan flags! After getting more stable internet, I quickly searched up Taiwan ICDF, and, turns out, they work towards boosting socio-economic status and providing human resources for developing partner communities. I think I was definitely surprised to see Taiwan conducting such outreach work in Belize, and I am definitely glad that they have such capacity to do so. 

Taiwan ICDF in Belize

In terms of taxonomic identification (again, I am the ant-person or ant-man), I was pleased to find many different ants already! The most common ants that we spotted were leaf cutter ants, specifically Atta cephalotes. These leaf cutter ants have mandibles, which are pincer-like jaws, that cut leaves and flowers and brings them back to their nest. However, other ants identification proved to be more difficult. I spotted two ants that were roughly 1.5cm, but I could not seem to correctly identify them (see image below). My guesses are that they are some leafcutter ant species but it definitely is hard to be sure without any type of microscope. 

Unidentified ant. Possibly belonging to the Ponerinae family

Overall, today proved to be a very eventful day! From jumping into the river to observing horses, tapirs, and more, we really have only grazed the surface of Belize. Tomorrow, we will slowly disconnect from civilization (internet is really not the best in the forest as you can imagine) and head into the deep rainforest. Until then, hopefully I’ll get better at identifying ants and I can’t wait to hear what other students have prepared for the trip. 

 

 

Pre-Trip Thoughts: I can’t Belize it’s happening!

We are hours away from going to Belize and I am beyond excited. Prior to the trip, each of us had to sign up for two taxonomic groups and a topic to present on during the trip itself. In preparation, I have been reading research, articles, and books on ants, sponges, and how competition, predation, and environment shape coral reefs. Though we are preparing to become “experts” in those disciplines, I am definitely still nervous about articulating and conveying information to the class. I expect that I will most certainly struggle with naming ant and sponge species, but I think that’s exactly the value of this trip- to practice, to fail, and to sometimes succeed! 

I think this trip will definitely offer insight being a tropical field biologist and conducting field research. I am very grateful to have the opportunity to be able on the trip and experience the things I read about with my own eyes. I am very excited to be immersed in the environment for two weeks and engage with the class. 

One aspect of the trip I am particularly excited about is actually writing blogs! I have never had an opportunity to communicate science through blogs and having that on display for the world. Growing up in Taiwan, a small tropical island, I never would have imagined going to Belize and writing about my experiences, and, in all honesty, I don’t know what to expect! All I know is, if you’r reading this, I hope you stick around because I have a great feeling about this trip. 

 

fig. 1: doing some last minute shopping at Academy because I forgot field pants!

Brendan Wong

Houston,TX

5/13/2019