Tag Archives: arachnids

No One Leaves Belize Scott-Free: My Love Letter to Belize

It’s hard to imagine that a country as small as Belize can contain such vastly different environments, which we were lucky enough to experience. The rainforest and the reef are both such fascinating views into the diversity of life, each with their own unique organisms that we humans depend on. Every time we saw something we didn’t recognize, I couldn’t help but wonder if we were the first people to ever come across it, since the sheer number of organisms in the rainforest and reef make that a possibility each time we stepped out onto the field. Even though I’ve always known how important both of these ecosystems are, I never really understood the impact they have on us until I experienced them through the eyes of a biologist.

Despite this similarity, these ecosystems were still so different. We faced unique problems in each environment that often required us to think outside of our comfort zone to answer the questions we posed. Each time we tried to solve a question, we encountered multiple other problems that we had to come together to find a solution for. In the rainforest, this was often because of just a lack of knowledge about all the organisms that were there, like in To Pee or Not to Pee with our vast number of insect morphologies. In the reef, the main problem was learning how to collect data while snorkeling. Communication became so much harder underwater and making sure that you were identifying the right organism became more complex. Despite these challenges, we always worked together to find the best solution.

I came into this course with pretty much no idea what to expect, which I think was a good thing because I never would’ve been able to guess the crazy things we’d experience. I expected to learn about the rainforest and the reef, but we also learned so much about living in research stations, caring about the environment, and working together as a group. At first, my least favorite part about this trip was how isolated I felt being in the rainforest with no internet and no way to contact anyone outside the group. However, this became less and less of an issue as the days went on and actually became something that I enjoyed. We became really close as a group and I felt like I learned so much about everyone because of how close we were to each other. Working in such a close knit group became my favorite part of the course because we were able to joke and talk with each other so comfortably. I’ll always remember this group as some of the greatest people that I’ve met at Rice.

There are a lot of things that I learned from this trip that I’ll remember for years to come. One was that despite how much you think you know about conservation and protecting the environment, there’s always more to learn and experience. Our marine debris project really showed me just how much more work we have to do to clean up the reefs and protect them for future generations. The second one is that there’s always more to an environment that you don’t always see at first. From the leaf cutter ants to the camera traps we set out, we were always finding out about hidden worlds that, even though we didn’t see them at first, still hold such importance. The last thing that I learned comes from something Andressa mentioned to me in Las Cuevas. She said it was crazy how this trip had shown that literally anyone can become friends. Despite our different backgrounds and experiences, all it took was a love for nature for all of us to become close friends. I was surprised by how true this was but extremely grateful that it was.

Overall, this course was everything I hoped it would be and more. I’m extremely impressed that everyone was able to put up with my terrible jokes and lame stories for two weeks, so kudos to all of you guys. Everyone on this trip and everyone we met in Belize played such a huge role in making this trip so memorable. There’s really no way to end this but with a culmination of my worst joke this trip:

Day 3: We Got a Few Ticks Up Our Sleeves

I woke up bright and early at 5:15 to bird watch, where we saw oropendolas, a flock of Red Lore parrots, and a friendly bee that loved Elena’s hair. All these sightings were pretty expected but were really cool nonetheless. We ate a nice breakfast of eggs, beans, and journey cakes which I didn’t really eat because I’m still feeling a little queasy. We went up to the lecture hall and Scott gave us a briefing on Camera Traps. We had a quick discussion on some ideas for the traps and, after a long deliberation, we decided on testing how the presence of trails affects mammal presence and abundance.

An Orb Weaver Spider Web Chilling in The Trees

We set off on our hike at 9:30ish and headed down the Monkey Trail, up the Saffron Trail and then down the San Pastor road. Along the way, we ran into a boa constrictor chilling on the forest floor and a huge leafcutter nest, which gave all of us a jump. We came back for lunch, ate some rice and plantains, and headed back out on the 50-hectare plot. We set up our last two camera trap pairs and spotted a zombie ant on a fern. We came back, I showered quickly, then Rafael M. director of the FDC gave us a talk on the conservation efforts on the region, which was really fascinating. We ate dinner and headed to the lecture room for talks, which I gave on arachnids, Elena gave on ants, and Claire gave on the Paradox of Tropical Soils. Afterwards, we all headed to the dining room to work on these blogs!

Arachnids spotted: a wolf spider in the leaf litter of the Saffron Tree-unidentified species; Wolf spider mother on San Pastor Road, spotted by Adrienne with eggs on her back; Unidentified red mite on breakfast table; Many many chigger bites on Veronica, Jessica, and Adrienne (RIP); Almost everyone got a tick bite, including me, under my watch – they hurt; Red Rumps in the clearing by the lecture hall that scurried back into their holes after they saw us.

Can you spot the spider?

All of these are expected, unfortunately, but still really cool.

 

Day 2: Being Rio On Fleek

We woke up bright and early at 5:30 AM, even though it definitely didn’t feel that early at all. We got ready, had breakfast, and packed up to drive to our next destination.

First, we stopped at the Rio On pools,

The Rio On Pools

where we had a lot of fun tumbling down the waterfall slides and swimming in the small pools at the base of each waterfall. That is, until we found out that there were leeches in the pools (I was bitten 4 times). We still had fun in the pools though, even doing a train down one of the waterfalls. We got out, changed, and went back into the bus for the next leg of our journey.

Wolf Spider Hiding in the Leaf Litter of Caracol

We arrived at Caracol at about 11 and our tour guide Leo gave us a tour of the Mayan ruins. Along the way, we ran into some cool organisms, including black Howler Monkeys, Oropendola birds, wild avocado, and more. We ate a quick lunch and hopped into the van to go to Las Cuevas

We arrived at Las Cuevas around 4 and met the station manager Rafael, his wife Angelica (in charge of kitchens) and Pedro (the assistant manager) After a quick orientation and some scarlet macaws, we put our stuff up and took a quick hike around the station. Along the way, we saw leaf cutter ants, give-and-take palms, parrots, and a few others. We headed back to the station, ate dinner, and listened to Claire give a talk on birds, Ceyda give a talk on trees, and Chloe give a talk on the canopy. After that, I showered and got ready for tomorrow!

Arachnids: This morning I saw a small garden spider in the bushed of the ecolodge along with his web. I wasn’t able to identify it but it was 5mm and a transparent green in color, with a long ovular. We saw many Mexican Red tarantula webs at the bases on trees near the Mayan plaza though we didn’t get to see the actual organisms and that wold spider above in the leaf litter. Leo gave us information about the mating dances of the males which was fascinating. At Las Cuevas, we saw two Mexican red rumps in the grass outside our lodgings after dinner as they scurried into their burrow. We expected to see a few here so it was unsurprising to find them.

Day 1: Journey to Belize

Day 1: I woke up at my sister’s house in Houston and began those last minute checks for all of my gear. We grabbed smoothies from Juiceland and headed down to Rice. I brought all of my bags from the car into ABL and grabbed our extra gear to pack. We all loaded into the Rice bus and headed to Hobby.

We met Claire’s dad, who happened to be our pilot, went through security and ate lunch (I ate at Yia Yia Mary’s). We waited in the terminal and then finally boarded! The flight wasn’t too long, especially since I slept for half of it. My first impression of Belize was that it was very similar in look and development to other Central American countries that I’ve visited, like Costa Rice. We went pretty quickly through customs, got our bags, and met our driver Edward as we loaded up into our van.  We stopped by a store to grab extra supplies and I picked up gummy bears and a towel.

We started our drive to Crystal Paradise Ecolodge. Along the way, we drove through a lot of small villages, saw a few forest fires, and talked about the trip. We drove for about 2.5 hours and finally arrived at the Lodge. We put all of our bags in our rooms and ate a great dinner.

I haven’t seen any arachnids yet but I expect to run into a few soon. We’ve been in fairly populated areas so I’m not terribly surprised that we haven’t seen any but we will probably run into some tomorrow.

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Crystal Paradise EcoLodge

Almost time to go!

Somehow we’re about to leave and I have no idea how the time has gone by.  This will be my first time going to Belize and I’m excited to see what the country has to offer.  However, I’ve traveled to Central America before so I know a little of what to expect. This will also be my first time traveling outside the country for something other than a vacation so I’m also really excited to see what it’s like to travel with other purposes besides relaxing in mind.

In terms of preparation, reading the book and researching my taxa and lecture topic were all really great ways for me to feel like I’m ready for the trip. I feel like I know at least some of what to expect when we get there because of what we’ve already learned. Packing for this trip was a little difficult because this is my first time going on a trip like this so I can only hope that I’ve gotten everything that I’ll need.

I’m a little nervous about being able to handle all of the activities that we’re going to do but I’m also really excited for them.  I think I’m the most excited for exploring the caves near Las Cuevas and exploring the reefs around Glovers. I expect to experience Belize in a unique and memorable way and really delve into the surroundings there. I hope I come out of this trip with a greater understanding of how important every part of an ecosystem is and how important biology is to our everyday lives. I feel as ready as I’ll ever be to get the most out of this trip!

 

 

Wrap-Up Blog: Funbelizeable

Both the tropical rainforest and coral reef ecosystems host a great biodiversity of organisms, which depend upon each ecosystem’s structure for survival. To start off, both ecosystems can be stratified into layers; as a result, some structures in the rainforest and reef will be more exposed to light than others. Varying amounts of light creates different microhabitats, fostering a large biodiversity of organisms adapted to specific niches in each habitat. An array of organisms will also adapt to the habitat’s nutrient availability (dependent on light availability), thus also promoting a large biodiversity of life.

Personally, I have noticed that micro-organisms play a large role in the trophic balance of both ecosystems and that their presence should not be discounted. A lot of human-made environmental stressors are being put on these environments, resulting in activities such as defaunation, deforestation, and coral bleaching. As far as differences go, the rainforest appeared to be more of an enigma; whereas in the coral reefs we would see larger fish such as nurse sharks and sting-rays floating around every now and then, the rainforest offered a lot more cover and megafauna sightings by eye were few and far between. Also, life on the forest floor is different than life on the ocean floor- the forest floor has detritus, fallen tree trunks, and leaf litter which provide perfect habitats for many organisms while the ocean floor’s organismal diversity is not as abundant.

This course completely exceeded my expectations- granted, I did not really know what to expect in the first place. I have never trekked in a rainforest or snorkeled in such close proximity to coral reefs before, so every single day was a sensory overload. On one hand I was trying not to succumb to the waves and crash into reef structures/trip on a hidden root during the steep 50 hectare declines and on the other I was attempting to observe all of the sights, sounds, and smells around me because this expedition is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. I truly enjoyed every second of this course and am more confident in my body’s maneuverability because of it.

My favorite parts of the course were hands down the trek to and from the Bird Tower and the lionfish dissection. The steep hike up to the Bird Tower just oozed a serene ambiance- I felt like I was traipsing through a painting, somehow managing not to trip on anything while the evening’s orange rays poked through the canopy. The views from the Bird Tower were breathtaking. To top it off, we all sat and listened to Turiez talk about her research work while munching on Doritos. Classic. The night hike down was even better- there was a point where we quietly stood still under the moonlight and listened to the sounds of the rainforest. That moment really put the size of the rainforest and the size of my body into perspective. The world is so anthropocentric and I feel like I get caught up in human social constructs instead of realizing that other life forms exists outside of the human species. The lionfish dissection was great too- I’ve always loved dissecting animals since middle school and enjoy comparing anatomical similarities between organisms.

Least favorite part- definitely the blue land crabs and moths. They have been so menacing to me the whole trip. However, I would do anything for more blue land crab/moth interactions if it meant being able to stay in Belize for another week.

Is that a leaf? No, it is my greatest enemy.

Despite the time and effort we all put into the lectures, I think the most important lessons from the course came out in the field. No matter how meticulously tailored an experiment is to the rainforest/coral reef, the truth is that these ecosystems are incredibly complex and standardizing a problem with experimental trials and data is tough- there will rarely be a “final answer” to a certain question. I learned to trust my sense of balance a bit more after being battered by waves of salt water and tripped by roots that grab onto your ankles, which can hopefully get me through the concrete jungle of life just fine. Finally, here’s an important tidbit of information I’ll find useful if I go trekking off-trail in the future: off-trail trails made by other people can be identified by bent stems, upside-down leaves, hacked sticks, and various other subtle markers.

Belize was fun and unbelievable. It was funbelizeable (I really hope that pun catches on).

Day 15 (5/30): The Belize Splurge and Purge

I don’t want to leave Belize. I really don’t. But Deepu, remember that in the late 1300s Geoffrey Chaucer said all good things must come to an end. So, this tropical field biology expedition must come to an end. It has to. Geoffrey Chaucer said so.

After our last 6:30AM breakfast, we left Las Cuevas at 8AM on a rugged country road that I’m not a fan of but will dearly miss. I passed out and woke up to the van stopping at Orange Gallery, a souvenir shop where I splurged on two Belize bookmarks.

Bye-bye LCRS. You will be dearly missed.

We went to the restaurant Cheers for lunch and were treated like royalty- each person’s meal budget was forty Belizean dollars ($20 USD). I stuffed my intestines, stomach, and esophagus to my heart’s content in tribute to the beautiful foodstuffs this country offers. Then, we trudged onwards to the Belize airport. Even the van did not want to take us there.

Security check took 2 minutes. Not colloquially- literally. And here I am, forcing my body to move back to a country where security checks are so long that female anacondas get jealous.

I’m writing this on the plane to Houston. It just hit that I’ll be at home in T-18 hours as the flight attendant handed me Wheat Thins and honey roasted peanuts (Southwest really stepped up its snack game). Taxon-wise, just found a tick on my neck. I made sure to decapitate it with my thumb and index finger nails- just like a true TFB would. This trip will be something I remember for years to come. Belize was fun and unbelievable. It was funbelizeable.

Day 14 (5/29): The Final Trek

Today we had one job and one job only: collect 14 camera traps spread all over trails and forested area near the Las Cuevas Research Station. We headed out to the 50 Hectare Plot Trail around 8AM and finished collecting the 6 camera traps by around 10:30AM- amazing timing. The group hustled through the steep hills and walked with the intention of finishing the trail. Taxon-wise, I did not see any arachnids, probably because I was too focused on maintaining my balance and not tripping over hidden roots. I felt a lot better about trekking this trail today than Friday.

After returning to the station, I saw another red-rump tarantula (Brachypelma vagans)! It was located under the research station building, about 2 inches in diameter. Afterwards, we did our final presentations for the course, ate lunch, and headed out on the Monkey Tail Trail to pick up the last 8 camera traps at 1:20PM. This trail took us about 5 hours; granted, we did have to walk a bit farther and stopped to see some special organisms. Two Western Lubber grasshoppers were spotted, along with some longhorn beetles and a Mexican burrowing toad. Despite the length of the trail, the walk was good bonding time for the group- guffaws, chuckles, and laughs were shared that won’t be forgotten for years to come.

Anotha one (Red Rump Tarantula)

We stepped into the Las Cuevas Research Station at 6:30PM, ate dinner, and went to the classroom to unearth the pictures from our camera traps. The results were insane. The cameras revealed two ocelots, six lowland pacas, a great curassow, and a group of peccaries. 2 OCELOTS AND 10 OTHER LARGE ORGANISMS?!?! Such sightings are a new record in this EBIO 319 course. We were all ecstatic for these results because we did spend a bit of time setting up/taking down these cameras and were told not too many animals usually show up on these camera traps. Granted, much of our animal activity came from one camera trap set in one specific location, but that doesn’t matter! Ocelots rule!

Today’s the last official field day of this trip. Tomorrow we leave for the Belize airport at 7:30AM. It’s been eye-opening for sure.

Day 13 (5/28): Arachnid Paradise

I finally made it to bird-watching today! I saw two scarlet macaws perching on a high tree branch. At 8AM, we went out to the rainforest to collect our urine tubes. Upon analysis of these urine tubes back in the lab, we found ants, beetles, crickets, flies, and arachnids!

After lunch, we headed to the Las Cuevas Cave, which is about a 5 minute walk from the station. The entrance of the cave was massive- we looked down from a Mayan built platform and there was a 50 foot drop to the bottom. This cave had 9 chambers, each assembled by the Maya for ritualistic purposes. Due to archaeological excavation, we were only able to see the entrance of the cave and the first chamber.

The first chamber of the cave was dark, chilly, and mystical- a perfect place to present on amphibian and reptile taxon groups! Afterwards, Damien presented on tropical diseases back at the station. Then, we headed out on a 45 minute hike to the Bird Tower, an observation deck 300 feet in the air that oversees all of the Chiquibul Rainforest. The view was breathtaking. Everywhere I looked there were mountains, rolling hills, and deep rock crevasses. The research station was also visible from the Bird Tower- it was a small speck of clearing and really put our isolation to the rest of the world in perspective. Turiez topped everything off with an amazing presentation on her defaunation research in Gabon and the Amazon.

Bottom half of the Bird Tower

The Chiquibul

On the way back to the station was the self-proclaimed night hike. I saw a wolf spider (Hogna spp.), a tailless whip scorpion (Paraphyrnus raptator), and 2 Florida bark scorpions (Centruoides gracilis)! The wolf spider was motionless on a leaf while both the tailless whip scorpion and 2 Florida bark scorpions were found after Scott chipped some bark away from a dead tree.

 

Wolf Spider

Tailless whip scorpion

Florida Bark Scorpion

All in all, today felt very productive and I’m glad we had the chance to see all of these sights because tomorrow is our last full day at Las Cuevas :(.

Day 12 (5/27): Tarantula!!!

Today was catch-up day. We’ve been falling behind on lecture presentations the past few days, so we decided to grind out 7 presentations. After a morning presentation, we started a new project: the nitrogen project. All 11 of us had to urinate into 22 tubes which we attach to trees and bury in the ground- hopefully, arthropods are attracted to the nitrogen in our urine and fall into our tubes. It’s a 24-hour ordeal, so we will go back to the rainforest tomorrow to collect our critters and analyze the species diversity in the tubes.

We had lunch after the nitrogen project and knocked out another 3 presentations. Then came an activity I know Scott has been waiting for since last year’s course: the ant colony investigation. 3 differently aged ant colonies were investigated for their fungal chunks and any queens, ranging from 1-20 years of age. The oldest colony was estimated to be 10-15 years old and was MASSIVE. I’m talking at least 100-150 square feet of area with multiple entrance areas and a depth of at least 15 feet. Scott and a guide named Apache spent 45 minutes digging but could not find any fungal chunks- to put this in context, we found a fungal chunk in the first colony (1-year-old) in the first 10 minutes of digging about 8-12 inches.

Fungus grown in leaf-cutter ant colonies

The soldier ants in the oldest colony were also straight savage- they were about 1-1.5 inches long with mandibles that can bite through rubber. Damien had a soldier ant biting his pant legs and when Apache pulled the ant off Damien’s pants, the body detached and the head stayed attached to his pants- it was freaky.

I presented on arachnids after dinner, 2 other people presented, and then a group of us went tarantula hunting! We did not have much luck at first, but we were soon joined by Dr. Aimee (a spider expert), who easily showed us 3 huge red-rump tarantulas (Brachypelma vagans) and one Livingston tarantula (C. livingstoni). As a bonus, we saw two pauraque birds!

Red Rump Tarantula we found

There are 2 full days left in Las Cuevas. It seemed like forever ago we landed in the Belize City airport, but suddenly forever does not seem too long ago.