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
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!
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.
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).
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.
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.
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
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.
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 :(.
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.
Today was our first full day at Las Cuevas and my first day I ever thoroughly ventured into the rainforest. Let me tell you, it was not what I expected. We spent a solid 8-9 hours in the in the Mayan thickets, walking on and off trails to set up camera traps for our tropical field biology project.
In the morning, we travelled on a path called the 50 Hectare Plot- it was really steep with two large hills and really large Mayan structures we had to climb over. On that trail, I saw a black jumping spider (Paraphidippus aurantis) and a small wolf spider (Hogna spp.). Also, we saw a mammal! It was climbing up a tall strangler fig and I pulled my camera out too late to get a good picture of it- it was identified as either a common possum or a type of Mexican porcupine.
Black jumping spider on 50 Hectare Plot Trail
We travelled on the Monkey Tail Trail after lunch, which was mostly flat with a few felled trees we had to climb over. It took us about 5 hours to navigate the trail and come back to the field station. The walk was interesting- we saw a scorpion snake, possible deer bones, and a fer-de-lance! Also, after our last off-trail camera trap setup, we were walking back to trail and did not get lost. I repeat, we did not get lost at 6PM in the Chiquibul Rainforest. We simply took a 40ish minute detour off trail before we thankfully reached trail.
Overall, today was a good experience- there were a lot of smells, sights, and sounds that I have never witnessed before. The forest is an environment I am not used to, so I was on edge the first hour or so. But, it’s actually a pretty serene place to be- once you forget about the venomous snakes, insects, and large cats roaming around.
We left Crystal Paradise Resort today. The moment was sad yet sobering. Nobody wanted to leave that cushy eco-lodge with an attached bathroom and outdoor thatched dining area, but we all knew that it must be done in the name of science. Scott and Turiez took us to a beautiful nature-made water park called Rio-on Pool before lunch. The place was magical- one can have his/her back massaged underneath the 20-foot waterfall and sunbathe in the shallow freshwater pools.
Afterwards, we reached Las Cuevas two hours after we left Rio-on Pool, ate lunch, got briefed by the field manager Pedro, and then set off for our first forested path: the Maya Trail. Forest biodiversity is fascinating- the first forest species I saw was the bird Oropendullum montezuma. It is black with a yellow tail. Taxon-wise, I saw a wolf spider (Hogna spp.) and a green jumping spider (M. penicillatus) on the trail. There were a lot of spider webs attached to tree branches, but none of them had spiders- only food materials like a baby flies.
Green Jumping spider on a leaf
As we were walking through the Maya Trail, Scott paused, shoved his hand into some brush, and just casually pulled out a lizard. All of our jaws hit the forest floor, but little did we know that him pulling random organisms out of the brush would become a common occurrence.
We saw three Mayan structures today: a pyramid, a low wall, and a ball court. The pyramid was 40-50 feet high and really steep, but we still managed to climb it. There was nothing at the top- for some reason I thought there would be a secret tunnel into the pyramid. Oh Deepu, you dreamer you. The low wall structure is suspected to be some sort of pathway to a cave, which Mayans regarded as sacred sites. The ball court was pretty cool- the walls to it rose up about 15-20 feet on two opposite sides and the game played in the court often ended in one team getting sacrificed.
Las Cuevas gives off a feeling of mystique and excitement which I’ve never experienced before. Tomorrow we set camera traps!
Today was a day of tourism. The destination was the Actun Tunichil Muknal (ATM) Cave in San Ignacio. Around 8AM, we left the Tropical Education Center for the last time, stopped at Benge’s Cost Less general store to drop off our luggage trailer, and reached the ATM Cave by 9:40AM. Our guide took us on an hour hike through the rainforest towards the cave, which was devastated from a hurricane last year- the guide told us that at least 15-foot water waves ripped through the trail we were hiking on, damaging a lot of the trees there.
The cave is a wet cave; when we reached the cave’s mouth, we swam through refreshingly frigid waters and continued to hike/swim through the wet part of the cave before we scaled a tall rock face on a sketch ladder to the cave’s dry part. On the way to the dry part, the guide pointed out stalactite and stalagmite formations that looked like curtains and dresses- all naturally created by water over millions of years.
The dry part was ridden with ancient Mayan ceramics and 14 human skeletons, of which we saw five. These remains are said to be from Mayan sacrifices done in conjunction with bloodletting ceremonies to appease the rain god Chaac and other deities in times of drought or hardship. Speaking of bloodletting, I scraped my knee on a rock and it was pouring rain once we exited the cave. Coincidence or did I just unintentionally appease the Mayan rain god Chaac with my type A negative blood?
I only saw one unidentified spider today in the cave- it was large, brown, and motionless on a rock. It very much looked like a wolf spider but the legs were more spindly and longer. After the ATM Cave, we drove to San Ignacio downtown and spent time strolling through shops and the fruit market before heading to our eco-lodge for the night, Crystal Paradise Resort. Everything about that resort was rustic and grandeur: thatched roof, huge rooms, and an attached bathroom! I was really excited for that attached bathroom. After dinner, I presented on the geologic and biogeographic history of Belize, strolled around the eco-lodge for a bit, and finally crashed in my bed at 10PM.