Tag Archives: arachnids

Tropical Field Biology Presents: It’s a wrap folks! (Wrap-up Blog)

I cannot believe that EBIO 319 has already come to an end. It feels like just yesterday that we boarded our plane to start our journey. Alas, all good things must come to an end. EBIO 319 gave us the best of both worlds: surf and turf. Finally, I was able to see two ecosystems I have read about time and time again in real life. The first and most obvious similarity between the rainforest and reef is that they are both places of incredible biodiversity. Each ecosystem supports hundreds, if not, thousands of different organisms ranging from microbes to top predators.

Coral reefs and the rainforest are also similar because they are usually restricted to certain latitudes (what we call the Tropics), and they depend on a delicate balance of nutrients. As we have learned, both the rainforest and reef could be considered nutrient-poor environments. In the rainforest, the soil is nutrient-poor as most of the nutrients are incorporated in the living trees, and in the reefs, the water column is also nutrient poor. With this in mind, nutrient cycling is vital for the sustainment of these environments. Corals dependent on nutrient-cycling symbionts and tropical rainforest soil depends on decomposition as the warm humid conditions promote faster decay and recycling of nutrients.

Another similarity that I noticed as I explored these areas was the lack of space. In the rainforest, we had a trail that was easy to walk along, but even two feet off of the trail the vegetation started to thicken making it difficult to maneuver. In the same manner, navigating inside some of the patch reefs was incredibly difficult as every inch of space seemed to be occupied. As I have learned in this class and previous classes, the more diverse an area is the more specialized niches that arise. I saw this phenomenon in both areas as it seemed that every organism had a specific niche within their environment occupying nearly every inch of space. This is a factor that allows these areas to maintain that biodiversity.

I also noticed that with this lack of space and abundance of different organisms it promoted some intense defense and survival mechanisms. From my perspective, it seemed like in both regions’ organisms were always on edge. On the coral reef, there were stinging anemones, sea urchin spines, fire coral, and jellyfish. In the rain forest, it seemed like every corner we turned there was a venomous snake, biting insects, thorns, and poisonous plants.

However, I did also notice some things that I felt were different between the areas. Based on my observations, I felt that sites we went to in the rainforest were more “intact” than some of the sites we went to on Glover’s Reef. By intact, I mean that some areas of the reef seemed to be more in peril (less fish, dead coral, fleshy macroalgae) compared to the rainforest. Partly, I attribute this to the fact that we left the marine protected area for some of the reef sites unlike in the rainforest portion where we remained in the protected area. I even think that factors like climate change could provide some insight as to why some of the coral reefs appeared less healthy in some instances.

Overall, I really enjoyed this course. I do think the amount of work before the trip was greater than I expected, and even during the trip, the amount of work we do every day was more than I anticipated. We worked some days for 10-12 hours which is rewarding but also tiring. Although, I think the work before leaving was really beneficial in providing basic background knowledge of Belize. I also did not expect to do so many cool tourist activities like the ATM cave or Belize zoo. I thought those we were really fun and informative activities to do between the surf and turf portions of our class.

My favorite part of the course was learning about how Belize’s history is intertwined with their natural ecosystems. For instance, it was obvious the pride that our Belizean tour guides, Herbie and Javier, took in the reef, and I was surprised to see that. It was not just a job for them or a way to make money; it was them showcasing the place they call home. It gave me a face to the Belize conservation movement. I also loved going into the caves and learning the history behind them. They are experiences that I won’t forget.

I think my least favorite part of the course was the bug bites; I know it may seem significant, but at some points, they were so itchy that I felt it was hard to focus when doing outside activities. I also was not a fan of the long boat rides. They always just made me feel slightly off for the rest of the day.

I learned a lot about myself and my future during this trip. First, I do not think that I want to do fieldwork in the future. I am not saying I never will, but I am just not sure it is the avenue for me. However, I do know that I loved being exposed to these ecosystems and I want to protect them at all costs. So, the second thing this trip taught me is that I am now more interested in conservation and convincing others to appreciate our natural wonders. In other words, I think I am more interested in communicating complex scientific ideas to non-scientists. On a less serious note, another thing I learned was that traveling is very important to me. This small glimpse of life outside the US allowed me to gain an appreciation for my home and their home. So, now I want to make sure traveling to different places is somehow incorporated into my future.

ALL TAXON SEEN ON THIS TRIP:

Rainforest:

  1. Red-rumped tarantula, Brachypelma vagans
  2. Spiny Orb Weaver, Gastercantha cancriformis
  3. Orb Weaver, Araneidae
  4. Wolf Spider, Hogna sp.
  5. Harvestman, Cosmitdae sp.
  6. Florida Bark Scorpion, Centruroides gracilis
  7. Variety of ticks

Reef:

  1. Watercress algae, Halimeda optunia
  2. Three finger leaf algae, Halimeda incrassata
  3. Mermaid’s fans, Udotea sp.
  4. Green Bubble Weed, Dictyosphaeria cavernosa
  5. Sea Pearl, Ventricaria ventricosa
  6. Bristle Ball Brush Algae, Pencilius dumetosus
  7. Pink Segmented Algae, Janis adherens
  8. Reef cement, Porolithon pachydermum
  9. Burgundy crustose algae, Pessonneliam sp.
  10. Flat Twig Algae, Amphiroa tribulus
  11. Y-twig Algae, Amphiroa rigida
  12. Variety of other Coralline Crustose Algae

Day 15: I cannot Belize it’s over!

My final walk, might I say jump, down the Middle Caye dock.

5/28/19: Our two-week journey has finally come to an end. Is it possible that it some ways it feels like it happened in a blink of an eye and it was a whole month? Regardless, I am going to miss Belize: the beautiful natural habitats, kind people, and of course, the delicious hot sauce.

It was a super long day for me. I started my morning at 4:45am and took a three-hour boat ride to Belize City. Then, boarded a flight that lasted two hours which put us in Houston around 5pm. Next, we drove through rush hour traffic back to Rice where I then got into my car and drove another 4 hours back to my home in Corpus Christi, Texas. So, it is safe to say I am pretty worn out.

However, on the car ride home, I could not help but reminisce on all the good times in Belize. The animals we saw, the crystal blue water, and our interesting tour guides. I think I want to go back to Belize one day as a tourist and even as a researcher. What will I be researching? Hopefully, I can figure that out soon.

Tonight, I plan to tend to shower (maybe even shower twice?) I will also tend to my bug bites with a concoction of Neosporin and anti-itch cream. Above all, I plan to sleep for at least 12 hours.

Wish me luck in Dreamland!

-Bella

Day 14: Sea you soon Glover’s Reef

5/27/19: Today was our final day on the island. Above all, I think I am going to miss waking up to the beautiful views every day. With waking up early, I tend to be a little more grumpy, but I found it hard to be upset sitting at the breakfast table with such an incredible view. However, let it be noted, I am definitely not going to miss the bug bites.

Today, we looked at marine debris on Glover’s reef Middle Caye. As a UNESCO world heritage site, Glover’s reef Middle Caye is absolutely beautiful. The island is essentially paradise with a purpose, but it is not immune to damaging effects of pollution. Around the reef, I was shocked that we found over 3659 pieces of trash while collecting for merely 30 minutes. I am going to be honest with you it makes me so sad that even an island as remote as this still struggles to combat pollution. We even saw a hermit crab with a plastic cap as its shell.

Pile of marine debris found on Middle Caye

On a less sad note, we also dissected a lionfish today. Lionfish are an invasive species in the Caribbean, so by catching these fish, we learned something new and help preserve the natural ecosystem. We decided to name our fish Hungry because it had an empty stomach. We made lionfish ceviche after the dissection and it was delicious.

Kaela and I dissecting our lionfish, Hungry.

Today, there were no water activities, so I was not able to see my taxon. Honestly, I was kind of sad not to see my taxon today. I think I am going to miss seeing my little algae buddies around every corner. Tomorrow, we have a long day of travel ahead of us.

Wish me luck!

-Bella

Day 13: Searchin’ for Urchins

5/26/19: Have you ever held a ball of sticks that moves in your bare hand? Well if you have, stick around because I think you can bond with me. But if you haven’t, do not fret because I am sure I am descriptive enough for both of us. Today, we were searching for sea urchins for our next research project. When I say searching, I mean searching! I was doing handstands trying to see underneath rocks and used spaghetti tongs to fetch them out of tight crevices. (No urchins were harmed in this event; all returned safely to the water)

Slate Pencil Urchin found under a rock while searching for the urchins during research project

We were looking at the sea urchins to use as a proxy to help understand herbivory and overall reef health. I had never felt a sea urchin before this, but let me tell you, I would do it again if I could. It is so interesting to watch them move their seemingly stiff legs to walk around in your hand. I also saw quite a few brittle stars as I was lifting up coral rubble in search of urchins.

We had our night dive today, and it was really cool. We were able to see a couple stingrays, lobster, and even a pufferfish. The current was pretty strong, so it was short lived. However, it was really eerie and cool to be in the water at night.

Throughout the day, I saw various patches of Halimeda opuntia (Watercress algae) and Halimeda incrassata (Three finger leaf algae) in cracks between hard corals or in the sandy patches. Looking for urchins, I even saw some Flat Twig red algae or Amphiora tribulus that grew in sporadic clumps in the shady areas of rock crevices. Tomorrow is our last full day at Glover’s reef Middle Caye, so let’s finish with a bang!

I even saw some Flat Twig red algae or Amphiora tribulus that grew in sporadic clumps in the shady areas of rock crevices.

Wish me luck!

-Bella

 

Day 12: Finding Nemo…more like… Finding Bella!

5/25/19: The highlight of my day today was visiting the fore reef of Glover’s Reef atoll. It was literally like a scene from Finding Nemo. There was this expansive reef and a huge drop off just like where Nemo first sees the “butt” or boat. As I was exploring that edge, I, too, like Nemo was tempted to swim off the edge to see what was on the other side. But, I decided to side with my better judgment and swim toward the middle of the reef because I remembered how it turned out for Nemo. Now, I see why it was so tempting for Nemo to swim off; he was just trying to explore like me!

A picture looking down at the depth of the fore reef! Check out that blue water!

On the fore reef, we saw a bunch of cool things. We saw a few southern stingrays, a nurse shark, flounder, and personal my favorite was the Caribbean Reef Squid. I am starting to think I am I have a thing for Cephalopods? Future Ph.D in Cephalopods? Jury is still out.

The only downfall to this experience was the seasickness that came along with it. Since the fore reef experiences more wave action than the patch reefs, we were bobbing up and down on the boat and while surfacing the water. I did not like feeling very much at all, but the squid definitely made up for it.

On the fore reef, algae were scarce. Corals dominated those areas, but in the few patch reefs we visited before that, I saw a couple algae I had not seen before. I saw Green Bubble Weed Algae, Dictyospaeria cavernos, in between some sea fans, and I saw Y-Twig Algae, or Amphiroa rigdia between two mounding corals in shallower part of the patch reef. I, of course, also saw more Pink Segmented Algae (J. adherens) and Three Finger Leaf Algae (H. incrassata). Tomorrow, we are going to go for a night dive, so I am hoping I will see some nocturnal creatures like lobster.

The highlight of my day: I saw Green Bubble Weed Algae, Dictyospaeria cavernos, in between some sea fans!

Wish me luck!

-Bella

 

Day 11: Momma, we caught a crab… wait just kidding… an octopus!?

5/24/19: Today was a jammed packed day. Early this morning, we got on a boat and did our first survey of a reef in a marine protected area and non-protected area. All I can say is, the reefs are so interesting to look at. I feel like I am living in an interactive “I-Spy ”book as I just float around the reef. From fish to Christmas tree worms, I am really enjoying looking at all the interesting creatures living on the reef.

Speaking of interesting creatures, today’s second activity was by far my favorite part of the day. We waded out into a seagrass bed and we were tasked with finding organisms that live in the beds to create a touch tank—-we were asked not to pick up anything that stings/poisonous and almost everyone followed that. Let’s just say, some of us have some battle scars.

I saw sea anemones, sea urchins, fireworms, brittle stars, queen conchs, sea cucumbers, and a variety of hermit crabs. It was just crazy to me that such a small area could have such a diversity of organisms. The highlight sight of the day was an Atlantic Pygmy Octopus (Octopus jubini) hiding in an old conch shell. We thought it was a crab in there, but boy we were we surprised to see an octopus coming out.

The highlight sight of the day was an Atlantic Pygmy Octopus (Octopus jubini) hiding in an old conch shell

There is no shortage of green and red algae at Glover’s Reef. Today I saw more Pink Segmented Algae (J. adherens), Watercress algae (H. optunia) and Three Finger Leaf Algae (H. incrassata). I was more excited to see some new ones like Mermaid Fan algae from the genus Udotea and Burgundy Crustose Algae from the genus Dessonelia. I even saw a Sea Pearl algae, Ventricaria ventricosa. We plan to go to the fore reef soon, so I am really excited about that.

Watercress algae (H. optunia) growing on hard substrate
I am showing the class an example of Three-Finger Leaf Algae during our touch tank activity.

Wish me luck!

-Bella!

 

Day 10: Decorator Crabs Unite!

5/23/19: Today was our first full day at Glover’s reef. I must say waking up every morning to our view on our front deck is something I can’t get over. It just seems unreal! The crystal blue water and the palm trees swaying in the wind are worth the 12848923988 bug bites that come with staying on a remote island.

Today, we were tasked with our first research project.  We were looking at how the seagrass beds and algae interact on the reef flat.  We named our group the decorator crabs because her taxon group is crustaceans and mine is algae; decorator crabs decorate themselves with algae (similar to the “shiny” crab in Moana), so we thought it was a perfect fit.

The highlight of today getting a glimpse at a patch reef nearby and being able to see all of the amazing diversity for the first time. It was a larger patch reef, so it was teeming with life. A spotted eagle ray swam right next to me and I literally felt like I should have been Aquawoman in that moment: I was one with the fishes.

A quick picture of the Spotted Eagle Ray that swam near us on the patch reef near the dock on Middle Caye

With the abundance of life on the reef, I was overwhelmed just looking at it, so I did see many types of algae. I saw various patches of Halimeda opuntia and Halimeda incrassata today in cracks between hard corals or in the sandy patches. I also saw those algae and some Pink Segmented Algae or Jania adherens dried up in the coral graveyard (place of washed up carbonate skeletons). I also saw various types of coralline crustose algae (CCAs) on the hard substrates of the reef. On a final note, I am hoping at least one time on this trip to see a sea star.

I am holding Halimeda opuntia, Halimeda incrassata, and Jania adherens dried up on rocks in the coral graveyard.
An example of some CCA I found growing on a rock.

Wish me luck!

-Bella

Day 9: We made it to Glover’s Reef!

5/22/19: Today, we made it to Glover’s Reef! It was a three-hour boat ride to get here, and I must say I was not really a fan. It was overall just a long ride in the sun with a slew of bumps along the way that made me a little seasick. I have found out “Boats are not for Bella.” But, the site of Glover’s made it all worth it. The beautiful clear blue water is something I have never experienced before. It almost seemed unreal and too picturesque. Of course, I could do without the sand flies and mosquitos waiting to feast on my blood, but alas, even paradise is not perfect.

My view from a hammock underneath the main office at Glover’s Reef Research Station

We started the day at Glover’s by taking a tour of the island and testing out our water gear. At first, we struggled to get acquainted with our new environment, but we figured it out. The water was pretty choppy today due to high winds which made things a bit harder. However, we were able to start looking at our first reefs and I think now it is confirmed that the ocean has a special place in my heart. Growing up on the Texas coast, the beach atmosphere usually feels like second nature to me, but this took it to a whole new level. It was actually startling to see what I had seen on television for years (thank you David Attenborough) in real life.

My attempt to take a picture (The current was pretty strong wading) of the watercress algae in sandy areas between corals.

Today, I was able to see a few different species of algae. On the leeward side of the island, I saw Halimeda opuntia or Watercress algae in between the corals, and I saw Three Finger Leaf Algae or Halimeda incrassitoria that was inhabiting the shallow sandy area near the leeward coast. I am hoping as we spend more time in the water tomorrow that I am able to see more species of algae—my hope is for some green grape algae (Caulerpa racemosa).

Wish me luck!

-Bella

Day 8: We need to talk about: the ATM Cave and Belize Zoo

5/21/19: Today, we left Las Cuevas and said goodbye to Rafael, the station manager, and the other LCRS staff. If I am being honest here, waving goodbye to them was really sad because they were so nice and accommodating the whole trip. However, the feeling of sadness soon left when we arrived at the ATM cave. I have to say this was one of the best experiences of my life.

Not only was it amazing seeing a cave of its magnitude in person from the outside, but also being able to swim and explore the cave firsthand was incredible. I felt like I was basically Indiana Jones crawling through those cave walls. I have never done anything like that, and I recommend if you ever come to Belize, make sure to schedule a tour of the ATM cave. It is a once in a lifetime experience.

One of the zookeepers from the Belize Zoo feeding the Tapir

Next, we went to Belize Zoo and it was one of the coolest and, might I say, cutest experiences. The zoo prides itself on preserving Belizean native animals (how awesome is that!). They also have so many funny signs around the zoo describing the animals; you can tell they put a lot of time into it. We saw a boa constrictor, tapir, puma, jaguar, margay, barn owls, pygmy owls, Morelet’s crocodile, and a gibunt. I even petted the tapir and held a boa constrictor! We were not able to see most of these animals at LCRS, so I am so happy we were able to see them before we left. I am starting to feel like a piece of me belongs to Belize. Next time you hear from me, I’ll be at Glover’s Reef.

Holding a Boa constrictor at the Belize Zoo (one of the best moments of the trip)

Wish me luck!

-Bella

Day 7: I’m burnin’ up

5/20/19: We concluded our Cecropia and Aztec Ant project today and found that it might be true that uncolonized Cecropia trees have tougher leaves to prevent herbivory, but with our data, there might be many other possible explanations.

Today was our last day at Las Cuevas. We went to retrieve our camera traps; it was quite a long hike to pick up all seven cameras, and guess what we found? A TAPIR!!! We caught one on the camera that was furthest down the monkey tail trail. Honestly, I never thought I could be that excited for a photo, but trust me, I screamed a little when it came up. We also caught this mysterious photo of an animal that appeared to be cat-like. It was too close to the camera, so it is very overexposed and washed out. We hypothesize it is a Puma based on its outline, but we are not 100% sure. But, for the sake of tropical field biology, it will be a puma in my book.

The man, the myth, the legend: the Tapir caught on our camera trap!

On another note, I ran into quite a problem today at Las Cuevas. During a break today, Brendan and I used an “icy- hot” type ointment to help our sore muscles. For the first two hours of the break, it went great. But after that, let’s just say, things went a little less great. We went to gear up to investigate the leaf cutter ant mounds around Las Cuevas (super cool by the way!). So, as we were standing in the sun excavating a mound, our skin began to burn as if we were cooking in the sun. We began to remove our socks and ran up to the station to take a shower to remove the remaining ointment from our skin. In the end, we are doing much better, but note to self: do not wear icy-hot in direct sunlight.

Today was a slow day for arachnids. We were hiking swiftly this morning and did not often stop to check out anything on the path, so I saw a few wolf spiders scattered in the leaf litter and a what seemed to be a monster tick walking on a leaf. It had to be least 0.3 to 0.5 cm. It had white speckles on its back. To put it simply, we avoided it as much as possible. Tomorrow we make our way to the reef.  First stop ATM cave!

Wish me luck!

-Bella