Tag Archives: ATM cave

Day 13: View (5/28/2017)

Sitting on the station’s porch, I was able to see a crested guan (Penelope purpurascens), a relative of a turkey, perched in a tree. Only the bird’s silhouette was seeable to the naked eye; a spotting scope was needed to see the fire-red jowl and dynamic white and dark spotted pattern on the breast.

My class and I explored the two outermost chambers of Las Cuevas cave. The opening of the cave was enormous, taking up my entire field of vision. The front chamber was decorated with mud and guano from the bats in the ceiling. Light filled the front of the chamber but weakened in a gradient to the back of the chamber. The second chamber was almost completely dark.

Leaving the cave, we encountered an unidentifiable species of snake slithering up about six feet of the cave’s wall and then concealing itself behind a crag. Having such a clear view of the snake and watching it engage in such uncommon behavior was certainly a sight to see.

We later embarked on a hike to Las Cuevas’ bird tower. On the trail, we passed a Brazilian fern tree (Schizolobium parahyba) covered in moss and growing sideways across the path. The higher the elevation we hiked, the more Trumpet trees (Cecropia obtusifolia) we encountered. Trumpet tree leaves were not very dense, but took up quite a bit of space due to their high-surface-area design. The trees shed some of these leaves, which shriveled into gray bundles on the ground.

Upon reaching the top of a large hill, we climbed to the top of the bird tower to be rewarded with an unparalleled view of the forest. From this elevated vantage point, you could see rolling hills abundant with green, gently integrating into the mist in the distance. The sky was a sharp shade of blue, and the color grew sharper and warmer as the sun set. The clouds were backlit, appearing a warm golden color. Time passed, and the sky grew warmer and warmer but then effortless transitioned to a cool indigo when the sun hid behind the horizon.

The sun setting over the Chiquibul rainforest

We walked back from the sight in the dark of night. Only the contents of glowing projections from our headlamps were visible. The views were restricted but still allowed us to encounter the scorpions, spiders, crickets, and cockroaches that emerge only in the darkness.

From the magnified view from the spotting scope to the partially-illuminated view within the cave to the all-seeing view from the bird tower to the insular view of the headlamp’s contents, today’s views were as diverse as the rainforest’s wildlife itself. Diversifying not only what I see but also how I see it has allowed me to gain appreciation for the rich content of the rainforest, at all different scales.

I feel much closer to seeing the whole picture.

I need to spelunk more

DAY 9 – The main event of today, a visit to the ATM cave, exceeded my expectations. We left TEC around 8:00 am after a sad goodbye to Adrienne. She will be missed.

Nelson drove us skillfully down the bumpy gravel roads to Actun Tunichil Muknal (or ATM) Archaeological Reserve. The trail through the forest to the entrance of the cave started off strong: we all waded across water up to our necks, which left us refreshed for the hike ahead.

Along the path, our guide showed us the destruction that remained from a hurricane last August. He pointed out some debris about 12 feet off the ground where the water reached. We waded across more sections of the river, finally arriving at the cool, dark opening of the cave.

The cave is formed mostly from limestone, some dolomite, and has lots of calcite deposits. We walked/waded through various depths of (chilly) water, surrounded by beautiful rock formations. There were plenty of stalagmites, stalactites, and curtain formations to go around. I was shocked at how extensive the cave was; I could have walked around and explored all day.

Our guide told us a lot about the ancient Mayan people who had used the cave between 700 and 950 AD. Mayans believed caves were connected to the underworld, and so very few people actually entered the caves. Priests and their entourage would go into the cave to perform sacrifices, including blood-letting. The Mayan people would cut themselves with obsidian blades or sting ray barbs and drip their blood onto paper to be burned. In order to appease the gods, or to ask for their favor, various sacrificial acts would be performed. In some cases, human sacrifice was performed inside the caves. We saw remains from 5 bodies in the cave, the last of which has been dated back to 950 AD, right before the collapse of the Mayan civilization. Sacrifice was seen as an honor, and those who were sacrificed to the gods skipped the nine trials of the underworld and went straight to the upper world.

In the big, cavernous rooms of the underground cave, there was also lots of scattered ceramic pieces. There were boards for grinding corn and cacao, lots of vessels, and remnants of fire pits. It’s crazy that the artifacts survived for so long. According to our guides, they are most likely exactly as the Mayans left them.

I could go on and on about the cave, but I want this blog post to be brief and I also have bees to talk about!

As we emerged from the cave, it began to pour in the forest, which was really cool. We were already soaked from the cave water and river water, so more water couldn’t hurt us at all.

We ate lunch and drove to San Ignacio, where we walked around a little bit. Sarah and I found a bathroom (for free!) thanks to a nice waiter at a restaurant in the city. I also tried an apple banana, courtesy of Scott. It was a tiny little bugger, and really sweet.

Finally, the moment you’ve been waiting for, the bee. We drove from San Ignacio to Crystal Palace Eco-lodge where I saw my first confirmed sweat bee. There were three in total, walking around on the table. They are in the Halictini tribe, and are small and black all over.

Mikey holding a tiny sweat bee (Halictini tribe) and eating banana cake

We head into the rainforest tomorrow! Wish us luck!

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.