The tropical rainforest and coral reef are similar in that they both survive on very nutrient-poor soil and ocean water respectively. This is because there’s very rapid nutrient cycling in the leaf litter of the rainforest and the mangroves near coral reefs.
I also noticed a lot of interesting interactions between species in these environments outside of simple predation. In the rainforest, there were organisms like ticks (which surprisingly don’t bother me anymore) that act as parasites and the Azteca ants that live symbiotically in Cecropia trees. And in the coral reefs, there were organisms like Christmas tree worms that extend deep inside the corals and stay there for life and clownfish that live symbiotically in anemones.
It’s hard to remember what I expected from the course after I already experienced it, but I guess that’s why we wrote our pre-departure blogs. In mine, I wrote that I was “anticipating a fascinating (but incredibly busy) two weeks.” I’d say this was pretty accurate to the trip, except it was even more fascinating and busy than I imagined.
One thing I certainly didn’t anticipate was our incredible experience at the ATM cave, which was most definitely my favorite part. I had no idea tourists were allowed to cave like that (i.e. swimming through small spaces and even scaling a small wall at one point). My least favorite part was probably running through the Mangroves of Death on our first day at the reef. The amount of mosquitoes there is unbelievable, and I was pretty impressed when three other students volunteered to go there for our marine debris collection.
One thing that I learned that I won’t forget is the Mayan history that we heard about. I was fascinated by the elaborate rituals performed by the priests. Another thing is that the only way to kill a tick is to sever its head from the rest of its body (which you can use your fingernails to do). The third thing that I learned and won’t be forgetting is to avoid fire coral!
Today, we went caving! I’m not talking just walking through a teeny cave with the convenience of manmade steps and installed lights. At points, we were swimming neck deep in water or trapped between two narrow cave walls not more than a few feet apart. We even had to slide down a small narrow waterfall going sideways to avoid collisions with rocks. The natural formations were incredible, but we also got to stand feet, or sometimes even inches, away from authentic Mayan artifacts and skeletal remains. I have no words for this experience except awesome, epic, and earth-shattering.
After caving, we made our way to the Tropical Education Center where we will be staying the night. Nearby, we got a night tour of the Belize Zoo. This meant we got to see many incredible animals that we wouldn’t otherwise see up close. Each of us got to feed a tapir and hold a boa constrictor, which are actually particularly docile snakes in case you didn’t know. My personal favorite was the puma. It was undoubtedly the most gorgeous animal I have ever seen. Its huge eyes and narrow tapering facial structure seemed unreal.
The stars here are gorgeous, and as I was looking up at them, I noticed a moving one. It was not a shooting star but a firefly (a beetle!). Unfortunately, the firefly was too far away for identification, and I don’t have any fireflies on my taxon ID card.
Today, we retrieved our camera traps and finished up some rainforest experiments. The morning hike to retrieve the traps was utterly exhausting, and everybody’s legs were sore afterward, but it was worth it for some amazing sightings. During the hike, we came upon a group of spider monkeys high up in the trees (likely the same group we have seen before in this area). They tried to intimidate us by shaking some branches but then became more curious and just stared at us. It was amazing to be in the presence of these animals that are so very human. And as Scott said the other day, we are very much apes ourselves.
To reach the last camera trap, we had to cross a fallen tree trunk full of aggressive ants that we knew all too well. On Thursday, all of us jumping onto the log to cross caused the ants to swarm the trunk such that on the way back, there was no way to cross without getting a handful of speedy biting ants. But this time, we all crossed quickly and efficiently enough to avoid this. The ticks were a little less avoidable unfortunately…
The beetle highlight from today was actually a species from my taxon ID card. I believe we spotted an Enema Endymion on the deck of the research station. This is a horned scarab beetle, and true to its name, it has a large horn at the front of its head.
Today was incredibly busy. We spent the entire morning and afternoon collecting and analyzing data for two different experiments. Lunch included some delicious banana smoothies with the perfect consistency (hopefully I can replicate it when I’m back home).
In the evening, we hiked up to the bird tower. The bird tower doesn’t really have anything to do with spotting birds. This is because the bird tower is so high up, you have a view of the vastness of the Chiquibul Forest, and any bird in view would likely be too tiny to make out.
Beetle highlights from today included a rove beetle (unknown species) and the elusive headlight elater (Pyrophorus noctilucus). In my research before this trip I learned that rove beetles lift their rear ends up in an exaggerated scorpion-like manner when threatened. Sure enough, when I brushed against a rove beetle’s leaf today, the beetle lifted its rear end high into the air so that its tail was literally perpendicular to the rest of its body (pretty wild).
After our night hike back from the bird tower, Kaela described seeing a beetle with two bright lights on its body. Even though I didn’t see it myself, this was pretty exciting to hear because this was undoubtedly a headlight elater. These beetles have two bioluminescent spots on their thorax that are meant to startle predators. Some say the headlight elater is bright enough to read by.
This morning we collected our pitfall traps, which we filled with either urine or water yesterday to answer some research questions. We wanted to know if there was greater arthropod diversity on the forest floor or in the canopy and if the forest floor or the canopy was more nitrogen-limited (urine is a great source of nitrogen in case you were wondering).
Once we got back to the research station, we did inventory on the beetles, ants, ticks, etc. that fell into our traps. The unknown species of large black beetle with the red outline around its thorax and abdomen was in several of our samples. This beetle seems to be a reoccurring theme in these posts, or perhaps he’s the beetle mascot of Las Cuevas. Either way, I’ll have to do some research to identify him once we have internet access.
During our hike to collect these traps, I came across my first net-winged beetle (from the genus Calopteron). The species I have on my taxon ID card is Calopteron discrepans. I think this beetle was a different species that I came across in my research, but I can’t remember the species name at the moment. Calopteron discrepans has multiple thick black bands on orange wings, while this species only had one faint black band.
Today’s morning hike to set up urine traps (long story) was interrupted when we came upon a large black beetle with a metallic red outline – the same species from my last post that has yet to be identified. This time, however, it was in the middle of a ferocious battle with a millipede. We cheered and enjoyed the drama for almost ten minutes until the beetle finally gave up his meal. This millipede was determined the survive another day.
After lunch, we visited the cave near the research station. It has an incredibly vast opening and was actually the location of many Mayan religious ceremonies. The different chambers of the cave likely represented the layers of the Mayan underworld. Sources of water can be found in caves, so it makes sense that Chaac, god of rain, was thought to reside in the underworld.
Our day ended with a fascinating night hike – I finally managed to spot a darkling beetle (from the Hegemona genus)! These beetles secrete smelly chemical compounds from their rear end, and I definitely witnessed this today.
Today was our first full day at Las Cuevas Research Station, and we actually got to explore the trails here, as we set up seven camera traps (cameras strapped to trees that take photos when motion is detected – we’ll be checking the photos on our last day here). The crazy overgrown trails of the Chiquibul revealed some pretty interesting finds, including a group of curious spider monkeys and several blue morphos!
The sightings that really interested me (of course) were the beetles, my assigned taxon. Some of the more flashy beetles included a metallic wood-boring beetle (likely from the genus Euchroma) with a blue-green metallic body, as well as a large black beetle with a distinct red outline around its thorax and abdomen and vertical ridges along its abdomen only.
But there’s nothing like the feeling of finding a beetle that exactly matches a species from your taxon ID card, and I’m talking not just the kind of beetle, but also its exact position and proportions. This beetle was (drumroll please) Eburia pedestris, a longhorn beetle with four symmetrical yellow spots and long orange antennae and legs.
And believe it or not, all this was worth the ticks! After our hike, we spent around 30 minutes laboriously checking for and removing ticks. Many of us had to stop knowing the unfortunate truth that we may have missed one.
Today, we began our trek to the Chiquibul Forest with interesting narration and several stops along the way. During the drive, our guide Leo pointed out what he referred to as a Mayan village because 85% of the residents speak one of the Mayan languages.We also passed a new Mayan structure that’s currently in the process of being constructed by a Mayan descendant.
Our first stop was “Rio on Pools,” a collection of small pools along a river. We got to swim, and the leaches were successfully avoided! When we got back on the road, we passed a ghost village. Leo said that this village thrived during the 1930s and 40s because of the forestry industry but was completely abandoned by the mid 90s.
Later in the evening after finally arriving at Las Cuevas Research Station in the Chiquibul, we gathered in the classroom to have student presentations. Scott showed me a Scarab beetle that he found! This is one of my first beetle finds (second to a firefly I saw at Crystal Paradise Ecolodge). It’s possible that this beetle was of the species Enema endymion or a close relative.
We have reached the end of our first day in Belize, and I have yet to spot any beetles (order: Coleoptera). This is likely because we haven’t spent much time outdoors yet. Much of our day was spent on a plane or in a van, so I didn’t have much time for beetle-watching.
However, as I was walking around Crystal Paradise Ecolodge this evening, I found a nest of what I believe to be wasps (as opposed to bees). Though these aren’t members of my assigned taxon, I’ll insert a photo, as we don’t have a bee and wasp expert on our trip, and I think these insects deserve some attention, too.
This nest is a pretty incredible work of architecture, and I was surprised to find it in a bush, rather than in a tree or on a building. I had originally been scanning the bushes in hopes of finding a beetle resting on a leaf, but this was a pretty cool find, too.
What an adventure. So many miles traveled, wisdom gained, and personal growth has taken place during these past two weeks. I can vividly recall everyone sitting outside KWG 100 that first morning, eagerly awaiting what was to come and the cleanest we ever were. I have learned so much since then, and in the past hours as I have struggled to figure out how to sum up everything I want to say about this experience, I have realized that it’s almost impossible to put it all into words without writing a novel or two, but I will do my best here.
We were fortunate enough to visit two of the most beautiful and biologically diverse ecosystems in the world during our time in Belize: the tropical rainforest and the coral reef. Though these two ecosystems appeared very different to me at first, a closer examination revealed that they share many similarities. From the many layers of the rainforest canopy and the abundance of leaf litter canvasing the rainforest floor to the shallow sea grass beds and the wide range of coral structures in the reef, both ecosystems contain countless diverse niches and microhabitats that have the capabilities for a myriad of organisms and species flourish.
Along the same lines, the complexity and depth of both of these ecosystems are things that I feel I had an idea of before but didn’t truly grasp until I was totally immersed in them for the two weeks. For example, looking carefully at what appears to be a simple leaf-covered path in the forest can reveal several termites and beetle species under a log, a variety of arachnids skittering along the surface of the leaves, and snakes hidden just under them. Similarly, studying a mound of coral colonies might show Christmas tree worms burrowed into the polyps, sea urchins wedged into the crevices, and macroalgae growing in patches.
Experiencing it all firsthand really helped me understand how the numerous things living in both of those ecosystems are interconnected. Each species contributed something crucial to the ecosystem that they inhabited, and an environmental change that impacts one species undoubtedly impacts countless others as well. Learning about my two taxa played a role in this, with the beetles being important decomposers in the rainforest and the echinoderms being important prey and predators in the reef. Also interestingly and unexpectedly (for me at least) given the structural and organismal diversity present in these ecosystems, both of these ecosystems are fairly nutrient poor yet have managed to efficiently recycle nutrients to support their inhabitants.
In addition to the obvious species differences in these ecosystems, I noticed that the behaviors of the ‘dangerous’ species in each varied. While in the rainforest I was very wary of snakes and spiders, it turned out that most creatures would avoid you and we only saw one snake and few large mammals during our trip. On the other hand, the reefs were filled with things that simply hovered about unafraid of your presence (such as the jellyfish and lionfish).
Throughout the course, I particularly enjoyed hearing from all of the guest lecturers and the constant exploration that occurred. I never felt bored, and everywhere I looked there was always something new and exciting to learn and see or someone with a unique perspective to talk to and learn from. If I had to choose a least favorite aspect of the course, it would probably be the amount of preparation that we had to do beforehand. Still, I can see how necessary and helpful all of it was.
I will no doubt remember how interlocked everything really is. Both within the ecosystems with the large trees and corals providing for the smaller species around them and outside of the ecosystems in our lives. As far removed as we might seem in our daily lives from either of those ecosystems, the things we do in our everyday lives leave a long lasting impact on the environment, as shown by the marine debris cleanup project that we did. As cliché as it sounds, this course also further reinforced the motto of hard work truly pays off. Hearing from a graduate student who spends hours sifting through photos from camera traps in the hopes of coming across a big cat snapshot about the simplicity of just remaining cheerful even when everything goes wrong is imprinted in my mind. Furthermore, I learned that working hard on your own is important, but it takes the efforts of many to manage the dynamics of conservation. Among the other lessons learned on this trip is that traipsing around in full body spandex dive skins is not actually as bad as it sounds, but putting it on is a struggle every time.
All in all, these past two weeks far exceeded my expectations. Not only did we have running water for the whole trip (well except for the time we were still in the states, ironically), but I also had countless opportunities to push past my comfort zones and see how incredible doing so could be. All of the sights and experiences were so much more beautiful than any textbook or online image could ever portray, and I am still in awe that I had the opportunity to witness it all.
Thanks for following along everyone; what an unbelizeably wonderful ride it’s been.