Tag Archives: Belize

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 15: When it’s Time to Find Home, We Know the Way

Blog Post #15

Day 15: When it’s Time to Find Home, We Know the Way

Written at 9:39 am on May 30th

 

Yesterday was mixed with bittersweet emotions, memories, and travel. I really didn’t want to leave Glover’s Reef or Belize. Going back to the real world will for sure be a transition.

I woke up to see the sunrise, and it was actually gorgeous. The pictures don’t do it justice. I just soaked it all in. 

After packing, we had breakfast and said goodbye to the Glover’s Reef staff, as well as the Coast Guard and Fisheries guys too.

As we made the crossing back to the mainland, we stopped by Carrie Bow Cay, the Smithsonian Marine Biology research station. We met with the station manager and one of the scientists doing research there right now! She was studying the resistance of an acropara hybrid (stag and elk horn mixed tougher) to heat stress. She could really help figure out how to save some coral reefs when it comes to ocean warming.

Afterwards, we stopped at Twin Cay, a mangrove island, to explore what life is like under its roots. There were tons of fire sponges and orange encrusting sponges. I had no idea that mangroves could host these organisms because I didn’t come across any sponge references in mangroves in my research before class. I was fascinated. There were also tons of upside down jellyfish, and I spotted my fair share of baby barracuda.

Before I knew it, we were back on the boat headed to lunch at the marina restaurant. I ordered creamy shrimp pasta and a fruit punch drink—both delicious!

As our goodbye salute to being TFBs, our van to the airport had no air conditioning, so we all sweated out the rest of the salt water from the mangroves. The flight home was captained by Claire’s dad again (it’s so fun getting a shout-out from the cockpit!), and before we knew it, we were back in Houston.

This was truly the best “study abroad” I could have asked for with my limited credits and availability. I feel so lucky to have gone on this trip. Reflection blog post coming soon.

Brown Algae, Red Algae

Day 4 of Beach Days

Today occured in sort of a reverse order: we processed sea urchin and coral data from yesterday, presented our finding, taught ourselves about tropical biology taxonomic groups and went to the ocean.

One of the interesting interactions in marine life is one between the chub crab and brown algae. Chub crabs depend on epiphytes (organisms growing on alga) for their diet and the algae benefit from having epiphytes growing on its thallus (the entire body of an algae). While in the ocean, near a reef crest on our island, I was surprised to see this interaction in play. While looking for crustose coralline algae (a red encrusting algae that grows on corral rubble), I turned over rubbles and saw this interaction before my eyes: a tiny 2 cm blue-greenish crab picking off green dots of epiphytes living on top of red algae the size of my palm. Another aspect of crustose coralline algae is that it supports a number of animals that utilizes algae as habitat. Within mounds of these algae are 2 E. Leu sea urchins and 1 brittlestar that hid within pyramids of algae.

Back at the wet lab of our research station, I presented to the

Live Sargassum fluitans floating above sea grass

class 12+ species of red and brown algae, many of which I did not expect to see here, and many of which I realized were different species only after I had collected and viewed the specimens with greater detail and attention at the lab. After an incredible dinner of shrimp and rice, we heard our wonderful marine safety officer talk about Belizean culture. Despite its current political situation with Guatemala, Belize has been one of the most peaceful countries in the region and has been a destination for many victims of civil wars in the surrounding area. By the end of the class, we learned a couple phrases in the common unofficial language of Belize: creole. To say “what are you doing?” you would say “wat yu d do?”.

Instead of “yes” you would say “yeh mann”.

Basically Steve Irwin

Hi friends, I’m Veronica! Tomorrow, we go to Belize. Here are some thoughts.

I was an interesting sort of kid – I was quite socially awkward, listened only to classical music (my  favorite composer was Bach. Who’s Rihanna anyway?), and I didn’t watch any of the classic Disney Channel TV shows. Most importantly, I was absolutely obsessed with Animal Planet’s show The Crocodile Hunter. The show’s host, Steve Irwin, was my childhood hero. I remember sitting in front of the TV with my little brother, both of us riveted, as Steve fearlessly wrangled wild creatures or snagged the tiniest critters for the camera to see.

My younger brother and I were more interested in tiny shore critters on Daytona Beach than we were in Disney World. 

I think that my devotion to Mr. Irwin and his show planted in my brain a fascination with wild places and their inhabitants. This is why I’ve been all but vibrating with excitement for this trip for the last month or so.  I’ve never had any experience with field research, in the tropics or elsewhere, so I’m not sure what to expect. But I’m guessing it’s going to involve equal amounts of sweat and labor as rewarding finds and learning. I’m ready for it! (I think? I’m pretty out of shape, so I’m not sure how well I’ll handle the physical activity…but my mind is ready so BRING IT ON.)  This trip is probably going to involve a lot of physical discomfort and wistful thoughts of air conditioning. But I do expect to put in some sweat to learn things that I could never learn from a textbook! I’m tired of classrooms. I am incomprehensibly excited to learn how to locate different organisms in the field, or how to decipher forest sounds. I can’t wait to learn hands-on how ecologists gather their hard-earned data.

My preparation for the trip has been rather frantic. I’ve been scurrying all over town in the past couple of months to collect all the required equipment. I even bought a prescription snorkel mask so I can see underwater, which I’m SUPER pumped about! I’ve also pored over the required reading materials, spent hours upon hours researching microbial processes of coral reefs, and researched all I can about echinoderms (think starfish, sea urchins, sea cucumbers) and lepidopterans (butterflies and moths). And, of course, I’ve hyped myself up for the trip by watching nature documentaries. My only apprehensions lie in my complete inexperience. I can be clumsy. Combined with my utter un-fit-ness, I’m afraid that in my physically exhausted state, I’ll be a drag on the group. I hope that I can keep up with the pace of the trip. And, of course, I hope we don’t run into any grumpy peccaries (like wild pigs) or fer-de-lances (species of venomous snake).

What  I want to accomplish most during this trip is to scratch that itch I’ve always had in the back of my mind to go venturing out into the wild, if only for a little bit. I also hope to learn about what field ecology entails and to gain intimate understanding of tropical and neotropical ecosystems. I want to find specimens of the echinoderms  and lepidopterans I’ve researched. But I think my core excitement for this course stems from a simple place: the little kid inside me really, really wants to get out there and explore, just like Steve Irwin.

On that note, WE LEAVE TOMORROW?! Amazing.

Catch you all in Belize!

Let’s Go to Belize!

As I sit in my childhood backyard in Atlanta, GA, I think about all the bugs that seem to be nipping and milling about. I can only help but wonder what the bugs and critters will be like in Belize… I imagine that the mosquitoes will be much worse!

I’ve traveled to Belize before, but that was on a live-aboard sailboat! So, I’ve never been to the rainforest, and I’m really looking forward to seeing the rich fauna–even if they are hard to find. I’ve been researching amphibians, and though there are lots of them, every site says they are nearly impossible to spot unless you have a watchful eye. I am a little concerned I won’t be able to spot them as well as others because I am so short, but maybe they’ll be more on the ground!

I am most looking forward to spending time on the reef. I love being in the ocean, swimming about, seeing the fish, corals, and everything in between… I’ve always had an interest in marine biology, and I had an internship 3 summers ago at the Georgia Aquarium with the animal husbandry specialists. I’m excited to see how my research on sponges (which I also looked at back in sophomore year of high school) compares to real reef life.

All in all, as soon as I can pack, I am ready to hop on that plane and get there! I am ecstatic I get to share this experience with other equally invested and dedicated Rice students plus Surf+Turf. 🙂

EBIO 319 2018 woot woot!

Belize is almost Here … and We’re Almost There!

This time tomorrow, I will be in Belize. That’s pretty wild, but to be honest it really hasn’t hit me yet. I have been putting so much of my time and thought into preparing for the trip that I haven’t had time to really think about what an exciting and fun experience it’s going to be.

As far as expectations go, I sure hope that the course itself will be less stressful than the time leading up to it has been. I am really excited to get to spend a lot of time on the reef, and I am expecting that I will be able to appreciate it much more than any other snorkel trip I’ve been on. While I’ve visited reefs several times before, I never have been able to experience one through the eyes of being a tropical field biologist! I’m especially excited because I learned so much about reefs in the Coral Reef Ecosystems class this past semester. I’m expecting to see a lot of things that I won’t recognize initially, but I hope by the end of the week on the reef I’ll have a much better idea of what I’m looking at.

In the rain forest, I expect to learn a lot. I’m expecting the days there (and the days on the reef too, I’m sure) to be extremely tiring, so I’m hoping I don’t have any gear issues that make things at all more difficult. I think the last time I was in a rain forest I hadn’t realized that I was blind yet, so I couldn’t see anything. I still don’t have the best eye for detail, but now that I wear contacts I can actually see and I’m hoping I’ll be able to notice things hiding in the trees or underbrush (especially snakes!!)

What I’m hoping to learn from this course is what it’s like to be a field biologist because that’s something I’ve always wanted to do. I’m also excited to learn about the intricacies of the rain forest and the coral reef, two of the world’s most amazing and threatened ecosystems. In preparing for this course, I took Dr. Correa’s class ‘Coral Reef Ecosystems.’ I’m really hoping I’ll be able to apply what I learned last semester to the reef we’ll be studying, and that I didn’t forget too much of the course material by this point in the summer. I’ve also taken other basic EBIO courses, and hopefully those prepared me well in terms of field techniques we might use in the rain forest.

I am nervous that I will not be able to spot any Orthoptera species at all. I am also nervous that I’m going to have trouble identifying species, of both Orthoptera and Green Algae. I’m also nervous about having difficulty staying underwater long enough to get anything done. Luckily, I have prior experience with snorkeling so I’m quite comfortable with that, it’s just the time spent underwater where I struggle sometimes. I’m also nervous that I will be ill prepared in some way. I really really hope I did not forget anything important.

I have a little previous experience in the Tropics, but only as a quite young tourist. I visited the Cloud Forest in Costa Rica with my family one time. I’ve also been to Mexico and snorkeled on reefs and in cenotes in the Yucatan more recently.

I am most excited about seeing unique tropical organisms. I want to see some Christmas tree worms, and maybe some Parrotfish on the reef. In the rainforest, it’d be amazing to see a scarlet macaw, a monkey, or a big cat, but I know that probably won’t happen. And as long as they don’t bite me, I’m exciting to see the snake species we saw during our visit to the Houston Zoo Herpetology exhibit. Finally, I’m exciting to grow close to my fellow Tropical Field Biology Classmates. I can’t believe this course is about to start!

Pre-Trip: The Countdown

I’ve been to Canada twice. Those are the only times I have ever left the United States. Tomorrow, my list will be longer. I will leave the U.S. for Belize.

Belize will provide me with an unique opportunity to learn about new living things in new settings. As a lover of nature, viewing the coral reefs and rainforest Belize offers will be a fulfilling experience. I have never seen coral outside of a fish tank or on a piece of jewelry. Likewise, it has been a long, long time since I have seen a tree taller than 50 feet. I am excited to immerse myself in the unique land- and seascapes and gain perceptive of the natural wonders that lie outside of an American cityscape.

I am most excited to see Belize’s natural colors – the lush green of the rainforest canopy, the crisp blue of the Caribbean sea, and the plethora of new colors I have not yet anticipated.

My concerns? Just the uncertainty. There are a lot of unknowns. However, the uncertainty does not deter me. I am determined to grasp every opportunity, see every site, and learn as much as I can about each living thing I encounter.

I’ve had my passport printed and ordered boots and fins and a snorkel and special adventurer pants. I’ve read hundreds of pages of facts. I have, for the most part, packed. I am ready.

Nature is calling, and I am calling back.

Here’s to Belize!

 

Reflections on the course

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Plants growing in a Mayan temple at Curacao

My first day back was filled with even more travel from Houston to Washington DC. It was crazy to be around so many vehicles and people. Going through the airport seemed way more chaotic than usual, even though it probably wasn’t. Overall, I’m so glad that I got the opportunity to go to Belize with this class. The entire trip was a great experience from the places that we visited to our activities to the people that I got to meet.

Visiting the rainforest and coral reef was different than anything else I have ever done. While I have been in forests and on reefs before, the ecosystems that we visited had a much higher abundance and diversity of species. The ecosystems both have a high amount of 3D topography, which allows for the high diversity. In the rainforest, trees provide structure with their branches, trunks, and roots whereas in the reefs the corals grow to create structure from the sea floor to the surface. The structure creates room for species to fulfill different niches.

Comparing the two ecosystems, trees and corals provide many similar functions. Both have epiphytes and borers that live in their branches. The birds that live in trees are like the fish that live among the coral. I also noticed that turf algae was similar to the undergrowth in the forest that takes advantage of every bit of light and nutrients that it can. Another similarity that I noticed was the striking difference between the diurnal and nocturnal diversity of both ecosystems. When we went out at night, the regions had very different species compositions than during the day. This is another example of the different niches that are available.

One of the differences between the forest and the reef was that the forest seemed to discourage the spread of species because it is rather hard to traverse, whereas marine species are not prevented from migrating by the corals. It seems likely that species are better able to disperse on a reef than in the forest.

Looking back, this course exceeded my expectations in so many ways. I never expected to make so many friends or to have quite as much fun on the trip as I did. Every day was challenging but so rewarding. I don’t think that I have ever appreciated food as much as I did during our stay at Las Cuevas, where every meal was incredible even though the ingredients were so limited. I never could have imagined how beautiful Middle Caye would be. Bearing the sand flies and giant land crabs was more than worth the incredible views and people. This course fed a desire in me to travel and experience other places and biomes that I never knew I had. While it was definitely a form of biology bootcamp, it only strengthened my certainty that I want to do research in ecology.

EBIO 319 students being EBIO 319 students
EBIO 319 students being EBIO 319 students

Probably my least favorite part of the course was our transportation troubles. While hiking in the heat was manageable, sitting in hot buses or waiting for them made the heat feel ten times worse. I think that my favorite part had to be seeing and hearing the macaws in the Chiquibul. The birds are so charismatic and so smart, and I felt honored to be able to see them in the wild.

I learned so much from this course, so it’s difficult to pick out what was most important or surprising. Learning about tapirs’ genitalia is something surprising that I will remember for a very long time, but it probably won’t be important to my future studies. Experiencing the mangroves impressed upon me the importance of conserving habitats because of how they influence other areas. Probably the biggest thing that I am taking away from this course is the realization of how hard conservation is. There are so many factors that go into protecting biodiversity and so many sides to consider that make it impossible to please everyone. I admire the people who we met who have made conservation their focus despite the challenges that come with it.

Belize Adventure Reflections: Wrap-Up

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.

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The coral reef
A glimpse up into the canopy of the Chiquibul Rainforest
A glimpse up into the canopy of the Chiquibul Rainforest

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).

The coral snake we saw during our night hike
The coral snake slinking around during the night hike
An upside-down jellyfish swimming around the mangroves
An upside-down jellyfish swimming around the mangroves

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.

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Final Post

One of the most striking similarities between the rainforest and the coral reef is that both are nutrient-poor environments. This seems strange considering that both are such rich in life and diversity. Contrary to popular belief, just because the soil and water are nutrient poor, doesn’t necessarily mean the environment is. It would be more accurate to say that nutrients are being constantly cycled through the many different kinds of organisms that live in the matrix. Additionally, organisms in these oligotrophic environments tend to be slow growing and have specific adaptations or symbioses that allow for greater and more efficient nutrient uptake. Both the rainforest and coral reef are complex three-dimensional networks that allow for a wide variety of physical and biochemical niches. Producers and consumers exist in a delicate balance that can be easily disrupted, a common problem when these environments are disturbed by human activities and byproducts.

In the reef especially I felt as though these conditions were most easily observable. The clear waters were an obvious indication of the oligotrophic conditions, as was the slow growth rate of coral. There were no bare surfaces and every inch of substrate was covered by coral, macroalgae, or sponge. Fish, urchins, marine worms and crustaceans filled cracks and crevices, and it seemed like every space was accounted for. In the rainforest, plants, vines and epiphytes competed for sunlight and moisture, while spiders, roaches, and ants crawled about the leaf litter. The constant activity of producers, consumers and decomposers was palatable.

This course exceeded my expectations on all accounts. I could not have imagined all of the things we got to see and do on this trip; I felt as though I finally got to really experience the reef and rainforest, as opposed to the snatches and glimpses I have received before. Partially this was due to the fact that we were able to visit places accessible only to researchers, rather than the areas that are usually overrun by tourists. I was also pleasantly surprised by the level of comfort we experienced on this trip. My time in Panama had prepared me for pasta with ketchup and spam, and stinky bucket showers. Instead we had delicious Belizan food, running water, electricity, and clean, comfortable living quarters. Also, having everything planned out for you was a real treat which let us immerse ourselves in our surroundings rather than worrying about logistics. Finally, I felt as though I had a thorough introduction to various field methods and the types of problems one might face when doing research in such an environment.

It would be hard to pick a favorite part of the course, so I’ll try to name a couple. Seeing the big cats at the zoo at night was really incredible because it was something you couldn’t see anywhere else. Sharks and rays are some of my favorite animals so seeing those on the reef made my day more than once. And, however cheesy it may be, the friendships I developed on this trip were really special. As for a least favorite, I don’t have a good answer. Sometimes trying to work on a project in such a big group was challenging and some people got their feathers ruffled while others felt they couldn’t contribute (too many cooks in the kitchen). At the same time, I felt this was a valuable lesson in collaboration and I’m not sure I would change it.

I don’t think I’ll ever forget all I learned about my taxonomic groups and topic lecture. While amphibians and annelids were never something I was interested in before, now they hold a special place in my heart. I also really value the practical knowledge I learned on this trip. Experimental design, problem solving on the spot, working smart, analyzing data in a way that reflects your research question, and my pro snorkeling skills are all things I look forward to utilizing in the future.

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Sophia Streeter (certified TFB)

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