Tag Archives: Belize

Wrap-up…life-changing

The drop

May 30th, 2019

The tropical rainforest and the coral reef are two very biodiverse and seemingly opposite ecosystems; however, I’ve learned that they are quite similar.  One similarity is that both ecosystems are actually nutrient poor, however they are able to support a wide array of organisms through very efficient nutrient cycling. In the rainforest, the nutrient cycling is due to the rapid decomposition of leaf litter. In coral reefs, the nutrient cycling mainly happens in nearby mangroves.

Also, in both the tropical rainforest and coral reefs, there is a wealth of symbiotic relationships that help organisms flourish. For example, we learned about the Pseudomyrmex ants and their relationship with the Bullhorn Acacia. The ants defend the acacia, while the acacia provides shelter, carbohydrates, and protein. While in coral the skeleton provides shelter for Symbodinium, while the algae provide food for the coral.

Quite honestly, I don’t remember what my expectations were for the course as the start of it seems so long ago. From what I can remember, I took this course as an indicator to see if I would like doing reef fieldwork and to see if that’s what I would like to do post-graduation, which I can say I want to. What I didn’t consider was how much I would love doing fieldwork in the Chiquibul. I think my favorite part of the course was diving the fore reef. Being able to swim over and stare into the drop-off was just a surreal experience. I also loved the night hike and the night snorkel; the familiar trails and reefs looked very different in the dark and it was a chance to see a lot of predators out and about. I don’t really think I have a least favorite part of the course, except for running through the Mangroves of Death and getting over 50+ bug bites.

One thing that I learned that still haunts me almost is the fragility of both ecosystems and their vulnerability. Both the tropical rainforest and coral reefs rely on a careful balance, such as the balance of coral and macroalgae, and if that balance is interrupted both ecosystems can collapse. I also did not expect how difficult it would be to perform fieldwork underwater. Despite having to deal with wind, current, and the ever-present fire coral, the hardest part was communication. Yet despite the difficulties, I loved the reef fieldwork. Last but certainly not least, I learned that every day things that I take for granted are commodities not necessities. I ended up missing things like a well paved road or warm shower, things that I had never missed before.

Rainforest Mammals seen in the wild

Alouatta caraya

Ateles geoffroyi

Chiroptera

Dasyprocta leporine (possibly)

Didelphis virginiana

Taprius bairdii (camera trap)

Puma concolor (possibly on camera trap)

 

Herbivorous reef fish

 

Acanthurus bahianus

Acanthurus coeruleus

Aacnthurus chirurgus

Stegastes planifrons

Abudefduf saxatilis

Stegastus fuscus

Stegastus partitus

Sparisoma viride

Stegastes leocostictus

Pre-departure blog

 

All of my snorkeling gear and the giant rubber boots

After the slog of finals its finally time to head on a two week trip to Belize to the Las Cuevas research station and Glover’s reef. I really hope to see first hand what research in these environments is like, as I’m very interested in eventually pursuing a career in Marine Biology. Furthermore, I’m really interested to see if I can identify rainforest animals with limited resources. I’d also like to learn how to quickly identify an animal in the field using the i.d cards, which I’ve never had to do because I’ve always had access to a database.

I’ve prepared by reading more about the biodiversity of the rainforest as well as trying to identify certain species of birds that I see in my backyard (most of which are house sparrows and robins).

The one thing that I’m nervous about is caving. I’ve never actually been in a cave before so I’m not sure how I’ll react to the confined space or seeing cave crickets. I’ve had some experience in the tropics, mainly snorkeling in the Cayman Islands which are very close to Belize.

 

Post-Belize Reflection

Wow! What an amazing experience! Our class of 11 was constantly at work hiking, setting up pit fall traps, collecting data with transects, snorkeling, collecting data with quadrads, interpreting data, putting together poster presentations among other activities. In total, we accomplished 6 research projects with poster presentations for each of them. For each research project, we learned something new and interesting about the unique environment that we were living in for half a month. The experience involved a lot of hard work both physically and mentally, but it rewarded me with knowledge, fun, friends, and a lasting appreciation for the beauty of this world. It is nice to be home, where there’s air conditioning, WiFi, warm showers, less mosquitoes, no sandflies, but I will be thinking about Belize and my experience there for a long time to come. Thank you Dr. Solomon, Dr. Shore, Las Cuevas Research Station, and Glover’s Reef Research Station—for this one-of-a-kind opportunity!

Lepidoptera:

  • Eurytides marcellus, Zebra Swallowtail
  • Morpho peleides, Blue Morpho
  • Ascalapha odorata, Black Witch Moth
  • Sphingidae genus, Sphinx Moth
  • Heliconius hecale, Tiger Longwing
  • Eacles imperialis, Imperial Moth
  • Papilio polyxenes, Black Swallowtail

Piscivorous Fish

  • Ocyurus chrysurus, Yellowtail Snapper
  • Pterois volitans, Red Lionfish
  • Sphyraena genusBarracuda
  • Halichoeres bivittatus, Slippery Dick Wrasse
  • Hemiramphus brasiliensis, Ballyhoo
  • Ginglymostoma cirratum, Nurse Shark

Above is a list of the different species I saw from my taxons while on the trip. Below is a picture of a different species that I see at home. Glad to be reunited with my house cat (Felis catus) pictured below in his natural habitat!

Pre-Departure Blog: Any Fin is Possible If You Just Belize

T minus 12 hours until I’m on a plane to Belize! Will this trip be the academic experience of a lifetime? Will this trip re-define my perspective of the world? Will my poor sight hinder my ability to distinguish between a snake and a branch leading to a rather tragic and short-lived trip for me? All this remains to be answered in the upcoming weeks.
It’s May 13th. My stuff: packed. My assignments: turned in. I am: excited. Now that I’ve established myself as ‘that one kid who feels an obligation to title ever blog post with a horrible pun’, I have to say: I am beyond excited to meet everybody, bond, learn, and experience the wonders of Belize. I hope to come away with valuable field work experience and skills that I can bring back with me to Vanderbilt labs (plus 10 new friends)!
While the obvious anxieties for a newbie to the tropics arise (heat, diarrhea, getting lost), it is my habit as an overachiever to worry more about my grades. Fingers crossed, the readings will sufficiently prepare me for conducting quality research. As an off-campus class member, I know that my preparation process has been slightly different from the rest of the class body. Communication has been a  source of annoyance, but those woes are soon to be gone once I am integrated into the class. I packed my gear and living supplies into two bags and flew down from the 901 to Houston yesterday, where I have been crashing on my cousin’s couch and eagerly awaiting Belize (picture of me experiencing Houston attached below). Here’s to an awesome experience! See y’all soon!

-Elizabeth Dang

Pre-Trip Thoughts: I can’t Belize it’s happening!

We are hours away from going to Belize and I am beyond excited. Prior to the trip, each of us had to sign up for two taxonomic groups and a topic to present on during the trip itself. In preparation, I have been reading research, articles, and books on ants, sponges, and how competition, predation, and environment shape coral reefs. Though we are preparing to become “experts” in those disciplines, I am definitely still nervous about articulating and conveying information to the class. I expect that I will most certainly struggle with naming ant and sponge species, but I think that’s exactly the value of this trip- to practice, to fail, and to sometimes succeed! 

I think this trip will definitely offer insight being a tropical field biologist and conducting field research. I am very grateful to have the opportunity to be able on the trip and experience the things I read about with my own eyes. I am very excited to be immersed in the environment for two weeks and engage with the class. 

One aspect of the trip I am particularly excited about is actually writing blogs! I have never had an opportunity to communicate science through blogs and having that on display for the world. Growing up in Taiwan, a small tropical island, I never would have imagined going to Belize and writing about my experiences, and, in all honesty, I don’t know what to expect! All I know is, if you’r reading this, I hope you stick around because I have a great feeling about this trip. 

 

fig. 1: doing some last minute shopping at Academy because I forgot field pants!

Brendan Wong

Houston,TX

5/13/2019

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!