Tag Archives: Belize

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

RSCN1191
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.

DSCN1348
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.

DSCN1956

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.

DSCN2890 (2)

Sophia Streeter (certified TFB)

6/1

Day 15: Mangroves and leaving Belize

This morning we packed up our things and very sadly left Glovers Reef. Watching the paradisiacal island grow smaller in the distance, the only thing that lifted my spirits me was the realization that soon all of my bug bites will grow smaller as well. On our way back to Belize City, we first stopped on Carrie Bow Cay, an island of about 1.5 acres that is home to a Smithsonian research station. Our tour of the facilities had everyone wishing that they could do research or be a volunteer station manager there in the future. It was also sobering, though, because the current station managers mentioned that the island has lost considerable land due to rising sea level. The island also lost its population of mangroves, which increases the rate of erosion. On top of normal rates, hurricanes are particularly destructive because of the high wind and wave action that they entail. On the current trajectory, Carrie Bow Cay may disappear before we are able to go back. Seeing the island put climate change into perspective for me. Rising sea levels are something we hear about, but it’s difficult to imagine an entire island ceasing to exist until you have seen it in action.

Our next stop was Twin Caye to visit mangroves and view the diversity that they hold. Mangroves are an important habitat for young fish because of the protection that they provide. As mentioned above, they also prevent erosion and even create land. In one area we were able to walk between mangrove trees in the soil that they had created. It smelled pretty bad and there were a fair number of sinkholes, but it was cool to see how productive the trees are.

Making our way through mangroves
Making our way through mangroves

Afterward, we put on our dive skins, masks, and fins one last time to snorkel next to the roots of the mangrove. The sandy bottom was home to hundreds of upside down jellyfish which sit on the sea floor with their bell to the ground and their tentacles raised to the surface. When the water around them is disrupted they start to float around, so we had to be careful not to disturb the water around them. We also saw a number of sea stars that were at least a foot in diameter. I don’t think I had ever seen live sea stars that were that big. Additionally, the sea floor was home to Caulerpa sertularioides, a species that has very feather-like branches and prefers to live in sandy areas and near mangroves. I hadn’t seen the species yet, so I’m glad we got a chance to visit the mangroves.

It was also amazing to witness how much life the mangroves supported. All of the roots were covered in species of algae and sponges that provided even more habitat for fish and other animals that flitted between the roots and lived in the sheaths of biotic material around the roots.

Diversity among the roots of the mangrove (Photo creds: Scott)
Diversity among the roots of the mangrove (Photo creds: Scott)

When we were done with the mangroves we packed up all of our dirty and wet clothes and made our way back to Belize City. Getting through the tiny airport was relatively easy. It’s weird being back in the U.S. with so many people and so much activity everywhere. It will be strange not eating rice, beans, and chicken for almost every lunch and dinner.

Back to reality

Even on our way to the airport we managed to squeeze in one last snorkel. This time we went to the mangroves and swam around their roots, which many organisms use as a substrate to grow on. Fish also use mangroves as a nursery where they are fairly sheltered from larger predators. Upside-down jellies bobbed along the bottom of the sea bed and fire sponge glowed orange through the murky water.

I finally saw the magnificent feather duster, recognizable by its larger size and double crown of radioles. Their tubes were attached to the mangrove roots, among the encrusting algae, sponges and hydroids. They were various shades of brown and white and tucked their filter-feeding radioles into their tubes if you touched them. Unlike the other feather dusters I’ve seen, they didn’t tuck their radioles in all the way, and the tips of the crown poked out of the tube. I am guessing this is because they are too big to fit all the way in.

Time has never passed so quickly as it did on this trip. We were so busy and there was so much to do and see that the two weeks were over before I knew it. I was never bored for a second. Being back in Houston is so strange and claustrophobic. I already miss the fresh air and pristine nature. I’d take that over clean laundry any day!

DSCN2108 (1)

Sophia Streeter

5/31

Day 14: Revisiting back reef and lionfish

This morning we spent an hour on the back reef on the northeast side of Middle Caye. We had visited the area on May 28th, but this time we went to collect all of the biodiversity of the zone that we could. Most of what we were able to collect was algae because it is usually stationary and safe to touch. We also collected some mollusks and crustaceans. A lot of the hermit crabs that we found in the water were occupying old conch shells, which shows how large they were. It was interesting to compare how the live conchs and hermit crabs in conch shells looked when they were retracted. Our jellyfish expert, Sam, found dead box jellyfish floating near the shoreline and collected them even though their tentacles are very dangerous to touch.

We collected a lot of the species of algae that I had already seen last time we visited the back reef, but it was good to consolidate the data. Overall we collected samples of Halimeda incrassata, H. opuntia, Dictyosphaeria cavernosa, Penicillus capitatus, Rhipocephalus phoenix, Udotea conglutinata, U. flabellum, Caulerpa cuppressoides, C. racemosa, and possibly Chaetomorpha linum. It was difficult to tell the difference between the Penicillus species because some seemed to have a slightly flat top or a slightly bigger top than the descriptions of P. capitatus that I was able to find in the literature. I am not sure that the filamentous algae that we collected were C. linum. They seemed similar to the description, but I couldn’t completely rule out other species.

Halimeda spp.
Halimeda spp.
DSCN1429
Dictyosphaeria cavernosa
DSCN1431
First five: Penicillus spp.; last two: Rhipocephalus phoenix
DSCN1428
Caulerpa cuppressoides (top) and C. racemosa (bottom)

In the afternoon we dissected lionfish to record their dimensions and what they were eating. We had caught 4 lionfish, and the individual that my group dissected had puncture wounds in its face from the spear. The most difficult part of the dissection was attempting to sex the fish. Ultimately my group was not able to determine where the gonads were, so we couldn’t tell whether it was a female or a male. We opened up the lionfish’s stomach and found a much smaller fish that was barely digested. The lionfish was 19cm from mouth to the tip of the tail, and the ingested fish was 2cm long. Lionfish stomachs can expand to 30 times their empty size, which made the stomach of our individual comparatively empty.

Dissecting the lionfish
Adrienne cutting the poisonous fins off of a lionfish

By this time tomorrow we will all be back in the United States. Tomorrow promises to be a crazy day, and I’m looking forward to end the trip with the same spirit that we have had throughout our time here.

Beach cleanup and backreef

Beach cleanup was on this morning’s agenda, and, being Rice students, we also weighed and separated all the types of marine debris and analyzed the results. The amount of garbage on the shore was astounding; we filled 6 garbage bags in an hour, and this is on a beach that is in a protected area and cleaned weekly. We only made a dent in the amount of debris accumulated on the island’s shores. I guess the take-home message to anyone reading this would be to limit your use of plastics as much as possible, stop using styrofoam, and be very careful about where your waste ends up (even properly disposed of trash often ends up in the ocean).

We went out to the backreef again today to document some coral colonies. I saw some more split crown feather dusters, spaghetti worms, a christmas tree worm, a teeny tiny star horseshoe worm, and finally a free-moving worm (as opposed to the others, which are tube dwelling). The fireworm is a marine worm that belongs to the same class as the feather dusters and fan worms but looks more like a caterpillar. It is red with white tufts, and, true to its name, will sting you if you touch it.

DSCN2878

Sophia Streeter

5/29

Day 12: Fore reef, back reef

DSCN1293
Fore reef diversity with Orbicella annularis

To start off this morning we ventured outside of the atoll’s lagoon to the fore reef. The fore reef is the outer edge of the reef and has the highest diversity of any reef zone. However, the fore reef also has the highest wave energy and is much deeper than the lagoon or back reef. The boat ride to the drop zones was pretty choppy, which was a bit of a challenge for some people, but most people were able to enjoy the reef once they got off the boat, and we didn’t have any vomiting.

I found it harder to see details on the fore reef because it was deeper and I couldn’t dive far enough down, but I was still able to see interesting aspects of the fore reef. There were bigger fish than in the lagoon, and I believe that the diversity of fish species may have been greater as well. The coral on the fore reef was also amazing because it had more space to grow, so the colonies were much larger. We even saw some Acropora palmata colonies, which is a species of coral that used to be a dominant reef builder but recently saw enough colony death to make it endangered. I also enjoyed seeing Acropora cervicornis because it has distinct white tips with an apical polyp that is much larger than the rest of the coral’s polyps. I learned about A. cervicornis in a class that I took last semester, so it was cool to be able to see it in person.

While we were on the fore reef we also saw a huge ray swimming across a sandy area and a nurse shark that followed our group for a while as we snorkeled alongside the reef crest.

The huge ray we saw
A huge ray swimming along the ocean floor (Photo creds: Anna)

In the afternoon we were able to go out on the back reef by Middle Caye. The water was around three feet deep, making it difficult to navigate, but we were able to get closer to the sea floor than we had been able to before. This was especially beneficial for viewing green algae, as they flourish in areas with high sun and sand. I saw a number of species of Udotea, Caulerpa, and Penicillus all in close proximity. These three species were all found on the sea floor in sandy areas or on dead corals that had accumulated a large amount of sediments. Some species of Halimeda were also found in sandy areas on the sea floor, but some were growing in crevices found on corals. The Halimeda on the floor were taller and had smaller segments, whereas the species on corals were more clumped and had larger segments

DSCN1372
Caulerpa and Penicillus on back reef

The back reef had the first lionfish that we were able to spear. While on Middle Caye, we aren’t permitted to eat any fish that we catch other than lionfish, because they are invasive. Tomorrow we will be taking measurements of the four lionfish that we caught and then we’ve been promised lionfish ceviche, which sounds delicious!