Well, we made it! We’re officially in Belize! Today was mostly traveling, but we made it to the Ecolodge where we’ll spend the night. We’ve only been here for a couple of hours, yet we have already spotted some interesting species. These include the agouti, the leafcutter ant, and (drum roll please) a blue-crowned motmot! Scott pointed out the motmot to me soon after we arrived at the Ecolodge.
In addition to the motmot, we also spotted numerous vultures hanging out by a local prison while on our drive and I saw some kind of hawk soon after we departed from the airport. We also spotted two tinamous while we were cooling off in a river near the ecolodge (P.S. they’re not chickens). Also, it seems that Dr. Shore is an expert in all things water seeing as she schooled all of us when it came to using the rope swing next to the river.
Tomorrow we leave for Las Cuevas, the research station where we will spend the majority of our time in the jungle. I’m excited to finally visit the Chiquibul Forest, the place we’ve been hearing and learning so much about. Hopefully, we’ll all get to see some pretty interesting species (maybe even a Scarlet Macaw… or a Jaguar).
Tonight is the last night we’ll get to enjoy anything reminiscent of civilization for quite some time. This time tomorrow we will be deep within the rainforest, and I can’t wait. We have an early morning and a long day, but i’m sure we’ll see and learn a lot.
It feels like yesterday that I was sitting in on the information session covering what prospective students could expect from EBIO 319. I remember thinking, “This seems like a really interesting class, but there is no way I am going to end up going” – little did I know. We leave for Belize early tomorrow morning and it doesn’t feel real!
The reality of the trip will likely set in when we all arrive at Valhalla and set off to the airport. At that point, there will be no going back, which is slightly unnerving but incredibly exciting. I have never been to Belize, or anywhere in Central America in fact, except for a brief stop in Mexico, so I am excited to get to travel somewhere new while at the same time learning and experiencing all that I can. I hope to learn as much as I can about what conducting field research is all about as well the fauna of Belize.
I can’t wait to discover all that both Las Cuevas and Glover’s Reef have to offer, and I can’t wait to get to point out species from my chosen taxon! What I am most uneasy about is the fact that I’ve never lived in research stations for two weeks in a foreign country; however, I feel that through our readings and by gaining a deeper understanding of Belize, both about its history and its fauna, everything will turn out great.
I think that I am most excited for the Reef aspect of our trip, as ocean life is something I am particularly interested in and I have always loved the ocean. I can’t wait to get into the water! Overall, I am incredibly excited about our trip and all the adventures that lie ahead. In less than 24 hours I’ll be in Belize and I can’t believe it!
Now I’m back home, enjoying air-conditioning and incredibly fast image upload speeds to the blog, but missing the beauty of the tropics. A sea of identical suburban rooftops just doesn’t compare to the actual sea.
The rainforest and the reef are two extremely diverse ecosystems despite their low nutrient availability (like I talked about for my lecture on rainforest soils). Because nutrients are hard to come by, organisms are able to fill many different small niches where nutrients are more available. In addition, neither of these ecosystems are low energy. Their proximity to the equator means they have lots of solar energy pumping in all year long. That light is converted into more accessible energy by plants in both ecosystems. One striking similarity that I noticed in both of these ecosystems is that, despite their extreme diversity, seeing moving animals is surprisingly difficult. As you walk through the rainforest, you see very few mammals or reptiles or birds, a good number of insects, but still surprisingly few. The same was true for the reef, the fish and crustaceans and echinoderms blend in so well you often can’t see them.
Overall, this course was everything I expected and more. I came in with a vague expectation to do a little research and learn about the environments we would be surrounded by. I didn’t expect to be designing, implementing, and presenting experiments all in the same day. I also hadn’t even thought to expect how much fun this trip was. My favorite part of the course was definitely hiking through the rainforest and finding insects I knew a surprising amount about despite having never seen them before. I hadn’t realized that because I knew a good bit about one insect species I study at school I could extend that knowledge to related insects I’d never even heard of. (Hemipterans are dope!) My least favorite part of the course was swimming through the reefs. The reefs were absolutely amazing to look at, but I was always afraid of damaging everything around me. The coral reefs are famous for being in danger and as we snorkeled through them I often felt like touching anything might destroy everything. Sometimes swimming through the reefs I worried that we were doing more harm than good. The fish and the corals were beautiful and I don’t want to do anything to hurt them.
The three most important things I learned in this course were how specific knowledge can become general knowledge, how little we actually know about both of these ecosystems, and how important these ecosystems are and how closely linked they are to the entire world. I’ve already talked about the first one a little bit but finding two true bugs nobody recognized and being able to identify that they were nymphs and recognize their body plan was crazy. I could look at these two bugs and I knew what body parts to measure to quantify their size because I’d measured something similar many times before. It was really cool to see the effects of common ancestry implemented. The second thing I realized as we were all trying to identify our species. In the rainforest with birds, pretty much everything was identified, but many of the insects had little to no information available. Most of the taxon id cards featured genera at best and the books we had on tropical insects focused almost exclusively on butterflies, despite the broad diversity of everything else. In the coral reefs, I struggled to find information online about shrimp and crabs and was unable to identify plenty of organisms because they were small or because I didn’t have the right books or because they simply weren’t really described anywhere. Because these two ecosystems have so much diversity and because many of these organisms are so well hidden, information is often inaccessible unless you are an expert in a very specific field, if the information exists at all. The last of the three big things I learned is how both of these ecosystems are closely linked to everywhere else. From the reading before the course, we learned that the xatè palm is harvested from the Chiquibul forest to be used in flower arrangements. From the experiment we did with trash and from Andressa’s presentation, we learned that trash from all over the world can get moved by the wind and water and wind up in the ocean. While we are often unintentionally doing these (and many other) harmful things to the tropics, the tropics are doing surprisingly important things for us. The rainforest is an important CO2 processor and a source of many medicines. The coral reefs act as nurseries for fish that spend their adult lives all across the oceans. Without either of these ecosystems, humans would be worse off and the world would be less beautiful.
Now that I’m home, I get to reminisce about the great experience I just had and implement my new found knowledge and understanding.
We got up early this morning to leave Las Cuevas. It was really cool to hear the earlier birds since we were up earlier than we had been for birding. We drove out of Las Cuevas around 6:30 to head to ATM cave. Along the drive, we saw some cormorants on a river we crossed, last birds for my taxon on the trip! ATM is the shortened Mayan name for the cave, Actun Tunichil Muchnal It’s this super amazing cave that has a lot of Mayan artifacts and preserved skeletons.
You can’t bring cameras in, so I have an excuse for not having pictures. It was really cool to do ATM because I did it last year with my family. I was going through the cave with everyone else and I was definitely less surprised as we went along, but I still really enjoyed the adventure. It’s lots of fun to climb across rocks in the dark in cold mountain water and see dead people apparently.
After ATM, we drove to the tropical education center where we stayed the night and also took warm showers which were amazing. I definitely missed having hot water to wash with. Also, we have internet here. It was simultaneously nice and annoying to be able to access the internet again, it’s definitely been nice to be completely unplugged, especially because we’ve been busy enough not to feel bored without it.
The last thing we did today was a night tour of the Belize Zoo. This zoo is unlike any American zoo. You can touch and feed a lot of the animals and generally get way closer to them. I got to feed a tapir which was awesome. I love their big awkward trunk noses. We also saw a spectacled owl and a ferruginous owl. The ferruginous owl was so tiny, maybe only a hand length long, which I didn’t realize despite their being on my taxon sheet.
Tomorrow we’re heading to Glover’s Reef early again. Time for team surf and the infinite struggle to avoid sunburn.
We didn’t go bird watching this morning so I didn’t see very many birds in the morning. Instead, we got up early and hiked to the bird tower. The climb was tough but definitely worth. When we climbed the tower, we could see the clouds rolling across the mountains and the sun shining across the forest. There were no man-made structures beyond our research station in any direction which was a really crazy thing to realize.
We spent the rest of the morning collecting camera traps. The hike was long, but not nearly as long as it felt the first day. Along the way I kept smelling Hemipterans, I definitely learned their weird licorice-cyanide scent from the bugs I found before. We were able to collect them all by lunch. In the afternoon we caught up on our journals and blogs. I noticed a plumbeous kite building a nest up in the main tree which was interesting. It kept returning to this one Y in the branches with dead sticks.
I also watched the nest in the satellite some more. I thought that the sulfur breasted flycatcher was coming to the nest without food and sticking its head in with no response to the babies. I was skeptical of what was going on, so I walked around the satellite to the side you could see into, not the one where the birds were entering, and couldn’t see any of the hatchlings. I assumed the sulfur breasted flycatcher had eaten them, although that seemed strange based on its name. But then I was watching the nest some more and, contrary to what I previously thought, the sulfur breasted flycatcher brought something and then the babies started squawking. This was shortly followed by the slaty ant wren bringing something and the babies squawking. It now seems clear that both these species are feeding the antwren babies, but I’m still very confused. On the bright side, the hatchlings aren’t dead.
In the afternoon, Scott took us out to see fungus chambers of leaf-cutter ant nests. We started with a one-year-old nest and with a bit of work digging found a small ball of fungus and the queen. I was surprised to realize that the fungus chambers are three dimensional, which makes sense, I just wasn’t expecting it. I was amazed to see how large the queen was. She was huge and it was impossible to imagine that she could live for 25 years with her colony just producing eggs. We followed the one-year-old nest with the ginormous 20ish-year-old nest that we found while placing our camera traps. We dug for a long time, but the ants barely seemed to respond. We eventually hit some chambers, but they weren’t fungus chambers. They were trash chambers filled with beetle larvae and dead fungus. It was really strange and surprisingly warm and Scott was amazed that it was so high up. Normally trash chambers are deeper beneath the colony.
We finished our last evening here at Las Cuevas looking at our camera trap photos. With the very first camera we opened we found a tapir, which we all screamed and gasped at.
But the picture that took the cake was the next one, a jaguar.
We were so startled to see the perfect side picture of a jaguar walking down the trail right next to our camera trap. We also wound up catching a bunch of peccaries, a puma, a second Jaguar, a nine-banded armadillo, a rice mouse, and a coatimundi. We also caught a few Great Currasows (my taxon!).
The species variety and picture quality were crazy. We were surprised to notice the same richness at both our on and off trail camera traps, but a much higher abundance at our on trail traps. My theory is that trails feature animals that are easier to catch on camera traps. As a result, I think we caught most of the species generally found on the trails, however, I think we caught very few of the species living off trail. I think if we left the traps out longer we would wind up with a higher abundance on trail but a higher diversity off trail because the animals that choose to use the trail are mostly the large mammals of which there aren’t many species. We’ll never really know the answer though because tomorrow mornings (5AM) we get up and leave for Glovers Reef! Goodbye turf, hello surf.
This morning I went bird watching again. We saw a lot of the same birds we’ve been seeing all week: Montezuma oropendolas, a plumbeous kite, scarlet macaws, a ton of turkey vultures, and a few social flycatchers.
After bird watching, we found out that Adrienne was leaving for medical reasons. I’m super glad she’s going to get checked out by a doctor and being safe, but I’m also sad she won’t be with us at the reef.
We collected our urine samples in the morning and then started sorting all the bugs we found into morphospecies (sorting them into ones that look like the same species without actually identifying the species). We found way more species on the forest floor than in the canopy and way more species in the nitrogen (urine) than in the water, which wasn’t surprising but it was still really cool to see the science come out the way we expected. We also came across this really cool hemipteran that looked sorta like a hammerhead. It has big black spots on its back that look like fake eyes, but its eyes are really much smaller near its antennae.
During the afternoon it absolutely poured. I ran out into the rain and got completely soaked because, as I’ve said every time it’s rained a little so far, “you gotta get rained on in the rainforest.” I proceeded to get completely soaked. Sammi and I did pose like Titanic. However, contrary to our faces, it was super cool.
Afterward, termites were everywhere because the first big rain is commonly used as a signal for nuptial flights for termites and ants.
This evening I was watching this bird that has a nest inside the satellite dish base. It’s a slaty ant-wren, really small and plain brown. It comes to the nest with food pretty regularly and its babies stick their heads out to grab food. But there’s also this other bird that comes and hangs out around the nest and it’s SO CONFUSING. I can’t figure out what it’s doing, I did figure out that it’s a sulfur-breasted flycatcher though.
(I apparently don’t take pictures of birds. -This is Claire in retrospect trying to post now that we actually have internet.) Here’s a picture of what the slaty antwren and the sulfur-breasted flycatcher looked like from the internet.
This morning at bird watching we saw a lot of the same birds we’ve been seeing all week. We also finally saw a keel-billed which was beautiful. We saw one chachalaca and heard three in total. They kept calling loudly over and over again and we could hear them all across the Las Cuevas clearing. I also finally got a great picture of one of the scarlet macaws.
We designed an experiment to look into the effects of hurricane-caused tree falls on the diversity of plants in the understory. When we went out to the tree fall gap though, we found that the gap was too thick to do our original plan. We wound up testing the richness (number of species) of the undergrowth near the trail in the gap and in the normal forest. We didn’t find any difference between the richness of the two areas which was surprising because of the clearly observable difference in density of the plants in the two areas. Along the path, we did come across a really cool crowned iguana just chilling on a tree.
We went on a night hike last night. We didn’t go very far, but we saw lots of cool stuff. There were some turtles in a pond, tons of cool spiders and katydids and crickets. We also found a gecko and an anole which were both pretty cool. I kept looking in the trees to maybe see some mammals or birds but there were none. It seems that the only time to see my taxon is in the morning.
(These are the pictures I took on the night hike.)
This morning I got up early to bird again and saw a lot of similar birds to the day before. The scarlet macaws are still gorgeous and the Montezuma oropendola call is still really cool. We heard a few toucans but couldn’t see them.
This morning we had to pee into falcon tubes for an experiment. The first time I overfilled it, but then I poured too much out which was pretty tragic. I had to chug a liter and a half of water so that I could fill up the rest of the tube (chug team practice actually comes in handy?!). We placed the tubes along some of the trails along with water tubes to compare how many bugs we catch in a nitrogen-rich environment in the canopy and on the forest floor. Along the way, we saw a coral snake which was really cool and thankfully just slithered away from all of us.
This afternoon we went into the Las Cuevas cave. On the way in we saw a bunch of cave swallows. In the cave, we saw a few different bats and lots of tiny arthropods around the cave. A lot of the arthropods were white as you’d expect in a cave with no light. There were also a few smashed pots and other Mayan artifacts. The mix of biology and archaeology and geology found in these caves is really cool.
After caving, I sat and watched the birds. We saw a big king vulture as well as a bunch of turkey vultures. The social flycatchers were sitting on a rope and flying out to catch bugs and then returning to the branch which is a really cool behavior I read about before coming. Apparently, I didn’t care to actually take a picture of them though.
Veronica, Ceyda, and I walked back to where we found the colorful bugs to return them this evening. The bugs I work with are host specific, so it doesn’t seem impossible that these ones could be too. Sadly I can’t keep them in a jar forever and I definitely can’t take them out of Belize, so instead, we took them home. We did see an amazing sunset which was, as usual here, surprisingly early (6:30).
We started the day early with birding and we saw so many birds. There were plumbeous kites, social flycatchers, Montezuma oropendolas, melodious blackbirds, and Red-lored parrots. This is a picture of the tree most of the birds chill in, or at least the one closest to the station.
We went out hiking before and after lunch to set up camera traps. We put half of them on trails and half of them off trail which was difficult, but also pretty fun. I spent a lot of the hike whistling at the birds. I had a great time imitating the calls often rather poorly and hearing them seem to whistle back even though they were just repeating their call regardless of me. It was amazing to see how quickly the forest became super difficult to get through. Along the way, we saw a bunch of these small red bugs that looked like the bugs I work with in my lab red-shouldered soapberry bugs). They were very small and bright red, but we had no clue what they were because we don’t have any books or someone in charge of knowing stuff about true bugs (Hemipterans – an order of insects).
At one of the camera traps, we saw this huge leaf cutter ant colony. It was maybe 20 feet long. We were busy gawking at it when all of the sudden we realized there was a giant boa constrictor behind us. We stood watching it for a while, it was definitely very uncomfortable.
At the last camera trap before lunch, we found these two big bugs on a leaf. They seem to be true bugs (like what I study in my lab at school) but they were way bigger than any bug I’d seen and super brightly colored. I asked everyone who works here if they knew what it was and they all said no which makes me very excited about how rare they are. Sadly the only insect book we have doesn’t even include the order these bugs are in and without internet, I have no way of finding out more about them. For the time being, I’ll just have to settle for measurements and pictures with Sam’s really nice camera. (I have been unofficially anointed as the Hemipteran taxon expert.)
Tonight we had a lecture from Raphael Montenaro, the head of FCD, the NGO that runs Las Cuevas. He talked to us a bunch about how they protect and monitor the forest. It was crazy how much work his group was doing that normally would be expected of the government. I also gave my lecture on tropical soils tonight which I felt better about than expected.
We got up around 5 this morning to get headed towards Las Cuevas. I was reminded at breakfast that fryjacks (a sort of fried dough thing) are a-mazing. We left Crystal Paradise Ecolodge soon after breakfast to head to Rio-On Pool and then Caracal.
The Rio-On Pools are a series of small pools connected by small waterfalls and rapids. They were beautiful. We easily spent an hour swimming around in the various pools and slipping down the rocks with the water like a slide. It was gorgeous and picturesque and reminded me of that one episode about the chakras from Avatar the Last Airbender.
From there, we headed to Caracal to see some Mayan ruins. We walked through the rainforest to find ourselves in front of the tallest building in Belize, an old Mayan temple. Climbing up the steps was difficult, they were sooo tall! Coming down was a bit scary, but the view was unbelievable. We could see layers of rolling hills and mountains, far more exciting than the endless flatness back home.
Surrounded by the gorgeous Mayan ruins we saw a ton of birds. There was an entire tree full of Montezuma oropendola nests. Their call was so cool, like a mix of musical scales and water falling onto metal. Their nests were also super cool. They weave their nests out of various fibers and wind up with this mesh sack that hangs from the tree they live in
A ton will nest in the same tree so it’s almost decorated like a Christmas tree with these brown woven nest-bags. There was also a swallowtail kite circling above us, it was especially apparent because of its scissor-shaped tail.
When we got to the research station, we saw so many more birds. There were social flycatchers, black vultures, and turkey vultures flying around. We also saw a few scarlet macaws. We went on a hike when we got here and could hear a ton of birds, but couldn’t see them through all the trees.
We found out that we wouldn’t have any internet while here, so as you may have noticed, these blogs aren’t going up on time. But family and friends (mom) I promise you I’m doing just fine.