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.