Tag Archives: ca-caw

Until Next Time, Belize

Scrolling through pictures of both corals reefs and the tropical rainforest, it’s clear that both are incredibly lush environments that host diverse sets of organisms. But through this course, I’ve realized that there are more subtle similarities between the two. In the Chiquibul, we studied how the tropical soils are somehow able to sustain a diverse ecosystem while being incredibly poor in nutrients. These soils are paralleled by the oligotrophic, or nutrient-poor, waters of Glover’s Reef; both inexplicably provide a home for thousands of organisms while seemingly offering no sustenance. However, both of these habitats are characterized by rapid nutrient turnover. For every fish or insect we see, there are millions of others living organisms like microbes that exist outside of human view. The key to both of these habitats’ success seems to be this system of efficient nutrient cycling, which leaves the area nutrient-poor but the animals themselves nutrient-rich.


Perhaps even more importantly, these two ecosystems are tied together by their impending destruction. Both Glover’s Reef and the Chiquibul are faced with problems of illegal extraction and habitat loss for a number of organisms. The biology of deforestation and coral bleaching may act in different ways but the cause is the same: humans. Conservation issues plague ecologists in both areas, as they attempt to battle the overexploitation of natural resources. Poaching and overfishing are one in the same in that they sustain a desperate human population with no other livelihood, while depleting these environments of their incredible diversity.


With that said, I did notice that human intervention in the rainforest seemed much less obvious. Since Las Cuevas was so removed from civilization, the biggest indicators of human presence were camera traps and the occasional logging truck. On the reef, however, we saw a huge amount of marine debris, acting like a red flag for mass consumerism. It’s harder to see our effects on the rainforest in a short amount of time, but the 90 lbs. of Styrofoam and bottle caps serve as a pretty blatant reminder of what we’re doing to the natural world.


Overall, this course has completely surpassed all of my expectations (entirely thanks to Scott and Adrienne and all of their hard work). Ihoped to come out with a better understanding of fieldwork, but I didn’t expect to learn nearly as much as I did about conservation or how to deal with unreliable transportation. My favorite part was probably going through our camera trap photos. After 26 miles of hiking and anticipation, the payoff of that single ocelot picture was fantastic. It really made me appreciate how hard field researchers have to work. And even now that I’m back with air conditioning and wifi, I can’t say that I had a least favorite part of this course (not even the sand flies). With every van we missed and blister we added, I think we learned to be better TFBs, and that’s not an experience I could’ve gotten anywhere else.


In five years, I may have to consult my field notebooks to brush up on specifics, but I’ll definitely remember these three things:

1. Make bold choices, and live by the motto “Screw it, let’s do it!”

2. Field work takes patience and a whole lot of sweat, but it’s worthwhile in the end.

3. Never underestimate the power of a good pair of rubber boots.


I realize that I’m writing my final blog post in the very same seat I occupied two weeks ago to hurriedly write my pre-departure post. It’s incredible how much has changed since the last time I sat here; I’m a little bit tanner and covered in a whole lot more bug bites, but more importantly, I’ve returned with a whole new appreciation for the natural ecosystems I visited. Conservation is a multi-faceted and complex process with no easy solution, but with every bit we learn about the diverse habitats of the tropics, our understanding increases.


In the words of a true Belizean, “You’ve got to see it to Belize it.”DSCN4432

And that’s a wrap

This trip was one of the most amazing experiences of my life. Not only did I learn a ton, but I also discovered how fun and rewarding field biology can be.

In visiting both the tropical rainforests and coral reefs of Belize, we were able to experience the two most biologically diverse ecosystems on the planet. Though at first glance these ecosystems may seem very different, they actually share many characteristics that may contribute to their amazing biodiversity. Both tend to exist in the tropics (as seen by the existence of both in Belize), where stable temperatures, large amounts of sunlight, and/or long evolutionary lineages may contribute to extreme biodiversity. Additionally, both rainforests and coral reefs often exist in nutrient-poor environments, and thus nutrients are cycled through the communities rather efficiently.

The rainforest and coral reefs had incredible structural diversity. In general, the rainforest’s structure was provided mostly by plants, while the reef’s was provided mostly by coral colonies. With so much structural diversity comes the creation of a plethora of niches for species to inhabit, thus allowing for many species to exist in the same ecosystem. In both areas, we saw countless species from many different taxa, some of which seemed similar but in reality had slightly different ecological roles. The species compositions of the rainforest and coral reefs were of course very unique. For example, very few mammal species exist in the Belizean reef environments, but a large diversity of mammals exists in the Chiquibul forest.

One specific similarity that I noticed between the rainforest and reefs was the complexity of their trophic pyramids. For example, on a coral reef, a great barracuda could eat a Nassau grouper, who could eat a bluestriped grunt, who could eat a clam, who may filter feed on plankton. This complexity is very interesting, and as the “expert” on mammals and piscivorous fish, I found it really exciting to be able to observe some top predators in the wild.

The only thing that this course did not provide me with was a sighting of a wild jaguar (which only means I need to go back!). It really was everything I could have hoped for. There was more scientific methodology practice than I had expected, but I think this was very helpful for learning about how science works in the field. My favorite part of EBIO 319 was just being able to explore the rainforest ecosystem, whether through early morning walks or camera trap images. My least favorite part was probably the pre-trip preparation (which was a bit stressful), but I think it all paid off in the end.

Three of the most important things that I learned on this trip:
1) Living in a more sustainable way, by focusing on true needs (like hydrate or die) rather than superfluous wants, is incredibly rewarding and strengthening.
2) Seeing an elusive creature (such as a tayra) in the wild, even if it took hours or days of seeing nothing, is absolutely worth the effort.
3) Even with little sleep, few snacks, no internet, cold showers, limited electricity, and lots of ticks, field work felt rejuvenating!

Overall, a completely unbelizeable experience!
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I’m out like sauerkraut

It would be impossible to write down even a percentage of the things I learned on this trip, but I will attempt to do it justice in the small amount of space I have here.

The most important thing I learned was how to stay positive and roll with the punches even when nothing is going according to plan. I also learned the importance of keeping your relationships strong with those in the field. There were so many times when we relied very heavily on people that Adrienne and Scott had worked with many many years in a row, and they were the people who helped us out the most when things went wrong. I also learned how integral it is for everyone to be involved in conservation, not just those that spend their lives on it. No one organization can do everything, and often conservation is the most powerful when whole countries or groups of people get invested.

I also learned tons of skills like how to string a quadrat, how to snorkel while not kicking the corals around you, how to create pitfall traps etc., but I won’t go into the nitty gritty details of all that.

I think most importantly, I learned about how similar the coral reefs and rainforests really are. Not only are coral reefs and rainforests facing similar threats in the forms of human development and changing global temperatures, but also they are both highly diverse ecosystems that support some incredible life that is important for people all over the world. The rainforests and coral reefs are very nutrient poor environments, and the organisms that break down dead, dying, or lysed material have to be efficient in order to the other organisms to be able to use those recycled nutrients. This cycling is how both environments maintain such high diversity in such nutrient poor environments.

Furthermore, both environments deal with medium levels of disturbance regularly in the form of large storms, other natural disasters, and human activity. This disturbance ensures that no one species is able to dominate the ecosystem, which helps maintain the high levels of diversity we see in both the rainforest and the coral reef.

Some of the physical similarities I was able to see was the presence of dominant large species that help build homes for smaller species. In the rainforest there are dominant tree species and then smaller trees or vines that take advantage of those species. On the reef the dominant reef builders are in the form of stony corals which provide homes for fish, worms, endolithic borers. They also end up being the framework for a lot of other corals or once they die they are colonized by macro algae, fungus and/or other corals.

This course surpassed my expectations in a lot of ways. I was expecting to learn some field techniques, have some fun along the way, and get a little dirty. In all aspects I was surprised. I not only learned field techniques, but also how to deal with what to do when things go wrong in the field. I had more fun in this class than I have had in any class ever, and the people I got to meet along the way made it that much better. Also, I definitely got dirty.

If you forced me to pick a favorite part of the trip, it would be the day we went out into the ocean to the fore reef and got to see the wave action, all the different species of coral, and the large fish and rays out there. I think as far as least favorites go I wish I had brought more cortizone cream and new how to deal with rashes better, although the blisters were also pretty bad.

Now that I’m done with this class, I’m going to need to find something to fill my days. So if anyone is looking for 13 mile hikes in Houston, hmu.

Clare Bold-choice Randolph out.