Today’s morning hike to set up urine traps (long story) was interrupted when we came upon a large black beetle with a metallic red outline – the same species from my last post that has yet to be identified. This time, however, it was in the middle of a ferocious battle with a millipede. We cheered and enjoyed the drama for almost ten minutes until the beetle finally gave up his meal. This millipede was determined the survive another day.
After lunch, we visited the cave near the research station. It has an incredibly vast opening and was actually the location of many Mayan religious ceremonies. The different chambers of the cave likely represented the layers of the Mayan underworld. Sources of water can be found in caves, so it makes sense that Chaac, god of rain, was thought to reside in the underworld.
Our day ended with a fascinating night hike – I finally managed to spot a darkling beetle (from the Hegemona genus)! These beetles secrete smelly chemical compounds from their rear end, and I definitely witnessed this today.
We woke up for a 5 o’clock breakfast today to leave Las Cuevas. I was glad to leave the mites, chiggers, and the constant fear of insects falling on me. However, I was sad to leave the place where I got to become more comfortable with insects, my fellow TFBs, and lowering my standards of hygiene. I fell asleep until we stopped by a general store at Santa Elena before we headed to the Actun Tunichil Muknal (ATM) cave. We got there and left the vans at around 10 o’clock. We swam across a river, walked across another river, and had a 17-ish minute walk to finally reach the cave.
The inside of the cave was incredible. We saw multiple ceramic pieces partially swallowed by the ground, and I couldn’t believe that the artifacts were not harmed by looters or removed by archeologists. The most interesting find were the human sacrifice remains, including the near-intact skeleton at the very end of the cave. The other remain had a very neat skull where I could visibly see the slanted forehead and the remaining tooth.
After we got out of the cave and had lunch, I had a bit of a mishap, but it was all good once I got into the van. We were in the van for about an hour and a half, so I bolted out of the van as soon as we got to the Tropical Educaiton Center (TEC) to go pee. I ran around the TEC trying to figure out where the bathroom is when I saw two different agoutis. That was pretty interesting.
Once we finished eating dinner, we rode on the back of the pickup truck to go to the Belizean zoo. I got a boa constrictor on my neck, and her name is Queen Green. (I am scared of Queen Green) I think the most surprising things were how small Central American jaguars are, how funky the ocelots sound, how strange the gibnut looks, and HOW CUTE TAPIRS ARE. I was ecstatic that I got to pet Indie the Tapir. We could tell that he was very excited by the food we were giving him. I’m just happy that I got to pet them.
Ants. We’re not in Las Cuevas but we’re still not in Glovers, so here’s my taxon mojo:
At the end of the tour of the zoo, we saw a lot of small winged insects on the floor. Scott picked up one of the insects and it was a queen fire ant. The other insects were on their mating swarm as well.
After a slightly more restful night, I woke up at about 6:15 AM and got ready for the day. I chilled on the birding deck for a while before eating a little breakfast. The main issue with the morning was that we had to chug a ton of water to get hydrated for peeing in two vials for our leaf litter experiment. It took me an hour and three water bottles, but I eventually did it. We discussed our plans for the leaf litter pea traps and set off down the 50-hectare trail for our experiment.
We set each trap 100 feet apart on the two segments of the 50-hectare plot. Each of us handled our own pee and buried one in the floor and one tied to a tree, with a water trap next to each. On the trail we ran into a red-banded coral snake, a tailless whip scorpion (Taylor Swift Scorpion), and plenty of blue morphos. We spent the entire morning setting the traps and came back for lunch, where we had broth and rice. I’m still having trouble eating but I was able to get a more of this down.
We left at 1:20 for caving, after many warnings about how gross we were about to get. Pedro lead us through the nine chambers of the cave, which was covered in guano and mud. Inside, we saw many troglobites, bats, a few other smaller species of tailless whip scorpions, Mayan pottery, and tree roots. We came back after exploring the entire cave, we headed back, showered, and went for dinner.
After dinner, we had out lectures on butterflies and moths (Veronica), Orthoptera (Andressa) and Cave biology (Kristen) Afterwards, a lot of us headed down to the dining room to work on our notebooks and blogs before heading back to sleep.
Arachnids seen: tailless whip scorpion on log of the flagpole of 50 hectare plot that we picked up with our notebook; 2 smaller species amblypygids (unknown name) in the cave on a rock close to each other; Baby Florida bark scorpion in the cracks of the deck of Las Cuevas; Mexican Red Rump Tarantula in its burrow outside the dorms; Unknown large brown spider outside our door- Andressa caught it in a jar; Very large Florida bark scorpion inside the middle sink of the bathroom- fled into the sinkhole
All of these were pretty expected, though the scorpions and the tailless whip scorpions did kind of spring up on us.
We are on a lucky streak with animal sightings. Sam spotted a coral snake, and we all watched it slither in front of us and out of a log. It was very nice to see that the most venomous snake in the Americas is actually a very gentle snake that doesn’t want to bother humans.
Today I learned that soldier ants have the behaviour of just swarming in one direction as a colony looking for food and that they don’t have a formal nest for their colony. That is pretty wild and against my understanding because I’m most familiar with leaf cutter ants who are very organised (task partitioning) and have incredibly complex nest structures.
While walking in the rainforest while securing our nitrogen urine viles, Scott pulled a large plant leaf down to show us something. I initially had no idea what it was, but I saw that it was actually a very loosely constructed ant nest, and the disturbance actually caused the ants in the nest to hurriedly rescue the larvae of their colony- there were a lot of ants carrying white specs heading to the stem of the plant.
The most interesting ant finding of the day was cave ants. I was too busy looking at the bats and admiring the geological structures in the caves for me to even be looking at the ground. I didn’t even know that ants were in caves. When we found the ants in the cave we called Scott over and he excitedly joked “oh new opportunity for a grant” with Pedro, who guided us into the caves. Unfortunately, I did not take any pictures of the cave ants, but I did take pictures of my art work we left in the most remote chamber of the cave.
pictured below: TFB handling important limiting nutrients
DAY 13 – Today we set the bar high for future EBIO 319 classes by having two lectures in the twilight/dark zone of a cave and another at the top of a bird observation tower overlooking the Chiquibul forest.
This morning we collected our pee traps and spent our time until lunch sorting and categorizing by morpho-species the arthropods that had fallen into our pitfall traps. Our data suggests that there is greater nutrient availability on the forest floor and greater arthropod diversity in the canopy.
In the early afternoon we were able to explore the cave near the station clearing. You could clearly see the modifications the Maya made to the cave, including alter-like structures covered in plaster and constrictions of openings. We saw a cave cricket, and a helmeted iguana at the entrance to the cave. On our way out, we saw a snake slithering up the wall. I’m becoming a big fan of caves.
In terms of bees, today was a pretty empty day. I checked in on the colony on the corner of the research station, which is some sort of stingless bee. Tomorrow, when we retrieve the camera traps, I’m planning on carrying the filter paper for the entire hike. It’s my last chance to see an orchid bee!
To finish off a good day, we hiked up a steep hill to a bird observation tower. The view was incredible. Therese talked to us about her research and her experiences as a graduate student which was really cool, especially because the sun was setting over the mountains behind her.
To get back to LCRS, we took a short night hike through the forest. We saw some gnarly bugs, like a huge cockroach with a sticky rear end and a longhorn beetle. We also saw a scorpion that was phosphorescent underneath a purple light.
I’m glad we packed a lot into today, time is running short!
Today we went to Actun Tunichil Muknal archeological reserve. Here we hiked into a cave that was used for Mayan sacrifices and has lots of well-preserved artifacts and human remains. I did not see any Orthoptera.
To get to where the artifacts and remains were, we had to swim and scramble our way through the cave. The guide said I had to wear the top I had been carrying out of respect to the ancient Mayans, so it was real frigid being in the cave because the rivers were so cold and my clothes were so wet.
Nevertheless, it was crazy to be inside of such a sacred place, especially since we could see the vessels and victims of sacrifices all around us and knew that only the most elite Mayans would ever enter the cave. As neat and memorable as it was, I kind of felt like it was inappropriate for us tourists to be climbing around in there, given the religious significance the cave has.
Maneuvering through the cave was pretty complicated because it involved a lot of climbing up tall structures and fitting our heads through small cracks. At some point when we were climbing, Deepu scraped his leg and bled some. When we were in the cave, our guide taught us about bloodletting, a process in which people would slit themselves with obsidian blades or stingray barbs and offer their own blood to the Gods, so we were joking about how Deepu was partaking in bloodletting. It was really eerie when we emerged from the cave to see that it had just started to pour as if Deepu’s sacrifice to Chaac, the rain God, had worked.
After we left the cave, we drove to Crystal Paradise Resort where we are spending tonight before going on to Las Cuevas. On the way we stopped in the town of San Ignacio. There I bought a bag of grapes and tried a baby banana. Also, I made Therese go ask a man with a produce stand if we could have some of the oranges that had fallen out of his truck. I think he took pity on us because he just gave her two fresh ones. These are some of the advantages of having a TA.
Today’s primary endeavor was exploring Actun Tunichil Muknal, a cave hidden within the Belize rainforest. With its seemingly endless rock formations, the cave was spectacular. Rocks were rounded and smoothed over from the flow of groundwater, coarse and jagged from sparsely dripping water droplets, or even organic-looking like coral or knotted roots. Spaces ranged from the expansive to the claustrophobic, and colors ranged from sparkling green-brown to beige with patches of jet-black to mahogany swirled with gray to stark white. Paradoxically, these robust colors only existed because of the illumination gleaming our headlamps.
The cave was all encompassing. Once you entered, you were in the cave, and you were not leaving until you completely turn around and head back. We had to swim through pools of groundwater, navigate through jutting rock formations, and climb up several stories-worth of rocks to reach the cave’s heart – an ancient Mayan sacrifice site.
The entire experience was a journey. I left the realm of sunlight for a darker, almost sinister, yet breathtakingly beautiful one.
Immediately upon leaving the cave, rain began to pour down. Logically, it makes sense that it would rain in the rainforest, but a sudden downpour was something I did not expect. My class and I hiked through the rainforest, entirely drenched. Concurrently, trees towered above and filled the horizon. In front of me, behind me, to the sides, above, and below, I was fully immersed in the quintessence of the rainforest.
“Immersion makes the trip worth it,” I thought to myself as I was wringing out my soaked clothes in the park bathroom after the torrential hike.
And I was right; looking back on my day, I have gotten to see cohune palms (Attalea cohune) and a trumpet tree (Cecropia obtusifolia). The cohune palms were scattered and were abundant with cohune nuts. The trumpet tree, which I noticed on the horizon, had thin light-colored trunks that led up to thin branches abundant with large, hanging leaves. I also saw multiple species of anura in the rainforest, as well as an unknown species of bat (Order Chiroptera), a massive unknown spider (Order Araneae), and an assortment of human remains (Homo sapiens) within the cave.
Immersing myself has enriched my day, and I am excited to continue to experience this immersion throughout my next week of travel.
Life in the canopy is very different from life on the forest floor. There are differences in water, sunlight, vegetation, other organisms, the affects of gravity and access to food and nutrition. Nitrogen is an important nutrient and decomposers on the forest floor are essential parts of the nitrogen cycle. With this in mind we hypothesized that the forest floor would be more nitrogen rich than the canopy. Specifically, that arthropods in the canopy are more nitrogen limited. We tested this using pitfall traps both in the trees and in the ground. We used control traps filled with water and traps full of nitrogen-rich liquid (our own urine). Tomorrow when we collect the traps we expect to find more arthropods in the urine filled traps, and more arthropods in the tree traps than the ground traps.
This afternoon we went spelunking in a cave at Las Cuevas that was used as a ceremonial chamber by the ancient Mayans. The Mayans believed that caves were entrances to the underworld and that at the end of the day the sun turned into a jaguar and entered hell through a cave to battle demons all night until it reached the other side. This cave had nine bottlenecks that represented the nine layers of a hell a Mayan hero fought through in their mythology. We belly-crawled through the mud-guano cave floor to several hard to reach spots. There are many Mayan artifacts in the cave and areas are still being excavated by archaeologists. We found a lot of pottery, but also a human femur and an animal skeleton. Most excitingly, we saw wrinkle-faced bats roosting. Other animal sightings included glow worms and whip scorpions. Of course the formations are almost alive themselves, with huge chambers swallowing you up.
I have been searching for amphibians in damp areas like the cave entrance and inside bromeliads but I haven’t had any luck today. The leaf litter can also shelter cryptic amphibians, like toads, but I haven’t found any so far.
Caving was just as exciting (and tiring) as I thought it would be. The first half was not that bad in terms of the amount of mud that I got on myself. Prematurely, I thought that I would come out unscathed. But no, it was the last part of the cave walk that really got me. After going through the main chambers in the system, there was an optional offshoot where they had previously found a peccary skeleton. The first crawl through was narrow, but the second was so narrow that you absolutely had to get down on the ground (flat on your belly) and army crawl through. My clothing was obliterated. But completely and totally worth it. I hope that I get to continue caving after this trip.
Otherwise, the day consisted of us finishing up the analysis of our Cecropia hypotheses and making posters. Our data, though it seemed to indicate higher investment in leaves and juveniles (consistent with the herbivore satiation hypothesis) was limited by our small samples size and estimation techniques. In the end, none of the groups has conclusive evidence, keeping the question of how young Cecropia defend themselves against herbivory prior to Azteca ant colonization open for future study.
Lastly, we set up our pitfall traps (using our own urine and water) to compare biodiversity in the canopy and forest floor settings. Specifically, we hope to learn about the differing needs in nitrogen in both. Tomorrow, one of the things that we will be doing is collecting the traps and analyzing the subsequent data.
The tiredness continues. Today’s two tasks were to test our four hypotheses related to Cecropia herbivory defense and explore ant nests of different ages.
The Cecropia tree is normally in symbiosis with several species of ant. Their function is to be a defense mechanism against any threat to the integrity of the tree. This mostly means herbivory from various types of organism. However, there is a period when the tree is young prior to the colonization event of the ant population. We explored different ways in which the tree could potentially protect itself in this vulnerable period. After discussing the issue as a group for a while, covering many different possible solutions, we settled on four distinct hypotheses. Briefly, they focused on mimicry, chemical defense, leaf quality, and the predator/herbivore satiation hypothesis.
In long form these were our ideas. Maybe the young Cecropia trees are in some way similar to another species that has it’s own process for herbivory deterrence. Through mimicry, young Cecropia may benefit from the association made by herbivores. Secondly, there could be a chemical defense mechanism that is then replaced by the ants later in life. Thirdly, leaves on juveniles could be of poorer quality so as to deter herbivores, who would be better off selecting other species. Lastly (and the hypothesis I worked on), was herbivore satiation hypothesis. Under this assumption, we would expect to see high numbers of seed and juveniles, with the high number of individuals “flooding the market” and ensuring both sufficient herbivory and a proportion of individuals surviving into maturity (and therefore protection via ants).
After collecting and analyzing our data, we moved on to the ant colony structure. Scott showed us the different stages of nest. We spent the rest of the day looking for the fungus chamber and evading the (amazingly strong) bites of soldier ants.
Tomorrow, we go caving. I’m excited, as I have never done anything of the sort before.