Today we got to go and retrieve our pit fall traps from the forest and see how many insects crawled into the vials. The collecting took a short amount of time- it seems as though we have gotten fitter within the past few days and are now able to trek through the forest swiftly with apt agility. I only stopped to catch my breath twice every ten minutes. Progress!
On our way out, I saw a tree I have never seen before called “Jobillo” (Astronium graveolens). I saw several of the growing along side the main road San Pastor. They are frequently used for wood, like mahogany. We found a brown anole on one of them, and I got the chance to catch it.
Later in the lab, we needed to inspect the contents of our vials and see if our hypotheses were correct. We assigned each group such as ants, spiders, beetles, etc., to one “expert” (i.e one of us students) who would be able to divided them into “species” based on what they looked like. We came up with 52 unique species across all our samples, including many very large beetles about the size of a half dollar coin.
We took a lovely break from data analyzing and stood in the afternoon rain. It is only that we get rained on in the rainforest at least one time. Right afterwards, I looked into some field book and decided that the spherical shaped fruit that I talked about earlier are breadnuts. They are eaten by many animals, such as the peccary, several different birds and deer.
In our vials, we found more insects in the ground vials than in the canopy vials. We also found more insects in the *hem* nitrogen source *hem* than in the water source in the canopy vials. In the ground vials however, we found more insects in the ground water than in the This indicates that canopy insects are more limited by resources such as nitrogen that ground insects are. The leaf litter and other decomposing matter on the forest floor probably provide the insects and other living things with a source of nitrogen. Later in the evening, we presented the data from our experiment to a student group from the University of Southern Mississippi.
Today we designed an experiment in which we attempted to study the affects that hurricane gaps- the large gap in the canopy forest- that occurs when a tree is knocked over because of a hurricane- has on forest floor diversity. We didn’t really see any significant results, but perhaps a longer study over more area will tell us how natural disturbances such as hurricanes have on ecosystems like the rain forest.
After dinner, we all grabbed our hiking boots and headlights and headed on a night hike. The leaves of the acacia tree were folded- I actually did not know that this happened at night. The acacia tree produces food (beltian bodies) for ants that live inside of its thorns and the ants defend the plant from predators. I was able to see the ants eating the beltian bodies on one of leaves. I have learned about this type of symbiosis in several EBIO classes and it was pretty amazing to see it in real life. Additionally, there were tiny turtles in a mud pond, and we also saw the spine and hand of a monkey, which was likely dropped after being half-eaten by a predator like a jaguar or a bird of prey.
We saw a red backed coffee snake which we first thought was a red coral snake, i.e. a very poisonous snake. This is an example of Batesian mimicry, which is when a harmless animal mimics some aspects of the physical appearance of a poisonous animal. This is so that predators think that the harmless animal is poisonous, even though it is not. In this case, the red backed coffee snake was patterned very similar to a red coral snake, but different enough so that we could make the distinction.
After we returned to the clearing where the research station is at, we were able to see the stars and it was nothing like I had ever seen before. At home, you could see a few stars and planets scattered around the sky, but only in more suburban/rural areas. Here however, the sky was FULL of twinkly celestial bodies. I only went to sleep after clouds drifted overhead and covered the sky, because otherwise I would have stared at them into the morning.
When we woke up today, we were handed two tubes and were asked for a urine sample. Many of us were, understandably, quite confused. Later, we learned that our samples were a great source of much-needed nitrogen in the rainforest. We placed our samples in different locations across the forest, both on the ground and in the trees. We will later collect our tubes and see what type of insects were collected in the tubes, which they wanted to access for the nitrogen content. Insects drowned in urine is something I would have never imagined before, yet here we are.
While we were placing our samples across the forest, I tried to look for the Madre de cacao tree. Madre de Cacao means mother of cacao, because this tall-ish tree is usually grown next to quite short cacao trees, who prefer the shade, therefore “mothering” the cacao trees. I have seen its pods in many different areas, some with seeds still intact, but I have yet to identify exactly what the tree looks like. A lot of the tree leaves here have the same general oval shape, so its somewhat hard to differentiate between similar trees, especially when their trunks are covered by moss and lichens and you can’t really tell what they look like underneath. However, with the help of a field book, I was finally able to identify the source of all the pods.
After lunch, we went to Las Cuevas Cave. Las Cuevas means the caves in Spanish, so the name of this cave is essentially The Caves Cave. There were no trees inside the cave. However, we did see lots of ancient Mayan pottery, a human femur bone and many, many bats. There was a whole family bats that were all clustered together. They probably got scared with we all came in to the cave loudly with our bright headlights, because they all flew away. Many bats mean that the floors and wall were covered in guano, or bat feces, which we had to crawl through to access several parts of the cave.
I think I’ll start to feel clean again after about 34 more showers.
It’s a little strange to come to a rainforest and see bare trees. After all, you probably would expect rainforests to stay lush and green all year round. Once you go bird watching, however, you find that the dry season is actually useful. Its really easy to see any bird that would ordinarily blend into the leaves sitting on a perfectly bare branch.
Today we were able to use our Science Skills™ to develop a research project, complete with question, hypothesis and methods. The perfect triad for beginning any scientific investigation. We were wondering how human trails and roads affect the presence of mammals, more specifically, how many mammals come through a human made trail, how many species and how many individuals of each species. So we set up motion-sensing cameras all around the field station, both on and off trails, and in a few days we’ll see what type of mammals show up in our pictures, and see if our theory is correct.
During our hike, I collected many different fruit and leave samples that I found on the forest floor that looked interesting to me. I found a green and brown round shaped fruit, a little smaller than a baseball. They might be the same fruit in different stages of maturity, but to confirm this I need to open the fruit, look at the seeds and do some research, which I intend to do as soon as possible.
The director of the Friends for Conservation and Development NGO (nongovernmental organization), Rafael, talked to us about what makes the Chiquibul unique, and about all the different threats that are posed to it. It’s very worrying to hear that this beautiful region may soon be deforested and developed. But hopefully, our friends at Friends for Conservation and Development can success in their quest to protect the magically Chiquibul, and all of the trees that keep this ecosystem alive.
Oh also we saw a 25 foot wide leaf cutter ant hill and an enormous boa constrictor. I gotta say the ant hill was slightly more threatening to me than the boa constrictor.
Today we walked 6.11 miles (according to my Fitbit). I have been told that we will walk more.
We went to a location on the Mountain Pine Ridge Forest Reserve called Rio on Pool, which means “river on pools.” I took many pictures of the pools and waterfalls (see pictures above). While doing some research on the trees of Belize prior to this course, I was pretty surprised to discover that a Tropical region had pine trees, let alone entire pine forest mountains. Unfortunately, a lot of the mountain’s pine trees had been destroyed by an infestation of the southern pine bark beetle, as well as frequent fires.
After Rio on Pool, we drove to an ancient Mayan ruin site called Caracol (which means conch shell in Spanish). We learned a lot about Mayan history, and saw some of the king’s and elite’s housing structures. We then climbed an enormous pyramid, and we could see Guatemala from the top of the pyramid. It was amazing when we were able to talk to people who were still on the ground- they could hear us and we could hear them, even though we were pretty high up.
We then drove to Las Cuevas Research Station, which we will be staying at for a few days. It was built in 1994 by the British Army and is used exclusively for research and not open to the public. It is an amazing opportunity to be able to stay here and learn all about the Chiquibul forest and all (read: some) of its inhabitants.
While driving out of Rio on Pool, we saw a logger’s trunk full of mahogany. Yay!
A lot of the readings and research I have done prior to our departure have discussed the importance and prevalence of Mahogany in Belize. I expected to see a lot of this tree on our drive from the airport in Belize City to Crystal Paradise Ecolodge near a region called San Antonio. Alas, I have seen none (so far).
However, I was able to recognize some species on our drive. One of them was Cecropia obtusifolia, also known as a Trumpet tree or locally known as a Guarumo. It has a very interestingly shaped leaf that kind of looks like a baseball mitt. Hopefully soon I’ll be able to take and post a picture of one up close.
Another tree I saw was the Zapote or Pouteria sapota. I didn’t see as many of these as I did of the Trumpet tree, which at some points were clustered together. These however, were pretty wide spread and not close to each other.
From the moment we got off the airplane in Belize City, I saw palm trees everywhere, but I wasn’t able to identify what species they were. On our trip, Dr. Solomon pointed out a whole field of Attalea cohune, or Cohune palm. So at least now I know for certain what that looks like (from a distance).
I just came back from a sampling trip across various counties west of Austin for my summer research project. I’m still a little worn out from my trip, but I know once we land in Belize City, I’ll forget about that completely and will be ready to immerse myself into tropical field biology.
I expect our trip to be physically demanding, but it will be totally worth it once we get to see a scarlet macaw in person (hopefully) and are snorkeling next to parrot fish. I also expect to get a good feel of what field work is like, and also to experience a day (or two weeks) in the life of a scientist living at a research station.
Since I’m applying to graduate school next semester, I really value these opportunities because it may (hopefully) help me narrow down (or even choose!) what narrower field of EBIO I want to study, as well as potentially answer questions like if I prefer field work over laboratory work or vice versa. I have prepared by reading all the required readings and researching my taxons (trees and herbivorous fish). I think my sampling trip last week may have also prepared me for the long hours out in the field.
I’m not really nervous about anything except the airplane ride, because I really hate airplanes. I am most excited to see rare species up close (ish) like the scarlet macaws and colorful parrotfish I talked about.
I have previously visited Colombia, which is mostly tropical. I spend my time there hiking through the Andes and looking at agricultural products that my grandpa grows, such as coffee, avocado and cacao trees. Overall, I am just really excited about being able to spend a whole two weeks in one of the most diverse and beautiful parts of the world while doing science. Best combination ever.