We finished out the last day with another 13 mile hike to pick up all our camera traps. It took us about half the time it did on Thursday and I wasn’t nearly as tired. It’s amazing what your body can adjust to after just a few days. Even though I’m running on less sleep I feel great because of all the exercise and activity.
Checking the photos from camera traps was more exciting than you could possibly imagine. Most of it was nothing but when something popped up on screen we were elated. One of our cameras got a picture of a Tapir (!!!!) and another of an Ocelot (!!!!). Even though we only had a little taste of it I think I am starting to understand how difficult field work can be, but also how rewarding. I will miss the rainforest and all of its colors and scents and noises.
Even though we didn’t see many amphibians out here I didn’t feel too disappointed or bored because it meant I got to bounce around and look at everyone else’s taxonomic groups. The end of the dry season can be tough for herpetology but getting to watch birds, ants, mammals (I saw an agouti this morning), reptiles, and insects made up for it. Not to mention the plants! The diversity was incredible and I saw many more organisms than I was expecting.
Happy birthday Mom! You too Elena, sorry I missed them.
Today we learned a valuable lesson in analyzing data. Statistics can help or hinder you and you must consider your question carefully to decide what kind of analysis to use. Different tests can give you different results, so you must be careful in considering your community and think about what will give you the most scientifically meaningful results.
After several lectures we took a short night hike and found spiders, cockroaches, insects and some people even saw a coral snake. The dry season has been particularly harsh and there is not much moisture, so I didn’t see any amphibians last night. They are probably hiding deep in the forest under the leaf litter or in other damp places.
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.
Today we focused on some of the many ant species that habitate the Chiquibul forest. The cecropia tree has a symbiosis with azteca ants, which protect the tree from predators in exchange for shelter and food. We spent the morning testing a few hypothesis about how the cecropia trees avoid herbivores before they are colonized by the protector ants.
This afternoon we excavated three leaf cutter ant colonies of different maturities. Once a queen colonizes a nest after a nuptial flight she can live for 20 years reproducing, expanding the colony until there are millions of ants at any given time. There are tunnels underground leading to chambers full of the ant’s fungus garden and pupae. The youngest ones are fairly small, but once they are 10 years old they get huge, with tunnels the width of your arm full of soldier ants ready to come out and attack you when you disturb them. They have quite a pinch and we were all thankful for our rubber boots today.
We had an unexpected amphibian sighting once we got back to our housing; one of the bedrooms had a large frog on a bedpost. I caught it and took it outside to get a closer look and try to identify it. It hiccuped in my hand, puffing out its chest, in protest to its capture. The frog was dark green and brown, with some stripy markings around the forelegs. I couldn’t examine its back without it jumping from my hands so I didn’t get a clear look. It was about 2.5 inches long with horizontal pupils, bronze irises and toe pads. The toe pads indicate that its a treefrog and since there aren’t many in the area I would have to guess that it was another common Mexican treefrog, based on size and color. I released it into the trees after a minute or two to not cause it too much distressed and it leapt from my hands with a defiant squeak.
Our 13 mile hike in the rainforest, up and down hills, was the most physically exerting thing I’ve done in a long while, but it left me full of endorphins and with pleasantly sore muscles. We hiked all this way to set up 12 camera traps that will take pictures every time they detect movement over the next 5 days, until we collect them again. Hopefully this will let us see some of the more shy animals of the rainforest. We also found several interesting insects, spiders, and birds over the course of the day.
Amphibian update: we found some tadpoles in the muddy reservoir left by a car tire. Not an ideal spot but the dry season is coming to an end and there aren’t many options left for frogs and toads in the area, who need water to reproduce. More excitingly, I saw my first treefrog of the trip this afternoon. Adrienne masterfully caught it and held onto it long enough for me to snap a picture and identify it. After some consideration we positively identified it as a Common Mexican treefrog. It was large, at least 2.5 inches, and a shade of grey with green tinges. Once we were able to see its back, its species was obvious. It had the telltale darker splotches on a grey-brown body. At first its dark-eye patch threw me off but amphibians can be highly variable in coloration within a population and aren’t always a reliable form of identification.
Today we completed our journey south-west through Cayo and into the Chiquibul rainforest. On our way to our home camp at Las Cuevas Research Station we took an anthropological detour through Mayan ruins. We were guided through the Caracol Archeological site and climbed up and in and down the ruins and tombs. Even though it was mostly overgrown and covered by years of sediment the pyramidal structures still stood and it was easy to image the bustling metropolis it was 2000 years ago. Hearing about the (hypothesized) reasons for its decline was ominous; overpopulation, agricultural collapse, drought… sound familiar?
Even though its citizens are long gone the city is still full of life. Almost everyone found an animal from their taxonomic group—bromeliads, philodendrons, birds, mammals, and a plethora of plants. The highlights included an edible red fruit (you suck on the seeds but don’t eat them, looks like gunk, tastes like papaya), toucans, a coati and a blue crowned mot-mot.
Sadly there were not any amphibians around for me to identify. The area was much too dry to be a suitable habitat. Amphibians require a damp habitat because they experience high evaporative water loss through their skin. Most also require water for reproduction. Caracal was in the forest but it was not dense enough to retain the moisture necessary for most amphibians. Here in the forest surrounding Las Cuevas should be a much more habitable medium and we can expect to see a variety of species in the next few days.
For our second to last day at Las Cuevas, we wrapped up our arthropod experiment by collecting all the pitfall traps set along the Maya trail yesterday. The majority of the day was dedicated to data analysis and the presentation of our results; there’s nothing quite like having a poster session in the middle of the rainforest.
We also spent a good part of the day discussing illegal extraction from the Chiquibul and the problems with conservation in Belize. I never fully appreciated the intricacies of conservation biology until today. The Chiquibul’s greatest threat is illegal extraction of plants and animals by Guatemalans from villages along the nearby border. Yet the issue of conservation is much greater than that of sustaining the area’s ecology and incorporates complex economic and political landscapes, as well.
Since our activities were primarily indoors, the day offered few opportunities for reptile sightings. However, I was excited at the prospect of our first night hike—the evening brings out a number of nocturnal species, transforming the Chiquibul into a completely different habitat than it is during the day. We managed to spot all kinds of creepy crawlies, including spiders the size of your face and a giant roach that emitted a sticky white substance. By the end of the hike, I had nearly given up on searching for reptiles in the leaf-litter and under fallen logs. But at the very end of the trail, we approached a sinkhole; as I peered down I heard a shout of “snaaaake!” I looked down to find the distinctive tri-color banded pattern of the Central American coral snake (Micrurus nigrocinctus) all but a foot away from my boot. The snake was small but could clearly be identified as one of the most venomous snakes found in Central America. Just goes to show that you can never stop looking.
Hello hello everyone! Before I get into any of the day’s activities, I have some very exciting news! Last night, I had two taxa sightings! The first was a black ground beetle (Pterostichus melanarius) in the family Carabidae spotted in the classroom in the building next to ours as it crawled along the walls. The second was a flat faced longhorn beetle (Callipogon barbatus) and was actually in one of my classmate’s hair.
Today I was also able to identify three different beetle species. There was another ground beetle, this time of a dark coppery almost black color, that was crawling on the ground near the base of the Bird Tower and a banded netwinged beetle (Calopteron discrepans) near the base of a large fallen tree as well as many fireflies (we captured one and I believe it was the species Ellychnia corrusca within the Lampyridae family based on the stripes on its back and lack of distinct median ridge) flickering about during our hike through the rainforest.
Speaking of which, today we went out into the Chiquibul Forest for the first time and what an experience that was! Over 31,400 steps taken, over 13 miles covered, over 2800 calories burned, and over 120 flights of stairs later, we had set up 12 camera traps to take pictures of the species that roam the area for the next five days. Now I am going to head to bed and get some rest for tomorrow’s activities. Thanks for reading! 🙂