Tag Archives: coral

In the Corals and the Trees (Reflection Post) with species lists

The coral reef and the rainforest are the most diverse marine and terrestrial ecosystems, respectively. They both represent what seems on the surface a paradox—nutrient poor soils in the rainforest and nutrient poor waters in the reef, despite the incredible diversity of organisms in each place. Coral reefs actually rely on the low nutrient density of the water, because when there are more nutrients available, algae tends to outcompete corals. In the rainforest, the nutrient poor soils are due to the rapid nutrient cycling and wide diversity of decomposers facilitated by high temperatures and rainfall and necessary for the incredible growth present there. In addition, my taxon groups in the rainforest and on the reef were somewhat parallel: the trees in the forest and the corals on the reef. Each of these is the foundation of the ecosystem, photosynthesize (or have a symbiotic relationship with photosynthesizing organisms), and are incredibly abundant.

I took the wide diversity of each species as a challenge, and tried to identify as many as I could, although in each case some of the organisms looked incredibly similar to one another and occupied similar niches.

Unfortunately, when I set out to take this course, I saw the obstacle of my food allergies first and any academic challenges second. The result of this was that I was thoroughly prepared to avoid food allergens, and less prepared for the actual coursework. Despite this, I learned more in these two weeks than I think I ever have in two weeks before in my life: about the rainforest, the reef, and research in the field. Interestingly (maybe this is TMI) I have a skin condition and thought it would get worse on the trip. It did the opposite and flared up as soon as we returned to Houston. Allergies also turned out to be easy to deal with, as the cooks on the island and in the rainforest were very careful and had limited ingredients in the kitchen to begin with (fewer contaminants).

It’s hard to choose a favorite part of the course. We saw spider monkeys shaking trees at us to get us to go away (we just thought they were cute); a tapir on one of our camera traps (we all cheered!), scarlet macaws almost every day in the rainforest, the inside of a leafcutter ant nest. I think the most intriguing things I saw were zombie ants. Zombie ants are ants that are infected with a fungus that somehow compels the ant to climb up (in this case on a palm). The ant then clings to the inside of the palm and slowly dies as the fungus eats it from the inside out, then sends out a fruiting body (mushroom). We saw several of these, and some ants that were still moving but appeared lost on the bottom of palm leaves, possibly controlled by the fungus. The phenomenon is incredible and frightening, as when I’ve related it to friends and family one of the first questions they ask is “can that infect humans?!” The answer to that question is no. At least, no known fungus will do that to humans.

In addition to the course content, I think we all learned how to split up the work to get something done, and not obsess about the details (for those of us inclined to do so). For example, the first research project we did took all day to analyze. We spent the morning making sure each morphospecies (“species” identified as “species A” based on observable characteristics when the species name is unimportant) was carefully identified, and the entire afternoon making a poster. We had all of our graphs on a laptop instead of the poster itself, and had the one person with some of the best handwriting and drawing skills (Liz) draw the entire poster (no printing facilities in the jungle!). By the end of the two weeks, we could whip up a poster in a few hours, max. A few people would work on each section, and at least two people would write and draw on the poster. We were much more efficient, and still conveyed our work effectively.

Scott requested a species count for each taxon in the reflection post, so here those are:


Elephant Ear/ Guanacaste (Enterlobium cyclocarpum)

Trumpet tree (Cecropia peltata)

Caribbean Pine (Pinus caribaea)

Rosewood (Dalbergia stevensonii)

Billy Webb (Sweetia panamensis)

Nargusta (Terminalia amazonica)

Mahogany (Swietenia macrophylla)

Spanish Cedar (Cedrela odorata)

Bull Thorn Acacia / Bullhorn Acacia (Acacia/Vachellia cornigera)

Basket Tie-Tie (Desmonicus schippii)

Banana (Musa sapientum/paradisiaca)

Prickly Yellow (Zanthoxylum sp.)

White Poisonwood (Sebastiana tuerckheimiana)

Black Poisonwood (Metopium Browneii) (Tropical Education Center)

Fiddlewood (Vitex gaumeri)

Kapik/Ceiba (Ceiba pentandra)

Horse’s Balls Tree (Stemmadenia donnell-smithii)

Guava (Psidium guajava)

White oak sp. (Quercus insignis) (Tropical Education Center)

Sapodilla/Chicle (Manilhara zapota)

Give-and-Take Palm (Crysophila staurocantha)

Gumbolimbo/ Tourist Tree (Bursera simaruba)

Jobillo (Astronium graveolens)

Bay Cedar (Guazuma ulmifolia)



Elkhorn Coral (Acropora palmata)

Staghorn Coral (Acropora cervicornis)

Mustard Hill Coral (Porites astreoides)

Thin Finger Coral (Porites divaricata)

Grooved Brain Coral (Pseudodiploria labyrinthiformis)

Boulder Brain Coral (Colpophyllia natans)

Pillar Coral (Dendrogyra cylindrus)

Symmetrical Brain Coral (Pseudodiploria strigosa)

Golfball Coral (Favia fragum)

Lettuce Coral (Agaricia sp.)

Mountainous Star Coral (Orbicella faveolata)

Massive Starlet Coral (Siderastrea siderea)

Additional Siderastrea sp., maybe stellata, dead coral

Boulder Star Coral (Montastrea cavernosa)

Day 15: The city is too… city

We woke up before 5 to meet, with bags packed, at the dining building. Breakfast was a cinnamon roll for most, but since that contains milk and I have an allergy, mine was fresh papaya. The mood was subdued; in part, it was 5 in the morning. In addition, we were worn out and ready to be back home. We took a calmer three hour boat ride back to the coast, then took a van to the airport.

We had time at the airport to buy souvenirs. Some of the popular ones included Marie Sharp’s brand jam, of various tropical flavors, and Belizean hot sauce. A couple of the hot sauce names were No Wimps Allowed and BEWARE. They also sold Mayan carvings and weavings, some at pretty steep prices. The prices were a mix of Belizean dollars and US dollars; a US dollar is worth twice that of a Belize dollar.

Marie Sharp’s Jam from the airport

The plane was a bit delayed, but not so much I think that the three connecting flights were too much of a problem. Once we got to the Houston airport (IAH), we had to say goodbye to the three students who were catching connecting flights to go home. Since three of the students on the trip were from Vanderbilt and Baylor, respectively, there is a good chance we may never see each other again. After two weeks in close quarters, we got to know each other pretty well, and it was sad to see everyone depart. Although, I will say that by the end of two weeks in such close quarters, with everyone exhausted and itching, we were beginning to step on each other’s toes a bit.

The rest of us took a bus back to Rice. The city was a bit of a shock after the island and the forest—so noisy, rushed, and concrete! Despite a packed schedule, there were fewer worries in the jungle than in the city.

Day 14: We found a boat in the Mangroves of Death

This morning we combined a research project with an exercise in awareness, in addition to helping the island with a major problem. You see, an island that is in the middle of the ocean (not near shore) still, perhaps surprisingly, collects debris.

We split up into four groups and went to different sides of the island: The Dock, The Touch Tank (named such because we collected animals for a touch tank there on Day 11), The Coral Graveyard (where corals wash up on the shore; this is the windward side of the island), and an area we termed the Mangroves of Death. For some unknown reason—okay, because few people were willing to go—I went to pick up trash in the Mangroves of Death. For the uninitiated, Mangroves of Death are full of mosquitoes and also, in this case, sand flies. Our group of three students went out there to the jungle gym of mangroves and alternated picking up old rags, plastic bottles, plastic bags, and other trash and slapping ourselves to rid our skin of mosquitoes. Having anticipated this, I was covered except for my face. As it turns out, the sand flies didn’t care and bit me all over anyway, but the mosquitoes just clustered around my face. I tried to get them off with my arms, because I was using my hands to pick up trash and didn’t want to rub the dirt on my face.

The highest count of marine debris was at the Coral Graveyard, and we decided this could be caused by the fact that this was where trash would hit the island when the surface of the water was moving with the wind. However, the second highest count and the largest volume of trash was found in the Mangroves of Death. This was partly due to the large metal and foam boat pieces we found and dragged back with us. Another reason this could be the case is that the mangroves form a maze of roots that collects, in addition to water, trash. Trash becomes tangled in the roots, so we had larger pieces of trash in general, leading to a larger volume despite a slightly lower number of pieces. We also found mostly plastic. Despite 12 people spending half an hour collecting trash, we all felt like we hardly made a dent in the marine debris washed up on the island, despite the fact that the staff on the island regularly collect what washes up.

Kaela and me counting marine debris from the Mangroves of Death

After lunch we dissected lionfish. Lionfish are invasive in the Atlantic (native to the Indo-Pacific) and have few predators here, so they proliferate and are destructive to competing carnivorous fish populations and eat young commercially harvested fish species. That could potentially have an impact on the fishing industry. We measured them (ours was 21.5 cm, or about 9 in, long) and pulled out the stomach. Ours looked pretty full but the contents were not identifiable. Another group found a whole fish in the stomach of their lionfish.

Herbie with a lionfish

We then had a snack of lionfish ceviche, made with the same fish we dissected, and took a break to pack until dinner.

In the evening we had a brief social gathering on the dock, looking back on our experiences. But it wasn’t just socializing—Amanda tied her dive light to the dock and attracted lots of tiny shrimp. This attracts fish that feed on the shrimp, and fish that will eat those larger fish. Eventually we saw a few stingrays and a shark, all right under our feet on the dock!

Day 12: Swimming in the depths

This morning we went out first thing to catch the calm weather for snorkeling and get off the island which was very buggy (because there was no wind). We went again to a patch inside and outside of the Marine Protected Area, and in each place counted live coral using a quadrat method, 10 samples over a distance of 100 m for 5 groups. We ran into more trouble this time: the first sample was thick with fire coral—we even had to put our quadrat on fire coral once. Some of the reef was also deeper and we had to dive down to count the coral.

Fire Coral

Then, we got in the water only to realize it was full of jellies, and we had to rush back onto the boat while one of the safety officers pushed the jellies away by pushing them by the heads. I didn’t see them, but we also saw comb jellies at that location. Amanda picked one up. It looked just like a handful of gelatin.

We went to another location outside the MPA without jellies to actually take data. I took pictures of corals when I wasn’t taking data, and I saw Golfball Coral (Flavia fragum) and another coral I still need to identify. There was still a lot of Mustard Coral (Porites astreoides) and I also saw some purple branching Porites, possibly divaricata again. Most of the Porites we have seen so far, excluding Mustard Hill Coral, have probably been P. divaricata due to branching near the tips, although a few times I have seen colonies that form thicker branches that might have been P. porites or P. fulcata. P. porites is generally greater than 1 cm wide, P. fulcata is is in between, and P. divaricata is less than 1 cm. I also saw some Grooved Brain Coral (Pseudodiploria labyrinthiformis), which has a groove on the ridge between valleys (the valley contains a row of mouths where polyps stick out (like most corals, these polyps extend primarily at night).

Amanda also saw one Montastrea cavernosa, which is the Great Star Coral. The surface is described in the ID book as “blister-like corallites”. They (the coralllites) are particularly large, size ¼ to ½ in. The colonies of corallites can get quite large, but the one Amanda saw was smaller. I saw only a picture. I also think I saw a lettuce coral (Agaricia). There are multiple species, but my picture is not good enough to tell the difference.

In the afternoon we took the boat over the reef crest (boundary of the ring-shaped atoll) to the forereef outside of the atoll. This is an area of greater wave action where corals form thicker, larger, and more robust forms such as massive or encrusting that don’t stick up into the water where branches could be broken off. This is also one reason the forereef has less algae than the patch reefs we have visited before, which were all inside the atoll in the lagoon, which is sheltered by the reef. We first swam along the wall, where we could not see the bottom over the ledge, then went to a patch reef closer to the crest.

We saw larger fish here too, including a reef shark and some larger Parrotfish. There were some very large Symmetrical Brain Coral (Pseudodiploria ———-). This species is actually very similar to Colpophyllia, but apparently Colpophyllia has deeper grooves, which is a common identifying characteristic in meandroid corals. However, it would be a much easier characteristic to use with more experience. From what I can tell in the ID book, Colpolhyllia also has wider valleys, so that may be used as an additional identifying feature. The most notable species of coral we saw on the reef was Dendrogyna, which is apparently rare (used to be more common). This is the pillar-shaped coral, and has a more bulky skeleton than other species. I think I also saw the Lobed Star Coral, which is Orbicella annularis. Its form is a group of lumps tightly packed and protruding from a hard substrate.

Day 11: We found an octopus!

Today we started out by measuring coral density inside and outside the Marine Protected Area (MPA). The island we are currently staying on, called Middle Caye, is on Glover’s Reef inside of an MPA. This area is patrolled by the Belize coast guard, especially at night. Commercial fishing is not allowed in the area, and part of the point is to prevent overfishing and coral damage in the protected area. We tentatively found that the MPA patch we surveyed had about 28% live coral over total area and the area outside of the MPA had about 18% live coral.  That would seem to suggest that the MPA is protecting the corals and allowing them to grow. However, we identified some improvements we could make to our methods and will repeat the assessment tomorrow.

When not measuring, I saw a few distinctive corals, including Acropora cervicornis (staghorn coral).

In the afternoon we walked out to the seagrass and mangroves and collected some small animals, plants, and other living things to look at in the wet lab. We kept them in buckets of water to preserve the creatures. We found a wide range of creatures in nearly everyone’s taxon ID groups, and Kaela even picked up a fireworm. It stung her and released stinging hairs, but she brought it back to the collection bucket anyway. Other creatures we saw included an Atlantic Pygmy Octopus, which could change color and tried to hide under the conch shells, live Queen Conchs, which have a beautiful sunset pattern inside their shells which unfortunately attract collectors (often overharvested and picked up by tourists), a West Indian Sea Egg, which is a kind of urchin that is dark with white spines and covers itself with sea grass, several other urchin species, three-finger leaf algae, other Halimeda algae, Pearl algae, and a ton of hermit crabs.

In terms of coral, we picked up a Porites species and a Siderastrea species. Porites is a branching coral with corallites that are generally flush with the surface of the coral (they don’t stick out like Acropora, which include Elkhorn and Staghorn corals). This one branches near the tip and is probably P. divaricata due to that characteristic and thin branch size. The species is also called Thin Finger Coral. The Siderastrea are called starlet corals, and the one we picked up I think was S. stellata.

Siderastrea stellata, finger for scale

Day 10: Getting our sea legs

This morning we met after breakfast at 7:45 to use a quadrat measurement method in a coral graveyard (a rocky shore composed mostly of coral fragments). We measured coral density at the crossections of the strings in our quadrats, then computed a density of around 30% (A rough measure of exclusively recognizable corals, as most fragments were originally corals). We then brought some dead corals back to the wet lab (area beneath a building on stilts) to identify. We were able to identify Siderastrea (possibly radians), Mountainous star coral (Orbicella faveolata), Symmetrical brain coral (Pseudodiploria strigosa), Golfball coral (Favia fragum), Pillar coral (Dendrogyra cylindrus), Lettuce coral (Agaricia sp.), and possibly Mustard hill coral (Porites atreoides), and Staghorn coral (Acropora cervicornis).

A note about identification of the corals above: Orbicella spp. have grooves between polyps, while Siderastrea spp. has a smooth surface.

We went after lunch to try quadrat measurement in the water. It’s difficult because you are trying to maneuver this square made of a square of pipes with a women net of string while the current moves you, the quadrat, and the seagrass we were trying to count to quantify the difference in seagrass coverage between a seagrass patch and one of mixed seagrass and algae. When we try a similar procedure on the coral, it may be easier because at least the coral won’t wave back and forth.

Seagrass, quadrat and transect method

After that practice, we swam out to the patch reef and saw corals! Some others saw a nurse shark, but I was unfortunately too busy struggling with my foggy mask. I did see the Spiny Lobster, though. You can recognize them because their antennae are long and poke out from under rocks.

Also sand flies. They are essentially little biting gnats. They invaded our dorm. And we (mostly Cassia and Anna) spent a good hour trying to kill them all by slapping them with a notebook while they were still around the ceiling light, knowing they would disperse and spend more time biting us when we turned the light off. Lesson learned: close the door quickly. The sand flies are everywhere.

Day 9: Not ideal conditions, but coral!

Today we left the Tropical Research Center and took a 3 hour boat ride to Middle Caye on Glover’s Reef. As soon as we got here, after an orientation and lunch, we got in the water (around 2pm). The problem: The water was a bit choppy. We could tell on the boat ride over. One of the crew said he’d seen worse, but it got pretty rough after we passed the barrier reefs (a good demonstration of the sheltering effect of reefs!). The boat ride was actually kind of fun in this weather, but snorkeling, not so much. I ended up breathing in some seawater in an area where I couldn’t stand because we just jumped right in.  Fortunately we dove from the dock, so we weren’t far and one of the safety officers helped me and a few others get back to shore. In case you were wondering, and without too many details, breathing seawater is a bad idea. I was fine after recovering on shore for at least an hour.

Instead, we went to the shallow wade-able reef at the other side of the caye. We finally saw coral! Mustard Hill Coral (Porites astreoides) was on several of the clumps of coral we tried to avoid stepping on. We also saw several brain coral, which I think were all symmetrical brain coral (Pseudodiploria strigosa). There were several sea fans, though I’m not sure yet what kind. The most likely options are Venus sea fan (Gorgonia flabellum) or purple sea fan (Gorgonia ventalina). Most of these corals looked healthy. We tried not to kick sediment on top of the reef formation.

Shallow side of the island (Middle Caye)

We started a scavenger hunt which will be ongoing. Here, we found Christmas Tree Worms, Scleractinian (stony) corals, Gorgonian (soft corals), endosymbionts (corals) and several other items on the list.

Day 10: Snorkeling is Probably My Favorite Thing Ever

I like a lot of things. Actually, I’m a little too obsessed with many things – I’ve always been the type of person who enjoys many hobbies and who uses said hobbies to procrastinate doing my actual work. But I think my actual favorite thing in the whole wide world is snorkeling.

We snorkeled for 3 or 4 hours today, and although I was soooo physically worn out, I could have gone for more. (Also, do you understand how amazing that is for me? I did rigorous physical activity for MULTIPLE HOURS and I WASN’T EVEN MAD AT IT?!?! I swear, if I lived on an island I’d have the beach bod of all beach bods.

The day started off with an excellent breakfast of cheese, fresh avocado, johnnycakes (biscuits but better), and fresh fruit. I think we’re all getting a little spoiled on the food here because it has been consistently delicious. AhhhHH

After filling up our fuel tanks, we met to practice a data collection technique that is commonly used by field ecologists to obtain random samples along a straight line section of an area. We used devices called quadrats, which are basically square grids that we made of plastic tubing a string, to sample small chunks of the ocean floor. Before getting into the water, we practiced laying out the transect tape (a huge tape measure that tells us the line along which we will measure) on land.

When we’d become sufficient at conducting transects on land, we moved to the water to practice. And when we became used to snorkeling while carrying 1058593 pieces of equipment, Scott deemed us ready to go conduct some real life transects on some patch reefs at a nearby island.

Today’s project aimed to compare the live hard coral coverage between Marine Protected Areas and non- Marine Protected Areas. We first stopped at a reef inside the MPA. We hopped off the boat into water that was the absolute perfect temperature for swimming. It was maybe 30 ft deep, but rapidly transitioned to being 2 or 3 ft deep once we hit the actual reef.

A beautiful coral formation I found at the patch reef!

After conducting our transects there, we had a little bit of free time to look around. I spent the time looking under rocks and in crevices for sea urchins. I actually found so many! There were all tucked away in dark areas so I didn’t dare to stick my finger in to try to pull them out. They were sooo cute, like little sea hedgehogs clinging to the rock faces. I LOVE MY TAXONOMIC GROUP WOW.

Scott picked up a baby one for me to see at the second reef we stopped at today. I think it’s Echinometra lucunter, a rock boring urchin. It crawled across my hand and waved its little tube feet at me. I think I cried a little because it was so frickin adorable.

If you look closely at my hands, you can see a tiny sea urchin! 🙂

Anyway, if you couldn’t tell already, I thoroughly enjoyed myself today. I just loved watching the bustling ecosystem beneath me, with soft corals waving in the current and tiny colorful fish darting between them. This is insane. I can’t wait to get back out tomorrow.




Wrapping up

Our last day at Glovers has been bittersweet. We wrapped things up by collecting specimens from the backreef and bringing them into the wet lab for sorting and identification. While I did see several split crown feather dusters they are not the kind of thing you can remove from the reef without killing the organism because of how they attach to the substrate. However, we collected several fish, blue crabs, tiny brown crabs, all kinds of green, brown, and red algae, mantis shrimp, jellies, clam shells, and a huge hermit crab.

Yesterday we collected data on specific coral colonies for a long term study. We measured live coral coverage, and today we looked at the data for the same corals taken last year to compare the results. We found that coverage seemed to have decreased at the sites, but it was hard to tell because of discrepancies in data collection. Lastly, we dissected lionfish that were caught throughout the week to look at size, sex and stomach contents to get an idea of what the population of this invasive species looks like in Glovers atoll.

I wish I had more time on the reef and in this course. Middle caye and the surrounding reefs are beautiful and I feel like I could stay here for a long time. I may be salty, all my laundry is filthy, and I definitely have a whole new threshold for dirty, but I’m still happy as a clam.




Sophia Streeter


Corals, Past and Present

Day 10 was our first real day at Glover’s reef atoll. We started out with a snorkeling scavenger hunt on two of the patch reefs near the dock. It was so fun! Some especially exciting finds included a small barracuda in the sea grass beds, many bluestriped grunts all over the reefs, a yellowtail snapper, and damselfish defending their “gardens”. We didn’t see all of the organisms or processes on the checklist, but hopefully we will in the next few days.

After doing some transect and quadrat practice on land, we took these to the water post lunch to try and quantify two genera of green algae: Halimeda and Penicillus. Lying out the transects and counting the algae in the sea grass beds was really difficult, but hopefully it gave us good practice for doing it on the coral reefs.

We saw some really cool species during our afternoon snorkeling. Two nurse sharks were spotted. One was small and swimming around the dock. The other was apparently much larger and farther out past the sea grass beds, but I was a little too slow to see it! We also saw some more barracudas, and another ray. Unfortunately, my camera died, so pictures might be a bit sparse after this (yes Papi I know, I should’ve brought the GoPro).

I can’t believe how much we did today! After our second snorkel, we headed to a coral graveyard on the other side of the island. There we found the ground covered in fossilized coral pieces, so well preserved that we could see the details of specific species. It was both beautiful and a little sad, as some of the coral species seen in the fossils are now very rare. It served as a good reminder of the work to be done in order to save these fragile ecosystems.

Fossilized stony coral
Fossilized stony coral