Tag Archives: Course wrap-up

Holy Smokes! (A look back at the past two weeks)

In both the rainforest and the reef we observed great amounts of biodiversity. Both these places are located in the tropics which receive more direct sunlight than more northern ecosystems. Having lots of available sunlight allows for more plants and therefore there is more energy available to species that eat plants which could be why we saw so many different levels of herbivores and carnivores. Wow, that’s some science right there.

In both places, trees formed a vital part of the ecosystems (canopy and mangroves) and in both species have developed adaptions to compete and live in close quarters. In both areas we also found endangered species and invasive species, which though the causes for each habitat being endangered differ, both stem back to humans (sigh).

I expected more structure to our research, but was pleasantly surprised when we were allowed to pursue topics that interested us.  My favorite parts of the course were mostly in the rainforest- finding tarantulas at night, going into the cave, and getting to see all sort of different beetles, butterflies, and other things we don’t see around Houston. I found on this trip that I do not enjoy underwater research, in particular counting strands of seagrass was a low point, but it was still a good chance to learn what marine biologists do.

The most poignant moment for me on this trip was the trash collection activity on the last day- I was blown away by how much we collected and how much remained.  Also in preparing for my presentation, I learned about seagrass and mangroves and how they are actually vital for reefs and land ecosystems. I also went into the trip with a generally negative opinion of ants, but Scott’s passion and fun facts converted me to the cult of the ant. In particular I thought the leaf cutter ants were cool as they have super complex social structures, architecture, and they have little ant highway which somehow manage to be less chaotic than Houston’s own during rush hour.

Species seen:


Morelet’s Tree Frog, Mexican Tree Frog, Broad Headed Rain Frog, Campbell’s Rainforest Toad, Gulf Coast Toad


Orange-tipped hermit crab, green climbing gall crab, giant hermit crab, furcate spider crab, spiny lobster, miscellaneous shrimp, blue land crab, blue land hermit crab

Belize, you will be missed

Now that I am home, I can say that I do not miss waking up to more bug bites, and just walking outside and not having bugs bite me is nice. I woke up today and had a bagel, so back to the normal meals, and no more Belize food *cries*.

Things I have learned on this trip:  Lots of different species in both the rainforest and coral reef ecosystems that are well hidden unless you take a good look at it (camouflage is next level here).  Ants have such complex nests, a great “highway” system, great communication, and a great protection of their nest. These ants depend on the fungus and the ants will do anything to protect it and the queen. Marine debris continue to push onto islands and many things can be done (avoid single use plastics, don’t litter, recycle, etc.) to prevent marine debris from entering our oceans. Save our planet was a big point emphasized on our last day at Glover’s.

Picture 1: Featuring the well hidden stick-bug (Phasmatodea) and Bella!

Picture 2: My face in amazement.

Similarities between Coral Reefs and Tropical Rain forests include: Tropic distribution, nutrient poor environment, year-round growing season, intense competition for space, high structural complexity, and many symbiotic relationships.  Both ecosystems also are nutrient poor, but they overcome this by finding nutrients in their own inhabitants. Nutrient cycling takes place by decomposers or in coral reefs, by corals and sponges. Both ecosystems are not only threatened by natural dangers such as the changing environment but also direct human threats. Whether we like it or not, we shape the environment and the environment shapes us. With all of these similarities, the similarities are present due to the pressure in which these many species have. These species are trying to survive and only the fittest survive, thus more evolutionary changes, which leads to more diversification.

Yet these two share similarities, they also share differences. I have noticed that the differences between the two ecosystems is likely to be due to differences in the the degree of past disturbances than to differences of the competitive displacement during the recovery from the disturbances.

Picture: Image showing many epiphytes and example of competition for space.

Since the tropical rain forest ecosystem has vast amounts of trees, most of the animal life here are highly evolved for life in trees, and so have many plants! I have observed this many time since my taxonomic group was epiphytes and they grow all along trees to get sunlight.

Picture: Coloration of fish makes them hard to find!

I have noticed that the reef contains many small nooks among the coral, many fish have adapted a body type to be able to fit in these small crevices. Instead of being built for speed (don’t get me wrong, these fish are still fast), reef fish seem to be flatter and more maneuverable. These fish are also brightly colored for both camouflage and mating (very very cool coloration!)

Picture: Image showing many corals and and example of competition for space.

This course exceeded my expectations in many ways. Before coming into the trip, I thought this little 3oz bottle of bug spray would last me the whole trip, and boy was I wrong. I thought snorkeling would be hard, and boy was i wrong. It is so much easier than swimming since you are constantly afloat (that is if you breathe). I did not know how much fun we would have throughout the day, yes we did do lots of work, but it was a great balance of fun and work!

It is so hard to just pick one thing that stood out to me throughout this course. I had many highlights of the course such as: Dr. Solomon showing us around a leaf cutter ant nest, Brendan and Keegan fighting, Amanda’s crazy quick identification of corals, and obviously the food. Least favorite parts would have to be just getting sunburnt and all the bug bites, but hey it’s nature, so I should not complain since I already miss is and I would in fact go back and do it all again (but this time MORE BUG SPRAY).

Things I will remember 5 years from now: Brendan’s mating call, all the bug bites I accumulated on day one at Glover’s, holding the boa constrictor, Keegan and Brendan constantly lying to me, Kaela’s pizza story, “Turn around” Brendan’s newest single, and HOW THE FOOD IS SO GOOD.

Picture: Brendan’s mating call (what a man).

Wow team epiphytes for the win. Will definitely miss all the times were we tried hand signaling under water, but hey we tried. On our last few data collections, we did use hand signals, but it was mostly, “Hey Pierce got get the quadrat” or “Are you okay” to even IM CHILLIN as in “I’m good”. Communication is key and under water communication is harder yet a great experience, or as Pierce would say “A good time”.

Most important section alert!! FOR FUTURE TFB’s: You guys are for a treat! This class as a whole was so much fun, and EVERYONE was so nice and welcoming. Things you should triple check before you leave: Passport, LOTS of: Bug spray, baby oil, and sunscreen, long sleeve shirts, and a hat. This will definitely help with all the ticks at Las Cuevas and the Death of the mangroves at Glover’s. Come ready to be tired 24/7, and ready to learn since you will definitely learn a lot!

Team Epiphyte

Thank you guys for all the great memories. Oh and thank you to the fans that read the blogs! You guys are the Best!!


  • Black Orchid (Encyclia cochleate)
  • Strangler fig (ficus aurea)
  • Green sword (Werauhia gladioliflora)
  • Lianas
  • leaf like lichens (Flavoparmelia caperata)
  • Scoliosorus ensifmis
  • Cochlidium Serrulatum
  • Elaphoglossum latum
  • Radiovittaria stipitata
  • Vittaria
  • Trichomanes
  • Asplenium formosum
  • Alansmia sensilis
  • Ahaecistopteris


  • Horned feather duster (Spirobranchus giganteus)
  • Bearded fireworm (Hermodice carunculate)
  • Spaghetti worm (Eupolymnia crassicornis)
  • Split crown feather duster (Anamobaea orstedii)
  • Social feather duster (Bispira brunnea)
  • Medusa worm (Loimia medusa)
  • Shy feather duster (Megalomma sabellida)

No One Leaves Belize Scott-Free: My Love Letter to Belize

It’s hard to imagine that a country as small as Belize can contain such vastly different environments, which we were lucky enough to experience. The rainforest and the reef are both such fascinating views into the diversity of life, each with their own unique organisms that we humans depend on. Every time we saw something we didn’t recognize, I couldn’t help but wonder if we were the first people to ever come across it, since the sheer number of organisms in the rainforest and reef make that a possibility each time we stepped out onto the field. Even though I’ve always known how important both of these ecosystems are, I never really understood the impact they have on us until I experienced them through the eyes of a biologist.

Despite this similarity, these ecosystems were still so different. We faced unique problems in each environment that often required us to think outside of our comfort zone to answer the questions we posed. Each time we tried to solve a question, we encountered multiple other problems that we had to come together to find a solution for. In the rainforest, this was often because of just a lack of knowledge about all the organisms that were there, like in To Pee or Not to Pee with our vast number of insect morphologies. In the reef, the main problem was learning how to collect data while snorkeling. Communication became so much harder underwater and making sure that you were identifying the right organism became more complex. Despite these challenges, we always worked together to find the best solution.

I came into this course with pretty much no idea what to expect, which I think was a good thing because I never would’ve been able to guess the crazy things we’d experience. I expected to learn about the rainforest and the reef, but we also learned so much about living in research stations, caring about the environment, and working together as a group. At first, my least favorite part about this trip was how isolated I felt being in the rainforest with no internet and no way to contact anyone outside the group. However, this became less and less of an issue as the days went on and actually became something that I enjoyed. We became really close as a group and I felt like I learned so much about everyone because of how close we were to each other. Working in such a close knit group became my favorite part of the course because we were able to joke and talk with each other so comfortably. I’ll always remember this group as some of the greatest people that I’ve met at Rice.

There are a lot of things that I learned from this trip that I’ll remember for years to come. One was that despite how much you think you know about conservation and protecting the environment, there’s always more to learn and experience. Our marine debris project really showed me just how much more work we have to do to clean up the reefs and protect them for future generations. The second one is that there’s always more to an environment that you don’t always see at first. From the leaf cutter ants to the camera traps we set out, we were always finding out about hidden worlds that, even though we didn’t see them at first, still hold such importance. The last thing that I learned comes from something Andressa mentioned to me in Las Cuevas. She said it was crazy how this trip had shown that literally anyone can become friends. Despite our different backgrounds and experiences, all it took was a love for nature for all of us to become close friends. I was surprised by how true this was but extremely grateful that it was.

Overall, this course was everything I hoped it would be and more. I’m extremely impressed that everyone was able to put up with my terrible jokes and lame stories for two weeks, so kudos to all of you guys. Everyone on this trip and everyone we met in Belize played such a huge role in making this trip so memorable. There’s really no way to end this but with a culmination of my worst joke this trip:

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