Tag Archives: Course wrap-up

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