Today was the busiest day at Las Cuevas so far. In the morning, we compared the plant diversity of a region disturbed by a hurricane a few years ago to an undisturbed area.
In the afternoon, we collected data to see if young Cecropia trees that are not yet colonized by ants have tougher leaves than those that are colonized by ants to avoid herbivory. Cecropia and Azteca ants form a symbiotic relationship where the plant gives the ants a home and carbohydrate source, and the ants protects the Cecropia.
The most interesting Orthoptera I saw was a large group of grasshopper nymphs in the morning. They looked like they were piled on top of each over and formed a ball when I first saw them. I think they were Giant red winged grasshopper nymphs (Tropidacris cristata) because of the yellow aposematic markings on one of them. I also saw a lot of crickets at night, one of which looked like the White-kneed king cricket (Penalva flavocalceata).
Today was a lab day primarily. We collected the traps from an experiment we set up yesterday that involved urine and insect death traps. I know it sounds odd, but it was totally normal for a tropical field biologist. The experimental design we used involved placing two pitfalls on tree trunks, one filled with plain soapy water and one filled with urine (common name: pee-pee). We also placed another pair of traps in the leaf litter to catch floor dwelling insects. All the arthropods (common name: creepy crawlies) that made the unfortunate choice of exploring these traps fell to their deaths.
Our aim was to compare the community composition and the species richness (how many unique species) and abundance (how many individual organisms) of both forest canopy and forest floor species. The urine component was put into our design to collect relevant data on the affinity to nitrogen (found in ammonia in urine) of arthropods in each habitat. Here’s a photo of all the morphospecies I identified!
There are plenty of crickets and their nymphs in this photo, all of which I have not identified to a species level, but rather characterized as unique by certain morphological characters. This process can be difficult because size can vary with age and color/markings with sex. This method of ID is inherently an estimate of true species richness/abundance.
While it may seem esoteric and boring, the data set we compiled after sixteen hours of sampling was truly enlightening. No single way of looking at this data was 100% correct or incorrect, but depending on the statistical methods our group drew radically different conclusions—just another confounding and thought provoking aspect of scientific methods. Complicated, but never boring, the “telling” of the story completely affects the “message” or “moral” of what you are saying. Even in after just under a day of collection we had a TON of information on our hands and it was up to us entirely to make sense of it. Truly exciting.
Today we went into Las Cuevas Cave, which is Spanish means “The Caves Cave.” Cool, but not exactly creative.
Here’s the whole TFB squad with our snazzy headlamps on. This is around when the electronic music began and we all started raving.
This was the first totally dark cave system I have ever explored. The sights and sounds were foreign to say the least.
The entrance to the cave was the only place all day where there was any penetration of natural light. Here cave swifts (birds) hunted for insects in what looked like the most fun method of hunting I have seen here in Belize. They flapped their wings vigorously for a few seconds and then dove down only to catch themselves midair when they ate a bug and repeat the cycle. Fun.
In the cave, life takes on strange forms. With little to no light the organisms here have evolved to survive without seeing much, instead feeling around with their long, slender limbs. For example, we have the cave cricket (pictured here) from the family Raphidophoridae is a bizarre take on the classic cricket. It has a humped back and long antenna for searching the cave in low light conditions. Creepy.