Tag Archives: Crustaceans

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:

Amphibians:

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

Crustaceans:

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

May 26th – Chaotic Night Snorkeling

I was still sick this morning so I stayed back and slept while everyone else went out to survey the local sea urchin populations. At noon everyone returned for lunch and then we made a poster using that data and had our lectures.

By dinner time I was feeling back to normal, so I ended up going out with the group for a night dive. It was pretty chaotic because we couldn’t find the reef in the dark and it felt like we were swimming forever. While we were out, we saw a huge spotted eagle ray and a pufferfish in the sea grass. When we finally got to the patch reef there were tons of spiny lobsters out hunting and we could see lots of shrimp darting through the water.

I’m pretty sure I also saw some sort of large true crab in the sea grass but it was pretty far away so I didn’t really get a good look at it for identification purposes. Tomorrow is our last full day in Belize and there is no more snorkeling left, I have to admit I’m ready to go home though I’m sure in retrospect this will all seem fun.

May 25th – I am a Landlubber

This morning we finally got our procedures streamlined (well as streamlined as you can get taking data under water) for the last 2 locations we were studying, plus Bella and I finished early and so had time to look at the reefs more. From my taxon grouping we found another spiny lobster, and this time I actually could see his full body. We also found a moray eel swimming around the corals.
After lunch we went back out to take advantage of flat water and went to the fore reef (the side closest to the ocean drop off). At first it was cool because we were looking into the abyss but quickly the large waves and the pressure from diving down without properly decompressing got to me and I started feeling sick. I managed to hold it together while we were out there, which was good because we saw a large nurse shark, 2 squids, and a flounder, but by the time we got back on the boat and into shore I felt terrible.

If you look carefully you can see a shark

I threw up 4 times since getting off the boat and I still feel dizzy and nauseous so I’m going to bed early in the hopes that I won’t feel so dead tomorrow when we go out again. I’m starting to realize how much I do not want to be a marine biologist on this trip, but hey, that narrows it down slightly.

May 28th – Travel Purgatory

This morning we woke up, ate breakfast at 5am, and got onto the boat taking us back to civilization. To get back to Rice it was a 3 hour boat ride, then an hour wait, a 30 minute van ride, a 2.5 hour wait, a 3 hour flight, and a 45 minute bus ride. On the plane ride, the movie Aquaman was playing, and I kept finding myself judging the producers for their inaccurate display of the wildlife. That was the moment I realized tropical field biology had finally pushed me over the edge into academic lunacy.

By the time I finally got home, I didn’t even take my long awaited shower, but instead ate some chips and salsa and then crashed in bed. It was a great experience, but I’m pretty sure I’m going to need to hibernate to make up for all the lost sleep from the past couple weeks.

May 27th – Human Sacrifices to the Mosquitoes

Our last day at Glover’s was spent entirely on land (thankfully). This morning we collected trash to determine the composition of trash on the island and where the majority of it collects. My group were the designated human sacrifices to the mosquitoes in the “mangroves of death” so our 30 minute collection time was spent doing some complex gymnastics around tree roots and while drenched in deet based products. It was kind of sad how much trash we took and still barely made a dent in the stuff accumulated there. The 12 of us collected over 3500 pieces of trash in 30 minutes and of those the vast majority were plastics such as bottles, plastic cutlery, toothbrushes, and flip flops that had washed ashore from the ocean currents in the Caribbean. Another sad finding was a hermit crab that was using some kind of plastic cap as a shell and crabs that had built plastic into the walls of their burrows.
After our collections and sorting, we opened up a few coconuts and ate their meat as a reward for our sweaty efforts.
After lunch we dissected the 5 lion fish that Scott, Javier, and Herbie had speared as they are invasive in the Atlantic. We then took that meat and turned it into a seviche while we were in lectures.  I one again determined that seafood in any form is not my jam, although I do concede it was well prepared.

Lionfish Ceviche

This evening we had a powwow on the dock and we were watching the shrimp darting around the dock light and looking for rrays and at one point I turned around and there was a huge nurse shark right next to the dock checking out the light. What a way to wrap up the day! Tomorrow we have an early start to a full day of travel back to the US, so off to bed I go.

May 24th – Happy Birthday to Me

I celebrated my 21st birthday today on Glover’s Reef! Today, we went to two separate sites on the boat to do more work with the quadrats this morning and got to look around the patch reefs some more. The only crustacean I saw while out on the reef was a yellow line arrow crab, but I couldn’t get up close enough to take his picture because he was hiding under an overhang deep down. I did find a long -spined sea urchin while out though, and Bella and I swam right by a school of blue tang.

After lunch we did a wading activity in the seagrass nearby our laboratory where we all filled buckets with as much as we could find in an hour. I ended up finding 2 Donkey Dung Sea Cucumbers, a few different kinds of sponge, an anemone, 3 types of urchin, a conch, and unfortunately for my hands, a fireworm which I didn’t realize releases sharp barbs into your hand until it was too late. I also found what I thought was a sea anemone in a shell but when we took it back to the lab we determined it was a Pygmy Atlantic octopus instead! Our class also found a bunch of crustaceans for me to examine including what I ID’d as green gall climbing crabs, spider furcate crabs, an orange clawed hermit crab, and a mantis shrimp. There were also all of these tiny hermit crabs with blue tipped legs that I couldn’t determine since they weren’t anything I’d seen in my research and weren’t in the reef book, possibly because I focused my research on coral crab species not necessarily those we’d find in dense sea grass thickets.

At dinner I was surprised with a huge card the whole class had signed and a chocolate cake with white frosting… it was so nice and the cake was delicious (also as a side note the ladies in the kitchen made some delicious soul food tonight which I also really appreciated). Now off to bed because I’m so freaking tired.

Cake!

May 23rd – A shark and a ray

Day two on the reef was a lot less anxiety inducing than day one. In the morning we learned about how the different tools for taking coral coverage measurements work and practiced on land on one of the coral graveyards nearby. While we were taking measurements I found a Black Sea urchin which I returned to sea, except don’t tell Keegan because I forgot to show him before releasing him and that’s his taxon group. After lunch, we suited up and took the same tools out into the water and took measurements for the sea grass beds nearby. I kept getting water in my snorkel from trying to stay underwater for as long as possible to count all the grass, but luckily Bella and I were an efficient duo and thus finished early and got to check out the patch reef. While out there we spotted a spotted eagle ray and a nurse shark, and in my own taxon group we found a spiny lobster, though we could only see it’s long antennae peeking out so couldn’t tell if it was spotted or not. We also found a number more blue hermit crabs on land throughout the day and I spent a good 20 minutes trying to catch the speedy blue land crabs which live in holes beneath the bushes and come out at night. In the morning it looks like we were invaded by a bunch of rogue mountain bikers because of all the crab tracks on the sand. 

May 22nd – First Day in Glover’s Reef

This morning when I woke up I found a tree frog hiding in the bathroom- funny how they were so well hidden in the rainforest and then here this guy was when I wasn’t even looking. He was an incredible jumper and managed to land on my shirt from the toilet even though he was less than an inch long. After we left the hotel, we drove into Belize City where we boarded the boat taking us to Glover’s Reef. It was a 3 hour boat ride which got quite turbulent after crossing over the barrier reef, but I enjoyed the sensation which was quite like a pirate ship amusement park ride.
When we got to the island, we got an orientation tour of the facilties. This place is amazing. It’s right on the beach by all the reefs, is a UNESCO world heritage site, and we have the place all to ourselves (well, along with the Belizean Coast Guard members stationed on the island to prevent illegal fishing). We went for our first two snorkels, which was quite chaotic with the wind and our lack of experience. My underwater paper fell off my clipboard, I kept almost being swept into the reef, and at one point me and my snorkel partner found ourselves accidentally several hundred meters from the group. We also had to trek/ run as fast as we could through the “mangroves of death” so called because of the horrifying amounts of mosquitos in there.
The good news is, I think my taxon group will be much easier to spot than amphibians were in the rainforest. Already, the crustaceans are coming on strong. The shoreline is covered in blue land hermit crabs and crabs. I’ve yet to see a crustacean in the ocean as we only really got a short amount of time in the water and most of it was spent learning how to take notes underwater, but the conditions are right for crustaceans so you can expect a lot more crab enthusiasm on my part!

Blue Land Crab

In 24 hours we’ll be in Belize!

My snorkel gear has been bought, the rain boots packed, and now I have a blog… it looks like I’m ready to go. Tuesday, May 14th, I’m going to be heading out to study ecology in the rainforests and coral reefs of Belize. More specifically, our group will be spending the first week at Las Cuevas research station in the Chiquibul Forest before moving to Glover’s Reef Atoll for the second week. This is an experience which I hope will help me decide whether I’d enjoy field research in ecology after graduation.

My two previous experiences in the tropics consist of a family cruise I went on in high school in which we were whisked between touristy beaches and all you can eat buffets, and a mission trip I went on to urbanized Honduras in which I spent the week knocking cockroaches off my suitcase and desperately trying to avoid ingesting tap water while in the shower. Neither of these experiences lend me much relevant knowledge for our research, however, the former did provide me with at least a background in using a snorkel and fins.

In preparation for this trip I have read A Natural History of Belize: Inside the Maya Forest by Samuel Bridgewater, a book that gives a broad overview of the history, geology, and biology of the area of rainforest we are studying. If nothing else, the book has provided me with enough fun facts about exotic plants and animals to last a lifetime. I also have read up a bit about types of corals and the threats they face due to storms and human activity. I am going to be focusing on amphibians in the rainforest and crustaceans when we go to the reef, and so have prepared cards to help me identify them. I’ve come to the conclusion that there are a seemingly endless variety of frogs and toads that I could see, well 22, but that’s still a whole lot of frogs. Do a rain dance for me so they all come out, because I would love to see a Mexican Burrowing Toad.

A couple weeks ago we practiced our snorkeling skills in the Rec center pool (I’m sure much to the delight of those who wanted to take a swim) and went to the Houston Zoo as a group to get a visual for the kinds of snakes to expect, especially the ones that are venomous. Not usually one to feel uneasy in the woods, the idea of a lancehead bite has certainly given me much to think about since then.

In addition to not wanting to be medevaced out of Belize, another source of uneasiness in my preparations is about the rigor of the schedule. Though I am one to appreciate nature and am excited for this adventure, I’ve been informed us that the days tend to be quite full and so I’m a little worried about not getting enough sleep. But, at the same time, it’s only 2 weeks, so even if it is exhausting I can tell myself that every morning when I am forced to rise before my prefered noon wakeup.

I am so very excited to get to go to Belize (and miraculously get credit hours while doing it!). Of the hundreds of things I am excited for, I am actually most excited to hear the noises of the Chiquibul at night, because at least according to what I’ve read, this is when you can hear the monkeys, frogs, and insects off in the distance, a chorus foreign to me, as I have only slept outside in east coast deciduous forests populated by few species of animal and many loud hikers.

 

Wrap-up blog (I wasn’t the clever title person on this trip)

Now I’m back home, enjoying air-conditioning and incredibly fast image upload speeds to the blog, but missing the beauty of the tropics. A sea of identical suburban rooftops just doesn’t compare to the actual sea.

The rainforest and the reef are two extremely diverse ecosystems despite their low nutrient availability (like I talked about for my lecture on rainforest soils). Because nutrients are hard to come by, organisms are able to fill many different small niches where nutrients are more available. In addition, neither of these ecosystems are low energy. Their proximity to the equator means they have lots of solar energy pumping in all year long. That light is converted into more accessible energy by plants in both ecosystems. One striking similarity that I noticed in both of these ecosystems is that, despite their extreme diversity, seeing moving animals is surprisingly difficult. As you walk through the rainforest, you see very few mammals or reptiles or birds, a good number of insects, but still surprisingly few. The same was true for the reef, the fish and crustaceans and echinoderms blend in so well you often can’t see them.

Overall, this course was everything I expected and more. I came in with a vague expectation to do a little research and learn about the environments we would be surrounded by. I didn’t expect to be designing, implementing, and presenting experiments all in the same day. I also hadn’t even thought to expect how much fun this trip was. My favorite part of the course was definitely hiking through the rainforest and finding insects I knew a surprising amount about despite having never seen them before. I hadn’t realized that because I knew a good bit about one insect species I study at school I could extend that knowledge to related insects I’d never even heard of. (Hemipterans are dope!) My least favorite part of the course was swimming through the reefs. The reefs were absolutely amazing to look at, but I was always afraid of damaging everything around me. The coral reefs are famous for being in danger and as we snorkeled through them I often felt like touching anything might destroy everything. Sometimes swimming through the reefs I worried that we were doing more harm than good. The fish and the corals were beautiful and I don’t want to do anything to hurt them.

The three most important things I learned in this course were how specific knowledge can become general knowledge, how little we actually know about both of these ecosystems, and how important these ecosystems are and how closely linked they are to the entire world. I’ve already talked about the first one a little bit but finding two true bugs nobody recognized and being able to identify that they were nymphs and recognize their body plan was crazy. I could look at these two bugs and I knew what body parts to measure to quantify their size because I’d measured something similar many times before. It was really cool to see the effects of common ancestry implemented. The second thing I realized as we were all trying to identify our species. In the rainforest with birds, pretty much everything was identified, but many of the insects had little to no information available. Most of the taxon id cards featured genera at best and the books we had on tropical insects focused almost exclusively on butterflies, despite the broad diversity of everything else. In the coral reefs, I struggled to find information online about shrimp and crabs and was unable to identify plenty of organisms because they were small or because I didn’t have the right books or because they simply weren’t really described anywhere. Because these two ecosystems have so much diversity and because many of these organisms are so well hidden, information is often inaccessible unless you are an expert in a very specific field, if the information exists at all. The last of the three big things I learned is how both of these ecosystems are closely linked to everywhere else. From the reading before the course, we learned that the xatè palm is harvested from the Chiquibul forest to be used in flower arrangements. From the experiment we did with trash and from Andressa’s presentation, we learned that trash from all over the world can get moved by the wind and water and wind up in the ocean. While we are often unintentionally doing these (and many other) harmful things to the tropics, the tropics are doing surprisingly important things for us. The rainforest is an important CO2 processor and a source of many medicines. The coral reefs act as nurseries for fish that spend their adult lives all across the oceans. Without either of these ecosystems, humans would be worse off and the world would be less beautiful.

Now that I’m home, I get to reminisce about the great experience I just had and implement my new found knowledge and understanding.