Wow! This was an amazing experience! I am so grateful I was fortunate enough to take this class and am so happy I chose to! To anyone considering taking it, do it! I learned more in this class than in a semester-long one because this is experiential learning, which at least for me, helps me learn and enjoy it so much more.
I learned a lot about rainforest and coral reef ecosystems. They are both so diverse and can host such a large range of creatures. Before, I may have only thought about rainforests as trees or coral reefs as hard corals. Now, I think of them as the entire flora and fauna body that thrives from its structures. A lot of their similarities in hosting many trophic webs stems from the fact that they are so diverse. I think it was easier to notice how diverse the coral reefs were because you could see better all the different creatures. The rainforest is more dense and larger animals can hide easier, so it was harder to notice this. Also, both ecosystems are threatened by global warming, pollution, human interactions, or other interferences. This was more noticeable in the coral reefs as well because you could see all the dead corals and compare to the non-protected site, while you could not see that as easily in the rainforest.
This course was so much better than my expectation. I was nervous that I may not fully understand everything since I have not taken any other EBIO courses, but it easily laid out how to conduct field research and taught me so much about the ecosystems in play. My favorite part of the course was the comparison of the marine protected area site and the not marine protected area site because it was interesting to see the differences. I also loved looking for crustaceans and identifying them because they are easier to see up close than birds. OH AND SHARKS. My least favorite part was just how exhausted I was at the end of the day and probably all the bugs, but that is to be expected and is outweighed by all the positives.
The three most important things I learned in this course are how to design my own question and analyze my data, different methods of research (quadrant/transact, camera traps, pitfall traps), and how to make meaningful observations. I’ve taken labs before (biochemistry labs) but this class really helped me design a significant question and learn how to follow through on it all the way to a poster. I also had no idea how to do any EBIO methods until this class and it was an interesting contrast to all my normal lab work. Finally, using my field notebook and taxon cards helped me learn to keep my eyes open and observe what is around me because even small details matter.
The most surprising part of this class for me was how close I became with everyone else on the trip and how much fun we could all have while still learning! TAKE THIS CLASS!!!!
Crying internally because today we left Glovers Reef. I am going to miss snorkeling and finding random things like a donkey dung, a crustacean, or using my lovely quadrant.
We got to snorkel in mangroves on the way back to Belize City at least and even saw a seahorse and a manatee. I saw one mangrove crab today camouflaged really well, but that was the last crustacean I have seen.
When we arrived at the Tropical Education Center most people went for a hike, but I did not feel great so I slept it off and it was much needed. When I woke up I felt somewhat better, but I got to see a few birds including a thicket tinamous pitched on a branch about the pond. Its body shape (and the diagrammed picture of it on the observation tower) were what easily gave it away.
We went to the zoo at night and I saw a few birds. They were mostly owls including the spectacle and pygmy owl. The pygmy owl was tiny and adorable and tiny. This might have been overshadowed by my love of the tapir that we got to feed. It is just so weird looking and interesting to watch.
I am realizing how buggy the next week is about to be and how little bug spray I have left. Wish me luck.
So today we went snorkeling for the whole morning and I finally saw the coolest crab that I’ve been dying to see. I saw the yellow line arrow crab which looks like a spider with a top hat and gloves on and I love it. He was missing a pincer and was a little feisty and resistant to being grabbed but it was still cool.
I also saw 4 sharks!!!! I think my life has peaked… Also saw a spotted sun eel which was cool but sharks are better.
In the afternoon we dissected lionfishes that Scott and Javier caught. I named mine Darth Vader so I wouldn’t feel about cutting it up. Turns out Darth Vader is an infertile juvenile female, but Darth still tastes great as ceviche!
This was out last day at Middle Caye in Glovers Reef Atoll. This was the most fun day we’ve had by far and I don’t want to leave, but I am excited for the rainforest. I want to see some cool birds, but hopefully I can identify them… there are a whole lot of birds so we will see.
I saw a small shark in the sea grass (only 1 ft.) and I pet him and it was soon cool!!! Also, Hermy our trash crab died today before we could find him a shell and it was sad. BUT we made a new friend named Squishy the baby octopus!!!
In regards to my taxon, crustaceans, I saw a boat load today (hehe get it, boat load). I saw one spotted pony lobster and four Caribbean spiny lobsters. Adrienne pushed one of the lobsters out of its hiding place in the coral from its tickle spot and I saw the full Caribbean spiny. It as really cool and came up to me, not afraid at all. Finally, it retreated.
I also got to hold a Batwing Coral Crab which was super cute. It had a rounded carapace and really pretty patterns on it. I had to hold it from the back end so it would not bite me.
We brought a bunch of little crabs, one shrimp, and one water louse back to the wet lab and I was able to look at it up close. The shrimp was a Ciliated False Squilla (a type of mantis shrimp). It tried to attack the crabs so we had to move it to its own area. The water louse was weird and reminded me of head lice and was scary. Mostly it was fine and moved quickly. The name still grosses me out.
Additionally, I found 3 green porcelain crabs, 3 mangrove crabs, and 2 decorator crabs. They were all fighting and trying to camouflage on top of each other. Eventually, I put them back in the ocean but a school of fish came by and possibly ate them. So all my children are dead now. BUT I STILL PET A SHARK so life is alright currently.
I held so many crabs today. Today was a big day for crustaceans. I found a juvenile Caribbean spiny lobster molt and it was much more intact than I expected. Also the spines on it were very sharp.
We found a big piece of wood that we brought onto shore because it was disturbing the reef. On shore, I noticed so many crabs!!! I picked up a few and brought them back to the wet lab on the island and filled a bucket with salt water for them. When they got in the water they all came together probably to try to camouflage themselves.
Two of them were species I had never seen before. They looked like green algae and were fuzzy. Their carapace was also more pointed which is very different. It felt weird to hold them in my hands, they tickled.
In the afternoon we picked up trash and collected data on it. In one of the trash piles collected we noticed a land hermit crab hiding inside a styrofoam cap. This makes it very vulnerable to predators because it is easily taken out of its “shell.” We are in the process of finding Hermy (thats what we named it) a shell.
Overall, it was a pretty good day with some free time at night and I can go to bed early (-ish)!
I SAW A SHARK. I SAW A SHARK. I SAW A SHARK. I SAW A SHARK!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! So yeah, that happened today, highlight of my life.
Today we compared the data we have been collected between the marine protected area (MPA) and non-protected area patch reefs. Using various methods and just observations it became clear that the MPS was healthier in regards to urchin abundance, less algae, and from out observations it looked healthier with more abundant corals.
While doing these investigations today, I saw a Caribbean Spiny Lobster hiding under a coral reef around 11 AM probably because they are nocturnal. It was easily found because of its large antennas sticking out of the crevice that alerted me to it.
I am pretty sick of of land hermit crabs and blue land crabs by now. They are everywhere. I am started to map out their general locations because I have realized that they tend to stay in patches. So far, I have noticed that the blue hermit crabs like to be in grassier areas especially behind the showers while the land hermit crabs dominate a certain trail that heads off of the main path.
I am tired, I am itchy, but I am happy because this has been such a unique experience so far.
Day 3, and I have learned that bugs hate me and that fire coral is mean. I think I jinxed myself by saying I did not have any bug bites because now I am covered. Plus I bumped some fire coral so my rear is itchy and hurts, making fire coral my least favorite coral. Pseudodiploria labrinthiformis is easily my favorite though and I have been finding and identifying it!
Back in the world of crabs, I have stopped getting overly excited over land hermit crabs now. I counted 213 of those little guys just today. There is one part of the trail that is just land hermit crabs (184 in one place). They seem to be very spotty on the island as to where they are most found. We tried to quantify their per square meter space on the island using quadrants and a transact, but it resulted in very little crabs and brac holes being recorded when in actuality they are everywhere.
I also saw a mangrove crab today on the pillar of the dock. It was camouflaged above a bunch of algae. A few minutes prior I noticed two unidentified crabs. They were two hermit crabs on a turtle sea grass leaf very close together and moving up the leaf. From their shells I first thought they were mollusks but then I noticed their blue pincers sticking out. I am not sure what type of hermit crab has blue pincers, but they were interesting to watch.
AND OF COURSE, I saw some more blue land crabs at night. They are really much more accustomed to humans than I had imagined they would be. They don’t even run away when walk by or even when I run at them.
Well the benedryl I just took for the fire coral is kicking in and I’m about to sleep for days… well really only like 7 hours but thats alright.
It’s day two and we arrived at Middle Caye in Glovers Reef Atoll. Surprisingly for waking up at 5 am, I’m still energetic about everything we are doing. Sadly my camera broke today, so I will be using others’ photos or mooching off their camera.
To get to Glovers Reef we took a bus to Belize City and then a 3 hour boat ride. On the bus, I saw another Great Heron in a marshy area of the savannah. It was bobbing around and moving in circles, but I wasn’t able to view it for long enough to see what exactly it was trying to do. Also as soon as we hit water, I noticed dozens of Brown Pelicans pitched on the dock or wading in water looking for fish.
Once we got to Glovers I suddenly realized that crustaceans, and specifically crabs, are everywhere and it would not be too difficult to find them. There is literally a trail called hermit crab trail where land hermit crabs just wonder around. The largest I encountered was around the size of a softball and the smallest was smaller than a quarter. My encounters of them have usually consisted of me noticing them and the crabs scurrying into the bushes. The smallest one I saw was a pale color which confirms what I have heard that juveniles are light while adults are red.
When we went snorkeling on a patch reef I found a Spiny Spotted Lobster. It was in the middle of a patch reef hidden beneath a covering. I was able to see it from a hole above and below. Since they are usually nocturnal it was not really doing anything, only slightly moving with my movements.
The night belonged to the Blue Land Crabs. They are surprisingly large and not too afraid of humans. The crabs came out of the underbrush. I made a friend with one and named him crabby (not very original). He started walking towards me and when I walked towards him he jut continued. It looked as if it wanted to figure out what I was. After 5 minutes it finally scurried away. I am currently in the mini library here and I fully expect to see more on my walk back to my room. I am excited to see what other creatures I can find in the next few days!
There’s only a few days left before I leave or Belize and it really has not hit me yet. I am still in Chicago where it was 40 degrees last week and in a few days, I will be in the tropics?! However, I am extremely excited to have this opportunity.
I expect this trip to give me a good look into what field research would be like. My goal for the summer is to figure out what I want to major in because I am currently stuck between biochemistry (bioc) or ecology and evolutionary biology (ebio). I hope this trip gives me a good idea of what research in ecology and evolutionary biology would be like.
So far I have been preparing by reading up on Belize and my assigned organisms. I now know more about crustaceans and birds than I ever thought I would especially since I grew up in downtown Chicago where all I would ever see was maybe a pigeon.
My mother is very nervous about the snakes or random risks associated with the trip, but I am not. I feel like all the animal planet and discovery channel television shows I watched when I was younger about venomous snakes or deadly trips people took in forests should make me think twice about my safety; however, I am more excited than nervous. My only concern is about my dietary restrictions. I am gluten and dairy free and a little nervous about not getting enough food or accidentally eating something contaminated and getting sick.
I am most excited for snorkeling and the caves. I absolutely love being in the ocean and watching all the marine species. Sharks are my favorite animal and I am really hoping to see one. I also think caves are so interesting because they are a hidden form of beauty and shelter. I went in a crystal cave in Bermuda when I was a lot younger, but I have not been since.
My don’t have much experience in the tropics. I have been to the Bahamas and Turks and Caicos which are tropical, but I think they feel different knowing you are on an island. In the Bahamas, I stayed at a resort and did not really explore much of the ecosystems. I went scuba diving in Turks and Caicos and that was amazing. I saw two sharks!! I have never been in a tropical forest which will be super interesting. Overall, I am super excited to go to Belize and learn all about the ecosystems and field research.
The rainforest and the coral reef ecosystems are so different yet so similar. For example both ecosystems are actually relatively low nutrient environments, yet both foster mind boggling biodiversity. All the primary producers are geared to maximize the limited amount of nutrients they have access to. The cecropia trees in the forest grow thin and tall to get through the canopy. The corals in deeper waters grow flat and wide to get as much of what little sun reaches through the abyss.
One of the differences I noticed is that in the forest the primary produces are very abundant and in your face, it takes a little more effort and attention to detail to notice all the things it supports. Whereas in the water the primary produces are less apparent. It takes some careful spotting to sea the macro-algae growing on the sea floor, and you can’t even see the micro-algae that contributes so much to bringing nutrients into the system. But it’s very easy to spot the extremely wide variety of animals supported by these microscopic plankton. This is actually quite different to what I was expecting. I thought I would have see more animal life in the forest, but I felt like I saw more animals in the water. Mainly because sea creatures seem a lot less shy and let you get a lot closer before they skitter away.
My favourite part of the course on land was the the bird watching. It’s a little surreal to wake up before the birds and sun. I feel like birds are the fish of the air. They can go anywhere they want. They seem so free, I’m jealous. The best part of the reef portion was the snorkel at the fore reef. I finally got better at diving, it’s so fun to go down and look at the coral and try to chase the fish around. That spotted eagle ray was insane as well. My least favourite part of the course it that everything else I do in life will seem bland and pale in comparison to these past two weeks. Thanks Scott and Adrienne for ruining the rest of life for me (totally kidding). I honestly loved everything about this. Even the tick and sea flies, it wouldn’t be real without them.
I think the biggest take away for me is that these ecosystems are fragile and needs us protect them from ourselves. And it not just help from biologist or conservationists. Everyone can and should play a part. You don’t have to biologist to be more careful with your trash. You can be a geologist and still help run research stations. You can be an engineer and improve the infrastructure and equipment to aid biologist. I hope I can remember this lesson for the rest of my life and keep playing my part.