We started off this morning with a refreshing snorkel session at 8:30am. This time we brought out more gear, specifically a clipboard with waterproof paper to take notes of what we saw. There was a general feeling among all of us that the waterproof paper had to be some sort of black magic, but it worked so we stopped questioning it. Holding the clipboard and trying to take photos and write notes while avoiding being pushed into the coral by the currents took a long time to get used to, and I definitely haven’t mastered it.
To make everything more confusing, we added more gear after lunch. We performed a short experiment to practice using transect tapes and quadrats. The question that we were trying to answer was whether Halimeda or Penicillus species had a higher abundance and density in the sea grass off of the pier at Middle Caye. We worked in 6 groups to run transects across the beds of sea grass and counted the number of individuals of each species in quadrats along the transects.
In the end, we found 153 Halimeda individuals and only 1 Penicillus individual in the 216 square feet that we measured. We noticed that even slight differences in the composition of the sea grass bed, such as the density or length of the grass, changed the likelihood of algae being found in the plot. To quantify these differences we would have to run another experiment that focused on the different zones in the sea grass bed. Our experiment was limited because of the small area that we covered and difficulty that we had counting the individuals. Even though we were in water that was 8 feet deep at most, it might have been easier to run the experiment using SCUBA so we wouldn’t have to keep surfacing, which made counting confusing when we had to see under blades of grass.
Halimeda and Penicillus are interesting green algae because they are calcareous. Halimeda incorporates calcium carbonate into its thallus in flat chips, whereas Penicillus has calcium carbonate in the brush-like filaments at the top of the algae. The different forms of calcium carbonate lead to different types of sand. Halimeda creates large, flat grains of sand. The sand from Penicillus is finer and muddier.
Today we traveled from the zoo to Glovers Reef. Glovers Reef is one of three atolls in Belize. It consists of four islands – Southwest Caye, Middle Caye, Long Caye, and Northeast Caye. We got to the island around 3:45pm and were able to snorkel for an hour before we had dinner. To our surprise, the water was like bathwater, especially right by the pier. It almost wasn’t refreshing, but being in the water was amazing.
Most of the sea floor that we saw was covered in sea grass. There weren’t any trees in the sea, but someone found a Penicillus capitatus, which is a species of green algae that looks like a paint brush. A little farther out, the sea grass gave way to a few patch reefs. The reefs had more sediment than I was expecting, but the diversity on the reefs was still greater than almost all reefs I have visited. The first species that I noticed were Gregonian sea fans, that were purple and rose gracefully from the mounds of coral.
The sedimentation on the patch reefs made them a good habitat for green algae. The highest concentrations of green algae that I found were along the edge of the patch reef. There were multiple species of Halimeda, but I wasn’t able to identify the exact species. There was a lot of Caulerpa cupressoides, which was smaller than I was expecting but still very recognizable. I also saw a species that could be Anadyomene stellata, but I need to look at the morphology of the algae more closely.
Tomorrow I’m looking forward to having more time in the water and learning about more reef species.
While some may not enjoy days in which we spend most the time in various forms of transportation, especially because they always seem to fail us, I find it to be very calming. After leaving The Education Center Lodge a bit late (classic), we drove across the country yet again to Belize City. I was very surprised as to how small it was, especially seeing as the two cities I live in are Houston and Philadelphia.
Anyway, the next challenge that we had to overcome was the boat ride to the actual marine sanctuary. I was a bit worried about the seasickness. I have previously experienced this on a ferry. In the end, it was not a big deal, a pleasant experience. I am now looking forward to being on the boat as we go on to explore the rest of the patch reefs.
The rest of the day was spent getting acquainted with the research station and the nearby sea grass beds. I immediately saw my taxonomic group (soft corals). My initial impression was that Gorgonia ventalina is extremely common the patch reefs. I also saw many other soft corals, including Briareum asbestinum and several species of sea rod.
Today we left Las Cuevas Research Center and traveled to the Belize Zoo. After a long morning, we arrived at the Zoo’s Tropical Education Center. The center was really interesting because it consisted of a large property with multiple ecosystems, such as pine forests. The director of TEC warned us to watch out for wild snakes and other wildlife around the cabins, but the only wildlife that I saw were birds.
After dinner at TEC, we went for a night tour of the zoo. We only visited nocturnal animals because the guides didn’t want to disturb the diurnal animals. We got to visit two jaguars out of the 18 that the zoo has. The zoo has so many jaguars because they rescue animals that are in danger of being shot by farmers. One of the jaguars that we saw was a black jaguar named Lucky Boy who was rescued from a Belizean resort that had been abandoned. Black jaguars are extremely rare. They are the equivalent of the opposite of albino animals; they have too much melanin.
We also got to feed a tapir and saw an ocelot. The ocelot was entertaining because it wouldn’t stop growling, even when the zoo keeper fed it. The only difference was the change from a growl to a growling “nom nom nom” sound.
Because of all of the travel time, I didn’t get a chance to observe specific tree species. We passed through multiple ecosystems, and I saw many of the same species that I observed over the past week.
As per usual, something went wrong with the van. Our original plan for the day was to leave Las Cuevas early in the morning in order to make it to ATM cave for a swim and exploration. Then, we were going to drive across Belize to stay at the zoo. This is not how our day went at all.
Most of the morning was spent sitting on the porch, waiting for our van to show up. This went on for several hours. Rather than spend all our time waiting, we got the opportunity to tour other parts of the Las Cuevas research station and learn about their ongoing projects.
When our van finally arrived, we all climbed gratefully into its semi-air-conditioned space. Unfortunately, our massive time delay prevented us from being able to visit the ATM cave.
However, we did end up going on the night tour of the Belize zoo. Not only did we get to see two of the eighteen jaguars that they have, but we got to see margays, ocelots (so noisy), two types of owls (Rice!), a tapir, and three kinds of snakes.
Overall, I remain optimistic about the rest of the trip. Each thing that goes wrong does not faze our group at all. The new challenges that the reef will pose to us will be just new bonding experiences for us.
Today we spent the day collecting the 12 camera traps that we placed on day 3. We got a much earlier start than we got when we were putting the traps up, which meant that we were able to collect them all before it got dark. We were done at 3:30pm and made it back before dark, unlike last time.
After we got back, we looked through all of the pictures that our cameras had gathered. Unfortunately one of our camera’s battery died soon after we placed it, and seven of our cameras didn’t get any pictures of wildlife (unless you count very tired and dirty humans). As we scrolled through picture after picture of leaves moving and humans crossing the camera, our hopes dwindled. Luckily we were able to catch some animals. Two of our cameras caught what seemed to be the same bird species, and maybe even the same individual. Another camera caught a curassow, which is a very large black bird. But by far our most exciting sights were a tapir, ocelot, and agouti. Knowing that these animals were so close to where we had walked and spent time is almost unreal. It is strange to think about how many animals are roaming the area right by where we are but always just out of sight.
Tree species that I noticed today were the bayleaf palm (Sabal mauritiiformis) and the bay cedar (Guazuma ulmifolia). I also noticed a branch and a seedpod on the ground that were covered in dense brown spines. Each spine was about half an inch long. Based on the resources that I have, my best guess is that the species was Bactris major, but I am not sure that my analysis of the species is correct.
Day 6 began by collecting pitfall traps that we set out yesterday. The traps consisted of either water or urine and we’re placed in trees and on the ground. Insects either are attracted to the traps or fall into them and then are stuck. I was pleasantly surprised to see how many of our traps had caught insects in the 16-ish hours that they had been set up. We spent the morning analyzing the number of insects we caught. We looked at where they were caught and what morphospecies they were in order to determine the species richness and abundance of the samples. We then spent some time going over our data. It was difficult to determine exactly how we should summarize the data. We ended up coming up with one conclusion but completely reversing it after we talked to Adrienne and Scott. In the end, we found that insects in the canopy had a greater need for nitrogen and were more attracted to the urine traps.
In the evening we went on our first official night hike. Near the beginning of the hike we found an Acacia tree right on the trail that had two stick insects hanging off of it. The green stick insect was around a foot long and was hanging upside down with its front two legs extended above its head. The other stick insect was smaller and brown. Soon after we began observing them, the brown insect started climbing pretty quickly up the tree and away from our light.
Acacias are special because they have a mutualism with ants, like Cecropia. The ant species is different and more aggressive. The tree that we observed didn’t appear to have an active ant colony, but we didn’t look very hard for it.
We also saw a lot of spiders and roaches. We saw two tarantulas on a huge tree, which was different because all of the other tarantulas that we’ve seen have been on the ground. There were a lot of other large spiders and roaches that we would be much less likely to see during the day. It was good to be able to experience the forest at night, when so many new creatures can be seen.
Today we started off by summarizing the results from our experiments yesterday about Cecropia and ant interactions. My group ended up with negative results. We didn’t find any evidence of young Cecropia mimicking other plants. We did notice some differences between juvenile and adult trees, such as red petioles (the stems of leaves) and slightly longer trichomes (the tiny hairs on plants). However, we weren’t able to conclusively determine that those differences had an adaptive role. One group tested the toughness of juvenile and adult leaves and found that juvenile leaves were tougher. This could be adaptive because it would make it more difficult for herbivores to eat the leaves. If the project was continued, it would be beneficial to see if herbivores preferred younger or older leaves.
We also were able to visit the cave at Las Cuevas. The cave was a part of Mayan ceremonies, and there is still evidence of their presence. There are pottery shards throughout the cave system and the cave is built up in some areas. Platforms were built near the entrance and some spaces between chambers were made to be narrower. The whole history behind the cave is extremely interesting. The caves also had some wildlife. We saw at least two species of bats, millipedes, and a species of scorpion with long legs and no tail. One of the best aspects about the cave was how undeveloped it was. I’m not used to visiting preserved caves that haven’t been commercialized. It was cool to feel like I was one of the first to visit the cave, even though many, many people have visited it before me.
My favorite trees today were the big trees that we commonly see around the Chiquibul. The cedar (Cedrela odorata) can be 20-30m tall. Right now it doesn’t have leaves, but it has some wooden seed pods that are still attached to the branches. The seed pods look like 5-petaled flowers – they’re very pretty. Another big tree is the ceiba (Ceiba pentandra). When it is mature, its bark is very smooth and it can reach 60-70m. It has been difficult for me to identify ceiba from their leaves because the trunks reach so high into the canopy.
We only have two more full days at LCRS, so we’ll have to make them count!
Today we looked at two species of ants, Azteca ants and leafcutter ants. Azteca ants are a genus of ants that have a symbiosis with Cecropia trees. The ants provide protection from herbivores and competitors for the trees, and the trees provide shelter and nutrition for the ants. We wanted to look at how the trees are able to thrive when they are juveniles and before an ant queen has colonized the tree. To do this, we split into groups and designed hypotheses for how the trees adapted. My group looked into whether juvenile Cecropia trees mimicked other plant species or characteristics through physical adaptations. Tomorrow each of the groups will summarize their data and come up with a conclusion. It will be interesting to see which of the groups has the most convincing argument.
During the second half of the day we examined the life cycle of a leafcutter ant nest. Queens can live more than 20 years, although workers usually do not live longer than a year. Some colonies can have around 5 million individuals. Additionally, a mature colony can be about equal to a cow, in both weight and volume of plant material processed in a year. While we’ve been at Las Cuevas, we’ve noticed a lot of leafcutter ant trails around the area. Today we learned that those trails are only made by colonies that have been established for around 10 years. Smaller nests aren’t able to create or maintain the trails.
The most interesting tree that I observed today was a papaya tree. Originally we thought that the papaya tree was a Cecropia juvenile, but the details didn’t match. The tree had large palmate leaves, a very tall and skinny trunk, and smooth bark, which are characteristics similar to Cecropia. However, the leaves were more lobed than Cecropia leaves and the reproductive structure of the papaya was different. It would be interesting to know how related Cecropia and papaya are; the books that we have access to here didn’t have information on their relatedness. I also was able to identify a tree species that we saw at Caracol with green flowers. The tree was a Mosannona garwoodii. The flowers were very camouflaged and appeared slightly waxy. I haven’t seen the same tree yet here, but it could be around.
Tomorrow we have the opportunity to explore a cave in the region. I’m excited to see what life we’re able to find in the cave.
Today did not start off the way we thought it would. Rather than being concerned about the water quality in Belize, we found that Houston was the problem. The entire Hobby airport was out of water. Apparently their main pump had malfunctioned. For us, this meant that no toilets were flushing, no water fountains working, and no food being served. All of us immediately felt the pangs of hanger. This has become the first bonding experience of the trip.
Belize itself is lovely. I have only been in the country for a handful of hours, but I have enjoyed it so far. Though I have been low-grade sweating for hours, I won’t let my hatred of humidity bring this trip down for me.
After arriving at the airport and making the long van ride to the Crystal Paradise (stopping of course for food!) we finally got to sit down to great meal. After eating everything in sight, we settled down for presentations. Or so we thought. The projector did not work at all. After trying about six different laptops, we gave up.
I gave my presentation with multiple copies going on about three laptops. Today, I also got my first look at the epiphytes of Belize. I don’t think that I could really tell what they were as we were driving quickly down the roads. I can’t wait to go to Caracol tomorrow, hopefully to see more epiphytes!
One last thing. I saw the most amazing trail of leaf cutter ants walking across the hotel grounds. Stephanie, Anna and I followed them to the hole entrance into their nest. After that, we went and followed the trail a long way back, to the tree from which they were actually getting the leaf cuttings. It was one of the most amazingly organized things I had ever seen. What’s more, they had very distinct trails (just like human hiking trails) going across the entire grounds. I can’t tell you how much this interested me. A truly unique experience.