Tag Archives: Echinoderms

Basically Steve Irwin

Hi friends, I’m Veronica! Tomorrow, we go to Belize. Here are some thoughts.

I was an interesting sort of kid – I was quite socially awkward, listened only to classical music (my  favorite composer was Bach. Who’s Rihanna anyway?), and I didn’t watch any of the classic Disney Channel TV shows. Most importantly, I was absolutely obsessed with Animal Planet’s show The Crocodile Hunter. The show’s host, Steve Irwin, was my childhood hero. I remember sitting in front of the TV with my little brother, both of us riveted, as Steve fearlessly wrangled wild creatures or snagged the tiniest critters for the camera to see.

My younger brother and I were more interested in tiny shore critters on Daytona Beach than we were in Disney World. 

I think that my devotion to Mr. Irwin and his show planted in my brain a fascination with wild places and their inhabitants. This is why I’ve been all but vibrating with excitement for this trip for the last month or so.  I’ve never had any experience with field research, in the tropics or elsewhere, so I’m not sure what to expect. But I’m guessing it’s going to involve equal amounts of sweat and labor as rewarding finds and learning. I’m ready for it! (I think? I’m pretty out of shape, so I’m not sure how well I’ll handle the physical activity…but my mind is ready so BRING IT ON.)  This trip is probably going to involve a lot of physical discomfort and wistful thoughts of air conditioning. But I do expect to put in some sweat to learn things that I could never learn from a textbook! I’m tired of classrooms. I am incomprehensibly excited to learn how to locate different organisms in the field, or how to decipher forest sounds. I can’t wait to learn hands-on how ecologists gather their hard-earned data.

My preparation for the trip has been rather frantic. I’ve been scurrying all over town in the past couple of months to collect all the required equipment. I even bought a prescription snorkel mask so I can see underwater, which I’m SUPER pumped about! I’ve also pored over the required reading materials, spent hours upon hours researching microbial processes of coral reefs, and researched all I can about echinoderms (think starfish, sea urchins, sea cucumbers) and lepidopterans (butterflies and moths). And, of course, I’ve hyped myself up for the trip by watching nature documentaries. My only apprehensions lie in my complete inexperience. I can be clumsy. Combined with my utter un-fit-ness, I’m afraid that in my physically exhausted state, I’ll be a drag on the group. I hope that I can keep up with the pace of the trip. And, of course, I hope we don’t run into any grumpy peccaries (like wild pigs) or fer-de-lances (species of venomous snake).

What  I want to accomplish most during this trip is to scratch that itch I’ve always had in the back of my mind to go venturing out into the wild, if only for a little bit. I also hope to learn about what field ecology entails and to gain intimate understanding of tropical and neotropical ecosystems. I want to find specimens of the echinoderms  and lepidopterans I’ve researched. But I think my core excitement for this course stems from a simple place: the little kid inside me really, really wants to get out there and explore, just like Steve Irwin.

On that note, WE LEAVE TOMORROW?! Amazing.

Catch you all in Belize!

Post-Trip: Reflection

One day in Belize, my class and I noticed a distinct commonality between the two most biodiverse ecosystems – coral reefs and tropical rainforests. Both function in nutrient poor conditions. The two differ greatly in the causations of their low-nutrient conditions. Coral reefs demand low nutrients to hinder algae growth and allow high water clarity, a condition demanded for photosynthetic coral synergists. The trees of the tropical rainforest, however, quickly deplete the soil of nutrients as they grow. While both systems exist in low-nutrient environments, low nutrient levels can lead to coral reef formation while the high nutrient demands of tropical rainforest tree leads to poor soil nutrients.

Regardless, the two ecosystems are able to support such biodiverse systems through their creation of physical spaces. Reefs for nooks and crannies for marine organisms to reside, as well has having great surface areas to accommodate sessile organisms like anemones and sponges. Tropical trees have many layering branches and alcoves within trunks and limbs. Similarly, these create spaces to accommodate more living things. Epiphytes, commensalist plants that grow on taller trees, demand the sunlit canopy trees provide. Structurally, the two have many parallels, which likely explains their comparable biodiversity.

Rainforests and coral reefs both accommodate animals smaller than their open ocean or open grassland counterparts. Not only are these ecosystem’s spaces unable to accommodate larger animals, but also larger animals have the potential to wreak havoc on these systems by overgrazing on or causing mechanical damage to coral or trees.

Glover’s Reef

With their elaborate physical structures and densely-packed biodiverse inhabitants, the coral reef and tropical rainforest I visited in Belize filled me with similar senses of awe. There was activity or an interesting organic structure just about everywhere I would look. While I knew in advance that these ecosystems have great biodiversity, there is something about being physically present that makes these facts feel real.

I had very nebulous expectations for this trip. I wanted to learn and to have fun, but other than that, I put very little thought into identifying what I wanted to take away from this trip. This mindset turned out to be a blessing, as I could absorb my surroundings without constantly questioning whether or not my expectations are met. It was freeing to allow myself to be immersed in these beautiful locales and view them for what they are.

My memory of the trip is rich with precious moments – watching a squid jet across a reef, listening to the boisterous conversations of scarlet macaws, seeing the glistening hide of a manatee as it dive back into shallow mangrove waters, feeling the chilliness of the Actun Tunichil Muknal cave, spectating the sunrise over the ocean, viewing the uninhibited star-filled sky, laying on a hammock at the end of a long day. This aggregation of serenity and excitement is what I value most about the trip. While at times I felt stressed about the grade I would make, I strove to keep an empowering mindset that allowed me to fully cherish my surroundings.

The trip left me with a wide range of new knowledge. Ethnographically, Belize has an extremely diverse human population, serving as the home of Mestizos, Creoles, Garifunas, and Mayans to name the most populous. I learned about interesting physical properties of many living, including that mantis shrimp have a grasp so strong they can hurt people, Christmas tree worms always have pairs of polychaetes, conchs’ have two projecting eyes that look like cartoon eyes, and strangling figs can overtake massive canopy-forming trees to form large and extensive woody structures. I also learned about the harmful effect human negligence can have on ecosystems, like lionfish (a nonnative species released from aquariums) overpredate juvenile reef-dwelling fish and the prevalence of Africanized bees in the New World were caused by the escape of seven queens. I’ve learned countless new things that form a mosaic as vibrant and diverse as the colors of Belize itself.

I leave Belize with new memories and knowledge. I will always remember the electric blue of the Caribbean, the stunning vibrancy of scarlet macaw plumage, and the translucence of the Caribbean reef squid. After all, all I have are these memories of Belize until I go back.

Day 8: Authenticity (05/23/2017)

There we were, with flashlights in hand, meandering through the darkness of the Belize Zoo. The site was sprawling with tall tropical trees, including the Santa Maria tree (Calophyllum brasiliense) and the gumbo-limbo (Bursera simaruba), spectacular sights on their own. The Santa Maria trees, not very common and interspersed between shorter trees, had branches high up on the trunk and were some of the tallest trees at the zoo. The gumbo-limbo trees were also fairly uncommon and were shorter with bark that was peeling in fleshy-looking pinkish layers. I was unable to see any animal activity in the trees because we visited the zoo at night.

The trees were unscathed by the human activity necessary for the zoo’s survival; enclosures were constructed around established trees to preserve the integrity of the site. All of the zoo’s animals are native to Belize, and the zookeeper addressed each and every animal by name – Carlos the puma, Junior the jaguar, Maggie the frigatebird, Brutus the American crocodile.

Carlos the Puma

One could feel the zoo’s authenticity. The zoo lacked kitsch. It lacked glamour. It was about people learning about the animals of Belize.

Earlier in the day, my class departed from Glover’s Reef, our home for the past week. Partway through our boat ride to the Belize mainland, we hiked and snorkeled through the Belize mangroves. At a glance, the area would not have looked appealing, with its sediment-filled water, knotted overgrown tree roots, and an absence of colors other than browns and corrupted greens.

However, the mangrove housed a wide variety of creatures. Today’s sightings covered the whole spectrum –red cushion sea stars (Oreaster reticulatus) to sun anemones (Stichodactyla helianthus) to a seahorse (Family Syngnathidae). The red cushion sea stars were amotile and were about six-inches in diameter. The most memorable sighting was a manatee (Genus Trichechus). Although I got little more than a glimpse of shimmery gray with chestnut speckles, it felt a sense an overwhelming sense of awe being in the present of a creature as majestic as a manatee.

Ecologically, mangroves are essential to the survival of many types of animals, including coral-residing species, as the shallow waters and networks of plant materials protect growing animals from predators. Despite not being the most popular image to send home on a postcard, mangroves are a necessity for the survival of countless living things.

That is authenticity.

Day 7: Introspection (05/22/2017)

Today began with at 4:45 with a sunrise – the first I’ve actively watched in years. I watched it alone, some much needed time to reflect. I felt sheer gratitude to witness such a glorious sight at such a special location.

Later in the morning, my class and I boated out to three different reefs. The boatrides were spectacular, displaying discrete shades of blue. There was a crisp turquoise above sand patches, a deep muted turquoise above patch reefs, a dark royal blue across the horizon, and an electric, almost synthetic looking cerulean a short distance from the boat.

Each reef we visited had it’s own character and noteworthy residents. The first (“The Channel”) had mounds of corals in deeper water. A notable sighting was a cluster of three large gray angelfish (Pomacanthus arcuatus) that moved in tandem.

The second reef (“The Aquarium”) consisted of shallow depths and very active fish. Two noteworthy sightings were a flounder under sand and a stoplight parrotfish (Sparisoma viride) that burped up algae.

Today’s final reef was the same patch reef we visited yesterday and on our fist day snorkeling. The reef appeared more visible and felt easier to navigate. The most unusual animal seen there was a pufferfish (Family Tetraodontidae).

I searched all three reefs for echinoderms. On the seafloor, I found a couple urchin skeletons, maxing at about two-inches in diameter, but nothing significant. Today’s lack of echinoderm encounters is likely because I did not overturn any rubble to look for them.

The afternoon was spent dissecting lionfish our instructors caught during earlier reef visits. It was interesting learning about how invasive species, like the lionfish, have had such harmful effects on ecosystems. It is truly astounding how many ecological and environmental issues humans have created.

Pterois spp. about to be dissected

The world is so big, and I am just one of seven billion humans, which belong to one of six million animal species. Gazing at the sun inch its way across the horizon compels me to think about my place in the world. What issues do I regularly encounter? Do I choose to intervene? How?

Only time will tell how I will respond to the world’s future issues, but until then, I can take time to think. Today, it took a sunrise to force my to take time to introspect. Ordinarily, I constantly look and listen and study, but it is rare that I pause and think critically about the world’s issues and my role in their causations and solutions.
That is something that I want to change.

Day 6: Perspective Shift (05/21/2017)

It can take very little to shift a perspective.

Five days ago when I snorkeled for the first time, I felt overwhelmed with the entire situation. My mind was overloaded – unable to find the balance between managing my fins and mask, observing my surroundings, staying afloat, and not getting water in my snorkel tube at the same time.

Each day marked an increased fluidity in the water, but this morning, I felt much more capable than ever before. I could focus less on the technical and more on the experience. This, in addition to the abundance of lively fish at the backreef, created an extremely rewarding explorative experience.

Today’s reef was shallow with large mounds of coral, saturated with brightly colored fish swimming in every direction. The fish were juveniles and adults, swimming individually or in schools, and represented every shade of color imaginable.

I encountered many noteworthy creatures today at the reef – two more donkey dung sea cucumbers (Holothuria Mexicana) covered in algae, as well as urchins (Class Echinoidea) and many brittle stars (Class Ophiuroidea) underneath rubble. The sea cucumber and urchins were sedentary, but the brittle stars scrambled to conceal themselves as soon as they were exposed. Size-wise, the urchins were on the small side, hovering about two inches in diameter, while both sea cucumbers were over a foot long. The brittle stars ranged from two-inches in diameter to about seven inches in diameter.

Holothuria mexicana and Homo sapiens

I spotted another porcupine fish (Diodon hystrix) concealed under a rocky ledge. There were also many yellow-tail snapper (Ocyurus chrysurus) swimming around in groups. Today’s most vivid sighting was a scorpionfish (Genus Scorpaena), cryptically colored in shades of brown and beige to assimilate into the seafloor.

Today, I realized my own perspective shift. Snorkeling no longer felt foreign to me, and I could fully immerse myself in the rich aquatic life surrounding me, creating my most fulfilling experience yet.

I am more excited than ever to see what tomorrow will bring.

Day 5: Human Impact (05/20/2017)

This morning, my class and I explored one of Glover’s backreefs, noting densities of Christmas tree worms (Genus Spirobranchus).

A beige Christmas tree worm on a hard coral

While my own data collection was less than fruitful, the outing marked a major victory for me as a tropical field biologist. I encountered interesting echinoderms like a donkey dung sea cucumber (Holothuria Mexicana) in a sea grass bed and a West Indian sea egg (Tripneustes ventricosus) partially covered with algae. Both were neither in motion nor interacting with other animals. My most memorable sighting was a Caribbean reef squid (Sepioteuthis sepioidea) swimming by.

I swam after the squid for a while, trying to get a better look. The animal was iridescent and translucent, a visual schema difficult to describe with an ordinary color pallet. There is something about the ocean that compels organisms to take on the most astounding colors and sheens; it’s simply breathtaking.

This same day, my classmate Isaac gave a presentation about the expansiveness and damaging ecological impact marine debris can have. My class also spent the afternoon collecting and measuring the debris accumulation from some of the shores of Middle Caye, which lies adjacent to a protected marine area. In my ordinary life back home, I contribute little to resolve this issue. Like most Americans, my status quo involves unbridled consumerism. An ordinary shopping trip involves buying excessively packaged goods from an energy-inefficient grocery store and taking them home in a disposable plastic bag. It is both interesting and unacceptable that such an irresponsible course of action is deemed ordinary in American society.

Despite how ingrained reckless consumerist behavior is, conservation and preservation of ocean creatures is non-negotiable.

Every living thing deserves a chance to not only survive but to thrive. Waste accumulation in our oceans, the direct result of human negligence, strips many living things of their chance for survival. For the long-term wellbeing of all living things, from reef squids to the human race, communities need to make thoughtful decisions regarding their own waste production and disposal.

Literally, the fate of the world depends on it.

Day 4: Full Circle (05/19/2017)

I lie on my back on the hammock, swaying gently side-to-side in the breeze. My eyelids float down after a busy morning and afternoon. I witness deep oranges and rusty reds shifting, bursting, and intertwining on the backs of my eyelids, luminescent projections of the intense tropical sunlight. Needless to say, these entrancing visions were enough to lull me to sleep.

This morning I felt quite different – energized and adventurous. Soon after breakfast, my classmates and I measured the sizes of the urchins we caught yesterday at the Marine Protected Area (MPA). We then snorkeled at a non-MPA and carefully collected urchins there. Interestingly, the urchins tended to be larger and more numerous at the MPA. However, the non-MPA was home to the largest urchin we found, a long spine sea urchin (Diadema antillarum) that measured 5.8 cm in diameter.

With its mounds of different corals, the reef visited today was teeming with a plethora of diverse colorful creatures. Some notable sightings included a green sea urchin (Lytechinus variegatus), spiny brittle stars (Ophiocoma paucigranulata), and numerous ctenophores. The green sea urchin was about 4 inches in diameter and found on the seafloor. The spiny brittle stars, found under rubble, had central disks of about an inch in diameter and arms about 3 inches long. The brittle stars would try to move back under the rubble when exposed. None of the echinoderms were visibly interacting with other organisms. Today’s most spectacular sighting was a spotted trunkfish (Lactophyrus bicaudalis); its dynamic black and white speckles contrasted with the mellow blue backdrop of the ocean.

After spending the afternoon discussing my class’ data collected and observations noted, I was exhausted. We had an hour until dinner, so I lied on my back on the hammock.

Day 2: First Time Snorkeler (05/17/2017)

I’m up at 5:00 am. My bags are packed. I eat a PB&J, and we are on the road. The drive from the Tropical Education Center to the pier in Belize City isn’t too long – around 45 minutes. Our team transitions to the boat, and we are off on the two-and-a-half hour boat ride to Glover’s Atoll, our home for the next seven days.

Glover’s Island

Soon after our arrival to Glover’s, we went snorkeling – my first time ever. The colors of the reef seemed like they were from a centuries-old oil painting. I was anticipating a full color pallet of hues, but the corals’ tones were warm-colored and muted.

Snorkeling in the water seemed out of body – like I was an avatar in a video game. Still not fully used to the controls of this unfamiliar type of movement, I felt awkward in the water, despite swimming competitively in high school. Every movement was calculated, taking into full consideration each dimension of my unfamiliar setting – Who is behind me? Will I bump into any coral nearby? Is my snorkel still vertical?

The reef was teeming with busy creatures. During my brief hour-long escapade, I encountered many types of fish, including baby barracuda (Genus Sphyraena), a baby nurse shark (Ginglymostoma cirratum), and a large southern stingray (Dasyatis americana). The only echinoderm I found was the bleached skeleton of a large red heart urchin (Meoma ventricosa) on the seafloor. The skeleton was about 6 inches in diameter and partially covered in algae. I also held a conch shell with a fleshy body inside. His eyes stuck out of his head like the eyes of Mr. Krabs from Spongebob Squarepants. My superstar sighting was a porcupinefish (Family Diodontidae) hiding under a rocky ridge. The fish was difficult to photograph, but with its massive size and bright colors, it was easy to remember.

After the swim, we explored a coral graveyard, studying the skeletons of centuries-old corals. It was interesting to witness how corals vary in formational shape, as well as polyp size and arrangement pattern. After dinner, we closed the day with two taxon briefings (including my own on echinoderms).

My first time in the water was surreal. I am eager for the next wave of adventures tomorrow will bring.

Pre-Trip: The Countdown

I’ve been to Canada twice. Those are the only times I have ever left the United States. Tomorrow, my list will be longer. I will leave the U.S. for Belize.

Belize will provide me with an unique opportunity to learn about new living things in new settings. As a lover of nature, viewing the coral reefs and rainforest Belize offers will be a fulfilling experience. I have never seen coral outside of a fish tank or on a piece of jewelry. Likewise, it has been a long, long time since I have seen a tree taller than 50 feet. I am excited to immerse myself in the unique land- and seascapes and gain perceptive of the natural wonders that lie outside of an American cityscape.

I am most excited to see Belize’s natural colors – the lush green of the rainforest canopy, the crisp blue of the Caribbean sea, and the plethora of new colors I have not yet anticipated.

My concerns? Just the uncertainty. There are a lot of unknowns. However, the uncertainty does not deter me. I am determined to grasp every opportunity, see every site, and learn as much as I can about each living thing I encounter.

I’ve had my passport printed and ordered boots and fins and a snorkel and special adventurer pants. I’ve read hundreds of pages of facts. I have, for the most part, packed. I am ready.

Nature is calling, and I am calling back.

Here’s to Belize!


Belize Adventure Reflections: Wrap-Up

What an adventure. So many miles traveled, wisdom gained, and personal growth has taken place during these past two weeks. I can vividly recall everyone sitting outside KWG 100 that first morning, eagerly awaiting what was to come and the cleanest we ever were. I have learned so much since then, and in the past hours as I have struggled to figure out how to sum up everything I want to say about this experience, I have realized that it’s almost impossible to put it all into words without writing a novel or two, but I will do my best here.

We were fortunate enough to visit two of the most beautiful and biologically diverse ecosystems in the world during our time in Belize: the tropical rainforest and the coral reef. Though these two ecosystems appeared very different to me at first, a closer examination revealed that they share many similarities. From the many layers of the rainforest canopy and the abundance of leaf litter canvasing the rainforest floor to the shallow sea grass beds and the wide range of coral structures in the reef, both ecosystems contain countless diverse niches and microhabitats that have the capabilities for a myriad of organisms and species flourish.

The coral reef
A glimpse up into the canopy of the Chiquibul Rainforest
A glimpse up into the canopy of the Chiquibul Rainforest

Along the same lines, the complexity and depth of both of these ecosystems are things that I feel I had an idea of before but didn’t truly grasp until I was totally immersed in them for the two weeks. For example, looking carefully at what appears to be a simple leaf-covered path in the forest can reveal several termites and beetle species under a log, a variety of arachnids skittering along the surface of the leaves, and snakes hidden just under them. Similarly, studying a mound of coral colonies might show Christmas tree worms burrowed into the polyps, sea urchins wedged into the crevices, and macroalgae growing in patches.

Experiencing it all firsthand really helped me understand how the numerous things living in both of those ecosystems are interconnected. Each species contributed something crucial to the ecosystem that they inhabited, and an environmental change that impacts one species undoubtedly impacts countless others as well. Learning about my two taxa played a role in this, with the beetles being important decomposers in the rainforest and the echinoderms being important prey and predators in the reef. Also interestingly and unexpectedly (for me at least) given the structural and organismal diversity present in these ecosystems, both of these ecosystems are fairly nutrient poor yet have managed to efficiently recycle nutrients to support their inhabitants.

In addition to the obvious species differences in these ecosystems, I noticed that the behaviors of the ‘dangerous’ species in each varied. While in the rainforest I was very wary of snakes and spiders, it turned out that most creatures would avoid you and we only saw one snake and few large mammals during our trip. On the other hand, the reefs were filled with things that simply hovered about unafraid of your presence (such as the jellyfish and lionfish).

The coral snake we saw during our night hike
The coral snake slinking around during the night hike
An upside-down jellyfish swimming around the mangroves
An upside-down jellyfish swimming around the mangroves

Throughout the course, I particularly enjoyed hearing from all of the guest lecturers and the constant exploration that occurred. I never felt bored, and everywhere I looked there was always something new and exciting to learn and see or someone with a unique perspective to talk to and learn from. If I had to choose a least favorite aspect of the course, it would probably be the amount of preparation that we had to do beforehand. Still, I can see how necessary and helpful all of it was.

I will no doubt remember how interlocked everything really is. Both within the ecosystems with the large trees and corals providing for the smaller species around them and outside of the ecosystems in our lives. As far removed as we might seem in our daily lives from either of those ecosystems, the things we do in our everyday lives leave a long lasting impact on the environment, as shown by the marine debris cleanup project that we did. As cliché as it sounds, this course also further reinforced the motto of hard work truly pays off. Hearing from a graduate student who spends hours sifting through photos from camera traps in the hopes of coming across a big cat snapshot about the simplicity of just remaining cheerful even when everything goes wrong is imprinted in my mind. Furthermore, I learned that working hard on your own is important, but it takes the efforts of many to manage the dynamics of conservation. Among the other lessons learned on this trip is that traipsing around in full body spandex dive skins is not actually as bad as it sounds, but putting it on is a struggle every time.

All in all, these past two weeks far exceeded my expectations. Not only did we have running water for the whole trip (well except for the time we were still in the states, ironically), but I also had countless opportunities to push past my comfort zones and see how incredible doing so could be. All of the sights and experiences were so much more beautiful than any textbook or online image could ever portray, and I am still in awe that I had the opportunity to witness it all.

Thanks for following along everyone; what an unbelizeably wonderful ride it’s been.