Tag Archives: Echinoderms

I can’t Belize It’s Over!- Wrap-up Blog

 

Some of my favorite pictures:

Chiquibul Forest
Golver’s Reef Research Station
Sunset over Glover’s Reef

Outside of the fact that both the reef and the rainforest are two of the most biologically diverse ecosystems on the planet, another similarity is that they both exist in nutrient-poor areas and depend on effective nutrient cycling in order to thrive. Additionally, both ecosystems are nitrogen limited. One difference is that invasive species in the reef are much more destructive than in the rainforest. These two areas are likely so biologically diverse due to their effective nutrient cycling which allows for enough energy transfer to support an incredible amount of species abundance and richness.

My personal observations regarding the similarities and differences between both the reef and rainforest were that at both I was able to find my taxon relatively quickly; however, at the reef, it was much easier to identify them because I could get much closer. It seemed that I was also able to much more easily identify damage to the reef  (trash, etc.) than the rainforest. The rainforest seemed healthier.

This course greatly exceeded my expectations. For one, I didn’t think they we would see anywhere near the number of species we did, and I had no idea we would get to traverse through a place as amazing as the A.T.M. Cave. Also, the research stations were gorgeous and weren’t as unlivable as I thought they would be. My favorite part of the course was finding out that we had gotten a Tapir on camera trap, and my least favorite was getting seasick on the way back from the Forereef and feeling off for two days.

The most important things I learned in the course are that these ecosystems are in danger and that it is up to us to help them, that Belize is a country which truly cares for its natural resources and does everything it can to protect them, and I was surprised by both the immense amount of trash we found on the island we were staying on as well as the commonality of poaching in both the reef and rainforest. Overall, the trip was fantastic and I won’t be forgetting it anytime soon!!

Rainforest Taxa Seen: Keel-Billed Toucan, Plumbeous Kite, Vultures, Scarlet Macaw, Pauraque, Parrots, Social Flycatcher, Montezuma Oropendola, Spectacled Owl, Pygmy Owl, Barn Owl, Mottled Owl, Chachalaca, Curassow, and the Melodious Blackbird

Reef Taxa Seen: Reef Urchin, West Indian Sea Egg, Long-Spined Urchin, Brittle Stars, Red Heart Urchin, Slate Pencil Urchin, and the Donkey Dung Sea Cucumber

On the Road Again!- Day 15

Today we said goodbye to Belize and arrived back in Houston. Glover’s Reef is now a memory, as are our other experiences on our trip, but I’m sure we’ll all look back on them fondly. We had a long day today, and it all started when we met up at 5 a.m. We ate cinnamon rolls which the cooking staff had kindly prepared for us and then we hopped on a boat which took us back to Belize City. Once on land, we said goodbye to Herbi and Javier, two people I will definitely remember from our trip thanks to all they did for us.

Sunrise while leaving Glover’s

 

We then took a van to the airport where we made our way through customs and security and boarded a plane which thankfully didn’t seem to have any problems with its trays. We were then in the air and finally going back home. We landed, said goodbye to a few people who had connecting flights and then were on a bus back to Rice. Once there, we unloaded and everyone said their final goodbyes. We went in our separate directions and everyone headed home to catch up on some air conditioning, sleep, and probably take a much-needed shower.

We didn’t see any echinoderms today, and that’s probably a good thing because I don’t think any of them can fly.

It’s crazy to think that we’re already back home, but the trip was full of experiences I’ll never forget. We had to get comfortable being uncomfortable and we learned a ton in a mere two weeks. Although I’m happy I’ll be able to sleep with blankets again, I’ll definitely miss the people I met, the friends I made, and the experiences we shared. Thanks for everything Belize, see you soon!

Hello Clivus my New Friend!- Day 14

Today was our last full day in Belize (cue the sad violin music), but we definitely made the most of it. After breakfast, we jumped straight into a research project which involved picking up marine debris (trash) from all over the island. Our goal was to determine its composition. It was kind of depressing seeing the immense amount of trash that had accumulated on this small remote island, but I’m glad we were able to clean it up a little bit. Most of the trash we collected ended up being plastic (surprise!).

 

The trash we found

In the afternoon, we were able to perform a lionfish dissection! Scott, Herbi, and Javier had been hunting them at the reefs we visited since they are an invasive and harmful species. We used the fish they caught in our dissection. We determined sex and even looked at their stomach contents. One of the lionfish had a completely intact fish in its stomach! Afterward, Herbi turned the lionfish into ceviche. It was delicious.

The Lionfish ceviche

 

As we spent our entire day today on land, we, unfortunately, weren’t able to see any echinoderms. My dreams of finding sea stars and chocolate chip sea cucumbers never came true, but the echinoderms we did see were really interesting and my favorite was definitely the Donkey Dung Sea Cucumber.

I can’t believe we’re already leaving tomorrow. It feels like our two weeks here have flown by. We had a sendoff get together on the island’s dock tonight, and it was nice to get to just talk, look at the stars, and relax. I’m definitely going to miss all of the great food we’ve had as well as the incredible experiences. I’ll even miss my new friend Clivus (the composting toilet). This trip has really allowed me to appreciate the world’s biodiversity, and I can’t wait to talk about and share all that I’ve learned and experienced!

 

 

1 Urchin, 2 Urchin, Red Urchin, Blue Urchin!- Day 13

Guess what we got to do during our research project today. Did I hear COLLECT SEA URCHINS, because that’s exactly what we did! I was worried about even seeing echinoderms today, but then we had a whole research project centered around them! We visited two reefs, one inside and one outside the Marine Protected Area. We collected as many urchins as we could within 30 minutes, placed them into a bucket, measured and identified them, and then placed them back into the ocean.

A bucket of urchins we collected

 

We found a bunch of different species, including the Slate Pencil Urchin, a lot of Reef Urchins, the Red Heart Urchin, West Indian Sea Egg, and a good amount of Long-Spined Sea Urchins (Diadema Antillarum), some of which were HUGE! We saw a much larger number than we collected, but many of them were either too far into crevices or stuck onto rocks so tight that it was impossible to get them. I didn’t realize how fast urchins could be until I tried catching them!

Tonight, we were even able to go for a night snorkel to a nearby patch reef! It was way darker than I thought it would be but we all had dive lights so seeing wasn’t an issue. We were able to see a lot of species which we wouldn’t usually see during the day. We saw a bunch of lobsters, shrimp, a Southern Ray, and even a puffer fish. I also saw two Donkey Dung Sea Cucumbers! They were laying on the ocean floor and if I wasn’t looking for them, I definitely would’ve missed them.

The night snorkel was the last time we’ll be in the water since tomorrow we will be entirely on land. Being able to visit reefs and explore a small bit of the ocean’s diversity was amazing, and an experience I’ll remember for quite some time. Tomorrow is our last full day in Belize, which is crazy!

 

 

Peanut Butter and Jellies!- Day 12

We spent most of our day today in the ocean, which was both super tiring and super fun. This morning the conditions were nice, so right after breakfast, we hopped onto a boat as soon as we could and took off for a reef inside the Marine Protected Area. We conducted similar surveys to the ones we did yesterday, but this reef was COVERED in fire coral. It felt like everywhere I turned there was another patch of fire coral and I was worried I was going to run face first into one (luckily it didn’t happen). We then headed to another reef but this one was infested by moon jellyfish which sting, so we had to scramble to get back onto the boat and it felt like being in the Matrix while we were trying to dodge the jellies.

Branching Fire Coral
Moon Jellyfish (hard to see)

 

Luckily we were able to find a suitable reef and we conducted our survey there as well. This reef was outside of the MPA, and I noticed there was a lot of algae but also way less fire coral which was much appreciated. We then took a break on the island and then headed out to the forereef, which was much deeper and had much larger coral than the other reefs we had visited. Also, we got to swim along the reef wall which was right next to the drop off (we didn’t get to touch the butt).

Between all of the reefs we visited, we saw a nurse shark, some squid, butterflyfish, parrotfish, pillar coral (super rare), Elkhorn coral, some southern stingray, and I even spotted dark spot disease on a coral! Overall, today was a full and exciting day!

I didn’t get to see any echinoderms though, but it’s alright since I was spoiled yesterday. Hopefully, we’ll get to see some tomorrow. Also, we might be doing a night snorkel depending on what the group decides tomorrow, but I think that would be awesome! Echinoderms at night??? Who knows?!

EchinoderMania!- Day 11

The weather was nice this morning, so we tried to do as much as we could. While I could still taste the tortillas from breakfast, we were on a boat to a patch reef in the Marine Protected Area (MPA). There we conducted a survey looking at the reef’s coral coverage which we will later use to compare MPA’s and non-MPA’s (where fishing can occur). At this reef, I was able to see what looked like some kind of heart urchin test, as well as what may have been a Reef Urchin or possibly a Rock-Boring Urchin since I found it in a hole in a rock (I couldn’t really see its color). We then boated over to a non-MPA reef where we conducted a similar survey, and there I was able to see some massive Diadema Antillarum, a Slate Pencil Urchin, and even a Brittle Star. I also saw a flamingo tongue which was really cool.

A Slate Pencil Urchin

 

 

A Brittle Star

After lunch, we were able to do a collection activity where we waded into the shallows on the windward side of the island and tried to collect as many “safe to touch” things as possible within about an hour. We collected way more interesting specimens than I thought we would, including some awesome echinoderms! We were able to find a Slate pencil Urchin, a Reef Urchin,  a Red Heart Urchin, a couple Brittle Stars, a Diadema Antillarumtest, a large West Indian Sea Egg (which I was able to find and when I picked it up it was covering itself with seagrass using its tube feet), and even two Donkey Dung Sea Cucumbers which Kaela found (plus it’s her birthday WOOO)!!! We were also able to find a bunch of different algae- including pink segmented algae- as well as a lot of conches, a mantis shrimp, and even an octopus!

Me and the Donkey Dung Sea Cucumber

 

We were able to see a lot of echinoderms today and it was a stark contrast to the previous two days where we didn’t see any, and I’m definitely not complaining. I’m super excited to get back out there and see what else we can find.

I’m hoping that we’ll be able to see a Chocolate Chip Sea Cucumber or some starfish like the Cushion Star at some point! Maybe we will tomorrow!

 

Sunrise and Shine!- Day 10

This morning, I woke up to light shooting straight into my eyes from the window next to where I was sleeping. At first, I was a little upset but that was until I realized it was the sunrise. The sun was starting to peek out from behind the horizon and it was a deep red color. It looked fantastic over the water. Then I saw that it was 5:30 a.m., and I quickly went back to sleep.

Our goal for today was to become comfortable collecting data in an ocean setting. So, a little bit after breakfast we had some practice on land. We visited a coral graveyard (don’t worry, there weren’t any ghosts) where we tried to find out the percentage of “live”(it was dead) coral covering the ground. We utilized some of the same strategies/techniques which we’ll be using in the water. While in the graveyard, I tried to find dried out starfish or urchin tests but I didn’t have any luck.

After lunch, we were able to put this practice to use when we actually got out into the water and conducted a survey. We surveyed an area of mostly seagrass as well as one which was a good mix of grass and algae. We looked at the percent coverage of grass and algae in the two areas, and it was a great way to get used to collecting data in the water. It was pretty awkward at first, but I’m sure it’ll become easier with time.

Measuring seagrass coverage

 

I didn’t see any echinoderms today, except I thought I saw a Tiger Tail Sea Cucumber when we swam over to a small reef after our survey exercise, but unfortunately I didn’t. Depending on the weather, we might be heading out to some patch reefs tomorrow, so I have a good feeling I’ll finally get to see some echinoderms. Fingers crossed!

TFB’s: A Reef Story- Day 9

Guess who has twenty-six thumbs and is on an island three hours off of the coast of Belize- all of us. Today we arrived at Glover’s Reef! It is 20 miles long, 6 miles wide, and absolutely gorgeous. Some patches of water are a turquoise color, which I learned means that the ocean floor is sandy and probably fairly shallow. The boat ride in was three hours and I may have gotten a little bit more sun than I needed for a tan, but we made it and we saw some Spotted Eagle Rays along the way (that’s good luck)!

The boat we took to Glover’s

 

Soon after we arrived, we went for our first snorkel off of the island’s dock. It was cut a little short due to some of us having equipment issues, but during our time in the water, I was able to see a large school of fish, an upside-down jellyfish, and a conch. We then exited the water, regrouped, reequipped, and then headed out into the water once more. This time, however, we went to the shallows on the leeward (opposite of windward) side of the island, and in order to do so we had to pass through the “mangroves of death”. They earned this name because the area is full of sand flies and mosquitoes and we practically sprinted through it to avoid them.

A conch we found on our first snorkel

 

The shallows had a decent amount of coral, and we were able to see some interesting organisms, such as brain coral, a Christmas tree worm, and some butterfly fish. While we were out there, the wind and current were very strong and it was hard to stay in one spot for long.

I haven’t seen any echinoderms yet, but I’ve been on the lookout and I’m sure they’ll turn up soon! We should be able to see them in shallow water, so hopefully, we’ll be able to see some tomorrow.

Chiquibye Las Cuevas!- Day 7

Today was our last full day at Las Cuevas, and because of that, we spent the morning collecting the camera traps we placed during our first day here. We waited until tonight to view the images so that it would be a kind of sendoff and it was a great way to end our time here. A couple of the cameras didn’t capture any animals, and we didn’t see a jaguar (so sad), but we did see a TAPIR. It was walking right down one of the trails and the picture was at a fantastic angle. We all yelled when we saw it and it was a really cool moment. We also think we might’ve seen a puma, but we couldn’t tell.

The Tapir

 

Earlier in the day, Scott showed us some really interesting things about leaf-cutter ants. We looked at a smaller young colony and then a MASSIVE mature one. He wanted to show us the differences between colonies of different ages, as well as their fungal gardens. The large colony was super cool and we found fungus right away. Also, a soldier ant which was protecting the colony bit through Amanda’s pants! (crazy right)

 

The mature Leaf Cutter Ant Nest

We saw a new bird today- a curassow. It was in one of the pictures from the camera traps and it was tall, black, and had thin legs. I was also able to get really close to some social flycatchers because they were perched on a wire running from the deck of the station. I can see where they get the “social” in their name from as they seemed to be playing around with each other and had no problem with me being close by.

 

Tomorrow we will leave Las Cuevas, but I will certainly remember my time here forever. Everything from the long difficult hikes to staring out over the Chiquibul forest from the bird tower was memorable and I’ve learned a ton in the mere week we’ve been here. I can wait to head to the reef and gain a whole new set of experiences. Goodbye Rainforest, you will be missed.

And Off to Work We Go!- Day 6

Today we were able to complete an entire research project in the span of a morning. We were trying to see whether plant diversity was higher in disturbed or undisturbed areas of the forest, and this, in turn, helped us to understand how hurricanes can potentially lead to diversity changes. After lunch, we began work on another project but we haven’t quite finished yet.

One of the Cecropia Trees we measured for our research project

 

While we were out in the jungle, we were able to see four Scarlet Macaws perched on the same tree! They were close enough to where we could see their brightly colored feathers. Also, Kaela and Cassia told me that they saw a bird (probably a kite by their description) fly over the canopy holding a rodent almost as large as the bird itself. I really wish I would’ve been able to see that because it sounds pretty wild.

In the late afternoon, we hiked an increasingly steep trail up to a place called the Bird Tower. It’s a tower on a large hill which overlooks the jungle and although it does the views we saw from the top were absolutely incredible. There were no signs of civilization and the forest seemed to go on forever. I could’ve sat up there all day. Unfortunately, all things come to an end and we had to walk back to the station, but on our way, we saw a jumping pit viper, one of the venomous snakes in the region!

A view from the Bird Tower

Tomorrow our main goal is to retrieve all of the camera traps we placed during our first full day at Las Cuevas. Hopefully, we were able to get pictures of some cool animals! We aren’t really supposed to get our hopes up too high, but I for one hope to see a Jaguar! It’s crazy to think that we only have one more full day at Las Cuevas, but I’m looking forward to heading to Glover’s Reef!