Tag Archives: final blog

Basically Steve Irwin pt. 2

The sky over our last night in Belize. Once again, this photo is NOT color corrected!

Now that I’ve been back from Belize for a few days, I’ve had some time to gather my thoughts on the past two weeks. I had the privilege of visiting two of the world’s most biologically diverse ecosystems and witnessing their beauty firsthand. Although the rainforest and the reef seem to be completely distinct ecosystems, in reality, they have several underlying similarities.

The biggest concept I learned about these two ecosystems on my trip was that both exist in oddly nutrient-poor areas. You’d think that such diverse places would never be able to survive in environments as lacking in nutrients as the soil of the Chiquibul or the waters of Glover’s Reef. But paradoxically, they thrive here!

Upon closer inspection, the “paradoxes” of the rainforest and of the reef aren’t paradoxes at all. In both ecosystems, the efficient recycling of nutrients allows these areas to support such a large diversity of organisms. So even though the soil or the water itself may be nutrient-poor, these ecosystems are able to flourish.

Even at first glance, I noticed similarities between the rainforest and the reef. I was impressed by the sheer diversity of animals in both places. Even without going anywhere, I observed more life than I’ve ever seen back home in Texas. At Las Cuevas, hundreds of species of moths, as well as frogs, geckos, katydids, and scorpions clung to the station walls every single night. It was the same at Middle Caye at Glover’s Reef. I spotted multitudes of fish, including barracuda, sardines, lemon sharks, and nurse sharks from the dock of the island. We also shared the island with hundreds of hermit crabs, iguanas, and blue land crabs. It’s crazy how the animal life in both places came to us without us even having to seek it out.

Belize was everything I expected and more. I’m rereading my pre-trip blog now, and it’s comical to me how accurate my expectations for the trip were. Two weeks ago, I said I expected a lot of sweat and longing for air conditioning – and I was SOOO right. I don’t think I was completely dry for a single minute on the entire trip – I was always either sweaty or in the ocean.

The painfully early mornings and physical tiredness from full days of hiking or swimming were probably my least favorite aspects of the course, but even those I didn’t mind too much. (Actually, maybe finding bug bites in places where I never, EVER wanted to find bug bites was my least favorite thing. Anyway.) They were necessary for us to make the most of our time in Belize.

It’s so difficult to choose only one or a few favorite parts of the trip because I genuinely enjoyed every single day – who wouldn’t? I got to wake up in some of the most beautiful places in the world for two weeks. Like, what the heck?? But if I had to pick, my favorite moments of the trip were either checking the contents of our camera traps, collecting sea urchins, or swimming at the reef crest.

I’ll never forget the moment we saw a tapir captured in the lens, which was then followed by jaguars, pumas, armadillos, and more! We probably screamed loudly enough to wake up the whole research station. I also had a real ball finding and catching sea urchins. They were in my taxon, after all, and they were so fun to spot! It was basically iSpy, but in the name of science. And how could I not love the reef crest? I’ve never seen such extraordinary abundance of life anywhere.

In the end, believe it or not, this trip was actually a class and not a vacation. That means that I actually learned stuff and didn’t sit around drinking and eating fresh coconuts on the beach all day – although there was some of that, too. I learned a lot about the lives of real TFBs and commonly used techniques in the field. Some of these techniques include taking transects (taking measurements at set increments of distance along a straight line), using quadrats (using grids to count items of interest), and setting pitfall and camera traps. We conducted several mini-projects over the course of the trip in which we practiced using some of these techniques.

Something else that I learned about that will stick with me for a long time is not only the danger that both forests and reefs face, but also about the efforts of those who fight against these dangers. For example, the FCD, Friends for Conservation and Development, is an NGO made up of a few dozen men who patrol the forests of Belize. They also speak with the national government and mediate political conflicts that bleed over into the environment. Basically, they do jobs that seem to be meant for a government to do, and they do them well.

And finally, I learned a lot about myself. I learned that I’m not as much of a wimp as I thought I was. Sure, I’m not the most athletic person you’ll ever meet, but I can keep up on difficult hikes and I can swim through strong currents. I learned that I have a knack for spotting and catching critters, and that I’m not creeped out by creepy crawlies. In fact, I actually really enjoy them! (Unpopular opinion – millipedes are pretty cute.) And most importantly, I really, really love the TFB life. I’ll never be Steve Irwin, but now I can say that I’m a certified Tropical Field Biologist.

Feels great.

Last but not least

This morning I pulled tick number 19 off my ear and boarded a plane to DC. It feels strange being back on the grid, sending texts and walking past Subway and McDonald’s.

This trip was an experience unlike any that I have had before. I’m so happy to have met all of the TFBs. The reef and rainforest ecosystems were both incredible, in ways that I expected and in ways that I totally didn’t expect.

Accomplished TFBs

Middle Caye was, at first glance, a tropical paradise, with tall palm trees and surrounded by Gatorade-blue water. From a boat, the reef is mostly invisible. Only the reef crest, where waves break incessantly, and dark patches in the bright blue of the lagoon betrayed the reef’s position under the surface of the ocean.

Upon arrival, the Chiquibul Rainforest looked like a whole lot of trees. The ground is covered in leaf litter and the twisted roots of trees growing up and out in competition for sunlight.

In both the reef ecosystem and the rainforest ecosystem, complexity is present but not immediately apparent.

In the coral reef ecosystem, topographical complexity allows organisms to hide in crevices and under consolidated reef framework. Sponges, soft corals, and algae provide habitat, in addition to stony corals. Only after many days snorkeling around did I start to see the full range of diversity present in the ecosystem. I didn’t see any urchins until we were told to look, and then I found them tucked under rocks and under corals. I began to notice anemones wiggling in the seagrasses and I became more alert to the quick movement of reef fishes.

In the rainforest ecosystem, the diversity of plant life also provides a wide range of habitat for animal life. I did not notice the overwhelming abundance of arthropods in the rainforest until our small sampling effort yielded a whole lot of little critters. Insects and arachnids (including my enemy, the tick) were “hidden” in the grasses, on palm fronds, on tree trunks and vines and on the forest floor. Trees in the rainforest also provide habitat for other plant life (shout out epiphytes). The rainforest is far from being composed of only trees, just like the reef is far from being composed only of stony corals.

A huge similarity between the reef and the rainforest is the nutrient recycling imperative. Both coral reefs and tropical rainforests are incredibly diverse ecosystems despite being nutrient poor.

Coral reefs survive best in nutrient-poor waters. The microbial loop, during which detritus and dissolved organic matter (DOM) are incorporated into microorganisms on the reef, is necessary for rapid turnover. Tiny microorganisms are eaten, and the nutrients they consumed move up through the trophic levels on the reef. In tropical rainforests, soils are old and depleted of their nutrients. Rapid decomposition and turnover on the forest floor is a quintessential element of the rainforest. In the case of some nutrients (calcium and phosphorous) 99% appears to be recycled by forest plants.

My favorite activity from the trip was the Actun Tunichil Muknal archaeological reserve. Wading through chilly water and scrambling over slick rock formations in the dark was super cool on its own, but seeing the pottery left by the Maya and remains of human sacrifice left untouched for thousands of years was awe-inspiring. Also, the hike back through the forest in the pouring rain was rejuvenating.

My least favorite activity was collecting data on Christmas tree worms on the back reef off Middle Caye. Collecting data was difficult on the shallow reefs; constantly being pushed around by the waves and crashing into rocks was an inconvenience. Honestly, it was still a good time and Adolfo found the huge dead sponge there, so it was worth crashing around and spluttering in the waves for a while.

This course was incredibly educational; I felt like I was constantly absorbing new information. It met my expectations and exceeded them. Being a tropical field biologist requires hard-work and flexibility for when things inevitably don’t go as planned. But the experience also showed me that tropical field biology requires and encourages creativity. Being at Glover’s and Las Cuevas, in relatively untouched ecosystems, made me appreciate the awesomeness of nature.

Course Review and Wrap Up: Michael Saucedo

I want (an it is required of me) to recount the three most memorable experiences from this course. The first is obvious, and that is the experience of meeting and getting to know the incredible group of instructors and students who decided it was important or even necessary to complete this course. Most people would not consider trudging a dozen miles in the Chiquibul or collecting marine debris at Glover’s Atoll to be an entirely pleasant way to spend one’s summer. Each and every participant made it their aim, however, to not just complete these and other challenges, but to take away from them a positive message. Not to mention the positivity and diligence of the workers at each of the two field sites we stayed at. These people have devoted their life to the cause of conservation and biological research and to the education of young people like myself. In five years, I am confident I will still remember the attitudes and moments of courage from those who inspired me during the last two weeks. This was undoubtably my favorite part of the course.

Secondly, I will never forget the peace of mind that comes with field work. Never before had I reached a feeling of calm as when diving to the bottom of a reef, hearing nothing but my own air bubbles, and carefully observing and recording the diversity of life I saw. The same is true of my time spent in the Chiquibul, where the cacophony of noise reaches a transcendental hum. In the field, your eyes and ears become attuned to each stimulus they encounter. Over time, nothing slips by and you can appreciate everything around you. I dream of a time in my life where I can spend months or even years in this blissful state. I guess this experience has given me a dragon to chase, my first taste of “field euphoria.” I take it back, you guys were great, but this was undoubtably my favorite part of the course.

The third memorable aspect of this trip (and reducing this trip to just three memories does not really do it justice) was the unstoppable stream of information coming from both qualitatively observing and directly quantifying my surroundings. Both from direct observation and methodical quantifying I became more attune to the biotic and abiotic processes occurring all around me. But comfort in your assertions about this environment are short-lived because of the astounding amount of alternate information popping up left and right. When we conducted studies of different biological systems we constantly faced the dilemma of what question to ask (what data to quantify), because there are a million valid questions, but many fewer that actually lead to meaningful results. Even once you have asked the right question, it is not always clear how to interpret the data you have collected. Different statistical methods can lead to finding wildly different conclusions from the same data set. This experience has taught me that specific knowledge of life is key to understanding the problems that face our modern world. It has also taught me that careful scrutiny and painstaking attention to detail is the only way to sift through this wealth of information and acquire relevant knowledge. The daunting feeling that comes with this realization could be viewed negatively (as my least favorite realization) but as always understanding what you are up against can make it feel less scary. So overall, a net positive experience.

How can I most succinctly summarize this experience and still do it justice? One adjective that comes to mind immediately is educational.  EBIO319 is hands down the most educational experience I have had in my time at Rice. You can read and discuss all you want and begin to understand the systems of organisms that exist in the tropics, but until you see them first hand it is near impossible to fully appreciate their novelty and complexity. My expectations of adventure were certainly met, but I had no idea how much knowledge I could attain from exploring these pristine habitats.

Moreover, the nature of this experience was paramountly thought-provoking—stimulating connections each time we reached a new location and inspected its life forms. One of the first lectures in the Chiquibul focused on life in the rainforest canopy. It touched on the paradoxical duality of high biodiversity existing in soils without highly abundant nutrients. This concept immediately rang a bell in my head because it was so connected to one of the fundamental aspects of my lecture topic from the reef. On coral reefs, waters are oligotrophic as well and yet support a similar richness and abundance of life. Both ecosystems rely on the cycling of nutrients from the top of the ecosystem to the bottom and back again from the bottom to the top. In the rainforest, decomposers like microorganisms, fungi, roaches, and other insects recycle plant and animal detritus which then can be absorbed by roots. These lucky roots (along with the beating tropical sun) support the growth of tall trees that host the larger heterotrophs which ultimately (along with plants) become food for those detritivores I mentioned before.

On the reef this process is more cryptic, since it prominently features microbes. Here highly abundant and productive autotrophic bacteria photosynthetically fix carbon within their cells. Along with dead microbes and larger organisms, the exuded photosynthates from these bacteria become food for heterotrophic bacteria, abundant in the water column and more so on the reef benthos. This cycle of nutrients is so tightly linked that nutrients hardly exist free floating in the water for long. Larger organisms filter feed on these nutritious microbes, grow, and are then consumed themselves by ever larger organisms. All eventually die and become food for the heterotrophic bacteria that form the base of this microbial loop.

Belize is truly a biodiversity hotspot. A center for conservation focused research and legislation that promotes the sustainability  of such an environment. What we have in both of these locations in Belize is ideal specialization in an ideal habitat. Nothing goes to waste. Every necessary niche is filled by a diversity of life. This is only possible when anthropogenic extinction is limited and preservation is the top priority.