Tag Archives: glambio

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.


Glamorous Biology (#glambio)

I’m home. It’s strange to think that the two-week journey of tropical field biology has already ended. I feel that being in the Chiquibul forest and Glover’s reef has not only informed me knowledge wise about these two diverse ecosystems, but it has also changed me spiritually.

One thing I can’t help but see is how similar the Chiquibul and Glover’s are. Don’t get me wrong, they harbor completely different life forms and habitats, but both have incredible species specialization. Each organism on both places occupies a unique niche where they thrive in the competition for resources and reproduction. Just as some species are suited for the deeper reefs, other terrestrial creatures live their lives high in the forest canopy. The many possible ways life forms can occupy an available niche gives the opportunity for speciation, and with time and enough resources, a divers array of species can emerge.

Species diversity also depends on the amount of free resources in a given area. Surprisingly, both the reefs and the forests in Belize are low in nutrients, yet both areas have developed adaptations to ensure high efficiency of nutrient cycling. Organic matter in both places is quickly recycled into nutrients that sustain the reef and forest food chains. To me, the stars of the nutrient recycling goes to the detritivores of both the forest and the sea that turn dead material into accessible nutrients for primary producers like plants and algae.

Symbiosis is a common theme between forests and reefs. For example, corals depend on symbiotic algae that photosynthesize nutrients to the coral polyps, which provide housing and protection to the algae. In forests, acacia trees and ants share a symbiosis where the ants live within the tree and feed on protein buds provided by the leaves while tree gains protection from herbivores with its ant army.

One critical difference I’ve observed is how people talk about recovery and resilience for forests versus recovery for coral reefs. Even though both ecosystems are sensitive to changes, reefs can completely die out with only 2 degrees Celsius of change, something that affect the forests as much. The prospect of rising sea levels, temperatures, and human development seems to put more pressure on the reefs than on the forests. I often find the tone of forest conservation in the Chiquibul to be more optimistic than similar conversations in Glovers.

This course is nothing like I expected it to be. I never imagined being so excited to hear someone yelling ROACH from their restroom. My favorite parts of the course were the night walks and diversity dives which allowed for me to search for my taxa and learn about them and their ecology. I also enjoyed the guest lectures as they were very informative on either conservation efforts at belize, or simply giving a profound look into the tropical field biologist life. The least enjoyable part of the course was the crummy transportation organization, but I guess accidents happen! Other than that, I think it’d be a better idea to give lectures earlier on in the day than late at night, when it becomes difficult to stay awake. Plus giving taxon briefings earlier on would give each of us an idea of what to look for.

While I learned a lot of interesting nature facts, conservation efforts, and natural history of belize, I think the biggest growth I had here in Belize was spiritually. When I heard Lauren’s talk about the difficulties of managing camera traps in the Chiquibul and all the things that went wrong in her studies, I was amazed to see her bright personality still shine through. Her words “Don’t take life too seriously” made me reevaluate my priorities. To move on easily in life in the midst of failure and not freak out is a skill not many have and to see it manifest in a field biologist really left its mark. It’s definitely a new mantra I need in my life!

As the roach expert, I think the course has changed how I see cockroaches in my life. By forcing me to read on a “despicable” creature, I was given an opportunity to get out of my comfort zone and learn the true diversity of these creatures outside of stereotypical portrayals. I learned that cockroaches are a super diverse family of insects that come in all sorts of shapes, colors, and sizes, each adapted to a particular niche of its environment. I think it’s been particularly exciting to study a family that not many people are willing to look at. Each day, I learned about and saw new species with unique patterns and behaviors.

A final impactful point that has changed me is the beach cleanup project and marine debris lecture. I never expected such a pristine location to feel the effects of marine trash. The more I cleaned, the more sever I felt the problem become. I couldn’t help but feel convicted with guilt as I saw all the brittle plastics being sorted out of the island. It really made me see the urgency of action in a very relevant setting. The experience was nothing short of eye opening. I hope it’s something I can continue on my own and hopefully get more people involved.

La voie! La verite! La vie!
La voie! La verite! La vie! PC: Stephanie Zhao 😀

From canopy to understory

From shallows to depths

From surf to turf, from leaf to reef

Rise from Belize

New TFBs

And that’s a wrap

This trip was one of the most amazing experiences of my life. Not only did I learn a ton, but I also discovered how fun and rewarding field biology can be.

In visiting both the tropical rainforests and coral reefs of Belize, we were able to experience the two most biologically diverse ecosystems on the planet. Though at first glance these ecosystems may seem very different, they actually share many characteristics that may contribute to their amazing biodiversity. Both tend to exist in the tropics (as seen by the existence of both in Belize), where stable temperatures, large amounts of sunlight, and/or long evolutionary lineages may contribute to extreme biodiversity. Additionally, both rainforests and coral reefs often exist in nutrient-poor environments, and thus nutrients are cycled through the communities rather efficiently.

The rainforest and coral reefs had incredible structural diversity. In general, the rainforest’s structure was provided mostly by plants, while the reef’s was provided mostly by coral colonies. With so much structural diversity comes the creation of a plethora of niches for species to inhabit, thus allowing for many species to exist in the same ecosystem. In both areas, we saw countless species from many different taxa, some of which seemed similar but in reality had slightly different ecological roles. The species compositions of the rainforest and coral reefs were of course very unique. For example, very few mammal species exist in the Belizean reef environments, but a large diversity of mammals exists in the Chiquibul forest.

One specific similarity that I noticed between the rainforest and reefs was the complexity of their trophic pyramids. For example, on a coral reef, a great barracuda could eat a Nassau grouper, who could eat a bluestriped grunt, who could eat a clam, who may filter feed on plankton. This complexity is very interesting, and as the “expert” on mammals and piscivorous fish, I found it really exciting to be able to observe some top predators in the wild.

The only thing that this course did not provide me with was a sighting of a wild jaguar (which only means I need to go back!). It really was everything I could have hoped for. There was more scientific methodology practice than I had expected, but I think this was very helpful for learning about how science works in the field. My favorite part of EBIO 319 was just being able to explore the rainforest ecosystem, whether through early morning walks or camera trap images. My least favorite part was probably the pre-trip preparation (which was a bit stressful), but I think it all paid off in the end.

Three of the most important things that I learned on this trip:
1) Living in a more sustainable way, by focusing on true needs (like hydrate or die) rather than superfluous wants, is incredibly rewarding and strengthening.
2) Seeing an elusive creature (such as a tayra) in the wild, even if it took hours or days of seeing nothing, is absolutely worth the effort.
3) Even with little sleep, few snacks, no internet, cold showers, limited electricity, and lots of ticks, field work felt rejuvenating!

Overall, a completely unbelizeable experience!
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The Professor Who Cried Mosquito

Ocean view of “mangroves of death.”

It sure is one thing to learn about conservation, but seeing it in action is a whole other story. And this morning’s experiment was really all about doing conservation. After learning about marine debris, we spent the morning on a task that was part data collection and part beach cleanup. In just an hour, we picked up an incredible 90 pounds of trash. But the real kicker is that the same beach is cleaned every week, so everything we collected today had accumulated in just one week. Talk about mass consumerism.


In the afternoon, we tackled the much-awaited “mangroves of death.” Prepared by horror stories of mosquito clouds in years past, we were ready to sprint through the mangroves, snorkel and all. But our mangrove run turned into a leisurely stroll, as we encountered a total of zero bugs. A classic case of the professor that cried mosquito. 


After our safe passage, we said a tearful goodbye to our quadrats with one last coral experiment. We conducted our study on the back reef just beyond the island’s shoreline, where I saw much fewer herbivorous fish than on the patch reefs inside the atoll. The corals in this area seemed much more spread out and covered less area, which might explain the smaller number of fish.


To wrap up, we did our first night snorkel today. The reef is a whole other world at night; instead of seeing brightly colored parrotfish and small damselfish darting among the corals, I found a whole slew of other creatures. Some notable sightings included several huge spiny lobsters, a Nassau grouper, a yellow stingray, and several Caribbean reef squid. However, I did also find what looked like a blue tang surgeonfish (Acanthurus coeruleus); it had the characteristic spine on its caudal fin, but also had thick, vertical white stripes over its blue coloring.


To summarize, this is what I learned today: the ocean is filled with our trash; don’t use Styrofoam; and the reef is pretty damn cool in the dark.

Day 12: Open Ocean Adventures

I might finally appreciate the vastness of the ocean. This may sound obvious, and I’ve always known that the ocean was huge, but I don’t think I ever really understood what that meant. This morning we went to the fore reef, which was far deeper than anywhere I’ve swam before. Although the water was crystal clear, I couldn’t see the bottom in many places, and in most directions there was nothing but blue for as far as I could see. It hit me that although I was awestruck by the apparent limitlessness of this ocean, I could only see a tiny speck of the ocean on a globe. I know I’ll never fully understand how large the ocean is, but at least now I have some perspective on its immensity.

Eagle ray

We saw many incredible species today. On the fore reef, we saw many large rays, including a spotted eagle ray that was easily longer than I was. We also saw some large, highly endangered elk horn coral. After lunch we snorkeled out to the back reef and saw a large barracuda and caught several invasive lionfish. I didn’t see any tunicates, but I did find nearly all the calciferous red algae species I had researched. Tubular thicket algae and Amphiroa fragilissima were quite common on the sea floor, as they were in the unprotected patch reef yesterdat. I also found crustose coralline algae covering some patches on the reef framework, and a few Galaxura Rugosa plants as well.

Adios, Las Cuevas

TFBs on the Monkey Tail Trail of the Chiquibul Forest.

Our final day at Las Cuevas began bright and early as always; we were out the door for our morning hike by 8am. We retraced our steps over 13 miles to collect our camera traps in record time, much more mentally prepared for the trail this time around. Though our picture count was low, we remained optimistic that our cameras had caught some animals (besides us). We also managed to spot what was most likely a Middle American ameiva (Ameiva festiva). I had never come across this lizard species before but was able to identify it using a field guide by its coloration. The lizard was about 12 cm long (which made it too long for an anole) and was a dark brown with white lines on its side broken into spots.

We had to wait until nightfall for the day’s real excitement: our camera trap analysis. The prospects seemed poor as we sifted through endless photos of ourselves or even of leaves flapping in the wind. But our first big find was a giant curassow, casually strolling past our camera in the middle of the road. Soon after, we discovered a picture of a Baird’s tapir, and the group cheered ecstatically at our first mammal sighting. Suspense rose as we tested the final camera; our expectations were low since it was placed in the center of a giant leaf-cutter ant nest. But to our surprise, the very last camera first held a photo of an indistinct rodent, which we guessed was an agouti. As we flipped through the final photos, the characteristic markings of a jungle cat suddenly appeared on the screen. Our final sighting was of an ocelot, one of the elusive large cat species of the Chiquibul.

Though our findings may have been few and far between, just the fact that we were able to capture such diverse species in four short days is incredible. And with that, a week in the Belizean rainforest is already done. Next stop: Glover’s Reef.

The Art of Spelunking (Day 5)

I never truly appreciated the feeling of being clean until today. There’s one thing about coming back hot and sweaty after a hike, but it’s quite a different feeling returning from an afternoon of spelunking covered in a fine mixture of mud and bat guano.

View from inside Las Cuevas cave.
Wrinkle-faced bat inside Las Cuevas cave.

But let’s backtrack. Today’s tasks began relatively lightly by wrapping up our (inconclusive) cecropia experiments. The day’s primary activity was the exploration of the cave from which Las Cuevas gets its name (and water). The 9-chambered cave is the center of an ancient Mayan ceremonial site, with each of the rooms representing one of the nine layers of the Mayan underworld. The cave holds numerous Mayan structures and pottery, and even what appeared to be a human femur. I doubt I’ll be picking up spelunking for recreation anytime soon, but our exploration gave me a newfound appreciation for cave biology. We found two species of bats within the cave system, as we crawled on hands and knees through narrow passageways that opened into large caverns. I thought I was clean until the cave’s final test: a tiny chamber with low oxygen content, housing a peccary skeleton. Let’s just say I was in great need of a hot bath after that adventure.

Finally, we set up an experiment to test nitrogen deficiency in arthropods of the rainforest canopy. Once again, we utilized extremely sophisticated technologies to create pitfall traps for arthropods in the canopy and forest floor, taking advantage of our most accessible nitrogen source: urine. I was thankfully spared from urine collection, but the afternoon was dedicated to setting up pitfall traps along the Maya trail (not named after yours truly). Though there were no sightings today, the leaf-litter our traps were set in are a prime habitat for venomous snakes; the forest floor was thoroughly checked for species like the yellow-jawed tommygoff (Bothrops asper) before setting traps. I did however spot several anole species along the Maya trail, all of which moved too quickly to be identified.

All in all, day 5 of EBIO 319 is best summed up by the following statement by Dr. Scott Solomon, “We’re exploring the mammalian excretory system!”

Smile for the Camera

Today’s task seemed simple: form a hypothesis and set up 12 camera traps in the forest surrounding LCRS. 

Twelve hours later, our work is finally complete, but it was much easier said than done. After a 5:30am birdwatching session and a hot cup of tea, we set off to develop our experiment. We opted to test the impact of human pathways on local species richness and composition in the Chiquibul by setting up camera traps along roads and trails, as well as in natural clearings. In five days, we’ll collect these traps and see what diverse organisms they’ve managed to catch on film.

The morning’s hike seemed manageable on a map, but many hours and some (incredible) scarlet macaw sightings later, we had set up only half of our traps. By our 3pm lunch break, I had walked 7.8 miles or 16, 652 steps. Talk about a morning workout. 

View from Bird Tower near LCRS.

Right before lunch, we ended our work at the Las Cuevas Bird Tower. The rickety tower stands at over 600 m of elevation, and the view is almost worth the steep hike up. (Note to entrepreneurs: the Bird Tower would be an ideal location for opening an ice cream stand).

Sumichrast’s skink (Eumeces sumichrasti).

Despite sweat and blisters, we loaded up on lunch and set off on the Monkey Tail Trail to install the remaining traps in clearings and a natural stream. The main reptile for today was the Sumichrast’s skink (Eumeces sumichrasti), an orange and black lizard with a bright blue tail. I saw evolution in action when we caught a blue-tailed skink; the lizard quickly shed its skin and darted off, leaving the wriggling blue tail in our palms (and the rest of the animal out of sight). 

With our twelfth and final camera trap set in a mud wallow for a prospective tapir sighting, we finally trudged our way home. Though we were all exhausted and covered in sweat (and ticks, in some cases), I found some  peace in the pitch black of the forest. The trees of the canopy arched over the trail to form a tunnel, just like the trees at home on University Boulevard. And just as the blinking lights of the city lead me home at Rice, the twinkling eyes of spiders lit up the trail with pinpricks of yellow light, finally leading us back to Las Cuevas.


This morning started out so promising when we saw some Scarlett Macaws. Things went downhill (and uphill and downhill and up some larger hills) from there.

Today we set up camera traps to answer our question “what is the impact of human pathways on local species composition and richness in Chiquibul Forest?” We will look specifically at roads and pathways vs. natural clearings. We had 12 camera traps to set up and we were very ambitious in how far away we wanted to put each camera from one another. Our hike lasted all day (with a short break for lunch and bandages at 3), and we hiked a total of 13.47 miles (and apparently some 120 flights of stairs according to Adrienne’s fitbit).

During the hike I saw thousands of arachnids scurrying underfoot, and one huge wolf spider (about 3 in including its legs). We also became very acquainted with our new best friend: the tick. I pulled about 5 or 6 off of myself before dinner.

Elaborate spider web along the trail.
Elaborate spider web along the trail.

During the hike, my feet started killing me around 12pm when I realized that the pads of my heels were rubbing against my sock in a weird way. I spent the rest of the hike with moleskin sweating off of me as we hiked up to our highest point of 685 meters in elevation. We saw some fabulous long wing butterflies at the bird tower observation deck, which was our highest camera trap point.

There was much sweat and pain, so I certainly hope we get something good from these camera traps. Next stop: ant experiments.