Today was another travelling day. We left Glover’s in the morning to head back to the mainland. We did one last snorkel on the way back through the mangroves at Twin Caye. There, we saw a manatee, a yellow seahorse, a magnificent feather duster worm, and a lot of upside down jellyfish. I also saw some Caulerpa algae, and many of the algae species I’d seen around the patch reefs.
The other place we stopped on the way back was Carrie Bow Caye, the Smithsonian Research Center. It was cool to meet the volunteer station manager, Clive, and hear about the research going on there.
Once we got back to the mainland, we went back to the Tropical Education Center where we are staying again tonight. We spent the evening at the Belize Zoo and got an amazing tour. We saw five big cats, including a jaguar that did somersaults for us. We also fed a tapir and two crocodiles.
The last thing we did tonight was talk with Lucrecia, who is in Belize to do cat research and took EBIO 319 last year. It was good to see her because we ran cross country together in the fall but she spent the spring semester in Tanzania, and it sounds like she has been doing some really cool stuff.
Tomorrow we are going to a cave. I’m sure it is going to be awesome, but I’m still a little sad that we aren’t at the reef anymore.
Today was our last day on Middle Caye, so we spent most of it just enjoying ourselves and the reef.
We snorkeled in three different sites in the morning without having to wield any quadrats or slates. The first site in the channel was amazing, but unfortunately my camera died about ten minutes after we started diving. I saw two species of bubble algae in the aquarium site. Highlights that I couldn’t photograph ( 🙁 ) included a flounder, a Pufferfish, a Queen Angelfish, a Scrawled Filefish, a Yellow Stingray, and a Spotted Eagle Ray.
I also saw a Gray Angelfish and a lot of Spotlight Parrotfish that I had fun chasing around for photographs.
After we finished on the reef, we measured and dissected the lionfish that Scott and Javier had speared this past week, and we inspected their stomach contents. I don’t like dissecting, so luckily Buck, Adolfo, and Therese were all into doing it.
To end today, we took the boat over to the Marisol Resort and enjoyed the advantages of being in a foreign country. So we could leave a shirt on the wall, Alessi bought one off a fisherman’s back. It was a great way to end the marine portion of our trip and to learn more about Adrienne’s true opinions before she leaves us with Turf and Turiez.
Unfortunately, today the weather was still too windy to go to the reef crest or to do the night snorkel. Instead, we did specimen collection on the back reef and a quick dive on the patch reef before dinner.
In the specimen collection, we picked Udotea flabellum, Halimeda tuna, Halimeda monile, Halimeda incrassate, Dictyosphaeira cavernosa, Caulerpa urvilleana, Acetabularia calcyculus, Penicillus pyriformis, Valonia utricularis, and Rhipocephalus phoenix green algae.
We also brought back a Sun Anemone, a Mantis Shrimp, a Queen conch, circle marked brittle sea stars, a bearded fireworm, and a baby Caribbean reef octopus.
During our dives I spent a lot of time looking for fish. I saw more Blue Tangs, a Spotted Moray eel, a French Angelfish, Four-eyed Butterfly Fish, a Cat shark (?), a Grey Angelfish, and French Grunts.
It is hard to believe that tomorrow is our last full day on Glover’s Reef. It will be nice to be less salty than I’ve been, but I am really going to be sad leaving this amazing place, especially if we don’t get a chance to go to the reef crest before we go.
Today we attempted to recreate the experiment that a former TFB performed on host preference in Christmas tree worms. Christmas tree worms are colorful little annelids that live on the surface of corals. In that way, this was easier than the urchin experiment because they were much easier to see. I saw another Sailor’s eye algae today during the experiment. That was the only time we spent on the reef today, so I didn’t have time to look for other algae species much.
Besides algae, I also got to see the molt of a Caribbean Spiny Lobster today and a Donkey Dung sea cucumber on the back reef. These are funny because they look like a donkey’s dung (or at least what I assume the dung of a donkey might look like). Tonight when we shone a dive light into the water (it was too rough for us to do a night snorkel), we saw a crocodile and a stingray, too.
For the last part of today, we collected, sorted, and weighed marine debris. It was shocking, and depressing, to me how much debris there was on Middle Caye because we are so so remote. After 30 minutes of collecting, we didn’t even make a dent in the amount of litter there was within the mangroves, let alone the amount there is in the world, Belize, or even just the amount on Middle Caye.
We couldn’t do the night snorkel or go out to the reef crest today, so fingers remain crossed.
Today we completed our MPA vs. General Use Zone comparison by doing quadrat coral cover assessments and urchin collecting on a patch reef in the General Use Zone. It was a lot easier today because conditions were calmer. During the urchin collection, I finally saw Sailor’s Eye Algae! I couldn’t find it again when I went to take a picture, but they look like big shiny bubbles. I also was able to find good examples of calcium carbonate Halimeda chips within the sand.
Today we also listened to a presentation by Javier, our marine safety officer, about the history and culture of Belize. He told us that the four main ethic groups of Belize, the Mestizos, Creoles, Garifunas, and Mayans, were all represented within the staff on Middle Caye, which is only comprised of six people!
The first lowlight of today was that I realized that I am trash at arithmetic when synthesizing our data. The second lowlight was that I realized there had been a frog in my Cheerios box after a frog jumped out of my Cheerios box. Truthfully I hadn’t been getting hungry enough in between meals to be eating them much and they were kind of a jank flavor, but it grossed me out nonetheless.
Weather permitting, tomorrow we are going to go snorkel on the reef crest and maybe also do a night dive. I am really excited to see different reef scenery now, so I’m keeping my fingers crossed.
As neat as the Belize City Airport and the Tropical Education Center were, today is when the real fun stuff started. We woke up at the crack of dawn to meet our boat in Belize City and were on our way by 8. The boat trip was idyllic because the skies were completely clear and the ride was very smooth. The water was a mosaic of different shades of blue, and we could see Mayan Mountains on the horizon. In terms of wildlife, we first saw flying fish and a green turtle. The green turtle sighting was especially special, and he was huge!
Actually being at Glover’s Reef is pretty wild because I’ve been wanting to come here for so long. Actually diving here is equally wild because it’s the first time I’ve been on a reef with any grain of legitimate knowledge whatsoever with regards to reef life.
After touring the island, eating, and getting settled in the cabins, we did a little “scavenger hunt” on a patch reef to make sure everyone was comfortable in the water. That was quite refreshing after 22 hours of feeling sticky. I saw a lot of stony corals, gorgonians, vase sponges, seagrass, and herbivorous fish all over the patch. Some of the highlights of things that I saw were an Angelfish, a Barracuda, a Manta Ray, and a Feather Duster Polychaete.
While all these things were quite neat, they could not compare with the Green Algae that I saw!! (I am obligated to be excited about green algae for the duration of this trip but they actually are kind of exciting). Since they were in the sand, rather than on the reef itself, I could get really close to the algae to examine them without worrying about kicking and harming any organisms.
I saw a few species that I know were types of Penicillus. I immediately recognized some Rhipocephalus phoenix when I swam up to it because it really did look like a pinecone! I think I also saw some Penicillus pyriformis. Then I saw an Udotea algae that I think was Udotea flabellum, but it didn’t quite match what I was expecting for either of the Udotea species I had on my card.
Later on, I saw some Halimeda that I guessed may have been Halimeda discoidea. I know for sure that it was Halimeda because I found calcium carbonate Halimeda chips around it.
After the snorkeling, Adrienne took us back to a big heap of coral skeletons on the other side of the island. Apparently it’s super rare for there to be so many skeletons so well preserved and so easily accessible, so that was neat. I don’t think I’ve seen anyone as excited in a graveyard before as Adrienne was. It was a good way to practice identifying stony corals and to clarify the differences between species with similar morphologies by comparing them side by side.
In the evening, Jordan lectured us on the Stony Coral taxon group which bettered our familiarity a bit more. Mikey lectured on Echinoderms which was a lot of new information. I didn’t see any Echinoderms today, but now that I know what to look for I think I’ll be able to spot some tomorrow.
The last thing we did for tonight was make the quadrats we are going to use tomorrow. That was not particularly noteworthy except for the fact that I got my very first wound of the class by stabbing my thumb with a pair of scissors. The trauma was minimal and I’m expecting to survive but I’m sporting a nice little Bandaid for now.
Today has been a long day of travel. Fortunately though, everything went smoothly! I can only hope that tomorrow’s boat ride is equally lacking in complications.
We left Rice a little after 10:30 this morning and loaded on a bus to go to Hobby Airport. Even though our flight didn’t leave until 2:30, the five hours we gave ourselves ended up to be just the right amount of time. As I’m learning, everything goes slower when you’re part of a group of fourteen.
Even though I was in one of the later boarding groups, I managed to snag a window seat. Most of the trip we were flying over the Gulf of Mexico. I fell asleep for a good chunk of the flight, but luckily when I woke up I could see boats below so I assumed we must be nearing the land, and I got to get a glimpse of Mexico’s gulf coast as the land reappeared.
I thought I remembered reading in the textbook for this course that we would fly over the Chiquibul as we approached the Belize City Airport, but I only saw agricultural plots with some trees in between. Maybe I wasn’t looking at the right time, or maybe the author came from a different direction.
Once we landed in Belize City, got our luggage, and got through customs, we got on another bus to head to the place we’re staying for tonight. We also stopped at a supermarket to pick up some snacks.
We are staying for tonight at The Belize Zoo’s Tropical Education Center. We got in just around dinner time, so although they showed us the trails, pond, and observation deck we did not get to do much before dark. However, we’ll be back here again at the midpoint of our trip before we head to Las Cuevas Research Station.
Just walking around the gravel trails here though, we did see a little bit of fauna. I did not see any Green Algae or Orthoptera species, but it was cool to see other people in the class recognize species from their assigned taxa groups.
We saw a green iguana snacking on some leaves in a tree right over the trail. There was also a lot of leaf cutter ants, to the point where there was a sign warning us of their traffic corridors. We saw a lot of epiphytes around the trail on the many trees here. We are in a savanna environment, but at least in the near vicinity of where we’re staying there is much denser vegetation than I would expect for a savanna. Although, driving here we passed a lot of ‘classic savanna’ scenery: sparse short trees, grasses, and very flat land.
Right in the middle of our cabin, we also saw a little toad. It would be great if all the Orthoptera and algae species got the memo and were to show up right by my bed in the coming days, but my hopes are not high.
My first day back was filled with even more travel from Houston to Washington DC. It was crazy to be around so many vehicles and people. Going through the airport seemed way more chaotic than usual, even though it probably wasn’t. Overall, I’m so glad that I got the opportunity to go to Belize with this class. The entire trip was a great experience from the places that we visited to our activities to the people that I got to meet.
Visiting the rainforest and coral reef was different than anything else I have ever done. While I have been in forests and on reefs before, the ecosystems that we visited had a much higher abundance and diversity of species. The ecosystems both have a high amount of 3D topography, which allows for the high diversity. In the rainforest, trees provide structure with their branches, trunks, and roots whereas in the reefs the corals grow to create structure from the sea floor to the surface. The structure creates room for species to fulfill different niches.
Comparing the two ecosystems, trees and corals provide many similar functions. Both have epiphytes and borers that live in their branches. The birds that live in trees are like the fish that live among the coral. I also noticed that turf algae was similar to the undergrowth in the forest that takes advantage of every bit of light and nutrients that it can. Another similarity that I noticed was the striking difference between the diurnal and nocturnal diversity of both ecosystems. When we went out at night, the regions had very different species compositions than during the day. This is another example of the different niches that are available.
One of the differences between the forest and the reef was that the forest seemed to discourage the spread of species because it is rather hard to traverse, whereas marine species are not prevented from migrating by the corals. It seems likely that species are better able to disperse on a reef than in the forest.
Looking back, this course exceeded my expectations in so many ways. I never expected to make so many friends or to have quite as much fun on the trip as I did. Every day was challenging but so rewarding. I don’t think that I have ever appreciated food as much as I did during our stay at Las Cuevas, where every meal was incredible even though the ingredients were so limited. I never could have imagined how beautiful Middle Caye would be. Bearing the sand flies and giant land crabs was more than worth the incredible views and people. This course fed a desire in me to travel and experience other places and biomes that I never knew I had. While it was definitely a form of biology bootcamp, it only strengthened my certainty that I want to do research in ecology.
Probably my least favorite part of the course was our transportation troubles. While hiking in the heat was manageable, sitting in hot buses or waiting for them made the heat feel ten times worse. I think that my favorite part had to be seeing and hearing the macaws in the Chiquibul. The birds are so charismatic and so smart, and I felt honored to be able to see them in the wild.
I learned so much from this course, so it’s difficult to pick out what was most important or surprising. Learning about tapirs’ genitalia is something surprising that I will remember for a very long time, but it probably won’t be important to my future studies. Experiencing the mangroves impressed upon me the importance of conserving habitats because of how they influence other areas. Probably the biggest thing that I am taking away from this course is the realization of how hard conservation is. There are so many factors that go into protecting biodiversity and so many sides to consider that make it impossible to please everyone. I admire the people who we met who have made conservation their focus despite the challenges that come with it.
This morning we packed up our things and very sadly left Glovers Reef. Watching the paradisiacal island grow smaller in the distance, the only thing that lifted my spirits me was the realization that soon all of my bug bites will grow smaller as well. On our way back to Belize City, we first stopped on Carrie Bow Cay, an island of about 1.5 acres that is home to a Smithsonian research station. Our tour of the facilities had everyone wishing that they could do research or be a volunteer station manager there in the future. It was also sobering, though, because the current station managers mentioned that the island has lost considerable land due to rising sea level. The island also lost its population of mangroves, which increases the rate of erosion. On top of normal rates, hurricanes are particularly destructive because of the high wind and wave action that they entail. On the current trajectory, Carrie Bow Cay may disappear before we are able to go back. Seeing the island put climate change into perspective for me. Rising sea levels are something we hear about, but it’s difficult to imagine an entire island ceasing to exist until you have seen it in action.
Our next stop was Twin Caye to visit mangroves and view the diversity that they hold. Mangroves are an important habitat for young fish because of the protection that they provide. As mentioned above, they also prevent erosion and even create land. In one area we were able to walk between mangrove trees in the soil that they had created. It smelled pretty bad and there were a fair number of sinkholes, but it was cool to see how productive the trees are.
Afterward, we put on our dive skins, masks, and fins one last time to snorkel next to the roots of the mangrove. The sandy bottom was home to hundreds of upside down jellyfish which sit on the sea floor with their bell to the ground and their tentacles raised to the surface. When the water around them is disrupted they start to float around, so we had to be careful not to disturb the water around them. We also saw a number of sea stars that were at least a foot in diameter. I don’t think I had ever seen live sea stars that were that big. Additionally, the sea floor was home to Caulerpa sertularioides, a species that has very feather-like branches and prefers to live in sandy areas and near mangroves. I hadn’t seen the species yet, so I’m glad we got a chance to visit the mangroves.
It was also amazing to witness how much life the mangroves supported. All of the roots were covered in species of algae and sponges that provided even more habitat for fish and other animals that flitted between the roots and lived in the sheaths of biotic material around the roots.
When we were done with the mangroves we packed up all of our dirty and wet clothes and made our way back to Belize City. Getting through the tiny airport was relatively easy. It’s weird being back in the U.S. with so many people and so much activity everywhere. It will be strange not eating rice, beans, and chicken for almost every lunch and dinner.
This morning we spent an hour on the back reef on the northeast side of Middle Caye. We had visited the area on May 28th, but this time we went to collect all of the biodiversity of the zone that we could. Most of what we were able to collect was algae because it is usually stationary and safe to touch. We also collected some mollusks and crustaceans. A lot of the hermit crabs that we found in the water were occupying old conch shells, which shows how large they were. It was interesting to compare how the live conchs and hermit crabs in conch shells looked when they were retracted. Our jellyfish expert, Sam, found dead box jellyfish floating near the shoreline and collected them even though their tentacles are very dangerous to touch.
We collected a lot of the species of algae that I had already seen last time we visited the back reef, but it was good to consolidate the data. Overall we collected samples of Halimeda incrassata, H. opuntia, Dictyosphaeria cavernosa, Penicillus capitatus, Rhipocephalus phoenix, Udotea conglutinata, U. flabellum, Caulerpa cuppressoides, C. racemosa, and possibly Chaetomorpha linum. It was difficult to tell the difference between the Penicillus species because some seemed to have a slightly flat top or a slightly bigger top than the descriptions of P. capitatus that I was able to find in the literature. I am not sure that the filamentous algae that we collected were C. linum. They seemed similar to the description, but I couldn’t completely rule out other species.
In the afternoon we dissected lionfish to record their dimensions and what they were eating. We had caught 4 lionfish, and the individual that my group dissected had puncture wounds in its face from the spear. The most difficult part of the dissection was attempting to sex the fish. Ultimately my group was not able to determine where the gonads were, so we couldn’t tell whether it was a female or a male. We opened up the lionfish’s stomach and found a much smaller fish that was barely digested. The lionfish was 19cm from mouth to the tip of the tail, and the ingested fish was 2cm long. Lionfish stomachs can expand to 30 times their empty size, which made the stomach of our individual comparatively empty.
By this time tomorrow we will all be back in the United States. Tomorrow promises to be a crazy day, and I’m looking forward to end the trip with the same spirit that we have had throughout our time here.