Tag Archives: herbivorous fish

Adios Belize <3

Okay reflection here we go:

There are many similarities between the tropical rainforests and the coral reefs. Starting with the most obvious, both ecosystems rely heavily on water. Both ecosystems seem to have alternating states, whether it be the seasonality in the rain forest (wet vs. dry), or the tides in the ocean (high vs. low) that can differ between the hours. The organisms in each ecosystem have various stages of their life cycles in sync with the different cycles that occur in their environment, such as mating during the start of the wet season, etc. This variation in the environments allows for speciation; when one species is inactive, another in a similar niche can thrive, and so forth.

Another similarity, which is something that I did not know about before this trip, is the paradox of both environments being in and of themselves nutrient poor, yet somehow being able to support staggering amounts of biodiversity. In our little experiments in the Chiquibul for example, we were able to identify, morphologically speaking, approximately 60 different species of arthropods that wound up on our various vials, The fact that this number is a ridiculously small fraction of what is actually out there is absolutely mind blowing. Before the trip, I was wondering how to get as many species of my taxa possible on my taxon ID cards. I foolishly thought that I would be alright with approximately 24 species of trees and 24 of herbivorous fish- I mean were going to areas that were only so big, how diverse can the species get? The truth is, I didn’t see anymore than 8 or so of the species on my ID cards, both in the rainforest and on the reef. That isn’t because there simply were 8 or so of each taxon in each ecosystem- its because there were so many species of each taxon and they were so spread out around the ecosystem, somewhat “diffused” along with hundreds of other species that it was hard to identify them based on a very limited knowledge of their physical characteristics and distribution, bot to mention the fact that so many species looked SO similar, especially in regards to the trees, but in fact were different species entirely. While I knew before that there were MANY species in the rainforest, I think it was difficult  for me to grasp how many is many until I got a small glimpse of it myself. This was one thing that somewhat did surprise me about the course; no matter how much you think you know, or how positive you can distinguish one species from one that looks strikingly similar other than a minor variation in the veins of their leaves, you will never actually know all that much at all.

I didn’t realize that working underwater would be such a challenge. Of course, this was my first experience with snorkeling, let alone my first time trying to collect data underwater- I’m sure more experienced researchers won’t get salt water into their eyes as often as I did. However, I’m pretty certain that whether you are a novice or a marine biologist with 20+ year experience, goggles will get foggy, calves will cramp up, transect tapes won’t always stay in place and quadrats will sometimes refused to fall flat on the benthos. We were lucky that there were basically no waves and the sea was very calm. I could not imagine doing the same things we did, like measure coral coverage on the benthos, in very windy or rough conditions. Communicating underwater was quite difficult as well. Most of the time, if what I was trying to say didn’t get through to the other person, we both just surfaced so could talk out loud. I imagine in conditions or project that are time constrained, researchers would need to have a detailed communication system in place so that they won’t have to waste precious time trying to ask someone to lend them their camera.

One last thing that I didn’t really think about much until this course was about how much overlap there is between different fields of study, and how humanity is tied to nature, not matter how far away from it we think we are. Biology is ecology and evolution, yes, but it is also philosophy and physics and geology and politics and chemistry and sociology and history and nearly any field you can think of. People shape their environment, but the environment shapes people too. The things that we learned about the Maya civilization, their use of the land (the trees!), their culture, their struggles and their eventual downfall is all ingrained in the biology of the land as well, from the slashed on the bark of the chicle trees, to the changing soil qualities due to slash and burn agriculture. It really made me think about questions concerning geopolitical borders- the Guatemalans can’t harvest Xate but Belizeans can, just because they are on the wrong side on an imaginary line? The Chiquibul – and nature as a whole- doesn’t follow the rules of man.

Belize was hot. More humid in the forest, and a stronger sun on the island. However, in the forest, the nights were cooler and in Glovers’, we had that occasional ocean breeze.

Complaints? I’ve been told I have had them. As I can’t really think of anything that’s been bothering me up until right now, I think all of my complaints were in the moment, mostly. My various bites are still itchy as hell, but I’m sure I won’t even be remembering them in a few weeks. If I had to pick my least favorite part of the course, I would probably be when my sunscreen keep getting into my eyes while snorkeling and I couldn’t keep them open for hours afterwards- that is until we realized that that was the cause of my temporary blindness and I stopped using sunscreen on my forehead.

It is hard to choose one favorite part of the course, but I can say that all my favorite parts were shared with the people who I have personally learned so much from throughout this course, whether it was about the various lectures we’ve had, or otherwise. We all talked about how much of a surprise it was when we looked over the camera trap pictures and saw the jaguars, or how cool it was to climb around inside the ATM cave, or see scarlet macaws in the wild. The experiences we had during this trip were one of a kind  and I will treasure them forever, but I think that my favorite part overall was being able to meet such amazing human beings with the same passion for science and learning and the environment and people as I have, and the opportunity that I had to experience this truly eye opening trip with them.

I think I somewhat came into this course thinking: okay this is it, after May 29th I will be able to decide whether or not I want to do field work in my career as a biology. I expected to have the answer to the question I’ve been asking myself for the past few months, now that graduate school applications are looming overhead. But now I realize that the answer is not that simple to be answered after a two week experience, no matter how amazing it was. Will I know pursue a career as a tropical field biologist, or even field work in general? Honestly, it’s too soon to tell. I’ll probably have to let my sand fly bites heal before I start thinking about that. What I can say now is that no matter what specific field of study I choose to pursue in my career in EEB, I can always look back at this trip to remind myself of why I do what I do- because I love science and I love what science can do for people, and what science has the potential to do for all of the earth and its creatures.

 

 

Day 15: My mom made beans for dinner

Today was the one day at Glover’s that I woke up before sunrise, to finish packing my bags and to take a shower before our journey back to Houston. After the last delicious breakfast prepared by the kitchen staff, we left the atoll with all our luggage and headed to Belize City.

Last breakfast at Glovers

On the way there, we stopped at Carrie Bow Island, which is a research institution run by the Smithsonian. A researcher on the island told us a little bit about her work, and how she is raising hybrid corals in tanks. These hybrid corals occur naturally in the waters surrounding the island, but they are of particular interest to her because this hybrid is particularly hardy and is somewhat resistant the the higher temperatures that usually cause most corals to bleach. Perhaps this research may help us find ways to preserve and even repopulate the rapidly declining coral population in the wild.

But before we could arrive at our final destination, we had one more stop to make. We went to Twin Caye (which I thought was spelled like Twinkie, but anyways, life is full of disappointments) to snorkel around the mangroves. Mangroves are trees that are able to live in salt water, and have aerial roots called prop roots that help them get oxygen. These mangrove prop root communities serve as homes for animals and even as nurseries for some young. We saw fire sponges growing off the roots of some of the trees, and I am fairly certain i saw a Sergeant major fish (Abudefduf saxatilis) no bigger than three inches swimming around somewhere in there. I believe I also saw an aggregation of brown chromis fish (Chromis multilineata), but I wasn’t 100% sure because the water wasn’t very clear, and also because they swam away after I started looking at them for too long.

Mangrove trees from above the water
Sponge growing on prop roots (underwater)

Back in Houston, after we said our overly dramatic goodbyes to one another (fine, after MY overly dramatic goodbyes), my mom asked me what food we ate while on the research stations. I told her that we ate tons of beans and that I didn’t want to eat anymore beans for at least a month, if not more. She then proceeded to laugh hysterically, because she had a Colombian beans and rice dish waiting for me at home. Regardless, I was just grateful to be home with my family, in an air conditioned house and in clean clothing.

I really appreciate the fact that our last blog is due on June 1st, because I would like to take these next few days to reflect upon our trip and everything we learned from it, tropical field biology-wise and other things as well.

Day 14: Miss me with those venomous spines

Today after breakfast, we took out all of the seven lionfish we (read: Scott, he didn’t let us wield the Trident of Glory) speared and let them defrost for a while. Scott cut off the spines after we weighed them, since there’s probably some rule against letting students handle venom. Then, we took some basic measurements such as the length with and without counting the tail, and the mouth gape height and width. After that, we sliced those babies open to determine their sex, reproductive status and the contents of their stomach. Andressa and I found a partially digested fish in ours. Yum.

Lionfish dissection

After we finished dissecting the lionfish, Scott cut them up into tiny pieces, marinated them in lemon juice to kill all the bacteria and other stuff. Then he added chopped tomatoes and onions, and we ate it just like that. I was a little hesitant to try it at first, but then I remembered that I ate a termite in the Chiquibul Forest while we were staying at Las Cuevas Research Station.

While half the class went out for a voluntary snorkel session after lunch, some of us engaged in other pastimes. Me, Kristen, Andressa, Claire and Sami (don’t ask her about it, she’ll deny it) dug a 6 in*12 in hole in the ground and filled it with about 25 hermit crabs. We watched them interact with each other (read: walk over) and finally decided to let them out of the hole after a while; the great Hermit Crab Exodus. No, this was not for science and yes we are all really college students.

In the afternoon, we took the boat to the resort located on the island of Southwest Caye. We just walked and talked around the island until sunset. Then we hopped back on the boat under perfect pastel skies, with both the sun and the full moon present at the same time. After dinner (there was chocolate cheesecake!) we all went out on to the dock and Scott led us all in group meditation under the stars. It was so peaceful and beautiful, and the perfect ending to such an amazing trip.

The sky at sunset from our last evening at Glover’s

Day 13: Sharks are actually really boring

Today after breakfast we talked about Andressa’s presentation on marine debris, and we decided that we wanted to find out how much and what types of trash washed up on the island. We decided to look at two areas on opposite sides of the island: the windward side, which is the direction facing the wind, and the leeward face, which doesn’t face the wind. So we went over to both spots and pick up as much trash as we could within a time frame, noting how much of each types we picked up (i.e. hard plastics, glass, wood, etc.…). Unsurprisingly, we found that found plastics made up a large percentage of what we found on both sides. It’s pretty upsetting to know that despite the fact that this island is cleaned up regularly, we were still able to fill up three large bags full of washed up trash, and there was still so much that we weren’t able to get.

We later went snorkeling at three different sites, the first and last being pretty shallow (around 4-7 ft deep at most), and the second being the deepest (around 20-25 ft). I noticed several patterns concerning the distribution of the fish I was able to recognize. For example, all the stoplight parrotfish like to hang out, usually alone, closer to the benthos, at the bottom of the coral structures that they feed off of. Side note: I also saw the initial phase of parrotfish (pretty much a young adult parrot fish) that was silver and red, which is surprising since the adult from is blue and purple. I also noticed that most of the smaller fish, such as the blue chromis and four-eyed butterfly fish like to hang out, usually with each other, towards the top of the coral and rock formations.

The red and grey fish is a juvenile stoplight parrotfish
Adult Parrotfish

I learned in my research that a type of fish called the Sargent Major was a curious lil fella who would swim up to divers instead of swimming away for cover like most other fish. These little guys like to hang out at the top of coral structures, are a little smaller than the palm of your hand, have a white body with yellow and black stripes, and have a face that can only be described as cute. However, this was WRONG. I saw many, many Sargent majors in all three sites and they all swam away from me. Utterly disappointing.

Shy Sergeant major fish

In the deeper site, we saw a HUGE nurse shark (around 7-8 ft) that was just laying on the benthos, partially covered by a rock/coral structure. Once everybody came to see it and were diving down to see it, it moved a little more under the rocks. I would have probably been annoyed too if a bunch of undergrads came to disturb my nap. We left after we realized that it wasn’t on planning to move anytime soon.

Day 12: You guys made me ink

Today rather than going on a boat out to a further part of the reef, we went snorkeling right off the shore off the island. The water was very shallow, waist deep at most. At first, it was mostly a “lawn” of sea grass, and we found many conch shells (some with live conch inside!) with anemones growing on top of them. We also found a large sea cucumber that is called the donkey dung cucumber. It is appropriately named. Elena found me an urchin, since I missed our urchin collecting expedition yesterday because I wasn’t feeling well. It was a very interesting experience to have something that looks sessile moving across the palm of your hand.

I found an aggregation (aka school) of four eyed butterflyfish, which were a little smaller than the palm of my hand. They have an eye-looking spot on their tail fin called a ocellated spot. I think that these fish have this feature in order to distract potential predators from attacking the fishes’ actual face, or might think it’s a larger, scarier fish. I was told later by Claire that this tactic actually worked because she actually fell for it. I don’t know if she was actually trying to attack it, but that’s besides the point. Nature is amazing.

A four-eyed butterfly fish

We then collected many creatures and organisms and took them back to the wet lab at the research station, which is basically a long sink with taps full of sea water, so it could keep the organisms alive while we studied them. We accidentally collected a cocoa damselfish that was living inside one of the sea anemone-covered conch shells, as well a tiny octopus, who inked after we poked it too much. After identifying all our respective taxa, we released them back into the water.

Damselfish stowaway

After dinner, our marine safety officer Xavier gave us a presentation on the History and Culture of Belize. We learned a lot about all the different types of people who have lived here, including Mennonites and the Amish. We also learned that the common thread that keeps people of all the different backgrounds and cultures together is the language Creole, which everyone speaks. Also, I found it amazing that Belize never fought in a war, and didn’t need to fight for their independence. Not only is this country’s landscape beautiful, but the ideals of peace and unity in diversity make this country so much more.

Day 11: Belize can’t catch a break

Today after breakfast,  Windolpho from the Belize Fisheries department came to talk to us about some of the work his department does. He told us about how Hondurans, much like the Guatemalans, come onto Belize lands (or oceans in this case) and take resources. While in in the Chiquibul, we learned that Guatemalans would come to Belize’s forests to take Xate leaves (a plant in high demand in the floral industry). Here in Glover’s Reef, Hondurans come to fish conch in mass quantities, with no respect to the fragile ecosystems that they are illegally exploiting.

Xate from the Chiquibul

We then got into our snorkel gear and went onto the boat to visit some new reef patches. The waves were pretty wild (Scott said that they were actually calm…) and lots of people felt sick. The second site was like the drop off from Finding Nemo, a coral reef that sloped off into a deep blue abyss that goes on for who knows how long. The deep clear blue was beautiful, but it was a little nerve wreaking to be floating over nothingness.

On the boat with Kristen, Claire and Sam

In the reef patch, I wasn’t able to dive to the benthos, which was at least 25-30 down or deeper. However, from the surface I was able to two stoplight parrotfish swimming near each other towards the base of a coral. One was using its parrot beak-like mouth to scrape algae off the coral. The other one just seemed to be hanging out. They looked about a foot long, at least from where I was looking. I also saw a blue tang at the top of a rock structure. It looked no bigger than 6 inches, but then again I was also pretty far up from it.

Stoplight parrotfish eating algae off corals
An aggregation of blue tang and various other types of surgeonfish

Lionfish is an invasive species in the Caribbean, meaning that they are native to the Indo-Pacific and were brought to this area by people who got them as pets and later released them in the wrong ocean. In Elena’s lecture later in the evening, we learned that they are responsible for eating 70% of the native fish population. We came across a few in the coral, and Scott was able to spear a huge one. The other two were too deep down and pretty hidden under some coral structures, so we couldn’t get those. We are going to dissect them in a few days, then probably eat them for lunch. Yum!

Day 10: Save the Corals

Today we collected some data to assess the current state of the coral reefs around Middle Caye Island in Glover’s Reef. We measured coral cover on the benthos (sea floor) of both marine protected areas and non-protected areas using our quadrats that we made yesterday and transect tape. We haven’t analyzed our data yet, but I’m hoping that at least the marine protected areas at least maintain the healthy baseline coverage of at least 10% coral coverage.
Right after lunch, we visited a coral graveyard. It contained a large pile of fossilized coral skeletons that are millions of years old, probably. We tried to identify different types of coral, the most of which I remember is brain coral, due to its obvious resemblance to a human brain. The structures were absolutely beautiful, and it helped us familiarize ourselves with the structures we might encounter on the reef.

On a more personal note, I learned how to properly prepare and wear my mask so that the sea water didn’t get into my eyes. Therefore, I was able to see EVERYTHING underwater. Unfortunately, my camera isn’t working at the moment, but once I resolve this issue I will try to update this post with pictures of some of the herbivorous fish I saw during this activity, including parrotfish and six individual four spotted butterfly fish. Some of the other animals we saw were teeny tiny jellyfish that may or may not have stung Kristen in the head, a moray spotted eel and, this may come as a shocker, many, many coral of many different colors such as yellow, purple and red. Seeing coral reefs a foot in front of you is an absolutely surreal experience, and a description in words cannot bring this experience to justice.

 

Sami let me borrow her camera to take a few pictures
This could be a juvenile blue tang OR a type of butterfly fish…most likely the latter

After dinner I gave a presentation on the threats to coral reefs. I talked about how global warming, overfishing, ocean acidification and hurricane-strength storms are all contributing to the rapid decline of coral reefs. In fact, many marine biologists agree that most coral reef systems will experience rapid decline and even extinction within the next 30-100 years. It occurred to me while snorkeling that I am really fortunate to be able to see that majesty that is the coral reef ecosystem because they might not be around in a few generations. I posted an infographic if anyone wants to know a little bit more about what you can do to help protect this ecosystem.

My very attentive audience
What you can do to help coral reefs
Credit: oceanservice.noaa.gov

Day 9 (10? Time is a social construct ): Salty

Today we began the second part of the class, also known as “Surf”. It is also the day I formally switch from talking about trees to talking about herbivorous fish, so stay tuned for pictures of fish like Dory from Finding Nemo (i.e. the Blue Tang) and many, many different species of parrotfish.

We left mainland Belize around 9:00 AM and took a boat out to Middle Caye Island in Glover’s Reef. It was a three hour journey, but it didn’t feel nearly as long since we were all mesmerized by the view of the deep blue water, and later when closing in towards the atoll, a crystal clear turquoise. The Glover’s Reef Research Station is located on this island, which is basically self sustaining. It runs on solar power, uses rainwater for drinking/washing and the only toilet are compost toilets. The decomposer part of the toilet is lovingly called “Clivus.” Yes, I too have many questions.

I have never seen water this beautiful in my life- I took this picture in the lagoon and made it my phone lock screen picture

After lunch, we put on all our gear for snorkeling-dive skins, dive booties, mask, snorkel and fins- and jumped into the water. I took my camera with me as well, which is supposed to be waterproof, but once I tried to take a picture underwater, it made a sound like it was dying and abruptly stopped working. I’ll have to check up on that ASAP. We swam over seagrass- I saw a school of medium sized fish (about a foot long) in a green-grey color. I’m not sure of their species, however. Dr. Solomon picked up a starfish out of the grass, which was about the size of a medium plate and golden yellow.

After we felt a little morecomfortable in our gear, we swam out to a deeper area where I finally got to see coral reefs for the first time in my life. I recognized brain coral, which looked like, well, a brain, and was a mustard yellow in color. I didn’t see any herbivorous fish, frankly because I was having some trouble with my mask that lead to my eyes being filled with sea water and me not being able to keep them open until after I took a nap two hours later. However, I was told that people saw a parrotfish, a nurse shark, a sting ray, and fire coral.

A photo of a blue tang (bottom) and parrotfish (top)!

After aforementioned nap, dinner and student lecture presentations, we made quadrats, which it’s a square made out of PVC pipes and a grid of criss-crossing string, as well as underwater clip boards, which is basically a regular clip board connecting to a pencil via plastic tubing, and waterproof paper strapped onto the board with rubber bands. We are now ready for Underwater Science™.

Andressa and I making our Quadrat

 

I can’t Belize it’s over!

One of the most striking similarities in between the Rainforest and the Coral reef, is the sheer number of microclimates that each organism has specialized into. Both the rainforest and the coral reef have such wide levels of biodiversity because each organism has adopted a tiny niche. Both environments also exist in a nutrient deficient state. The rainforest has low nutrient enrichment in its soils. The coral reef also exists in a low nutrient environment. Both exist in states of nutrient deficiency due to a high turnover rate and the sheer number of organisms that need those nutrients.

The rainforest and the coral reef seem to have very similar structures. I have observed that the canopy of the rainforest is similar to the hard coral structure of the reef. Both the canopy and the hard corals support large amounts of life. However, there is even more life teeming underneath in the crevices of the coral and in the understory of the rainforest. By setting pitfall traps and shifting the dead coral pieces while looking for urchins, I got to see a whole new side of both environments. I learned that there is a huge diversity of invertebrates on the forest floor and that for every organism I see on the surface of the coral reef there are ten more underneath.

One of the major differences that I have noticed in the rainforest and on the coral reef, is that the rainforest appears to be more stratified. The organisms in the rainforest that exist in the canopy are rarely found on the forest floor. On the other hand, the fish that are swimming above the coral reef at one moment can be found in a crevice the next. I believe that the water filled environment of the reef allows for greater movement of organisms between the different sections of the coral reef.

I expected that I would really enjoy EBIO 319, but would prefer the marine part of the course! However, I ended up loving the rainforest section equally as well as the marine. Furthermore, I didn’t really expect our class to click as well as it did. I think that by the end of the trip, we all had become good friends. On a side note, I expected that I would leave the rainforest as one giant mosquito bite. However, I didn’t get a single mosquito bite while in the Chiquibul. Similarly, I didn’t expect the rainforest to be so cold. I had to put on a sweatshirt most mornings in the rainforest.

My favorite part of the course was the ATM cave. It was one of the coolest things I have ever done! I also loved designing our own experiments and applying them in the field. I loved that we were given the freedom to see what worked and didn’t work in each study. My least favorite part of this course was of course leaving. I wish that I could stay in Belize forever. I also didn’t love the Christmas tree worm study, but that was primarily due to the very low density of worms!

While I know that I won’t remember won’t remember the details from the presentations or taxon briefings five years from now, I will remember some of the most important guidelines to being a TFB. Rule number one: When you are in the field, things will inevitably go wrong. You must always be prepared for a change in plans and to think of a way to fix a problem like using a vine to tie a camera trap to a tree. Rule Number 2: Always carry a headlamp, a snack, and water! You never know when you will be making it back to base camp and should always be prepared to spend the night in the woods. Rule number 3: always bring plastic bags! There were countless times on the trip that I found my self wishing for a plastic bag to hold wet clothes or to organize equipment. The most important thing I learned is that I love doing field work and want to pursue become a tropical field biologist in the future!

NOM NOM NOM NOM NOM NOM NOM

This morning Jordan, Isaac, Damien, and I woke up at the ungodly hour of 4:45am to watch the sunrise. Although waking up was a little difficult, the sunrise was worth it. The sun was very large and red as it crested over the horizon.

Today, we left Glover’s reef and that was very sad. But I am excited for our week in the rainforest. As we were boating back to Belize, we stopped at Carrie Bow Cay, the Smithsonian research station just inside the Great barrier reef. Clyde the station manager gave us a quick tour.

Then, we were off to swim in the mangroves. WE SAW A MANATEE ON OUR WAY INTO THE GROVE!!!!! Then, we got out and walked around the mangrove and got sufficiently covered in peat. We then snorkeled up the mangroves. I saw a baby Banded Butterfly fish and a few bright orange starfish. At the end of the mangroves, we found a bright yellow seahorse! It was a great way to end the marine portion of our trip. We then continued our trek back to Belize city and ate at a restaurant called Calypso. There lime juice was amazing!

Seahorse!

We then got back in the bus and drove to TEC! After checking in, we went for a short hike around the station. I did not see any amphibians on the hike but we saw a ridiculous number of epiphytes!

After dinner, we went to the Belize Zoo for a night tour. While waiting for all the groups to arrive, but it hopped away before I got a closer look! Inside the zoo, I got to feed a Tapir! It was really cool. We also got to see four out of the five large cats of Belize. My favorites were the Ocelot and the Jaguar. The Ocelot, Rayburn, was really cool because when the zoo keeper gave him a piece of chicken he made an adorable NOM NOM NOM sound! The Jaguar, Junior, was raised by hand from a cub. When we arrived at the cage, he did multiple somersaults for treats! It was really cool to see all the animals at night in a semi natural environment! After we got back from the zoo, Scott brought me a large cane toad!

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