Tag Archives: Kaela

Holy Smokes! (A look back at the past two weeks)

In both the rainforest and the reef we observed great amounts of biodiversity. Both these places are located in the tropics which receive more direct sunlight than more northern ecosystems. Having lots of available sunlight allows for more plants and therefore there is more energy available to species that eat plants which could be why we saw so many different levels of herbivores and carnivores. Wow, that’s some science right there.

In both places, trees formed a vital part of the ecosystems (canopy and mangroves) and in both species have developed adaptions to compete and live in close quarters. In both areas we also found endangered species and invasive species, which though the causes for each habitat being endangered differ, both stem back to humans (sigh).

I expected more structure to our research, but was pleasantly surprised when we were allowed to pursue topics that interested us.  My favorite parts of the course were mostly in the rainforest- finding tarantulas at night, going into the cave, and getting to see all sort of different beetles, butterflies, and other things we don’t see around Houston. I found on this trip that I do not enjoy underwater research, in particular counting strands of seagrass was a low point, but it was still a good chance to learn what marine biologists do.

The most poignant moment for me on this trip was the trash collection activity on the last day- I was blown away by how much we collected and how much remained.  Also in preparing for my presentation, I learned about seagrass and mangroves and how they are actually vital for reefs and land ecosystems. I also went into the trip with a generally negative opinion of ants, but Scott’s passion and fun facts converted me to the cult of the ant. In particular I thought the leaf cutter ants were cool as they have super complex social structures, architecture, and they have little ant highway which somehow manage to be less chaotic than Houston’s own during rush hour.

Species seen:


Morelet’s Tree Frog, Mexican Tree Frog, Broad Headed Rain Frog, Campbell’s Rainforest Toad, Gulf Coast Toad


Orange-tipped hermit crab, green climbing gall crab, giant hermit crab, furcate spider crab, spiny lobster, miscellaneous shrimp, blue land crab, blue land hermit crab

May 17th – Peeing in a Cup, Lectures in a Cave, and Catching a Glue Butt Cockroach

Today was our second full day at Las Cuevas, and unfortunately the rain appears to have stopped so the rainforest has become quite dry. Even when we went to the pond nearby it had dried up, so sadly no amphibians were spotted today.
Despite not seeing any members of my taxon group today, it was a very exciting day, and not just because we were surprised this morning with vials to collect our own urine. We spent the morning placing these vials of pee as well as controls containing water on tree trunks and in the ground the trap Arthropods and see if they prefer the nitrogen rich urine to water.
In the afternoon, we finally got to explore a bit of the namesake of this place- Las Cuevas (the cave). We went into the second of five huge chambers in the cave that are accessible from our station and when we turned off our headlamps there was no light. We stayed in the cave during our lectures because it is naturally cool underground, although we did get quite a bunch of bat guano on our pants.
My favorite part of today was going night hiking after dinner. I have slowly begun to fall in love with the huge red-rumped tarantulas that live in holes around our rooms and got to see a bunch more of those. We also found Glue-Butt Cockroaches, which are big black roaches with a sticky substance on their backs to dissuade predators. On the second try, I managed to catch one and it crawled all over my arm. We also found a stick bug and a different large spider with orange and black stripes. We saw our first snake and saw another scorpion- a Florida Bark Scorpion to be exact.

Hopefully tomorrow will be less hot and dry so the frogs come back out, but one things for sure, I’ll be out looking for tarantulas again tomorrow night!

May 16th – hundreds of ticks and a tarantula

Today was a long day of hiking for our team as we set up our 7 working camera traps along the trails near the research station to see what wildlife crosses the paths when we aren’t there. Though there were light showers in the afternoon, today was a fairly sunny and dry day. However, in the morning I did find a broad-headed rain frog under a log by where we deployed our first camera trap. Broad-headed rain frogs can be easily identified as they are often found in the leaf litter and have a distinctive side stripe that extends over its eyes, sort of like a bandits mask in old westerns. In the afternoon on our way up the Monkey Tail Trail, I caught a glimpse of a Mexican Tree Frog of a khaki coloration. Unfortunately, it was already high up the tree by the time I saw him. This was an abnormal siting as Mexican Tree Frogs are typically more active at night, though perhaps the rains brought him out.

Today was an exciting day for sitings from outside my taxon group too. We saw a group of spider monkeys before lunch and a bunch of us ate termites under Scott’s instruction. In the afternoon we got to observe first hand the mutualistic relationship between the Bull Thorn Acacia tree and their ant protectors plus we saw the fresh claw marks in the dirt on trail where a puma or jaguar had crossed. We also saw three scarlet macaws in the canopy and I even managed to capture a video of them as they swooped past.
Back at the station I found, no exaggeration, at least 100 ticks on me. I spent probably an hour tweezing them all out. Unclear how I got wrecked by ticks when everyone else just found a few, but tomorrow I’m going to use a LOT of bug spray.
After our lectures, it was dark, aka perfect conditions for tarantula hunting. We found a huge red-rumped tarantula in its hole and managed to coax it out, revealing the broken shells of beetles it had been eating. We also found a different arachnid, the Florida Bark scorpion in a sink, but if you are reading this, don’t worry mom, I didn’t get my hand close to either of them.

May 26th – Chaotic Night Snorkeling

I was still sick this morning so I stayed back and slept while everyone else went out to survey the local sea urchin populations. At noon everyone returned for lunch and then we made a poster using that data and had our lectures.

By dinner time I was feeling back to normal, so I ended up going out with the group for a night dive. It was pretty chaotic because we couldn’t find the reef in the dark and it felt like we were swimming forever. While we were out, we saw a huge spotted eagle ray and a pufferfish in the sea grass. When we finally got to the patch reef there were tons of spiny lobsters out hunting and we could see lots of shrimp darting through the water.

I’m pretty sure I also saw some sort of large true crab in the sea grass but it was pretty far away so I didn’t really get a good look at it for identification purposes. Tomorrow is our last full day in Belize and there is no more snorkeling left, I have to admit I’m ready to go home though I’m sure in retrospect this will all seem fun.

May 25th – I am a Landlubber

This morning we finally got our procedures streamlined (well as streamlined as you can get taking data under water) for the last 2 locations we were studying, plus Bella and I finished early and so had time to look at the reefs more. From my taxon grouping we found another spiny lobster, and this time I actually could see his full body. We also found a moray eel swimming around the corals.
After lunch we went back out to take advantage of flat water and went to the fore reef (the side closest to the ocean drop off). At first it was cool because we were looking into the abyss but quickly the large waves and the pressure from diving down without properly decompressing got to me and I started feeling sick. I managed to hold it together while we were out there, which was good because we saw a large nurse shark, 2 squids, and a flounder, but by the time we got back on the boat and into shore I felt terrible.

If you look carefully you can see a shark

I threw up 4 times since getting off the boat and I still feel dizzy and nauseous so I’m going to bed early in the hopes that I won’t feel so dead tomorrow when we go out again. I’m starting to realize how much I do not want to be a marine biologist on this trip, but hey, that narrows it down slightly.

May 28th – Travel Purgatory

This morning we woke up, ate breakfast at 5am, and got onto the boat taking us back to civilization. To get back to Rice it was a 3 hour boat ride, then an hour wait, a 30 minute van ride, a 2.5 hour wait, a 3 hour flight, and a 45 minute bus ride. On the plane ride, the movie Aquaman was playing, and I kept finding myself judging the producers for their inaccurate display of the wildlife. That was the moment I realized tropical field biology had finally pushed me over the edge into academic lunacy.

By the time I finally got home, I didn’t even take my long awaited shower, but instead ate some chips and salsa and then crashed in bed. It was a great experience, but I’m pretty sure I’m going to need to hibernate to make up for all the lost sleep from the past couple weeks.

May 27th – Human Sacrifices to the Mosquitoes

Our last day at Glover’s was spent entirely on land (thankfully). This morning we collected trash to determine the composition of trash on the island and where the majority of it collects. My group were the designated human sacrifices to the mosquitoes in the “mangroves of death” so our 30 minute collection time was spent doing some complex gymnastics around tree roots and while drenched in deet based products. It was kind of sad how much trash we took and still barely made a dent in the stuff accumulated there. The 12 of us collected over 3500 pieces of trash in 30 minutes and of those the vast majority were plastics such as bottles, plastic cutlery, toothbrushes, and flip flops that had washed ashore from the ocean currents in the Caribbean. Another sad finding was a hermit crab that was using some kind of plastic cap as a shell and crabs that had built plastic into the walls of their burrows.
After our collections and sorting, we opened up a few coconuts and ate their meat as a reward for our sweaty efforts.
After lunch we dissected the 5 lion fish that Scott, Javier, and Herbie had speared as they are invasive in the Atlantic. We then took that meat and turned it into a seviche while we were in lectures.  I one again determined that seafood in any form is not my jam, although I do concede it was well prepared.

Lionfish Ceviche

This evening we had a powwow on the dock and we were watching the shrimp darting around the dock light and looking for rrays and at one point I turned around and there was a huge nurse shark right next to the dock checking out the light. What a way to wrap up the day! Tomorrow we have an early start to a full day of travel back to the US, so off to bed I go.

May 24th – Happy Birthday to Me

I celebrated my 21st birthday today on Glover’s Reef! Today, we went to two separate sites on the boat to do more work with the quadrats this morning and got to look around the patch reefs some more. The only crustacean I saw while out on the reef was a yellow line arrow crab, but I couldn’t get up close enough to take his picture because he was hiding under an overhang deep down. I did find a long -spined sea urchin while out though, and Bella and I swam right by a school of blue tang.

After lunch we did a wading activity in the seagrass nearby our laboratory where we all filled buckets with as much as we could find in an hour. I ended up finding 2 Donkey Dung Sea Cucumbers, a few different kinds of sponge, an anemone, 3 types of urchin, a conch, and unfortunately for my hands, a fireworm which I didn’t realize releases sharp barbs into your hand until it was too late. I also found what I thought was a sea anemone in a shell but when we took it back to the lab we determined it was a Pygmy Atlantic octopus instead! Our class also found a bunch of crustaceans for me to examine including what I ID’d as green gall climbing crabs, spider furcate crabs, an orange clawed hermit crab, and a mantis shrimp. There were also all of these tiny hermit crabs with blue tipped legs that I couldn’t determine since they weren’t anything I’d seen in my research and weren’t in the reef book, possibly because I focused my research on coral crab species not necessarily those we’d find in dense sea grass thickets.

At dinner I was surprised with a huge card the whole class had signed and a chocolate cake with white frosting… it was so nice and the cake was delicious (also as a side note the ladies in the kitchen made some delicious soul food tonight which I also really appreciated). Now off to bed because I’m so freaking tired.


May 23rd – A shark and a ray

Day two on the reef was a lot less anxiety inducing than day one. In the morning we learned about how the different tools for taking coral coverage measurements work and practiced on land on one of the coral graveyards nearby. While we were taking measurements I found a Black Sea urchin which I returned to sea, except don’t tell Keegan because I forgot to show him before releasing him and that’s his taxon group. After lunch, we suited up and took the same tools out into the water and took measurements for the sea grass beds nearby. I kept getting water in my snorkel from trying to stay underwater for as long as possible to count all the grass, but luckily Bella and I were an efficient duo and thus finished early and got to check out the patch reef. While out there we spotted a spotted eagle ray and a nurse shark, and in my own taxon group we found a spiny lobster, though we could only see it’s long antennae peeking out so couldn’t tell if it was spotted or not. We also found a number more blue hermit crabs on land throughout the day and I spent a good 20 minutes trying to catch the speedy blue land crabs which live in holes beneath the bushes and come out at night. In the morning it looks like we were invaded by a bunch of rogue mountain bikers because of all the crab tracks on the sand. 

May 21st – Spelunking, Skeletons, and Holding a Boa Constrictor

This morning we left the Rainforest to head back to “civilization” for a while. After a 3 hour stomach churning ride along dirt roads, we arrived at the ATM cave. We took a 3-hour adventure through the cave, which involved swimming, wading, navigating crevasses, and eventually going barefoot to look at the remains of pottery and human sacrifices from the Maya over 1000 years ago. It was weird to me that you can get within a couple feet of these thousands of year old artifacts with only a piece of orange tape between you and a skull.  I’ve found a lot of things in Belize are less regulated than the US and everyone is a lot less concerned about being sued so you can do more exciting things. Unfortunately, we were not allowed to take pictures in the cave because a few years ago a tourist supposedly dropped his camera and one of the skulls and broke it.  

After the ATM cave, we headed to where we are staying tonight to get settled in. After dinner, and gasp, a brief period of WiFi access, we rode to the Belize zoo in the back of a pickup truck. Because many animals are nocturnal, we got to see a lot of species we wouldn’t normally see in the rainforest during their active times. We saw several types of owl, a Morelet’s crocodile, a kinkajou, and 4 species of big cat: the puma, jaguar, ocelot, and margay. The zoo keeper also had pieces of raw chicken to feed the cats.

By far my favorite parts of the zoo were getting to hold a boa constrictor and feeding carrots and bananas to a tapir! I still can’t believe what a cool opportunity that was… you definitely don’t get many chances to feed a tapir in Houston. As I write this I’m drifting off to sleep even though it’s only 9:30pm Belize time… tomorrow we head to the reef and you all can look forward to hearing about crustaceans from now on!