Tag Archives: las cuevas

Day 10: Flow (5/25/2016)

Our morning was spent at Rio-On, a cluster of pools, creeks, and waterfalls within the Coastal Pine forests. The water trickled, funneled, or whirlpooled – navigating around, over, or under well-established rocks. Rio-On was beautiful, like an interactive postcard.

The water at Rio-On

My class and I left Rio-On for Las Cuevas Research Station. En route, our van’s passenger side window rolled all the way down and would no longer roll up. To avoid insects flying in, our driver secured the window closed by jamming a stick in between the window and where it attaches to the car. The window stayed close, and we were off.

Later, I was disheartened to hear that the cave we were going to explore later this week was closed for archeological research. Exploring that cave, which is only open to educational groups and researchers, was one of the major attractants that compelled me to sign up for this trip.

Obstacles and changes of plan are inevitable. Even with a an issue with the van and some bad news, my class and I made it to Las Cuevas and were soon hiking the Maya Trail, which meanders through high-rising trees and unrecognizably overgrown Mayan religious sites. Was this experienced diminished by unexpected incidents and news earlier today?

Absolutely not.

The Chiquibul Forest was breathtaking, like a fantasy land; it didn’t even seem real. My ears were entertained my bird chirping and singing, and eyes by the endless emerald-green only found in a lush tropical forest.

We encountered numerous give and take palms (Chrysophila argentea), easily recognizable by the sharp obsidian-colored spikes adorning their trunks, commonly interspersed between taller trees. There was also a kapok tree (Ceiba pentandra), which had a thick trunk and stretched vertically through and beyond the rainforest canopy. Some palm leaves were four feet in diameter… simply unreal.

Sometimes we don’t have a choice but to flow onward. Like the Rio-On, life can trickle, funnel, or whirlpool, and it is our attitudes that determine whether we navigate around, over, or under any obstacles we face.

I do not know what tomorrow holds, but even with my seemingly rigid expectations, I will readjust and immerse myself in the experiences before me. I have to go with the flow; it’s my only option.


Camera Traps in Las Cuevas


Today marked the first full day here at Las Cuevas and an interesting one at that. The day started bright and early with birdwatching. Although I heard many bird calls, I only saw vultures and a Plumbeous kite (a lot like a rainforest pigeon) which prompted my tired self to go back to sleep before breakfast.

After breakfast, we were given our task for the day: to go out and set camera traps in the area surrounding the research station. We planned for an hour or so and then set out to the 50 hectare path to set out six of our fourteen cameras before lunch.

Hiking on the 50 Hectare trail

On the way, I saw so many ants! I saw leaf cutter ants (A. cephalotes), army ants (E. burcellii), and ants that Scott and I have yet to identify. There were also Acacia ants (Pseudomyrmex spp.) on a small tree with Beltian bodies (nutrient-filled swellings on new leaves).

Young colony of leaf cutter ants
Beltian bodies on Acacia tree sprout

Besides ants, I also saw a blue morpho butterfly, a longhorn beetle, a millipede, a scorpion-eater snake, and a Mexican porcupine. I also saw some beautiful orchids.


We arrived back at the station late for lunch, ate, then headed right back out onto a different trail – the Monkey Trail – to set out the rest of our camera traps. We decided to set them out a kilometer apart, which kept us out there in the rainforest past sunset for a total of five hours during which I saw more leaf cutter ants (A. cephalotes), noticed scat (poop) and scratches likely from a jaguar, and came face to face with the most dangerous snake in the Chiquibul rainforest – the Fer de Lance .

While setting out our last camera, we got slightly lost trying to find our way back to the trail. Thankfully, we had a GPS and a machete to help us but it was still pretty intense; the staff at the station told us they were about to send rescue in after us. Walking back in the dark was neat, despite the fact that I tripped over a branch and pulled a ligament in my left foot after trying to jump over a fallen tree trunk blocking the way.

The long trek left not only my feet sore but also my stomach grumbling, so I had two full plates of food at dinner. It seems that I’m not the only exhausted one, because evening lectures were cancelled. Now I’m icing my foot which I hope will be better by tomorrow so that I don’t miss out on any other activities. Although today has been tiring and crazy, it definitely makes for a great story to tell once I get back home.

Smiling through the soreness in my feet

Officially transitioned from reef to rainforest

DAY 10 – We finally made it to Las Cuevas Research Station! It’s nice and calm here, not too hot today (it’s been raining in the area).

This morning we left Crystal Palace around 8:40 am and drove to a swimming area, the Rio On pools. It was a beautiful site, which seemed to be in the middle of nowhere. We explored multiple pools, connected by waterfalls, slipping and scooching on rocks covered in algae. The water was so refreshing, and we dried quickly in the sun. We were supposed to only spend 30 minutes at the swimming pools, but we ended up enjoying ourselves for an hour.

While we were standing around drying off and postponing our departure, Isaac shared his Sour Sop fruit, which he bought at the outdoor market in San Ignacio yesterday. It was a hit. I thought it tasted like mango Hi-Chew candy.

We resumed our drive which took us through multiple distinct regions, which contained unique flora. The Caribbean pine was populous until we entered the Lowland area, which is where Las Cuevas is located, and the vegetation changed.

We entertained ourselves with cards in the van until we eventually emerged into a large clearing in the rainforest: Las Cuevas. We wasted no time and went on a short hike on the nearby Maya Trail.

We made it to Las Cuevas! Damien is excited!
The view of Las Cuevas from our rooms

We saw a huge Ceiba tree with a couple vultures perched up high and teardrop shaped nests hanging from the branches. We saw a huge leaf cutter ant colony, which Scott fearlessly kicked to agitate some soldier ants. We saw the Xaté palm, which is a popular palm in the floral market (in the US, UK, Australia, Japan, and more) and is often illegally extracted by Guatemalans to be sold. We saw the Sapodilla, or Chicle, tree which was recognizable by giant slashes where knives had cut the trunk to collect the sap.

We ran into a large mound of earth, which we learned was the remains of a Mayan temple. There were two large temples across what was formerly a plaza. Nearby, there were the remains of a ball court. I love how much we get to see and explore related to the Maya civilization.

Climbing up the overgrown Mayan temple

I didn’t see any bees today, unfortunately. Tomorrow, while we hike through the rainforest, I hope to see some bees. I especially want to see an orchid bee (Euglossini tribe).

I’m waking up tomorrow morning for 5 am bird-watching, so the sooner I sleep the better! Goodnight!

Until Next Time, Belize

Scrolling through pictures of both corals reefs and the tropical rainforest, it’s clear that both are incredibly lush environments that host diverse sets of organisms. But through this course, I’ve realized that there are more subtle similarities between the two. In the Chiquibul, we studied how the tropical soils are somehow able to sustain a diverse ecosystem while being incredibly poor in nutrients. These soils are paralleled by the oligotrophic, or nutrient-poor, waters of Glover’s Reef; both inexplicably provide a home for thousands of organisms while seemingly offering no sustenance. However, both of these habitats are characterized by rapid nutrient turnover. For every fish or insect we see, there are millions of others living organisms like microbes that exist outside of human view. The key to both of these habitats’ success seems to be this system of efficient nutrient cycling, which leaves the area nutrient-poor but the animals themselves nutrient-rich.


Perhaps even more importantly, these two ecosystems are tied together by their impending destruction. Both Glover’s Reef and the Chiquibul are faced with problems of illegal extraction and habitat loss for a number of organisms. The biology of deforestation and coral bleaching may act in different ways but the cause is the same: humans. Conservation issues plague ecologists in both areas, as they attempt to battle the overexploitation of natural resources. Poaching and overfishing are one in the same in that they sustain a desperate human population with no other livelihood, while depleting these environments of their incredible diversity.


With that said, I did notice that human intervention in the rainforest seemed much less obvious. Since Las Cuevas was so removed from civilization, the biggest indicators of human presence were camera traps and the occasional logging truck. On the reef, however, we saw a huge amount of marine debris, acting like a red flag for mass consumerism. It’s harder to see our effects on the rainforest in a short amount of time, but the 90 lbs. of Styrofoam and bottle caps serve as a pretty blatant reminder of what we’re doing to the natural world.


Overall, this course has completely surpassed all of my expectations (entirely thanks to Scott and Adrienne and all of their hard work). Ihoped to come out with a better understanding of fieldwork, but I didn’t expect to learn nearly as much as I did about conservation or how to deal with unreliable transportation. My favorite part was probably going through our camera trap photos. After 26 miles of hiking and anticipation, the payoff of that single ocelot picture was fantastic. It really made me appreciate how hard field researchers have to work. And even now that I’m back with air conditioning and wifi, I can’t say that I had a least favorite part of this course (not even the sand flies). With every van we missed and blister we added, I think we learned to be better TFBs, and that’s not an experience I could’ve gotten anywhere else.


In five years, I may have to consult my field notebooks to brush up on specifics, but I’ll definitely remember these three things:

1. Make bold choices, and live by the motto “Screw it, let’s do it!”

2. Field work takes patience and a whole lot of sweat, but it’s worthwhile in the end.

3. Never underestimate the power of a good pair of rubber boots.


I realize that I’m writing my final blog post in the very same seat I occupied two weeks ago to hurriedly write my pre-departure post. It’s incredible how much has changed since the last time I sat here; I’m a little bit tanner and covered in a whole lot more bug bites, but more importantly, I’ve returned with a whole new appreciation for the natural ecosystems I visited. Conservation is a multi-faceted and complex process with no easy solution, but with every bit we learn about the diverse habitats of the tropics, our understanding increases.


In the words of a true Belizean, “You’ve got to see it to Belize it.”DSCN4432

Last day in the Chiquibul

We finished out the last day with another 13 mile hike to pick up all our camera traps. It took us about half the time it did on Thursday and I wasn’t nearly as tired. It’s amazing what your body can adjust to after just a few days. Even though I’m running on less sleep I feel great because of all the exercise and activity.

Checking the photos from camera traps was more exciting than you could possibly imagine. Most of it was nothing but when something popped up on screen we were elated. One of our cameras got a picture of a Tapir (!!!!) and another of an Ocelot (!!!!). Even though we only had a little taste of it I think I am starting to understand how difficult field work can be, but also how rewarding. I will miss the rainforest and all of its colors and scents and noises.

Even though we didn’t see many amphibians out here I didn’t feel too disappointed or bored because it meant I got to bounce around and look at everyone else’s taxonomic groups. The end of the dry season can be tough for herpetology but getting to watch birds, ants, mammals (I saw an agouti this morning), reptiles, and insects made up for it. Not to mention the plants! The diversity was incredible and I saw many more organisms than I was expecting.

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Sophia Streeter


Happy birthday Mom! You too Elena, sorry I missed them.

Night Hike

Today we learned a valuable lesson in analyzing data. Statistics can help or hinder you and you must consider your question carefully to decide what kind of analysis to use. Different tests can give you different results, so you must be careful in considering your community and think about what will give you the most scientifically meaningful results.

After several lectures we took a short night hike and found spiders, cockroaches, insects and some people even saw a coral snake. The dry season has been particularly harsh and there is not much moisture, so I didn’t see any amphibians last night. They are probably hiding deep in the forest under the leaf litter or in other damp places.

Sophia Streeter


Caves and Pitfalls

Life in the canopy is very different from life on the forest floor. There are differences in water, sunlight, vegetation, other organisms, the affects of gravity and access to food and nutrition. Nitrogen is an important nutrient and decomposers on the forest floor are essential parts of the nitrogen cycle. With this in mind we hypothesized that the forest floor would be more nitrogen rich than the canopy. Specifically, that arthropods in the canopy are more nitrogen limited. We tested this using pitfall traps both in the trees and in the ground. We used control traps filled with water and traps full of nitrogen-rich liquid (our own urine). Tomorrow when we collect the traps we expect to find more arthropods in the urine filled traps, and more arthropods in the tree traps than the ground traps.

This afternoon we went spelunking in a cave at Las Cuevas that was used as a ceremonial chamber by the ancient Mayans. The Mayans believed that caves were entrances to the underworld and that at the end of the day the sun turned into a jaguar and entered hell through a cave to battle demons all night until it reached the other side. This cave had nine bottlenecks that represented the nine layers of a hell a Mayan hero fought through in their mythology. We belly-crawled through the mud-guano cave floor to several hard to reach spots. There are many Mayan artifacts in the cave and areas are still being excavated by archaeologists. We found a lot of pottery, but also a human femur and an animal skeleton. Most excitingly, we saw wrinkle-faced bats roosting. Other animal sightings included glow worms and whip scorpions. Of course the formations are almost alive themselves, with huge chambers swallowing you up.

I have been searching for amphibians in damp areas like the cave entrance and inside bromeliads but I haven’t had any luck today. The leaf litter can also shelter cryptic amphibians, like toads, but I haven’t found any so far.


Sophia Streeter


Ant Day

Today we focused on some of the many ant species that habitate the Chiquibul forest. The cecropia tree has a symbiosis with azteca ants, which protect the tree from predators in exchange for shelter and food. We spent the morning testing a few hypothesis about how the cecropia trees avoid herbivores before they are colonized by the protector ants. 

This afternoon we excavated three leaf cutter ant colonies of different maturities. Once a queen colonizes a nest after a nuptial flight she can live for 20 years reproducing, expanding the colony until there are millions of ants at any given time. There are tunnels underground leading to chambers full of the ant’s fungus garden and pupae. The youngest ones are fairly small, but once they are 10 years old they get huge, with tunnels the width of your arm full of soldier ants ready to come out and attack you when you disturb them. They have quite a pinch and we were all thankful for our rubber boots today.

We had an unexpected amphibian sighting once we got back to our housing; one of the bedrooms had a large frog on a bedpost. I caught it and took it outside to get a closer look and try to identify it. It hiccuped in my hand, puffing out its chest, in protest to its capture. The frog was dark green and brown, with some stripy markings around the forelegs. I couldn’t examine its back without it jumping from my hands so I didn’t get a clear look. It was about 2.5 inches long with horizontal pupils, bronze irises and toe pads. The toe pads indicate that its a treefrog and since there aren’t many in the area I would have to guess that it was another common Mexican treefrog, based on size and color. I released it into the trees after a minute or two to not cause it too much distressed and it leapt from my hands with a defiant squeak.

Digging leaf cutter ant nest

Sophia Streeter


Caracol & Las Cuevas

Today we completed our journey south-west through Cayo and into the Chiquibul rainforest. On our way to our home camp at Las Cuevas Research Station we took an anthropological detour through Mayan ruins. We were guided through the Caracol Archeological site and climbed up and in and down the ruins and tombs. Even though it was mostly overgrown and covered by years of sediment the pyramidal structures still stood and it was easy to image the bustling metropolis it was 2000 years ago. Hearing about the (hypothesized) reasons for its decline was ominous; overpopulation, agricultural collapse, drought… sound familiar?
Even though its citizens are long gone the city is still full of life. Almost everyone found an animal from their taxonomic group—bromeliads, philodendrons, birds, mammals, and a plethora of plants. The highlights included an edible red fruit (you suck on the seeds but don’t eat them, looks like gunk, tastes like papaya), toucans, a coati and a blue crowned mot-mot.
Sadly there were not any amphibians around for me to identify. The area was much too dry to be a suitable habitat. Amphibians require a damp habitat because they experience high evaporative water loss through their skin. Most also require water for reproduction. Caracal was in the forest but it was not dense enough to retain the moisture necessary for most amphibians. Here in the forest surrounding Las Cuevas should be a much more habitable medium and we can expect to see a variety of species in the next few days.


Sophia Streeter


Day 8

As per usual, something went wrong with the van. Our original plan for the day was to leave Las Cuevas early in the morning in order to make it to ATM cave for a swim and exploration. Then, we were going to drive across Belize to stay at the zoo. This is not how our day went at all.

Most of the morning was spent sitting on the porch, waiting for our van to show up. This went on for several hours. Rather than spend all our time waiting, we got the opportunity to tour other parts of the Las Cuevas research station and learn about their ongoing projects.

When our van finally arrived, we all climbed gratefully into its semi-air-conditioned space. Unfortunately, our massive time delay prevented us from being able to visit the ATM cave.

However, we did end up going on the night tour of the Belize zoo. Not only did we get to see two of the eighteen jaguars that they have, but we got to see margays, ocelots (so noisy), two types of owls (Rice!), a tapir, and three kinds of snakes.

Overall, I remain optimistic about the rest of the trip. Each thing that goes wrong does not faze our group at all. The new challenges that the reef will pose to us will be just new bonding experiences for us.