Tag Archives: las cuevas

Day 7: luck of the draw

Today we did a total of four things, each one more exciting than the last.

In the early morning, we hiked up a very steep hill to the bird tower, a two-story wooden structure that looks out across a huge expanse of raw rainforest. The hike was difficult, but the view absolutely worth it, especially since it was morning and blue mist settled over an endless horizon of canopy. We stayed for a while, then hiked back, stopping at a small cave along the way.

The view from the bird tower. PC: Sam

In the late morning, we set out to collect our camera traps. Though  the hike was long and strenuous, I found three hatched light-blue eggs under a tree slightly off-trail, which was new. Orhoptera wise, I didn’t  see as much as I usually do, but I did see one very large and bright green grasshoppers at the base of the bird tower. Though I didn’t see its wings, I assumed it to be a red-winged grasshopper from the size.

In the afternoon, we went out to excavate leaf-cutter ant hills, led by Scott. The Mississippi group of college-age kids staying with us at Las Cuevas came with us, too. We all watched Scott as pulled out a queen from the heart of a one-year-old leaf cutter ant nest. It was a large and disturbing version of ant that I wasn’t used to, but the whole excavation process was really interesting. We also excavated a much larger (25 feet or so) ant nest, hit a dump tank, and instead got to touch warm, decomposing fungus. During this hike, I did in fact see an actual red-winged grasshopper very up close, since the guy I was walking with saw it and picked it up. It was huge–likely 10 cm across, and flew away almost as soon as it was picked up so I couldn’t get a picture.

In the evening, we finally checked our camera trap cards. Already on the first camera we found a Baird’s tapir, and then, amazingly, a jaguar. All of us collectively screamed at the sight of the rosette patterning. The unbelievable part came later, however, when we caught yet another jaguar on a separate camera trap. Both were absolutely stunning, and I think I screamed louder on the second than the first. We also found three pumas, an armadillo, a coral snake, curassows, and a variety of other animals we hadn’t seen yet. But the jaguars were really the crown jewel of the whole piece.

Jaguar 1
Jaguar 2

Day 6: welcome to pee-lize

This was the only day that was relatively calm so far. Effectively, we only did one activity (which is far less than we usually do) and this was retrieving our samples for our second project on nitrogen limitation in the rainforest. Yes, this is the pee one. After finding and tagging our urine and water vials, we went back to the lab and spent approximately four hours sorting throuhg the insects we found in the liquid, dividing them into different categories based on appearance alone. This meant we were each assigned an insect group, to keep the identification standardized across the whole project.

I was assigned Orthoptera, as this is my regularly-assigned taxon, and this may as well have been the most Orthoptera I saw today. On our morning hike, there were no interesting Orthoptera organisms, though I did catch what seemed like a few quick, small crickets jumping throuhg the leaf litter. The lack of recorded Orthoptera for today may be partially due to the fact our morning hike was short, and I wasn’t paying close and particular attention to the leaves, since we were all preoccuped with collecting our samples.

Halfway through our four-hour analysis, a second group arrived at Las Cuevas Research Station. They were college students, here to study ecology and biology like us. We somehow got offered the opportunity to present our project to them, so we did—standing at the front of the lecture lab, holding a poster titled “To Pee or Not to Pee”, discussing our day-long analysis in front of a group of strangers. They were sympathetic and seemed genuinely interested in our study, which was reassuring and honestly very sweet. It was a good (if not slightly eccentric) introduction to the first outsiders we’d seen in days.

Besides this, it was a quiet day. At about 2 pm, it started raining in traditional rainforest fashion: brief, ephemeral torrents of rain, followed by open blue skies. We all stood on the deck of Las Cuevas and basked in the falling rain.

All of us standing in the rain at Las Cuevas.

Day 5: creatures of the night

Today was night hike day.

One of the insane sunsets we saw.

After sunset (pictured above), we had an opportunity to go out into the rainforest, and this was quite the adventure. As you would imagine the rainforest is foreign and unforgiving already in the daytime, but in the nighttime it takes up a different sort of personality—a more threatening one, and for the first time I felt slightly un-safe while cruising the trails. My general disregard for the danger of animals helps me feel safe in the jungle when the sun’s out, but at night even I started feeling hints of fear.

We saw many spiders and many crickets. The crickets were plentiful. I saw at least four that were large, maybe 5 cm, with long antennae often the size of their body. They were shiny and easy to spot in the dark. I also saw a surprisingly large amount of monkey grasshoppers, five in total. This is surprising since grasshoppers tend to be diurnal. I also saw katydid nymphs with very strange morphology, longer-limbed than their adult sizes, pictured to the right next to a monkey grasshopper picture.

One of the many monkey grasshopper I saw on the night hike; note how it’s not as colorful as the ones I saw by day.
A katydid nymph with a very strange pronotum and very long legs and antennae.

Once again there was a moment of total darkness, as we all turned off our lights and stood in the rainforest. It was different from the cave—more alive. We stood in the darkness for a few minutes, and the stars  shone above a lot brighter than they ever are in Houston, or anywhere else. We spent the rest of the night watching the stars off the staircase of the station, talking and listening to the sounds of the rainforest.

Day 4: caving as an afternoon activity

There were two main activites of the day—one involved urine and the other involved feces.

The urine one: we collected our pee in the morning as a nitrogen source to entice the elusive insects of the forest. Essentially, we were comparing the diversity of insects between the canopy and the forest floor. The urine (and a control sample of water) will attract some insects, and we can then quantify the insects and compare biodiversity between the locations.

My Orthoptera of the day were plentiful: a small, striped one that looked like Cornops aquaticum (pictured below) but probably wasn’t because the latter tend to be found in semi-aquatic habitats; a beautiful red-winged grasshopper that I only saw fly away like a bird into the skies, scarlet wings beating; a lovely dull-brown katydid (that I touched! and then immediately un-touched) on a leaf in the jungle; and about four other smaller species that I didn’t know the names of.

A fairly poorly-taken photo of the little cricket Adrienne found on the side of her cup.

The highlight of the day was the caving, which took place in the afternoon. We headed into a local cave that almost no one goes into, and began our trek into the darkness. Honestly, I was more taken by the formations of stalactites and stalagmites (beautiful white crystalline structures, hanging like sharp teeth) than by the tiny biological life forms on the floor (which included worms, millipedes, isopods, ants, the like). There were bats as well, important cave creatures, and we saw a whole flock of baby bats huddled together on the ceiling.

The baby bats huddled at the roof of the cave. PC: Jessica

There was a moment, a very good and unforgettable moment, of total darkness where we all turned off our lights. Something about it was surreal. I grinned the whole time, eyes wide staring into nothing. I swear to you I saw silhouettes of crickets carved into the darkness—this is the level of my imprinting.

Day 3: serpentine king of the jungle

WE SAW A SNAKE TODAY. A very large one. Boa constrictor. Maybe 5 feet? Very pretty, just laying on the ground across from a massive leaf-cutter ant’s nest.

So I think that’s really it for me—that’s all I really came to see, thanks very much. Seeing a snake in the wild is always a thrill, but a boa constrictor in the rain forest is just an unparalleled delight. I do admit the whole experience threw me right back into my on-and-off obsession with herpetology, and I spent the next few hours rolling over logs in the vague hope I’d see another slither out.

The boa constrictor we saw in the middle of the jungle.

We encountered the boa while setting out the camera traps, which was our main project of the day. The project required that we set one camera facing the trail and another paired camera a few minutes off-trail, and this was where the real adventure was at. With Scott machete-ing a path through the thick jungle underbrush and blazing our trail, I felt like a proper Indiana Jones and decided right then to buy a machete as soon as the opportunity arose. The first time we went off trail I spotted my prettiest Orthotera yet—a lubber grasshopper nymph, about 2 cm across, black with abstractly placed yellow and orange stripes. I caught it with a jar, and have it sitting atop my dresser right now, awaiting my Orthoptera lesson tomorrow where I’ll show it off. I’ve attached a picture of it and the quick sketch I made of its patterning. Additionally, someone else found a pink oblong-winged katydid (and as you know, katydids are by far my favorite Orthoptera). Apparently these are genetic mutants, and rare to find in the wild. I kept it for a while, watched it actively defecate in the jar, and then released it after feeling bad that I’d left it in a glass case filled with its own feces. I took a few pictures of it, and managed to snap the only actually-good, well-focused photo I’ve taken so far.

The rare pink katydid we caught on the edges of the road.
A lubber grasshopper nymph looking very pretty in this jar.

As of yet I have not touched an Orthoptera, and this is starting to weigh on me psychologically. I feel slightly like an unloving mother. Maybe tomorrow the resolve will strengthen, but no promises.

 

Day 2: the real life rainforest

Today was a good day for Orthoptera. We headed out of Crystal Paradise and down to Las Cuevas, with a few pit stops in between—one of which was Rio-on Pools, a freshwater spring-like area that heavily lent itself to swimming. A cricket exoskeleton, black and white striped, was found there, but this was not the true hotspot of Orthoptera. The latter was at Caracol, a partially excavated Mayan dune. Here, I immediately encountered two grasshoppers, light brown with slightly striped abdomen and femurs. Though I couldn’t identify them in the field, looking at my taxon card they looked almost exactly the same as Lactista azteca, so that’s what I will consider them as. I saw two more of these atop the stones and in the grass of the Mayan structures. I attached a picture of the first view we got of the tall Mayan buildings, since that may have been one of the most breath-taking sights of the day.

The exact first sight I saw of the Mayan ruins.

Additionally, there was a monkey grasshopper, likely from the family Eumastacinae, on a leaf along one of the trails in Caracol. This one I did identify in the field, and given the distinctive 90 degree angle of the hind legs, I am at pretty sure my labeling is correct.  Elena found a katydid, the first one on the trip so far, which was great as they are by far my favorite Orthoptera. I think it was a leaf-mimic katydid, from the family Pterochrozinae. It did look exacty like a brown leaf, and was quite large, 5 cm long or so. After Caracol, we continued to Las Cuevas, which is beautiful if not slightly primitive in its facilities. A walk in the rainforest refreshed my mind, despite the  exhaustion of having woken up at 5 a.m. At night, we did our first lectures and lessons, and Scott found me a beautiful 7 or 8 cm green katydid he found outside Las Cuevas. A picture is attached of it in a mason jar, and I think it might be a greater angle-wing katydid.

My first caught katydid.

So in short it was a very good day for my crickets and their identifications. Hopefully this streak continues, though I have very little known species to base my identifications off of, and henceforth we have no Google.

A picture of my very messy side of the room Sami took for some reason.

Day 7: Upping the Ant-e; Las Cuevas Sends us Off in Style

Today was as crazy of a last day as we could’ve hoped for. I woke up at a luxurious 6:45 since I couldn’t do the bird tower hike with the rest of the gang because of my knee. Once they came back we ate dinner and reconvened to start picking up the camera traps we set out 4 days ago. We went along the Monkey Trail, Saffron Trail, San Pastor and 50 Hecatre plot to pick up our traps. Along the way, we saw a brown anole and a golden turtle beetle, both of which were really cool. I also saw a harvestman of the same round body species that I’ll have to look up and an unidentified species of orb weaver spider.

A Leaf Cutter Ant Queen

We came back, ate lunch, and spent a little time catching up on notebooks and listening to music on the deck. We met up with the group from Southern Mississippi to go on leaf cutter excavations, led by the one and only Scott Solomon. He led us into the Monkey Trail where we spent some time excavating the 1-year old nest. After digging around the hole for a while, we were able to see the fungus chamber and extract the fungus ball and the queen ant, which was enormous. We walked along saffron to the giant leaf cutter nest from before, where we spent a while excavating the side of the hill. The Southern Mississippi group left for dinner, but we continued excavating until we ran into the garbage disposal chamber and felt the heat from the decomposing trash they had left.

We came back, showered, and had dinner before heading to the activity we were the most excited about: checking the camera traps. Everyone tried to have low expectations, but it was obvious that we had high expectations. In the first camera traps alone, we spotted a tapir and a jaguar before coming across herds of peccaries, curassows, a 9-ringed armadillo, a coatimundi, two pumas, another jaguar, a rat, a snake, and a lot of photos of ourselves. I don’t think I’ve ever been more excited flipping through photos on a screen. All of us were extremely surprised and really excited about the results that we found, even though our initial hypothesis about off-trail sights being more rich, abundant, and diverse was incorrect. After that, we worked on our blogs and packed up to prepare for saying goodbye to Las Cuevas.

Arachnids found: Orb Weaver of an unidentified species on 50-hectare plot on a web with striped legs and a green back. Large wolf spider in the leaf litter that scurried around, looked like the Allocosa family. Florida Bark Scorpion, under the stairs of the lecture room with babies on her back. Another Florida Bark Scorpion on the deck of the dorms, froze when we got close.

All Bark No Bite

Day 6: Crap Kingdom Pt 2: Urine Trouble

I woke up again at 6:15 to finish my blog from the previous day and go birding. We ate a quick breakfast and met outside to regroup before the collection of our urine samples. Before we left, we read sections of the novel Crap Kingdom, which we found in the book exchange in the lab, which was entertaining because it was so bad. We left for our hike and collected our urine samples one by one while making sure to label our samples. We saw a smoothed anole, a Gasterocanthis cancriformis (a type of orb weaver spider) and a jumping spider, all of which were chilling in the leaf litter.

Gasterocanthis cancriformis

 

We came back and began sorting through our samples. We used a fish net as a sieve to catch the bugs and sorted through them using microscopes to identify the morphospecies. We all separated our tasks and worked on the poster while sorting through the species. We took a quick break to play in the rain for a while before getting back to work.

We finished our poster while two new groups came in: one was from the Belikan Beer Company and the other was from University of Southern Mississippi. We finished our poster and were asked whether we wanted to present to the other college group. After deliberation, we decided to and presented for all 25 of them. Elena started the presentation with Welcome to Pee-lize so it went really well. After presenting, we went to dinner and ate beans, tortillas, and potato salad. We did our lectures with Kristen covering mammals, Chloe covering reptiles, and Sam talking about tropical diseases. We all went to the lab and headed to bed after working on blogs and notebooks.

Arachnids found: Gasterocanthis cancriformis- small white morph, found on underside of a leaf found in leaf litter of 50-hectare plot; Jumping spider- green spider, jumping around in the leaf litter of 50-hectare plot; Florida bark scorpion- large black with red/brown legs, found on deck outside lab caught in jar by Scott.

All of these were expected

Day 4: You Belong with TFBs: Taylor Swift’s World Tour Brings Her to the Chiquibul

After a slightly more restful night, I woke up at about 6:15 AM and got ready for the day. I chilled on the birding deck for a while before eating a little breakfast. The main issue with the morning was that we had to chug a ton of water to get hydrated for peeing in two vials for our leaf litter experiment. It took me an hour and three water bottles, but I eventually did it. We discussed our plans for the leaf litter pea traps and set off down the 50-hectare trail for our experiment.

We set each trap 100 feet apart on the two segments of the 50-hectare plot. Each of us handled our own pee and buried one in the floor and one tied to a tree, with a water trap next to each. On the trail we ran into a red-banded coral snake, a tailless whip scorpion (Taylor Swift Scorpion), and plenty of blue morphos. We spent the entire morning setting the traps and came back for lunch, where we had broth and rice. I’m still having trouble eating but I was able to get a more of this down.

The Infamous Taylor Swift Spider

We left at 1:20 for caving, after many warnings about how gross we were about to get. Pedro lead us through the nine chambers of the cave, which was covered in guano and mud. Inside, we saw many troglobites, bats, a few other smaller species of tailless whip scorpions, Mayan pottery, and tree roots. We came back after exploring the entire cave, we headed back, showered, and went for dinner.

After dinner, we had out lectures on butterflies and moths (Veronica), Orthoptera (Andressa) and Cave biology (Kristen) Afterwards, a lot of us headed down to the dining room to work on our notebooks and blogs before heading back to sleep.

Arachnids seen: tailless whip scorpion on log of the flagpole of 50 hectare plot that we picked up with our notebook; 2 smaller species amblypygids (unknown name) in the cave on a rock close to each other; Baby Florida bark scorpion in the cracks of the deck of Las Cuevas; Mexican Red Rump Tarantula in its burrow outside the dorms; Unknown large brown spider outside our door- Andressa caught it in a jar; Very large Florida bark scorpion inside the middle sink of the bathroom- fled into the sinkhole

All of these were pretty expected, though the scorpions and the tailless whip scorpions did kind of spring up on us.

Cave + Urine Experiment + Coral Snake = 4.3 miles.

I woke up to people commanding me to pee inside a tube. “50 mills in two tubes” they said. I beat everyone else’s pee in coloration, which I like to think may be indication I have the highest concentration of nitrogen in my urine. And that’s relevant because, Scott tells us, one of the crucial limiting nutrients of the the canopy in tropical rain forests. After about an hour of questions, discussion, and writing in our field notebooks, we narrowed in on what exactly this urine experiment was going to be.

General question: How does different levels of limiting nutrients, such as nitrogen, affect insect biodiversity.

Context: In nutrient-poor soils of the tropical rainforests, nitrogen is often a limiting factor of life. It is more limiting in the canopy.

Main Hypothesis: The species richness in urine traps of canopy will be higher than water traps of canopy. This differential is greater than the same type of differential found in the forest floor, suggesting that nitrogen is more of a limiting nutrient in the canopy than in the forest floor.

After 2 days, we will collect our traps and count the numbers of the insect species we have captured.
For more on our project, please check a later blog post, which will contain our findings.

Also, today I found a bee hive outside of the dining room, with many yellow-abdomen bees coming out. They had all the similar morphological traits of a bee I had on my taxon identification card, but these had white front feet. I will have to look through more identification literature to see which species this is.

EBIO 319 In front of Las Cuevas Cave

The other half of our daytime was dedicated to something that better resembled the night. Walking in complete darkness during our first cave exploration. Las Cuevas (spanish for ‘the caves’) caves, are unlit karst formations that resulted from acidic water cutting through limestone. After many years, a whole underground network of life has formed, including the fertilizing bats who power the cave ecosystem through their feces and the accidental venturers who decay inside after failing to find a way out. Guano, truly, is a a glorified name for bat shit. You know, when people say, “that’s some crazy bat shit”… Well, it turns out that a whole ecosystem inside of the Las Cuevas caves (and many other caves around wthe world) depend on guano, both those of bats, and those from crickets. Cave millipedes ingest and digest guano and without it would not be able to survive. I would like to say more, but the fact on the matter is that we do not konw enough. Life there has been unidentified to a large degree, comparable to the deep sea or even extraterrestial life.

Currently, many explorers in these caves are people who are daring and willing to take on the complete darkness and the scary unknowns that come with being in caves. We were told by Raphael, leader of the Friends of Conservation and Development (NGO in Belize), that “we know that each time someone goes into the cave they find a new species”. At the very least, someone ought to write a post-apocalyptic novel revolving around life in the caves. One of the last things we did in the caves was to use guano mud to write and draw on the cave wall. Having heard stories about the Mayan demise, it makes me wonder, when it comes to cave art, how much we, as a species, has evolved in leaving behind markers of our existence and what, if any, meaning can be derived from our symbolic representation after our species has either evolved or died out.