Tag Archives: Lepidoptera

Day 4: Into the Belly of the Earth

So I know the title is pretty dramatic, but then again, it was a pretty dramatic sort of day. It started off uneventfully. I woke up a little later than usual but made it to breakfast on time, just before we had another meeting about today’s project: pee traps! As in, we peed in test tubes and used the urine samples to set pitfall traps for insects. Our urine has a lot of nitrogen in it, so the basic idea is that the nitrogen will attract insects that we will then fish out of our pee pee in a couple of days, all in the name of science.

DeLiciOUs!!

The hike this morning was mostly uneventful. There were the standard blue morphos that flew by, close enough for me to see but not to touch. It’s fine, I’m very much used to those butterflies flying circles around me by now. BUT I AM DETERMINED. I WILL CATCH ONE BY THE TIME WE LEAVE THIS FOREST!! I did, however, manage to catch 3 more butterflies and two moths today, so I’m  sharpening my skills. One of the moths was beautiful yellow and black, and it was a rare diurnal moth! Again, I found all the Lepidopterans flitting near the road on low foliage.


Unidentified diurnal moth.

By far the coolest spot of the morning was a coral snake that Sam found under a rotten log – one of the most venomous snakes of Central America. It was smaller than I expected, and very shy. It slithered away almost as soon as we could spot it.

After lunch, we went to hell.

Not really, but it sure did look like it. We entered a cave near Las Cuevas that is not only home to all sorts of creepy cave fauna, but also remnants of the ancient Maya civilization. The black maw of the cave loomed up suddenly over the forest path. Its entrance was filled with hanging stalactites that looked like fangs and cave swallows that nest between them. The Mayans believed this cave to be the entrance to the underworld, and it sure looked the part. We entered via ancient steps carved by the Maya and slowly made our way through the bat poop (guano)-covered cave. I thought the squelchy brown substance spread all over the cave floor was mud, but it was not long before I noticed that it was actually guano. Delicious. Not a single one of us made it out without being covered in the stuff, except maybe our incredible guide, Pedro.

View from the inside of the cave.

There were definitely some scary moments in the cave involving uncomfortably narrow passages and slippery footing. In some of the most claustrophobic recesses of the cave, I became supremely aware of just how deep I was in the Earth: only alien creatures that are adapted to life in utter darkness can exist here, and I am nothing but an intruder who would stand no chance if my headlamp goes out. It was a humbling and freakish experience that I am glad to have had, but that I am not sure I would repeat. Emerging from the cave was like being reborn.

Goodnight for now! I’ll be up again in too few hours.

Day 5: Creatures in the Night

Today started off with a spirited morning hike that was less than successful for me in my mission to catch a blue morpho. Sad. But, Elena did spot a helmeted iguana casually clinging to the side of a mossy tree! He/she/it was so cute, with little red eyes that casually watched us as the 12 of us bumbling humans oohed and aahed as only true TFBs can.

Helmeted iguana

Adrienne also spent the whole morning peeling bark off dead trees to look for scorpions and finally managed to find a couple hiding out in a lichen-covered log! I also snagged three butterflies in my net as we headed back to camp. Two were small orange and yellow sulfur butterflies, but one was a large golden butterfly that I’d never seen before. I found all three floating in the lower branches of understory brush.

Today marked the completion of our first full project. Belize is a tiny country flush against the ocean, making it vulnerable to hurricanes that periodically sweep through the country and flatten areas of the forest. Two years ago, Hurricane Earl was no exception.

Our project today aimed to understand the effects of these areas of hurricane-caused tree fall on the regrowth of understory plants. Since every tree that falls exposes a rare patch of sunlight on the forest floor, we thought that maybe there would be more plants growing in the fallen areas to suck up all the sunlight!

Unfortunately, we didn’t actually find any real difference in plant growth between fallen and non-fallen areas. It’s probably because all 10 of us are fools when it comes to identifying leaves – maybe we’ll have better luck once we actually learn how to identify plants.

After an afternoon of making a poster to display our non-data and listening to lectures, we ate dinner and headed out for the first night hike. We stopped by the frog pond, which is usually dry at this time of year, but to our happy surprise, there were actually a few inches of muddy water and dead leaves in the pond! The water teemed with tiny turtles. Scott picked one up, but it didn’t seem to be too happy so we let it go soon after. I caught an anole with an orange scale pattern on its back near the edge of the lake. He was also quite angry with me, so I let him go after he flashed his red neck flap a few times.

Here’s one of the mud turtles!

Can’t really see the anole in this pic, but he’s there, I promise! Also, don’t I kind of look like Jane Goodall? #goals

Overall, the night hike was filled with creepy crawlies of the night – plenty of katydids, one banded gecko, and a super strange gray moth that, when we lifted its wings, turned out to have a bright orange and black-striped furry body. It was resting on a broad leaf hanging into the trail and wasn’t even remotely disturbed by the annoying humans prodding at it.  Sadly, I couldn’t get a great photo of it because the lighting was so dim.

The Lepidoptera front was otherwise quiet today because we spent so much time inside on the poster, and butterflies didn’t seem to like the hurricane fall areas.

Tomorrow, we collect our pee traps. Yay!

Day 3: Walk Softly and Carry a Big Stick

I honestly don’t know how I hauled my bug bite-riddled butt out of bed to go bird watching this morning at 4:45am, but it happened. We spotted so many parrots and kites perching in the tops of trees. Breakfast was at 6am, and then we headed to the classroom for a meeting to discuss out first project of the trip: camera traps! After a long and intense discussion detailing the methodology of our first experiment, we headed out into the jungle recesses for the second time.

Our goal of the day was to set up our camera traps at strategic locations to hopefully catch some cool shots of rainforest mammals. We tramped through the dense foliage on a path covered with leaf litter and all forms of creepy crawlies that make the forest floor their home.

I was torn between keeping my eyes on the ground so I wouldn’t take even more spills, scanning the area for cool terrestrial animals like snakes or frogs, or watching the skies for butterflies flitting by. I failed miserably on the “not taking a spill” front – I pretty much have a map of bruises.

Today was my first day with the butterfly net! (Peep Elena smoldering in the back.)

I was just a “little* too excited about the butterfly net. The impulse to swing my new toy stick at every flying insect won out over the survival instinct telling me to keep my eyes to the ground. Blue morphos kept flitting tantalizingly near but flying away before I could even get within swinging distance. I’m determined, however! I’m sure that with the amount of shouting I get from the group every time someone spots a blue morpho, I’ll manage to snag one. Maybe. Hopefully.

Despite my lack of success with the blue morphos, I did catch seven butterflies, a pink katydid, and a moth today in my net. I spent a solid half hour in the hot sun of a forest pathway swinging at passing butterflies, perfecting my technique and sweating profusely.

Wouldn’t say I perfected it – not by a long shot – but I did make some pretty neat catches, some of which I’ve inserted here! The brown striped one is a Many-banded Daggerwing, and the other I believe is a species of Swallowtail. They were both zooming down the sides of an open forest path, which is where butterflies tend to be found.

Swallowtail butterfly Many-banded daggerwing

But the star of today’s show was not a Lepidopteran. As we were hacking through the brush to place a camera trap, we came across a magnificent iridescent boa constrictor!! It was coiled in the leaf litter, regarding us with clear annoyance and suspicion. It was a truly beautiful creature. Its scales were brown with darker brown and black splotches, and its entire body gave off an iridescent sheen that reminded me of the surface of soap bubbles. It was probably 5 or 6 feet long. Here it is:

!!!!!!

Dinner tasted so, so good after a long day of meetings, lectures, and hiking. Tomorrow, there will be more. My body is protesting and my brain hurts a little from the sleep deprivation, but I’m ready to tackle the Chiquibul Forest once again.

But first, some sleep.

 

 

 

 

Day 2: Welcome to the Jungle

To say that today has been eventful would be the understatement of understatements. It’s now 11pm as I write this, and I’ve been up since 4:50 am. Places we visited this morning seem like days ago, and I barely even remember what we ate for breakfast. (That’s a lie – we had a great breakfast of scrambled eggs and cheese and watermelon etc. and I do remember it.) But my tiredness and the humidity in the air are quickly emptying memories out from my head, so I’m going to jot them down and pass out until 4:30am!! yEET

The goal for today was to travel from the very edge of the Maya Forest to Las Cuevas Research Station in Chiquibul National Park. We left bright and early (like, 7am early. Who even am I?). Along the way, we stopped at some absolutely beautiful pools that were part of a river and aptly named Rio On Pools.

Rio On Pools!

The water was cool and refreshing, a welcome respite from the oppressive humidity. It would have been perfect if not for the 10495783 LEECHES THAT ATTACHED THEMSELVES TO MY BUTT AS I WAS BUTT-SCOOTING THROUGH THE RAPIDS. UM, EXCUSE ME??! They were small and painless though, so they were more gross than harmful.

After picking off the leeches, we dried off and headed along the exceedingly bumpy road to Caracol, a magnificent ancient Mayan city that was deserted by 1000 AD. Our tour guide, Leo, was extremely knowledgeable and seemed to have an answer to every question. We climbed over dilapidated gray remnants of homes and temples as we listened to Leo’s insight, although I was pretty distracted by the many butterflies flitting about. I think I spotted a red postman butterfly hovering near some white flowers and countless swallowtails dipsy-doodling in the fields of Caracol. #TFB.

We even managed to haul ourselves to the top of a temple, the tallest building in Belize, for an incredible view of the rainforests of both Belize and Guatemala. Unfortunately, a haze of smoke from Guatemala’s deforestation projects shrouded the area.

View from the top of the highest building in Belize. 

As someone who lives in suburban Plano, TX and goes to school in a large city, seeing anything other than manicured lawns, squirrels, and rabbits counts as exciting.But today we hiked through some wild jungle, witnessed howler monkeys, scarlet macaws, tree frogs, parrots, and more. And at least 15 Blue Morphos, Belize’s most famous butterfly, flitted by the path in their characteristically erractic flight. I tried swiping at the them with my net but failed miserably. NEXT TIME I SHALL SUCCEED.

It didn’t end there – after dinner and the student lectures, I saw upwards of 20 species of moths hanging around the lamps at the station at around 9 pm. They were inexplicably drawn to the light sources and sat docilely on the walls as if hypnotized. Naturally, I ran around like a woman possessed snapping pictures and jotting descriptions. Here first is an imperial moth, but the second I couldn’t identify. They both had at least a 9 cm wingspan.

Good night, friends!

Day 1: Arrival

I knew for sure that I had arrived in Belize before I even exited the plane or looked out the windows. As soon as the airplane doors opened, the warm air seeped in, smelling like forest, as much as forest can be said to have a smell.

My first impression upon stepping out of the plane was that Belize is hot and humid enough to make Houston seem positively air-conditioned. After the group passed through security and customs, we met our driver, Edward. He drove us about three hours across the country to an eco-lodge called Crystal Paradise Resort, where we would be staying the night. Along the way, we passed through fascinating savannah landscapes that were dotted with trees. Apparently, we’re arriving at the very end of the dry season, so wild fires are still a common sight. We even passed a section that had been recently burned – the blackened skeletons for the trees were still smoking.

We reached the beginning of the mountainous, hilly region of Belize just as the sun began to sink in the sky. Tall, dark swathes of trees stood against a salmon sky hazy with smoke. As the pavement transitioned to a dirt road, the 12 of us rattled around in the van with every bump. By the time we reached the resort, it was clearly nightfall, with lighting occasionally spreading across the sky.

Our rooms are super cute, and there was even a folded towel-swan decorated with hibiscus flowers waiting for us! There is, of course, no air conditioning, which we’ll all have to get used to. Dinner was fantastic as well, with some truly delicious veggie curry and chocolate cake! Like the sea urchins I will study on this trip, I’m an opportunistic feeder (HAHAHAHA sorry I had to) and stuffed myself while I still had access to this delicious food.

Lepidoptera count for today:

-1 unidentified, erratically flying large white moth

-2 unidentifiable micro-moths

-1 orange, fuzzy moth that got eaten by a gecko a few minutes after I found it :'(

-1 large green sphinx moth

I’ve inserted photos of these two specimens here!

It’s an early morning tomorrow (breakfast at 6am!!) so I’m calling it for today. Good night!

 

Day 15: last day :( and JUMBO JUICES

Just like the flight into Belize, I don’t think it hit me that I was going back home until we got to the airport! I think it was the AC and wifi that did it.

We spent the first half of the day driving to the airport, with a stop at Cheers! With a Tropical Twist for lunch. We had an INSANE lunch budget of 20 USD. I know that doesn’t sound like a lot, but for reference, my cheeseburger was about 3.50 USD. So we went kind of nuts and got on average 4 items each (may be skewed because of outlier Alessi, who ordered multiple entrees, appetizers, and sides). I personally got a burger, 1 fruit punch, and 1 jumbo watermelon juice, which equalled at least a liter of juice total. IT WAS THE HAPPIEST LUNCH OF MY LIFE. I even took some watermelon juice to go in my Nalgene.

We boarded the plane at around 5, and arrived around 8:30 Houston time. I had to say goodbye to most of the class at the airport, and then Jordan, Mikey, Damien and I (along with Turiez and Scott) took a shuttle back to Rice.

Now that I’m back home, reeking of citronella, sweat, and super old seawater, Houston feels so surreal. Where’s the endless tea and hot water jug, and Clivus, and the squeaking of the mouse in our wall? 🙁 I’m going to miss everyone on this trip, and I am eagerly awaiting our coral reef/rainforest themed crawls!

Day 14: return of the camera traps

We made the treacherous journey again to retrieve our camera traps today, and it was surprisingly not as horrible as the first time-Scott was right! That may have been because we strategized our route better, so that we didn’t have to walk back and forth over the same trail. Also we didn’t get lost in the jungle at night.

Annnd the fruits of our labor are:

2 ocelots!!!

1 great curacao

several pacas and peccaries

1 red brocket deer

literally thousands of pictures of grass and our legs

Still, the ocelot pictures were worth it!!

The Daily Moth

Same diversity of moths as always; I’m noticing more and more green eggs, and still the window screens are dominated by Sphingidae! I’m tempted to bring one of those eggs home to see what kind of moth it is.

Note from future self: Don’t worry Belize customs and TSA, I’m completely egg-free

A new lepidoptera that I thought was kind of cool because of the asymmetrical, ruffly wings!

Day 13: lectures in high and low places

We had an interesting time this morning collecting all our pee traps, and then emptying them into a tub, and smelling each other’s day-old pee. It was a real bonding experience. We tallied up the arthropods we caught, and couldn’t draw a solid conclusion because of one outlier: we got 100+ of 1 ant species, while we only got 1 of most other species! However, we could conclude that on both the canopy and forest floor, there was a clear preference for the pee vial over the water.

In the afternoon, we hiked down to the entrance of a cave- we couldn’t go much further because it was closed for archaeological excavation.

But our guides Ronan and John kindly let us do lectures in the cave on Scott’s laptop! Ellie and Isaac’s lectures on amphibians and reptiles were pretty amazing in the pitch black echoey-ness of the cave.

CAVE SNAKE

 

To top that off, we hiked to the (terrifying) bird tower after dinner to listen to Therese’s lecture from 40 feet off the ground at sunset.

Needless to say, those were the coolest lecture settings I’ve ever been in.

After the lecture it was perfect timing for a night hike back to the station. We saw a few big arthropods including a fluorescent scorpions, glue-butt cockroaches (that’s the scientific name I think), and a millipede.

And now for the daily moth report! Whoa! Are you excited yet?!

I feel like this one has been hanging around in the same spot for days.
This one has gained the status of second-favorite moth.

Some pics of the red and white lappet moth in daylight!

I’ve been noticing more and more of these green eggs lately, starting last night. I think they might be Sphingidae eggs, because those are also becoming more and more common on the window screens?

Day 12: presentations, pee, and pelvic exercises

We had a bright start to the day when Scott asked us to pee into 50-mL vials for unknown reasons… it was eventually revealed that we were going to use out nitrogen-rich pee to study nutrient availability in the forest floor vs. canopy.

So we hiked out to set out vials of water and our pee at arthropod traps- we reasoned that if arthropods were more attracted to the pee than the water, that would be a sign that nutrient availability is low in a particular area. We hypothesized that nutrient availability would be higher in the canopy since tropical soils are usually low in nutrients. 24 hours until we find out the results!

Since we got lost yesterday and hiked for 5 hours, yesterday’s presentations have been postponed to today, for a total of 8 lectures after lunch (2 for me). It’s gonna be a long afternoon…

Moth update after dinner: there were plenty of moths again attacking everyone during lectures, and my good friend Ceratomia undulosa is still the most common.

Day 11

Omg. My feet are dying right now. We set up camera traps scattered around Las Cuevas today, in order to compare the amount of prey vs big cat activity on paths vs off paths. (Our hypothesis is that big cats will be more active on paths, and prey will be more active off paths.) So, we hiked 3 hours before lunch, then had lunch, then headed back out… and got lost in the rainforest just as it was getting dark. Finally we made it back to the station at 7:30 pm, for a total of 8 hours of hiking for the day.

I drank a gallon of water and I think I lost it all via sweat.

Thankfully, Scott has taken pity on us and presentations are delayed until tomorrow!

Taxon sightings in the rainforest include a small venomous snake, several blue morphos, and a coati. And I saw so many cool moths at the station again!

This guy is everywhere. (Sphingidae, Ceratomia undulosa?)
My absolute favorite lepidoptera on the trip, a red and white lappet moth? Look at his little face!

I’m actually wondering if maybe I should study Belizean moths… there’s so little information on them, and I think I would be happy staying here staring at moths for a few more years!