Tag Archives: Lepidoptera

Post-Belize Reflection

Wow! What an amazing experience! Our class of 11 was constantly at work hiking, setting up pit fall traps, collecting data with transects, snorkeling, collecting data with quadrads, interpreting data, putting together poster presentations among other activities. In total, we accomplished 6 research projects with poster presentations for each of them. For each research project, we learned something new and interesting about the unique environment that we were living in for half a month. The experience involved a lot of hard work both physically and mentally, but it rewarded me with knowledge, fun, friends, and a lasting appreciation for the beauty of this world. It is nice to be home, where there’s air conditioning, WiFi, warm showers, less mosquitoes, no sandflies, but I will be thinking about Belize and my experience there for a long time to come. Thank you Dr. Solomon, Dr. Shore, Las Cuevas Research Station, and Glover’s Reef Research Station—for this one-of-a-kind opportunity!

Lepidoptera:

  • Eurytides marcellus, Zebra Swallowtail
  • Morpho peleides, Blue Morpho
  • Ascalapha odorata, Black Witch Moth
  • Sphingidae genus, Sphinx Moth
  • Heliconius hecale, Tiger Longwing
  • Eacles imperialis, Imperial Moth
  • Papilio polyxenes, Black Swallowtail

Piscivorous Fish

  • Ocyurus chrysurus, Yellowtail Snapper
  • Pterois volitans, Red Lionfish
  • Sphyraena genusBarracuda
  • Halichoeres bivittatus, Slippery Dick Wrasse
  • Hemiramphus brasiliensis, Ballyhoo
  • Ginglymostoma cirratum, Nurse Shark

Above is a list of the different species I saw from my taxons while on the trip. Below is a picture of a different species that I see at home. Glad to be reunited with my house cat (Felis catus) pictured below in his natural habitat!

20/05/19 Goodbye Las Cuevas!

Today is sadly our last day in the rainforest, but I am excited for the reef!

This morning the class again made the strenuous 8-mile journey down the trail along the right side of the 50-hectare plot, then the Monkey Tail Trail. We retrieved the 7 camera traps that we had set up along that path on our first day in the rainforest.  The class completed the whole trek before lunch while on the first day we took the whole morning (then lunch) and part of the afternoon. We definitely hiked at a faster pace, which made the journey a little harder. Along the Monkey Tail Trail, the class hiked faster in part because we did not want to give the ticks (hidden in the tall brush) the time to fall onto us and suck our blood.

I observed 3 blue morphos, but felt less compelled to catch them since my task had already been completed. I am at peace now. Out of the 3 blue morphos, 2 were spotted together and 1 alone. It seems strange to me that we have observed the blue morphos in pairs (At least 3 times over the course of our time in the rainforest) as they are supposedly solitary creatures. Either way, I appreciate every opportunity I get to see these iconic rainforest beauties.

That afternoon, the class went out to observe leafcutter ant/fungus obligate mutualism firsthand. First, Scott tried to excavate a younger nest in the clearing and find the fungus chamber, but was unsuccessful. Then, we found a HUMONGOUS ant colony along the Monkey Tail Trail—so large that it was almost the equivalent of a small hill that the entire class could stand upon. Scott managed to find the fungus chamber fairly quickly and grabbed a portion of the fungus for us to examine up close. Soldier ants came pouring out (as to be expected), and they were huge and aggressive. Amanda was bitten by one of these soldier ants and, in the process, it tore a small chunk out of her pants. Scott said that, given enough time, these ants could chew through our rubber boots. I am not going to test this claim out.

 

Excavation of small leafcutter ant colony

The class ended the night with lectures on the geographical and biogeographic history of Central American and the Caribbean and mammals. After the lectures came the exciting part—looking through camera trap pictures. In total, we captured 2 curssows, 2 unknown birds, 1 possum, 1 skunk, 1 tapir!, and 1 unknown earred animal. The camera that I adopted (its name is Rice 2) caught  a picture of a male curssow and a stunning picture of a tapir (I am so proud!). The picture is so clear that you can see the enormous size of its whole body as it walks along the trail. Probably the best photo of the lot! Another interesting capture was a photo of an unknown earred animal. The animal had gotten too close to the camera, and the flash saturated the facial features of the animal, but we were able to distinguish the shape of the ears and some fur, leading us to believe that the animal was a puma. It is frustrating that we cannot confirm this. Either way, a great and successful ending to an exciting week full of new experiences. Thank you Las Cuevas Research Station!

Tapir caught on Rice 2 camera trap!

19/05/19 I finally caught a blue Morpho.

6:00am breakfast as usual. In the morning, the class hiked up the Maya Trail to examine an area disturbed by a hurricane a few years ago. The damage was apparent in the tree fall, but also in the difference in species composition between the disturbed and undisturbed areas of the rainforest—most notably, cecropia trees inhabited the disturbed areas abundantly, but not the undisturbed areas. The class surveyed plant species in both disturbed and undisturbed areas of the rainforest along the Maya Trail.

On an exciting note, I finally caught a blue Morpho! The butterfly made the mistake of settling on a leaf too close to me and not darting away while it had the chance, thinking that its leaf-like underside camouflage would save it. This bad boy was rather large at a wingspan of around 13 cm (blue morphos can reach a wingspan of 20cm). These iconic rainforest species have an easily recognizable iridescent blue topside, but with wings closed (as butterflies have the tendency to perch), the brown underside with eyespots blends into the butterfly’s surroundings. Blue morphos are also incredibly adept flyers, making them difficult to catch both in flight and not.

Blue Morpho, Morpho peleides

That afternoon, the class returned to the hurricane-disturbed area along the Maya Trail to examine firsthand the ant-plant mutualism between cecropia trees and the Azteca Ants that inhabit and defend them.

That night, the class hiked up the PAINfully steep bird tower trail to the bird tower. Although the hike was hard and the sky was cloudy, the stunningly beautiful view from the bird tower was unparalleled. The class spent over an hour at the bird tower until the sun began to set. I sat with my feet dangling off of the edge of the bird tower and enjoyed the breeze. We returned to the research station in the dark, and the downhill hike back was much easier. We saw a cave, and nearly stepped on a jumping pit viper, and at one point we all turned off our headlamps and (surrounded by darkness) just listened to the rainforest sounds.

(From left to right) Keegan, Cassia, Michael, Me on top of the bird tower

The class ended the day with lectures on fungus, reptiles, beetles, and a lecture from yours truly on tropical parasites, diseases, and medicinal plants.

18/05/19 Introducing Sunshine the Moth

I rolled out of bed for 5:00am birding + a cup of coffee. Disclaimer: I am not a coffee-drinker, but early mornings have made it a necessity. The low, breath-like calls of the howler monkey were eerie in the pre-dawn darkness.

After breakfast, we hiked along the Maya Trail to pick up the pit fall traps that had been set up yesterday and left out for 24 hours. Along the way, I caught a butterfly with my hands (swallowtail, same coloration as those at Caracol) granted it was dead.

Swallowtail Butterfly (dead)

Some cool things observed on the hike:

– flock of green parrots that made noises like stormtrooper bullets

-toucan

-THE endangered Morelet’s tree frog! It was adorable!

Morelet’s Tree Frog, endangered species!

I managed to catch a good number of bugs in my pit fall traps—1 beetle, 6 ants total. It’s strange to think that these animals drowned to death in my urine.

We ended the day with lectures on ants, amphibians, and visual and auditory communication in rainforest animals.

Later that night, I was in bed when I was called to the restroom. A moth had fallen onto Bella’s head while she was on the toilet. It was rather large with a wingspan of around 13cm and had the coloration of a speckled yellow leaf. I removed the moth from the restroom and let it crawl around my shoulder. Although moth coloration is limited in vibrancy in comparison to butterfly coloration, I still found the yellow moth incredibly stunning. I have named it Sunshine. Sunshine kept falling off my hand and onto the wooden floor. Moths are hilariously clumsy creatures, falling off surfaces and bumping into them constantly. This may be attributed to their thick bodies. I can empathize with them as a fellow less-than-graceful creature.

Imperial Moth, Eacles imperialis

17/05/19 Pit Fall Trapping

I had a rough night of sleep between rainforest bug sounds and some intermittent whooping, but I got breakfast at 7:00am as usual. The class discussed an experiment testing nitrogen limitation in the forest canopy versus nitrogen limitation on the forest floor using arthropods and pit fall traps, then we set up pit fall traps along the Maya Trail using water and our own urine.

Some cool, miscellaneous things observed on the hike:

-Blue Morphos spotted: 7

-I found a beehive. They are aggressive.

-We saw a cave entrance in the rainforest trail and summoned bats by kissing the back of our hands!

-zombie ants

-I caught a tiger longwing (Heliconius hecale)! (Mid-flight! I jumped to catch it!)

Tiger Longwing, Heliconius hecale

After lunch, the class visited the entrance to a nearby cave and saw the cenote from which Las Cuevas Research Station draws its water. While in the cave, I gave a lecture on the taxon Lepidoptera while the rest of the class listened and sat in bat guano. Then, Anna presented on Orthoptera and Pierce presented on Life in the Dark.

Class descending into cave near Las Cuevas Research Station

During the night hike, the class observed a different set of species from the set that we normally see during the day. I observed many moth species (such as the sphinx moth) instead of butterflies—however, the most exciting moth to see was the black witch moth (Ascalapha odorata). This bat-shaped beauty I found had a wingspan of about 15 centimeters (the black witch moth can grow up to about 17cm in terms of wingspan). While moths usually lack in vibrant coloration, the black witch moth had characteristic hints of iridescent purple and pink in the bands along the margin of the wings. Additionally, I observed that the moth had the characteristic 9 or comma shaped markings along the top middle of the forewings with an orange outline. I also held a stick bug, and a cockroach with a glue butt (his name is Elmer). Elmer was an astounding 6cm in length and hissed when touched, but overall a very friendly cockroach that crawled up my arm, my neck, my head, and left some of his butt glue in my hair.  I am excited to see what animal friends I can make tomorrow!

Black Witch Moth, Ascalapha odorata

15/05/19 Cara-cool Ruins

I awoke to the sound of birds (or rather, people birding). After breakfast and mourning my last hours of reliable WiFi, I loaded the van with the class to travel an hour to Rio on Pools in the Mountain Pine Range. While there, we swam, but mostly slipped, slid, and stumbled on the algae that blanketed the rocks. We also dunked our heads in waterfalls. Once dried and changed, we embarked on another hour-long  journey to the Caracol Ruins.

At the Caracol Ruins, there were many butterflies that appeared to be of the same species (a variant of swallowtail as indicated by long ‘tails’ protruding from each hindwing).  The ruins themselves were magnificent, but also a pain to climb; the steps of the ruins were so high that every time I took a step, my knees rose to my chest. It was all worth it though because now I can say that I have conquered the tallest structure in the country of Belize! Also, I stood within a tomb, which was dank, and the buttresses of a ceiba tree. After traversing the ruins, the class drove an hour to Las Cuevas Research Station, our final destination for the day.

Some other cool, miscellaneous things observed en route:

  • Mayan temple replica currently being constructed by a man who claims to be a descendant of a Mayan god
  • 3 military checkpoints, the second of which was a Dutch army base
  • carsickness 🙁

At Las Cuevas, I found and captured a butterfly in the restroom. It was sitting with its wings closed (as is the tendency of the butterfly), so I identified it as a butterfly even though the coloration (lacking in vibrancy) was more similar to a moth’s. The butterfly was tan/brown with an eyespot on each wing (forewing and hindwing, 4 eye spots total). The hindwings had significant perforations, but they were erratic in size and depth, so I believe that they were not present as a result of species-specific characteristic.

It began raining lightly (forest’s namesake weather!) Scott heard then saw a scarlet macaw.

After dinner, the class ended the night with a discussion on research question, and lectures on trees, birds, and the paradox of tropical soils.

14/05/19 We Have Anchored Down in Belize

[6:00am] We were up before the sun, gathered at Rice University’s Valhalla eager to depart. In a series of unfortunate circumstances, we had tardy departures twice (from Rice University to IAH, then from IAH to Belize), but remained on schedule! Finally at around 12:30pm (Belize time—an hour behind Houston’s), we anchored down in Belize.

The remainder of the day was full of travels. We encountered several wildfires—a sure indicator of the dry season! At one particular point, the van was enveloped by a thick cloud of smoke from a roadside wildfire. For lunch, I had soursop juice, stewed pork with rice and beans (not beans and rice—they’re different!) At the next stop, grocery store, I stocked up on plantain chips. (Enjoying the local cuisine!)

After a long trip, we arrived at Crystal Paradise Ecolodge, where there is an abundance of friendly stray dogs and fun. A few classmates and I plus Scott and Amanda walked down to the river to swim and swing for about an hour before dinner until the light started to fade. We encountered no alligators, thankfully, but identified leaf-cutter ants, ants from the genus Ectatomma, and an agouti (no Lepidoptera today!)

Pre-Departure Blog: Any Fin is Possible If You Just Belize

T minus 12 hours until I’m on a plane to Belize! Will this trip be the academic experience of a lifetime? Will this trip re-define my perspective of the world? Will my poor sight hinder my ability to distinguish between a snake and a branch leading to a rather tragic and short-lived trip for me? All this remains to be answered in the upcoming weeks.
It’s May 13th. My stuff: packed. My assignments: turned in. I am: excited. Now that I’ve established myself as ‘that one kid who feels an obligation to title ever blog post with a horrible pun’, I have to say: I am beyond excited to meet everybody, bond, learn, and experience the wonders of Belize. I hope to come away with valuable field work experience and skills that I can bring back with me to Vanderbilt labs (plus 10 new friends)!
While the obvious anxieties for a newbie to the tropics arise (heat, diarrhea, getting lost), it is my habit as an overachiever to worry more about my grades. Fingers crossed, the readings will sufficiently prepare me for conducting quality research. As an off-campus class member, I know that my preparation process has been slightly different from the rest of the class body. Communication has been a  source of annoyance, but those woes are soon to be gone once I am integrated into the class. I packed my gear and living supplies into two bags and flew down from the 901 to Houston yesterday, where I have been crashing on my cousin’s couch and eagerly awaiting Belize (picture of me experiencing Houston attached below). Here’s to an awesome experience! See y’all soon!

-Elizabeth Dang

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!