Tag Archives: Mammals

Day 1 in Belize!

(Crystal Paradise Ecolodge)

Today, we arrived at the airport in Belize City around mid-afternoon Belize time. Ironically, our pilot was the father of one of the attending students and greeted us both before we entered the plane and as we exited. Soon into driving, we stopped at a little market shop to stock up on snacks, water, and anything else we might have forgotten.

I wasn’t personally expecting to see much of anything besides Belizean scenery on the way to the ecolodge, where we’d be staying for the night; however, I was pleasantly surprised. I had prepared myself to identify several types of wild Belizean mammals, but what I hadn’t prepared myself for was the domesticated ones. We drove through the outskirts of Belize city and several small towns on the way to the Crystal Paradise Ecolodge, each of them with a variety of domesticated mammals. I sited several horses standing outside fences with riding collars on. One was even being ridden. We saw a variety of dogs, both what appeared to be strays and pets ranging from large pitbull-like dogs to a nursing female and puppies. I spotted a small white cat lurking outside of a house, but it was hard to tell if it was domesticated. Several farms with cattle were spotted, including one near the Mayan Mountain range with what was anywhere between 30 and 50 cattle.

I don’t think I’d be surprised to see any of these mammals if I were driving through the Texas countryside on a normal day; however, I was today. While preparing for the trip, I was so caught up in preparing to identify all of the wildlife, I almost forgot that people live here too and all of the things that come with that including domesticated animals. It sounds silly, to forget that people actually live in Belize, but when you are preparing for a trip like this, other people are the last thing on your mind. Instead you’re thinking ‘did I pack enough clothes?’, ‘did I forget anything?’, and ‘am I prepared for the work I’m about to do?’. Rather, I got so caught up in everything, that I was surprised to see so many familiar species.

After the drive, we arrived at the Ecolodge around 7, ate dinner, and got an introductory run down of the trip. It’s all quiet after that… except for the chorus of insects in the background.

Ready for a New Belize Experience

Having been to Belize twice before, one might think that I can at least already picture the landscape as we enter Belize City.  Truth is that during those trips I was tourist, viewing Belize as a tourist in cushy hotel with little day excursions, and I think even that first look will look a little differently than it has before.  Further, I can’t help but wonder how Belize will look as a whole to me as I enter it with a completely new purpose and perspective.  I expect I’ll be able to see deeper into the history, the wildlife, the culture, and quite literally see deeper into the forests and reefs.  I also just expect that I’ll have a great time. 

I prepared on many levels for this trip.  I prepared myself academically through readings, taxonomic research, and presentation preparation.  I prepared myself mentally for the long, exhausting days accompanied by possibly brutal humidity.   I prepared my bags in the hope that when I get to Belize, I will have everything I need.  However, there’s really only so much preparation one can do.  I’m a little nervous in general about the travel. I’m also a naturally cautious person, so new tasks and places naturally give me some anxiety, but the fact that this is an amazing opportunity in the end overrides all of that, giving me the security to push myself and experience all the amazing new things I will experience on this trip.  I’m most excited by the fact that we will be so far from our modern lives and so close to the outside world experiencing something completely new.  As I previously mentioned, I been to Belize twice before, and I’ve been to both islands off the coast and to many resorts on the mainland.  I’ve seen some Maya Ruins, been to the Belize Zoo, and snorkeled some reefs.  While I don’t think my previous experience prepares me much for this trip, it sure makes me excited to go back.

Final Thoughts – My three souvenirs from Belize: Knowledge, memories and friends

Having been exposed firsthand to both the tropical rainforest and the coral reef in the past two weeks, I now have a much better understanding of both ecosystems and their similarities. They both have very complex structures. The rainforest has multiple layers from the forest floor to the canopy, with varying light exposure and nutrient availability. On the other hand, the reef structure created by the stony corals give rise to nooks and crannies with varying light exposure and nutrient availability as well. This creates a multitude of microhabitats where organisms with different adaptations can colonize and flourish in, which gives rise to high level of diversity.

Both ecosystems rely on a specific base organism as their foundation, which are trees for the rainforest and stony corals for the coral reef. Similarly, we’ve learned that both the trees and stony corals flourish in a relatively nutrient-poor environment, and when there is nutrient enrichment, they tend to be outcompeted by other organisms such as ferns and green algae respectively.

From observations, the two ecosystems are different in their possible height. Coral reefs seem to be unable to grow to too deep, possibility due to light being unable to penetrate deep waters. However, forest canopies are able to stretch up to 30 meters high. The two ecosystems seem to also differ in their floor diversity. I found many organisms roaming the forest floors when I was hiking. However, the sandy floor of the coral reef seems to not hold that much life. It might be because of the presence of leaf litter in the rainforest which is a source of nutrients for organisms.

I came into this course with a pretty high expectation already because I had talked to Randy from the previous class. However, there are certainly many things that words cannot describe and I definitely experienced a lot more than what I heard about. The favorite part of this course, besides gaining so much new knowledge about the two ecosystems and EBIO in general, was getting the opportunity to work with and learn from so many individuals who are passionate about their fields of study. I could listen to Adrienne talk for hours about the different aspects of the coral reef and the stories of her experience working out in the field. I was inspired by Scott’s digging of the ants nest and his careful explanation of the social hierarchy of leaf cutter ants. I marveled at Therese’s journey through Gabon and her overcoming of the obstacles she faced while doing research there. Besides them, there were so many experts who I have met and learned from, such as Aimee from Loyola University who taught me how to fish for tarantulas in their holes, and Javy who gave me a better understanding of Belize’s national history. Meeting and working with such passionate people have inspired me want to keep learning every day.

My least favorite part of the course gotta be those moths that kept divebombing me in the face in Las Cuevas but that’s just a small matter and hopefully I can become more zen in the future like Tian-Tian was.

Having been through this course, I have firstly gained a deeper understanding of the importance of coral reefs and rainforests both to nature and to humans. I have seen firsthand the beauty of both ecosystems and hope that future generations will get to see them too. The second important thing I have gained from the course is the ability to snorkel and dive. This is not to be taken literally as I came into the course as a complete novice with regards to snorkeling, and struggled badly in the first few days. I did not even attempt a dive into the seafloor until towards the end of the second day. However, I kept trying and kept pushing to overcome the psychological barriers I had and eventually became more comfortable in the sea and so I felt that this was one of my major achievements in this course. Last but not least, I came into the class not knowing anyone and I certainly was not expecting to get along so well with my course mates as I did. It is interesting to look back to the first day and remember how reserved everyone was. Over the two weeks, we started opening up to one another, playing pranks on each other, and making memories together that we’ll never forget. It was awesome how much we have bonded over the two weeks, and I certainly look forward to continue building these friendships that I have made.

Signing out,

Damien

Day 15 – The end of a two-week dream

Hi friends,

Last day! We didn’t really do much other than travelling on the van so there isn’t much to write about. More will come on the final wrap-up post.

In the morning we all woke up early for birding. There wasn’t much activity really which made us feel pretty bummed out. However, after breakfast just when we were about to head out, a flock of scarlet macaws flew over us as if they were bidding us farewell. That was awesome!

We took the van to a souvenir shop and then to a restaurant for lunch. Ordered a steak as I like to try out steaks in different countries to see the difference. This steak had shrimp with some interesting orange sauce on it which was pretty cool. Had a jumbo sized watermelon juice with the steak and it was awesome!

After lunch we went to the airport and checked in. We then took the airplane back to Houston and some people left from the airport while Mikey, Jordan, Tian-Tian and I accompanied Turiez and Scott back to Rice. Got to meet Turiez’s boyfriend Nick which was cool after hearing so much about him over the past two weeks. Didn’t get to see any mammals by the way.

Well that’s it, the end of an amazing two weeks in Belize. I felt like I just stepped out of a dream when I got back to Houston. I’ve learned so so much and would definitely continue pursuing my interest in wildlife and conservation whenever I get the opportunity to do so.

Till next time,

Damien

Day 14 – It’s an animal party in Monkey Tail Trail

Hi friends,

It’s the last full day in Las Cuevas! We spent the whole day collecting camera traps at the trails. In the morning we went to the 50 hectare plot where we had 6 camera traps and it took faster than we expected as the off-trail cameras were easy to find as they were straight into the rainforest from the trail.

After lunch, we went into the Monkey Tail Trail to pick up the rest of the camera traps. This first off-trail one turned out to be really difficult to find as we did not have a marker for it in our GPS tracker and it was really deep in the woods. After 50 long arduous minutes we managed to find it and we were all so relieved. The rest of the camera traps took the whole afternoon to find, though we managed to return Las Cuevas before dark. As we were really into finding the camera traps, we did not focus on looking out for animals and so did not find many. Though we saw a bunch of baby grasshoppers on a single plant which was cool:

Grasshopper party!

After dinner, we checked out the images that we collected on the camera traps and it was amazing! We got clear images of two ocelots, several pacas, a red brocket deer, a herd of peccaries, and a great curassow. They were all mainly taken from a particular off-trail spot in Monkey Tail Trail, so I guess now we know where the party’s at. It was cool to observe that the peccaries were in a huge group, while the pacas were in a duo and the other animals were solitary.

So in one day I managed to see so many animals from my taxon ID which was awesome! What a great way to end the final full day here. On to the last day in Belize… feeling nostalgic already.

Till tomorrow,

Damien

Day 13 – From the Mayan underworld to the skies of Chiquibul

Hi friends,

When we got to Las Cuevas, we were told that we won’t be able to do caving as the cave was closed for archaeology excavation. However, of course nothing deters Scott and he was able to arrange for us to visit the caves, albeit only the entrance of it.

We spent the morning collecting our vials that we placed in the forest the previous day. We then analyzed the data and made a poster for it. After lunch, we checked out the Las Cuevas caves. The entrance was beautiful and apparently the cave was used in the past as a sort of temple where Mayans go to undertake a spiritual journey. There were supposedly nine chambers in the cave, each leading to another through a small opening that requires crawling through. As the individual crawl through the opening, they were supposedly bowing in humility to the Mayan gods and I found that the engineering of the hole to achieve this effect was pretty cool.

The hole to the next chamber of the Mayan underworld.

We explored the caves and entered the first chamber which was completely dark when we turned off our headlamps. We took some time to soak in the atmosphere and it felt weird to be deprived of my most important sensory organ but at the same time it was quite calming too. We then had our daily taxon lectures in the cave chamber which was a fresh change of environment. On our way out, we saw a green snake which was slithering in and out of the holes in the cave and that was interesting too.

In the late afternoon, we went on a hike to the bird tower which wasn’t that long by distance but it was a steep climb. The tower was a sketchy simple tower that looked like construction scaffolding with a wooden platform on top. However on closer inspection, it looked pretty stable on the bottom which gave me a peace of mind. At the top of the tower, the view was spectacular! Pictures below:

Bird’s eye view of Chiquibul.

We had a lecture by Therese at the top about her graduate research and it was interesting to listen to her stories of being in Gabon and the field work she had done there. The environment was also great for the lecture and the sun was setting as she spoke which hilariously made it look like she talked for a really long time. On the way back to the camp, some of the group saw a Desmarest’s Spiny Pocket Mouse (Heteromys desmarestianus) which escaped before I could take a look at it. That’s all I have for today.

Till tomorrow,

Damien

Day 12 – Ant man and Spider woman

Hi friends,

Today before breakfast ended, Scott handed us two vials and told us to pee in them. What a great start to the day! It turned out that we will be using the vials as traps and we will be studying the preference for nitrogen and the abundance of organisms on the forest floor and the forest canopy.

We went out to put half of the vials into the ground and another half of them on trees. It went pretty quickly and we didn’t really get to see any organisms around that area because most of the trees had fallen from last year’s hurricane damage and the canopy was sparse.

In the afternoon we spent some time on the lectures before going out to dig for leaf cutter ants’ nests. This is Scott’s specialization so I was really excited to see what’s in store. He first brought us to a small nest that was about a year old. We quickly dug down to its fungal garden which Scott extracted using a teaspoon. The fungal garden looked unlike what I was expecting and it was cool seeing all the larvae being carried around on it as the worker ants try to rescue them as the fungal garden was being carried away.

Fungal garden on a servery spoon.

The second ants’ nest was slightly bigger, about 4-6 years old, and it wasn’t that difficult digging into it either. When we got to the last one however, the first thing that surprised me was the size of it. From Scott’s description, it was about 10-15 years old, seemed to be about the size of 8 parking lot spaces, and it had multiple entrances. We started digging down from near the tree roots, as the nest was sloping from there and it was easier to dig. The soldier ants came out in no time to defend their home and they were significantly larger and greater in numbers than the previous two nests. It was a constant battle trying to excavate the nest and I was glad to have the rubber boots on as I could just shake the ants off as they tried climbing up my boots. I did get bit by an ant on each knee but the pants protected me well. It was a testament to their mouth grip strength that their heads stayed on attached to my pants even after I pulled off the rest of their bodies. Eventually Scott took charge and dug out the rest of the hill, but still did not find the fungal garden. He told us that it was probably because they decided to place their fungal gardens deeper to protect them, having their fungal gardens removed annually by Scott in the past few years.

Turiez chilling on a branch away from the leaf cutter ants.

At night after the presentations, Jordan, Deepu, Ellie and I decided to go tarantula hunting. We managed to find a couple of medium-sized tarantula holes and saw a few tarantulas that quickly disappeared back into their holes. We also found a roosting Common Pauraque through its eyes which reflected in our headlamps. That was pretty cool as it was camouflaged well in the leaf litter that it took us a while to figure out what it was.

After looking around for a while, we decided to go back to our rooms. However, we met Aimee from Loyola University who was just about to go find some spider specimens and asked us if we wanted to help her. Naturally, being the helpful and caring students we are, we volunteered to help. Before we did however, she decided to show us a couple of tarantula holes that she found. THEY WERE HUGE!!! And she showed us a technique to fish out tarantulas which was really awesome. We managed to get out some of them and took close-up photographs of them.

Fished out this big boy!

We then went into the forest (at night!!) and looked for a certain species of spiders under palm leaves. I managed to find a couple and I hope that this small contribution will help her out in her research work to document this new species of spiders. I want it to be named after me thank you!

As a side note, I didn’t see any mammals today which was disappointing. Maybe tomorrow!

Till next time,

Damien

Day 11 – Snake it off

Hi friends,

WE FINALLY SAW SNAKES TODAY!!! We saw a fer-de-lance snake too, and I recognized it!

We started the day getting our camera traps ready for our big experiment here in Las Cuevas. We decided to walk through two different trails, the Hectare Plot and the Monkey Tail Trail, and place camera traps periodically on- and off-trail to hopefully get footage of animals passing by.

Hiking the Hectare Plot was a pain because it had to enclose a set area, and so some of the trail ended up going over steep hills and we had to hike up and down a lot. I saw a Mexican porcupine (Coendou mexicanus) on the way down from a hill which was awesome! First mammal in the wild that I spotted! We also managed to find a lot of other organisms on the forest floor and in the canopy which was nice. We saw a scorpion eater snake and a few interesting lizards too.

We placed a total of 6 camera traps around the trail, and headed back to LCRS for lunch. After lunch, we went into the Monkey Tail Trail, which was a much flatter terrain and thus easier to navigate. We placed 2 cameras every 1km, and so ended up hiking a considerable distance. However, most of the time spent was going in and out of the forest to place an off-trail camera, and we took 40 minutes just to get out of the last one. It was exciting stuff as things could have been bad if we didn’t get out before dark but we managed to do it so it’s all good. On the way back, it was dark and we had to use our headlamps. Halfway back to LCRS, I was walking with Jordan when she suddenly yelped out in excitement. As she was walking she had spotted a snake and just about stepped past it. We looked more closely and it was definitely a poisonous snake, and the markings on the back of the snake seemed to indicate that it was a fer-de-lance. I got to say I got plenty excited for that as it was the snake that I really wanted to find and so I stooped low to take a shot. But Scott pulled me away as it apparently was able to jump backwards to bite. The only picture I have was quite out of focus but here it is!

Really out of focus picture of the fer-de-lance. It’s the wiggly thing in the middle.

I wonder how we will be able to find our off-trail cameras as they are pretty far off the track and we took so long getting in and out of the areas where we placed them. But that is a problem for another day.

Till then,

Damien

Day 10 – A Ruined Day

Hi friends,

After the adventures through ancient Mayan territory yesterday, we inadvertently ended up visiting some Mayan ruins again today.

Beautiful view from the pool!

We spent the whole morning driving to Las Cuevas Research Station, stopping at a natural pool to cool off in the summer heat. The natural pool was beautiful and really awesome. Together with Sarah G, I ran up along the river, jumping on rocks trying to cross the streams at different points. We then got into the pool and slowly followed the river flow down. At several points we got to slide down some rocks from one pool to another which was fun. There was also this huge waterfall at one point where we can stand underneath it and get a good natural water massage. Going along the river, we reached a point which overlooked a valley, which was really scenic and we took a bunch of pictures there. Isaac also brought a soursop with him and shared it with the class which was refreshing. I enjoyed myself greatly at the pool and didn’t really want to leave but all good things come to an end.

It was another two hours of riding the van, where we entertained ourselves with a game of King’s Water Cup and it was great way of passing time. We finally reached Las Cuevas Research Station (LCRS) which was in the middle of the Chiquibul rainforest and my first thought was, “I NEED TO PEE!!!” followed by, “I wanna explore this place!!!”

Looks like a natural mound? Nope, it’s a Mayan ruin underneath.

 

We were able to squeeze in a trail hike right before dinner and we took the Mayan trail which led us around the edge of LCRS. As we walked down the trail, Scott stopped us at a point right beside this huge steep mound covered in vegetation. Pointing to the mound, he explained that it wasn’t a natural formation but a Mayan temple covered after long periods of disuse. We climbed to the top of the ruin which turned out to be a bad idea as it was indeed a well-covered ruin and there was nothing much to see. It was still cool though, to think about the fact that we were stepping on an unexcavated Mayan site which was probably teeming with activity back in the Classical Mayan period but now just lies forgotten deep in a rainforest.

We walked more around the trail, seeing a couple more mounds, a rectangular ruined area which was supposed to be the Mayan ball court, and a line of neatly stacked rocks that looked to have been a plaza leading to the entrance of the Las Cuevas caves. Unfortunately, I did not get to see any mammals today which is a bummer. Nonetheless, I really loved the hiking and I can’t wait for the next few days of it!

Till tomorrow,

Damien

Day 9 – Damien-a Jones and the Cave of the Stone Tomb

*Cues Indiana Jones music*

Damien dives into the pool at the cave entrance! The water was surprisingly cold, and definitely a refreshing respite from the heat. He edges his way into the depths of the cave, darkness certain to engulf him completely if not for his headlamp cutting through it like a hot knife through butter. He treads cautiously through the cave, careful not to slip on rocks or bump his head on the jagged stalagmites hanging down everywhere.

After climbing a particularly steep cluster of rocks, he reached the main cavern of the cave, and he was astonished by what he saw around him. Many clay pots of different shapes and sizes, some shattered and some untouched, laid calcified on the cave ground. Several skeletons could also be seen near the pots, lying in various positions. Damien wondered to himself, “There doesn’t seem to be a standardized way of laying out, at least to the untrained eye. An archeologist might be able to see something that I don’t.” With that, Damien kept going, eager to push as deep into the cave as he could get. After climbing a steel ladder to an even more elevated platform, Damien finally caught a glimpse of what he was looking for – the Stone Tomb, which the cave, Actun Tukichil Maknal (ATM), was named for. The individual in the stone tomb looked very much like he or she was sacrificed, lying spread-eagled on the cavern floor. He or she probably had the heart or other important organs removed as part of the sacrificial ritual, and died a painful death. Standing over the skeleton, Damien pondered the sacrifice process, and wondered about activities that people still carry out till this day which future mankind might find meaningless.

Having seen most of the important aspects of the cave, Damien decided that it was time to leave. He looked around for mammals in the cave as part of his taxon group but he couldn’t find any. He was expecting to at least find a couple of bats but it wasn’t to be.

Travelling back where he came from, he eventually reached the cave entrance and was greeted by the pouring rain. He ran back where he came strolling from initially, crossing 3 rivers with nimble quick feet that prevented any crocodiles from thinking of even attacking. Upon reaching his initially drop-off location, he found shelter and was greeted by a sumptuous lunch which included nachos and salsa, chicken, rice and beans. All was well.

Till next time,
Damien-a Jones