Tag Archives: michael saucedo

Course Review and Wrap Up: Michael Saucedo

I want (an it is required of me) to recount the three most memorable experiences from this course. The first is obvious, and that is the experience of meeting and getting to know the incredible group of instructors and students who decided it was important or even necessary to complete this course. Most people would not consider trudging a dozen miles in the Chiquibul or collecting marine debris at Glover’s Atoll to be an entirely pleasant way to spend one’s summer. Each and every participant made it their aim, however, to not just complete these and other challenges, but to take away from them a positive message. Not to mention the positivity and diligence of the workers at each of the two field sites we stayed at. These people have devoted their life to the cause of conservation and biological research and to the education of young people like myself. In five years, I am confident I will still remember the attitudes and moments of courage from those who inspired me during the last two weeks. This was undoubtably my favorite part of the course.

Secondly, I will never forget the peace of mind that comes with field work. Never before had I reached a feeling of calm as when diving to the bottom of a reef, hearing nothing but my own air bubbles, and carefully observing and recording the diversity of life I saw. The same is true of my time spent in the Chiquibul, where the cacophony of noise reaches a transcendental hum. In the field, your eyes and ears become attuned to each stimulus they encounter. Over time, nothing slips by and you can appreciate everything around you. I dream of a time in my life where I can spend months or even years in this blissful state. I guess this experience has given me a dragon to chase, my first taste of “field euphoria.” I take it back, you guys were great, but this was undoubtably my favorite part of the course.

The third memorable aspect of this trip (and reducing this trip to just three memories does not really do it justice) was the unstoppable stream of information coming from both qualitatively observing and directly quantifying my surroundings. Both from direct observation and methodical quantifying I became more attune to the biotic and abiotic processes occurring all around me. But comfort in your assertions about this environment are short-lived because of the astounding amount of alternate information popping up left and right. When we conducted studies of different biological systems we constantly faced the dilemma of what question to ask (what data to quantify), because there are a million valid questions, but many fewer that actually lead to meaningful results. Even once you have asked the right question, it is not always clear how to interpret the data you have collected. Different statistical methods can lead to finding wildly different conclusions from the same data set. This experience has taught me that specific knowledge of life is key to understanding the problems that face our modern world. It has also taught me that careful scrutiny and painstaking attention to detail is the only way to sift through this wealth of information and acquire relevant knowledge. The daunting feeling that comes with this realization could be viewed negatively (as my least favorite realization) but as always understanding what you are up against can make it feel less scary. So overall, a net positive experience.

How can I most succinctly summarize this experience and still do it justice? One adjective that comes to mind immediately is educational.  EBIO319 is hands down the most educational experience I have had in my time at Rice. You can read and discuss all you want and begin to understand the systems of organisms that exist in the tropics, but until you see them first hand it is near impossible to fully appreciate their novelty and complexity. My expectations of adventure were certainly met, but I had no idea how much knowledge I could attain from exploring these pristine habitats.

Moreover, the nature of this experience was paramountly thought-provoking—stimulating connections each time we reached a new location and inspected its life forms. One of the first lectures in the Chiquibul focused on life in the rainforest canopy. It touched on the paradoxical duality of high biodiversity existing in soils without highly abundant nutrients. This concept immediately rang a bell in my head because it was so connected to one of the fundamental aspects of my lecture topic from the reef. On coral reefs, waters are oligotrophic as well and yet support a similar richness and abundance of life. Both ecosystems rely on the cycling of nutrients from the top of the ecosystem to the bottom and back again from the bottom to the top. In the rainforest, decomposers like microorganisms, fungi, roaches, and other insects recycle plant and animal detritus which then can be absorbed by roots. These lucky roots (along with the beating tropical sun) support the growth of tall trees that host the larger heterotrophs which ultimately (along with plants) become food for those detritivores I mentioned before.

On the reef this process is more cryptic, since it prominently features microbes. Here highly abundant and productive autotrophic bacteria photosynthetically fix carbon within their cells. Along with dead microbes and larger organisms, the exuded photosynthates from these bacteria become food for heterotrophic bacteria, abundant in the water column and more so on the reef benthos. This cycle of nutrients is so tightly linked that nutrients hardly exist free floating in the water for long. Larger organisms filter feed on these nutritious microbes, grow, and are then consumed themselves by ever larger organisms. All eventually die and become food for the heterotrophic bacteria that form the base of this microbial loop.

Belize is truly a biodiversity hotspot. A center for conservation focused research and legislation that promotes the sustainability  of such an environment. What we have in both of these locations in Belize is ideal specialization in an ideal habitat. Nothing goes to waste. Every necessary niche is filled by a diversity of life. This is only possible when anthropogenic extinction is limited and preservation is the top priority.


Final Snorkel and Travel to Houston

Waking and knowing this was our last day of Tropical Field Biology instilled in me a bittersweet mood that would last all day. Interactions with professors and classmates were charged with notions of remembering. Attitudes like this can cloud an experience, so I tried my best to keep the mentality of “screw it let’s do it” that made this class so special.

We made a few last minute stops on our boat ride to Belize City. The first was to see the Smithsonian research post at Carrie Bow Caye. Here we were greeted by a mild mannered couple from Idaho who were acting as the caretakers of the station—a position they have returned to for four weeks each year. Pretty sweet gig. It was enlightening to tour around the small facility and envision what it would be like to conduct formal research in such isolation. It seemed like the perfect place to have total peace of mind and clarity of thought—an ideal atmosphere for the task of those who enter it.

The next stop was our last snorkel. This time in a densely wooded mangrove. As our boat approached the dock we became aware of the fertile smell emanating from this forest isle. Self perpetuating and incredibly productive, the mangroves of Belize act as a nursery to juvenile marine predators and prey alike.


This location was also especially interesting as a study site for my marine taxonomic group (sponges) because of the unique symbiosis poriferans have with the mangrove trees. They grow on the roots of the red mangrove tree and  nutrients fixed from the surrounding waters that aid the growth of the tree.


The substrate of the mangrove roots provides a home for these sponges where they are safe to filter feed out of harms way. One of the sponges I saw here was the toxic Tedania ignis or Fire Sponge, as it is commonly known.


When you touch this sponge it touches you back, with a painful sting and a lingering rash.

This concluded the formal class experience, so to speak. We dined again at Calypso, a restaurant by the docks known for its slow service and delicious lime juice. Then we bussed the rest of the way to Belize City airport where we finally disembarked for Houston. Arrival in Houston and goodbyes followed. Now, writing this blog in the relative security and sterility of Rice University, the entire experience seems like a fading memory. Where is wealth of life that just hours ago surrounded and fascinated me?

Let’s just say I’m glad we all took so many photos. I don’t want to forget what just happened.

Last full day

The last night of our trip came too quickly. This atoll we came to so many days ago still doesn’t feel like a real place to me. It’s like this has all been a never-ending movie. Despite that it will end tomorrow. We will pull into Rice tomorrow night and it will all be over.

Enough sentimentality though, let me recap the day. Morning was spent returning to a very special spot on the back reef to collect specimens for a final display of marine organisms. Algae, crustaceans, and even box jellies were all represented in this summary of our taxa. I found a sponge in this area of the reef but was unable to identify it. It was soft, green, and encrusting but it didn’t look like any of the sponges from the Glover’s ID guide.

After the last of the lecture topics, we analyzed the data collected yesterday on percent cover of live coral on colonies measured last year in order to basically start a longitudinal study. This would be a great opportunity to look at coral colonies over the years and how they change in shape and size.

The afternoon was spent dissecting lionfish we had caught this week at the various sites we visited on the reef. Sam and I had the littlest guy, which was too immature to determine its sex. But we did open up its stomach and reveal a gross fish mush. I don’t know. It was gross but in the end we got to use the filets to make ceviche so it was all worth it.

I’m trying to make the most of these last dozen or so hours here at Glover’s. I think exploring the island a little more is in order. Sleep will certainly not come easily tonight despite the work we’ve been putting in all day. I can’t let this experience slip by too quickly.

It Ends With a Night Snorkel

Our morning activity today was sobering. Our task was to design an experiment that would answer some question about marine debris. We chose to analyze the composition of the trash washed ashore on  the windward side of this island, Middle Caye. Simply, we would collect refuse and sort it to find out the percent by weight of each kind of material (plastic, foam, etc). What lay before us was hundreds and thousands of scraps littering the pristine rocky beach. We only searched for one hour, but we accumulate, as a group of fourteen, more than ninety pounds of debris. The majority of the volume was styrofoam and hard plastic, with total plastic weighing more than double the total styrofoam (naturally). We learned from the staff here that this type of cleanup is a weekly occurrence, which made out efforts seem like casually shoveling your driveway in the middle of a blizzard. Sobering.

Among the styrofoam debris, some of my classmates collected some spongy objects that actually tuned out to be the siliceous skeletons of actual sea sponges! PSA: Dead sponges do not float, or at least the two or three we collected alongside the garbage.

The afternoon passed quickly with another quadrat survey of coral cover. After dinner we heard a bad-ass lecture from the fisheries managers who regaled us with the ins and outs of their job including threats from fisherman, bribes, and what seemed like the closest things to espionage in the conservation business.

After that we did a night snorkel which represented the first time I’d ever been in the ocean after sundown. I has always heard this was primetime for shark activity, although we didn’t see any near the patch reef we visited. On the list of things we spotted at night were: a cute little slipper lobster, a yellow stingray, many sea cucumbers, a nassau grouper, and corals with their tentacles extended! I expected to be terrified by the abyssal darkness, but instead I was intrigued by what I was seeing and surprised by the variety of nocturnal sea creatures. Just like the night hike at Las Cuevas, the night snorkel at Glover’s taught me to appreciate the daily cycles of activity in any ecosystem.





One Reef Two Reef, Back Reef Fore Reef

Today was an exhausting day of snorkeling. We boated out to the reef crest, where the wave action from the ocean meets the high island of the atoll. Here we experienced the windward fore reef. This area of the reef is characterized by high wave energy, resulting in larger, more robust boulder corals. The depth of this area was a significantly greater challenge to traverse than the reefs in the lagoon yesterday. At first I could hardly stay under water long enough to even get close to the corals and other creatures below. But as the day went on my lungs stretched and I surprised even myself by free diving more than twenty five feet to snap a video of a large spotted eagle ray on the ocean floor. I’m no fish, but I certainly improved today!



As far as sponges go, I’ve been seeing most of the same stuff I mentioned earlier this week on every reef. Today was an exception, I saw Xetospongia muta the Giant Barrel Sponge. This guy lives in deeper water, so today was the first opportunity to see it. I’ve also been seeing quite a bit of the boring sponges of the genus Cliona.



After the fore reef in the morning, the majority of the group had gotten a bit sea sick, so we stuck to the shallower back reef in the afternoon. Here we saw the most concentrated variety of life so far in the atoll. Anemones, giant spiny lobsters, and so many fish you would swear we were diving in an aquarium. Here Dr. Solomon showed off his manly prowess by spearing three lionfish. While you might be thinking this to be some mark of hubris, it was actually quite selfless to do this, as lionfish are an invasive species whose extraction spells good news for any native fish in the area. I’m sure they’re delicious, so more people should be removing these nuisances from the Caribbean and turning them into ceviche.

“Bow to your master, crabs!”

On today’s agenda were a number of data generation events out in the lagoon. We collected data with transect and quadrat to estimate the percent cover of live coral on patch reefs. Holding the equipment and using it to measure the site was no simple task, as waves became choppier as the day went on. We also did a timed collection of sea urchins on the same patches. We used tongs of course to ensure that no one (besides Randy and Anna) was pricked by one of these nasty creatures. We measured the diameter of each one and then returned them from whence they came.

Later at night we brought a light out to the dock to see if we could attract some small fish and, in turn, attract their larger predators like sharks and barracudas. No luck tonight, but after giving up on the docks I was able to capture a land crab on the way to my room!


Animal fervor swept over me when I lifted this sucker from the ground. He was definitely feisty, but a number of his larger friends were no challenge at all to catch. Perhaps it was my spurred confidence from the first tango, or perhaps the other one’s were just sluggish. Either way it was a fun way to end the night and simultaneously freak out some of the more squeamish TFB’s.

PARADISE Paradise paradise paradise

The day began after restful sleep at the zoo lodge. We returned to see some diurnal animals at the Belize zoo and I picked up a nice T-shirt and some sunglasses to prepare myself for the shift to reef study.



It turns out the shades were a great investment based on the bright and unrelenting sun we faced on the boat ride over to Glover’s Reef Atoll. Bumpy and long, like a Convoluted Barrel Sponge, the ride to Glover’s gave us some downtime to become delirious and make awful puns (a hallmark of my 319 experience).


Once we got to the atoll we were briefed on the conservation and safety measures we would be taking while staying here. Then we were introduced to Clivus, our trusty compost toilet.

We did get to do a bit of snorkeling on a patch reef not too far from shore where I found a few examples of sea sponges (phylum: porifera). I saw one that looked like a natural bath sponge and another with a branching morphology and conspicuous oscula (oscules?) lining the dorsal side of its branches (it basically looked like an underwater flute-tree).


As a brief introduction to these filter feeders I’ll say that water is drawn in through small pores along the body of the sponge and expelled, clean and microbe free, from larger more visible pores called oscules. You can often characterize a sponge species by the size and placement of these larger holes.

I can already tell this part of the trip will be saltier, sunnier, but ultimately a little more like paradise. There are coconut palms ten feet from my room. I was playing with hermit crabs as I arrived. The sunset here is like a painting. Me like Glover’s.




We’ll meet again, Orthoptera… some sunny day

Our last day at Las Cuevas came sooner than I thought possible. It is bittersweet because it is over but I was so excited finding, identifying, and taking photos of the myriad flora and fauna in the Chiquibul forest this week. I will come back, or at least I will adventure somewhere similar before I forget what a wonderful time this has been.

Last night’s hike lit by the full moon was surreally bright and teeming with life unseen in the light of day. Nothing could prepare me (or Dr. Correa) for the size of the roaches and spiders I encountered on the trail.


Most exciting for me was the sighting of multiple Monkey Hoppers (Family: Eumsticidae). These little guys hold their legs at a strange angle to their body, and they are often wingless. Only found in the neotropics, I was so excited to finally see one in person.


Today on our trek to collect our camera traps I got lucky once again, finding a plant on the trail ROILING with lubber nymphs. The exact species of this lubber was unclear to me, but it was possibly Tropidacris cristata—comonly known as the Giant Red-Wing. Multiple stages of development were present on this plant, presenting a wonderful visual display of the life cycle of hemimetabolus insects like Orthoptera. I will be sing much fewer of these little buddies on the reef, but get ready for my reports on sponges!!!


Weird Science! (feat. Urine)

Today was a lab day primarily. We collected the traps from an experiment we set up yesterday that involved urine and insect death traps. I know it sounds odd, but it was totally normal for a tropical field biologist. The experimental design we used involved placing two pitfalls on tree trunks, one filled with plain soapy water and one filled with urine (common name: pee-pee). We also placed another pair of traps in the leaf litter to catch floor dwelling insects. All the arthropods (common name: creepy crawlies) that made the unfortunate choice of exploring these traps fell to their deaths.

Our aim was to compare the community composition and the species richness (how many unique species) and abundance (how many individual organisms) of both forest canopy and forest floor species. The urine component was put into our design to collect relevant data on the affinity to nitrogen (found in ammonia in urine) of arthropods in each habitat. Here’s a photo of all the morphospecies I identified!


There are plenty of crickets and their nymphs in this photo, all of which I have not identified to a species level, but rather characterized as unique by certain morphological characters. This process can be difficult because size can vary with age and color/markings with sex. This method of ID is inherently an estimate of true species richness/abundance.


While it may seem esoteric and boring, the data set we compiled after sixteen hours of sampling was truly enlightening. No single way of looking at this data was 100% correct or incorrect, but depending on the statistical methods our group drew radically different conclusions—just another confounding and thought provoking aspect of scientific methods. Complicated, but never boring, the “telling” of the story completely affects the “message” or “moral” of what you are saying. Even in after just under a day of collection we had a TON of information on our hands and it was up to us entirely to make sense of it. Truly exciting.

Cave… More Like Rave

Today we went into Las Cuevas Cave, which is Spanish means “The Caves Cave.” Cool, but not exactly creative.

Here’s the whole TFB squad with our snazzy headlamps on. This is around when the electronic music began and we all started raving.


This was the first totally dark cave system I have ever explored. The sights and sounds were foreign to say the least.


The entrance to the cave was the only place all day where there was any penetration of natural light. Here cave swifts (birds) hunted for insects in what looked like the most fun method of hunting I have seen here in Belize. They flapped their wings vigorously for a few seconds and then dove down only to catch themselves midair when they ate a bug and repeat the cycle. Fun.

In the cave, life takes on strange forms. With little to no light the organisms here have evolved to survive without seeing much, instead feeling around with their long, slender limbs. For example, we have the cave cricket (pictured here) from the family Raphidophoridae is a bizarre take on the classic cricket. It has a humped back and long antenna for searching the cave in low light conditions. Creepy.