Tag Archives: Piscivorous fish

Wrap-Up Blog: Funbelizeable

Both the tropical rainforest and coral reef ecosystems host a great biodiversity of organisms, which depend upon each ecosystem’s structure for survival. To start off, both ecosystems can be stratified into layers; as a result, some structures in the rainforest and reef will be more exposed to light than others. Varying amounts of light creates different microhabitats, fostering a large biodiversity of organisms adapted to specific niches in each habitat. An array of organisms will also adapt to the habitat’s nutrient availability (dependent on light availability), thus also promoting a large biodiversity of life.

Personally, I have noticed that micro-organisms play a large role in the trophic balance of both ecosystems and that their presence should not be discounted. A lot of human-made environmental stressors are being put on these environments, resulting in activities such as defaunation, deforestation, and coral bleaching. As far as differences go, the rainforest appeared to be more of an enigma; whereas in the coral reefs we would see larger fish such as nurse sharks and sting-rays floating around every now and then, the rainforest offered a lot more cover and megafauna sightings by eye were few and far between. Also, life on the forest floor is different than life on the ocean floor- the forest floor has detritus, fallen tree trunks, and leaf litter which provide perfect habitats for many organisms while the ocean floor’s organismal diversity is not as abundant.

This course completely exceeded my expectations- granted, I did not really know what to expect in the first place. I have never trekked in a rainforest or snorkeled in such close proximity to coral reefs before, so every single day was a sensory overload. On one hand I was trying not to succumb to the waves and crash into reef structures/trip on a hidden root during the steep 50 hectare declines and on the other I was attempting to observe all of the sights, sounds, and smells around me because this expedition is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. I truly enjoyed every second of this course and am more confident in my body’s maneuverability because of it.

My favorite parts of the course were hands down the trek to and from the Bird Tower and the lionfish dissection. The steep hike up to the Bird Tower just oozed a serene ambiance- I felt like I was traipsing through a painting, somehow managing not to trip on anything while the evening’s orange rays poked through the canopy. The views from the Bird Tower were breathtaking. To top it off, we all sat and listened to Turiez talk about her research work while munching on Doritos. Classic. The night hike down was even better- there was a point where we quietly stood still under the moonlight and listened to the sounds of the rainforest. That moment really put the size of the rainforest and the size of my body into perspective. The world is so anthropocentric and I feel like I get caught up in human social constructs instead of realizing that other life forms exists outside of the human species. The lionfish dissection was great too- I’ve always loved dissecting animals since middle school and enjoy comparing anatomical similarities between organisms.

Least favorite part- definitely the blue land crabs and moths. They have been so menacing to me the whole trip. However, I would do anything for more blue land crab/moth interactions if it meant being able to stay in Belize for another week.

Is that a leaf? No, it is my greatest enemy.

Despite the time and effort we all put into the lectures, I think the most important lessons from the course came out in the field. No matter how meticulously tailored an experiment is to the rainforest/coral reef, the truth is that these ecosystems are incredibly complex and standardizing a problem with experimental trials and data is tough- there will rarely be a “final answer” to a certain question. I learned to trust my sense of balance a bit more after being battered by waves of salt water and tripped by roots that grab onto your ankles, which can hopefully get me through the concrete jungle of life just fine. Finally, here’s an important tidbit of information I’ll find useful if I go trekking off-trail in the future: off-trail trails made by other people can be identified by bent stems, upside-down leaves, hacked sticks, and various other subtle markers.

Belize was fun and unbelievable. It was funbelizeable (I really hope that pun catches on).

Day 15 (5/30): The Belize Splurge and Purge

I don’t want to leave Belize. I really don’t. But Deepu, remember that in the late 1300s Geoffrey Chaucer said all good things must come to an end. So, this tropical field biology expedition must come to an end. It has to. Geoffrey Chaucer said so.

After our last 6:30AM breakfast, we left Las Cuevas at 8AM on a rugged country road that I’m not a fan of but will dearly miss. I passed out and woke up to the van stopping at Orange Gallery, a souvenir shop where I splurged on two Belize bookmarks.

Bye-bye LCRS. You will be dearly missed.

We went to the restaurant Cheers for lunch and were treated like royalty- each person’s meal budget was forty Belizean dollars ($20 USD). I stuffed my intestines, stomach, and esophagus to my heart’s content in tribute to the beautiful foodstuffs this country offers. Then, we trudged onwards to the Belize airport. Even the van did not want to take us there.

Security check took 2 minutes. Not colloquially- literally. And here I am, forcing my body to move back to a country where security checks are so long that female anacondas get jealous.

I’m writing this on the plane to Houston. It just hit that I’ll be at home in T-18 hours as the flight attendant handed me Wheat Thins and honey roasted peanuts (Southwest really stepped up its snack game). Taxon-wise, just found a tick on my neck. I made sure to decapitate it with my thumb and index finger nails- just like a true TFB would. This trip will be something I remember for years to come. Belize was fun and unbelievable. It was funbelizeable.

Day 7 (5/22): We found Dory

Before I start this blog, I would like to state that we found Dory. Yep, she was located. We found her at 6:38 PM on the Glover’s Research station boat Itajara while coming back from Isla Marisol. And let me tell you, she was a sight.

Starting the day bright and early at 6:45 AM, we were all able to get ready, eat breakfast, and get on the Itajara by 8:15 AM. Today, we visited three back reefs before lunch: the “channel”, the “aquarium”, and the patch reef. The “channel” was definitely the most interesting reef- I was able to see a yellow stingray (Urobatis jamaicensis), a nurse shark (Ginglymostoma cirratum), and some mahogany snapper (Lutjanus mahogani) while trying to not get blown away by the choppy waves. The “aquarium” was a part of a resort, so the whole environment was serene and the waters were calm and well lit with sunlight. I saw 3 egg cases on soft corals there- I’m not too sure what fish the egg cases belong to, but they were huge!

Me in the patch reef

After lunch, Isaac presented on anemones, corallimorphs, and zoanthids while Alessi presented on mangrove and seagrass diversity. Then, we dissected lionfish! Scott and his team of expert seals have terminated a total of 6 lionfish over the past couple of days, giving us the chance to determine the sex of each lionfish and their stomach contents. One of the lionfish had 7 juvenile fish in its stomach. Wild stuff.

But wait, that’s not all! Around 4:15 PM, we boated to Isla Marisol, a small resort on the atoll. The 2.8 hours we spent there were a good time- everybody was having fun, Caribbean music was playing in the background, and the little cabin we were in was under construction. I got a chance to walk around the island with Damien and it was gorgeous.

Visiting all of the patch reefs today put the predicament of the underwater world into perspective. All of the reefs were structurally composed with dead coral- even the “aquarium”, which is used for tourism purposes. Finding full, intact coral was a rarity- I only saw two full mounds of brain coral (E. strigosa) in the 3+ hours we were in the water. These corals are not able to adapt to the human-caused environmental shifts quickly enough, deteriorating the environment of thousands of micro and macro organisms around these reefs. Our habits need to be changed in order for the Earth to be a more forgiving place for communities like these, and the first step to change is awareness.

Day 6 (5/21): Nu-Nu-Nu-NURSE SHARK

The wind was choppy today, but we thankfully still snorkeled right after breakfast. The main goal was to collect a diverse array of species from the back reef to have a little show-and-tell before lunch. And let me tell you- that back reef experience was crazy. Right from the start, Adrienne showed me a baby shark lying down in the seagrass bed. Based on its behavior, it looked like a nurse shark (Ginglymostoma cirratum), but it had spots on its head which made it hard to solidify a classification.

Possible nurse shark in the middle of a seagrass bed

After reaching the reef, it was just piscivorous fish paradise. Yellowtail snapper (Ocyurus chrysurus), mahogany snapper (Lutjanus mahogani), keeltail needlefish (Platybelone argalus), and French grunts (Haemulon spp.) were all in that reef. I also saw a Nassau grouper (Epinephelus striatus) but my camera ran out of juice before I could take a picture of it. Adolpho and Javier also pointed out a scorpionfish to me- it was so well camouflaged that I accidentally took a picture of a rock instead of the fish. After acquiring a decent collection of marine organisms, we went back to the wetlab and presented our specific taxon groups. In relation to fish, there were three crested gobies (Lophogobius cyprinoides) and one damselfish (Stegastes variabilis). Other interesting organisms brought back were the Mantis shrimp, a fire worm, and a baby octopus!

After lunch, Ellie presented on herbivorous fish, I presented on piscivorous fish, and Anna presented on invasive reef species. We then returned the marine organisms to their habitat and analyzed/presented the data from our marine debris collection. SFS, Dory, and Turiez loved it. Because we had such an amazing presentation, they let us do a short snorkel in choppy waters near the patch reef we visited the first day.

Tomorrow is the last full day on this island. It’s kind of weird how slow yet fast time went by- I’m sad to leave but excited for the rainforest coming up.

Day 5 (5/20): Trash is Trash

Today was a good day. It was pretty laid back and I really enjoyed the time allotment of activities. After breakfast, we decided to knockout the taxonomic presentations (mollusks and annelids presented by Damien and crustaceans presented by Anna) because we planned for a night snorkel if the wind was not too choppy. Afterwards, we started a new project at 9AM today- we were asked to test host preference of Christmas tree worms in relation to certain species of coral. Figuring out the logistics of the operation took some time, and it also involved going to a back reef through “the mangroves of death” as Scott and Adrienne refer to them- this name was given primarily because the mangroves are known to be a wet habitat with roots waiting to trip someone over and mosquitos by the millions. Today, we were lucky though; there were hardly any mosquitos (first time ever according to Scott and Adrienne) and the roots were visible and dodgeable.

In the water, we collected Christmas tree worm data- in the middle of data collection, the water safety officer Adolpho yelled at me across the ocean telling me he found 2 huge Great Barracuda (Sphyraena barracuda). Unfortunately, I did not make it to Adolpho on time to see the barracuda. No piscivorous fish were seen by me on the back reef. Data collection finished around 11:40AM and after lunch, we performed data analysis of the Christmas tree worm data and then Isaac presented on marine debris. This discussion led us to the next project of the day- quantifying marine debris on Middle Caye.

Christmas tree worm on a Pseudodiploria coral

The main goal was to see which type of debris (plastic, metal, fabric, rubber, etc.) is the most abundant on the island. After 30 minutes of trash collecting, the group ended up with 40 kg of debris! This project really put the amount of debris in the world into perspective. Controlling how much trash someone produces and proper waste disposal and recycling and creating biodegradable materials and so many more aspects of debris are such complicated topics to discuss, but it’s a discussion that needs to be had in order to preserve the world that we live in today.

Day 4 (5/19): More Urchin Shenanigans

They say routine is a key to success, and in the past few days a new routine has been established. I woke up at 6:45AM, ate breakfast, and awaited our next adventure in the wetlab. We gathered the different species of urchins collected yesterday and tested for each one’s size and abundance. One particular species, E. viridus, was collected 131 times! Around 9AM, we hopped on a boat and went back to the protected back reef area to return the urchins to their habitat and then proceeded to the non-MPA (Marine Protected Area). There, my partner Isaac and I performed the same quadrat testing (from May 18, 2017) in the unprotected zone which will later be used to assess Belizean reef health. We were also asked to collect urchins in a 25 minute period in the unprotected zone, resulting in a mission which around 400 person-minutes was put into progress.

While snorkeling today, I managed to see a nurse shark (Ginglymostoma cirratum) and a southern sting ray (Dasyatis americana). My lovely instructor Scott (AKA SFS) pointed the nurse shark out to me which was laying down underneath a small coral colony. I was mainly able to see the nurse shark’s tail and lower body- the shark did not move around at all, suggesting it was probably resting or hiding.

The southern sting ray was spotted on the reef floor while performing quadrat testing. It too was completely motionless, darting away only seconds after the picture was snagged.

 

Southern Stingray on the ocean floor

Other than those two piscivores, I want to say I saw an unidentified Grouper of some sort- it was really colorful and had the head skeleton structure/ jaw structure which l believe resemble a Nassau Grouper. It kept swimming around on the outside of a coral colony probably searching for food.

We arrived back at Glover’s around 12:10PM, at lunch, and got started on the reef health project we are working on- Adrienne and Scott wanted us to compile all the data together and present our findings to them. One of the discussion topics that came up while creating the presentation was the fact that there are more urchins in marine protected areas (based on data collected in both MPAs and non-MPAs) because less disturbance (fishing) occurs in MPAs, allowing for diversity to persist. We compiled all of the species data together and presented to Scott and Adrienne around 4PM; they listened patiently and provided useful feedback which can be used for future projects.

We were supposed to go night snorkeling tonight, but the winds and waters were way too choppy to execute that plan. So, instead, a couple of friends and I played soccer (scraped up my leg from that), ate dinner, and listened to presentations about red, brown, and green algae from Tian-Tian and Sarah G., a cultural presentation of Belize by our water safety man Javier, and a presentation on the implications of overfishing and climate change on reefs by Ellie.

Hopefully, we hit the water at night tomorrow. Nonetheless, I am excited!!

Day 3 (5/18): Quadrats are love, quadrats are life.

Today was packed. The day started at 6:45AM for me, with breakfast at 7AM and discussion and testing for crab density on the Middle Caye starting at 8:15AM- we basically chose a certain portion of the island (Isaac and I chose a trail) and test for the number of crabs in that specified area using the quadrat we made yesterday.

After that was done, we did the same exact type of testing on seagrass beds next to port. This time, we were looking for the density of species diversity in a certain sector of the seagrass beds. Unfortunately, my partner and I did not find much- we were only able to report an upside-down jellyfish, a small crab, and some sea anemone in our area of the bed. That did not discourage us though, because those kinds of results are common within the confines of this experiment. I snorkeled around a bit after the species density testing and managed to see a family of piscivorous yellowtail snapper (Ocyurus chrysurus) and a lot of upside down jellyfish about 100 feet west of the dock. Adrienne told me that a lot more piscivorous fish should be available out in the fore reef region of the Caye as opposed to the back reef, so I’ll patiently wait my turn until that day comes.

Crab density quadrat project

We came back to land, ate lunch, had some free time, and then jumped on the boat Koolie Gial to the back reef located in the Marine Protected Area. We again performed quadrat testing (this time looking for species diversity of coral in the back reef) and collected urchins which we’ll test tomorrow as a part of our ongoing lab on reef health. In the 25 minutes we had to find urchins, I managed to snag two under a rock and inside a coral crevice. Tomorrow we’ll collect more urchins from an unprotected area and compare the health (size and shape) of the two samples of urchins we had.

Me with a Diadema antillarum urchin

I’m tired, but content. In the words of Vivekanudeep, good night.

Day 2 (5/17): Yep, this is paradise.

I woke up at 5am today. The last time I did that was [INSERT DATE HERE]. It wasn’t too bad though because I crashed at 10pm in a really comfy bed. After our PB&J sandwich breakfast, we loaded our luggage and ourselves into the van and headed for the port. By 7:55AM, we reached port and were speeding away from mainland Belize in a small boat to Middle Caye (Glover’s Reef). We saw some flying fish and a giant sea turtle on the way, but the real sight was the view of Glover’s Reef as we floated into port- turquoise and yellow painted buildings sprawled on white sand surrounded by turquoise blue water greeted us warmly.

After sorting luggage into our rooms, the island manager Kenneth gave us a tour of the place, telling us we will be “working in paradise”. Shortly after a lunch of potatoes, chicken, and a vegetable medley, we put on our snorkeling gear and swam out to a patch reef to identify reef organisms.

Taxon wise, I had some luck seeing piscivorous fish. I was able to spot a group of yellowtail snappers (Ocyurus chrysurus) cruising around some corals on the patch reef. I had a glimpse of the tail of a flat needlefish (Ablennes hians), but it swam away before I could take a picture of it. Outside of my taxon, I saw a Christmas tree worm and a variety of branched and brain corals. There are still some facets of snorkeling I need to get used to, but it was an awesome first experience.

Yellowtail snapper I saw

Around 4PM, our professor Adrienne led us on a trek to the edge of the island where there is a huge pile of fossilized coral and got really really really really excited when she started explaining the different species of coral. It was great- I can successfully name 6 species of coral because of that 1.5 hour excursion. Then, we ate dinner, listened to presentations on stony coral and echinoderms, and then learned how to make quadrats. It’s currently 9:59PM and my eyes kept   shutting as I write this last paragraph. Must be getting old.

Belize: the Country, the Myth, the Legend

In 14 hours, I’ll be on a Southwest Airlines flight, hopefully in an aisle seat. Unfortunately, that dream has never been a reality. But tomorrow is the day. Tomorrow is the day I fight anyone and anything for that beloved aisle seat covered in rich velvet and provided with technologies such as extra leg room and a free arm rest. Oh, tomorrow will be the day I come, see, and conquer. After that, I’m going to Belize.

I’m not really too sure what to expect out of this two week journey. I’ve never been to the tropics or a reef before, and there are so many variables that’ll be thrown at me all at once in such a short time period- the sights and sounds of a new country, the vast unknown of the tropical rainforest, and the shimmery blue depths of the reef. I’m pretty pumped for the sensory overload and figure it’ll be an awesome experience. Reading the book and researching my lecture topic/taxon assignments prepared and provided me with somewhat of an idea of what Belize has to offer, but experiencing everything firsthand will definitely be eye opening.

Honestly, I hope I can identify piscivorous fish and arachnids when I get to that jungle of a place. The piscivorous fish finding should not be too bad because they’ll be in plain sight underwater, but arachnids might be a bit tough. There are so many of them that’ll scurry past before you can identify them and a lot of them are hidden under rocks/debris. But where there is a will, there is a way.

I’m the most nervous about snorkeling. I don’t have too much experience with it and mainly need to work on depressurizing my ears. That being said, I’m really excited to venture out into the tropical rainforest and walk under a canopy of leaves while surrounded by massive, towering tree trunks. I really hope I can see an ocelot- if not in real time, at least from a camera trap. Also, I’m weirdly stoked about getting down and dirty on the forest floor to identify some arachnids. I’ve never been to the tropics before, but I also never rode a bike until I rode a bike.

Watch out Belize- Deepu Karri is coming to town. On a Southwest Airlines aisle seat.

 

And that’s a wrap

This trip was one of the most amazing experiences of my life. Not only did I learn a ton, but I also discovered how fun and rewarding field biology can be.

In visiting both the tropical rainforests and coral reefs of Belize, we were able to experience the two most biologically diverse ecosystems on the planet. Though at first glance these ecosystems may seem very different, they actually share many characteristics that may contribute to their amazing biodiversity. Both tend to exist in the tropics (as seen by the existence of both in Belize), where stable temperatures, large amounts of sunlight, and/or long evolutionary lineages may contribute to extreme biodiversity. Additionally, both rainforests and coral reefs often exist in nutrient-poor environments, and thus nutrients are cycled through the communities rather efficiently.

The rainforest and coral reefs had incredible structural diversity. In general, the rainforest’s structure was provided mostly by plants, while the reef’s was provided mostly by coral colonies. With so much structural diversity comes the creation of a plethora of niches for species to inhabit, thus allowing for many species to exist in the same ecosystem. In both areas, we saw countless species from many different taxa, some of which seemed similar but in reality had slightly different ecological roles. The species compositions of the rainforest and coral reefs were of course very unique. For example, very few mammal species exist in the Belizean reef environments, but a large diversity of mammals exists in the Chiquibul forest.

One specific similarity that I noticed between the rainforest and reefs was the complexity of their trophic pyramids. For example, on a coral reef, a great barracuda could eat a Nassau grouper, who could eat a bluestriped grunt, who could eat a clam, who may filter feed on plankton. This complexity is very interesting, and as the “expert” on mammals and piscivorous fish, I found it really exciting to be able to observe some top predators in the wild.

The only thing that this course did not provide me with was a sighting of a wild jaguar (which only means I need to go back!). It really was everything I could have hoped for. There was more scientific methodology practice than I had expected, but I think this was very helpful for learning about how science works in the field. My favorite part of EBIO 319 was just being able to explore the rainforest ecosystem, whether through early morning walks or camera trap images. My least favorite part was probably the pre-trip preparation (which was a bit stressful), but I think it all paid off in the end.

Three of the most important things that I learned on this trip:
1) Living in a more sustainable way, by focusing on true needs (like hydrate or die) rather than superfluous wants, is incredibly rewarding and strengthening.
2) Seeing an elusive creature (such as a tayra) in the wild, even if it took hours or days of seeing nothing, is absolutely worth the effort.
3) Even with little sleep, few snacks, no internet, cold showers, limited electricity, and lots of ticks, field work felt rejuvenating!

Overall, a completely unbelizeable experience!
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