5/21/19: Today, we left Las Cuevas and said goodbye to Rafael, the station manager, and the other LCRS staff. If I am being honest here, waving goodbye to them was really sad because they were so nice and accommodating the whole trip. However, the feeling of sadness soon left when we arrived at the ATM cave. I have to say this was one of the best experiences of my life.
Not only was it amazing seeing a cave of its magnitude in person from the outside, but also being able to swim and explore the cave firsthand was incredible. I felt like I was basically Indiana Jones crawling through those cave walls. I have never done anything like that, and I recommend if you ever come to Belize, make sure to schedule a tour of the ATM cave. It is a once in a lifetime experience.
Next, we went to Belize Zoo and it was one of the coolest and, might I say, cutest experiences. The zoo prides itself on preserving Belizean native animals (how awesome is that!). They also have so many funny signs around the zoo describing the animals; you can tell they put a lot of time into it. We saw a boa constrictor, tapir, puma, jaguar, margay, barn owls, pygmy owls, Morelet’s crocodile, and a gibunt. I even petted the tapir and held a boa constrictor! We were not able to see most of these animals at LCRS, so I am so happy we were able to see them before we left. I am starting to feel like a piece of me belongs to Belize. Next time you hear from me, I’ll be at Glover’s Reef.
5/20/19: We concluded our Cecropia and Aztec Ant project today and found that it might be true that uncolonized Cecropia trees have tougher leaves to prevent herbivory, but with our data, there might be many other possible explanations.
Today was our last day at Las Cuevas. We went to retrieve our camera traps; it was quite a long hike to pick up all seven cameras, and guess what we found? A TAPIR!!! We caught one on the camera that was furthest down the monkey tail trail. Honestly, I never thought I could be that excited for a photo, but trust me, I screamed a little when it came up. We also caught this mysterious photo of an animal that appeared to be cat-like. It was too close to the camera, so it is very overexposed and washed out. We hypothesize it is a Puma based on its outline, but we are not 100% sure. But, for the sake of tropical field biology, it will be a puma in my book.
On another note, I ran into quite a problem today at Las Cuevas. During a break today, Brendan and I used an “icy- hot” type ointment to help our sore muscles. For the first two hours of the break, it went great. But after that, let’s just say, things went a little less great. We went to gear up to investigate the leaf cutter ant mounds around Las Cuevas (super cool by the way!). So, as we were standing in the sun excavating a mound, our skin began to burn as if we were cooking in the sun. We began to remove our socks and ran up to the station to take a shower to remove the remaining ointment from our skin. In the end, we are doing much better, but note to self: do not wear icy-hot in direct sunlight.
Today was a slow day for arachnids. We were hiking swiftly this morning and did not often stop to check out anything on the path, so I saw a few wolf spiders scattered in the leaf litter and a what seemed to be a monster tick walking on a leaf. It had to be least 0.3 to 0.5 cm. It had white speckles on its back. To put it simply, we avoided it as much as possible. Tomorrow we make our way to the reef. First stop ATM cave!
5/19/19: Today, we started our day with an early morning research project. We were looking at how hurricane impacts areas within the Chiquibull, specifically how they impact plant diversity. We were able to create a poster and present it all before lunchtime. I am not going to lie it felt pretty productive to get that all done in one morning.
Next, we had a second research project for the afternoon where we looked at the relationship of Cecropia trees and Aztec ants. We wanted to know if trees that were not colonized by the ants (ants provide tree protection against attack from herbivores) had tougher leaves to prevent herbivory. We are still working on the project, but I will keep y’all updated on the results.
I think my favorite part of the day was overlooking the entire Chiquibul forest from the bird tower. The sun was just starting to set and the dimming sunlight made for a beautiful sight. To see nature undisturbed for miles upon miles, it was incredible. I also got to take some nice photos with a great view which is always a plus.
As for my beloved arachnids, not much has changed. We saw a small Florida Bark scorpion (C. gracilis), orb weaver spider, and a few Red-Rumped (B. vagans) tarantulas today. However, something cool that I have noticed on night hikes is the sheer number of spiders on the forest floor. As we walk with our headlamps, their eyes are illuminated and reflect back towards us. In fact, we thought we saw a wolf spider with a glittery back, but we soon realized, it was not glitter at all. The spider was carrying hundreds of young spiders! With the way things are going, I am excited to start another project tomorrow.
5/18/19: We retrieved our pee. All 11 sets of pit-fall traps were successfully captured. Wooohoo! As crazy as it might sound, I was kind of sad when I didn’t find too many arthropods in my pee. I mean, I don’t know what I was anticipating, but I kind of wish a beetle would have fallen into my pee. Is my pee not good enough? All I accounted for was a few ants and ticks.
Today, we worked on evaluating our results from these traps and preparing a poster presentation. Prior to this trip, I would have thought it was nearly impossible to make a poster and present it in one day, but boy was I wrong. We worked very well together, and we were able to create a poster and present it in a single day. I worked on the data analysis which I really enjoyed. Getting to apply what you learn in class in the field has definitely been a highlight of this trip.
It was a slow day for arachnids. I saw a quite a few wolf spiders walking to retrieve the pee samples on the Mayan trail. They ranged in size from 0.1 cm to 4 cm across the body. And of course, I had a few run-ins with some ticks. But aside from that, my day seemed to be consumed with amphibians and birds. URINE not going to BELIZE what I saw! We saw a Morelet’s tree frog and a toucan walking along the Maya trail. Ahhh! Seeing the Morelet’s tree frog in real life makes reading about it seem so insignificant. The real-life experience was incredible, and I won’t ever forget it. I am going to keep an eye out for a Golden Orb Weaver spider tomorrow because it is something I have really been wanting to see.
5/17/19: In class today, we peed. Yes, you heard me right, we peed. For the love of science, we peed in vials that will act as nitrogen sources for our new field experiment. Our 2 questions for the experiment were: Is there a greater species richness and abundance of arthropods on the forest floor or in the canopy? And, is nitrogen limitation more severe on the forest floor or in the canopy? Currently, my pee sits awaiting arthropods in the middle of the Chiquibul forest. I’ll keep you updated as to how it goes.
Aside from that, I think my favorite part of the day was visiting the cave near Las Cuevas Research Station. It is crazy to me how something so beautiful can even exist all on it is own. It is not man-made; it just exists by the natural world. I went on the cave field trip in the second grade and that was the end of my cave-going days, so it was nice to see it as an adult to appreciate it more fully. We even had lectures inside of the cave which was very cool.
Today, I had a few interesting sightings of arachnids. Along the Mayan trail, I saw a wolf spider (genus: hogna) and a harvestman. The wolf spider was carrying an egg sack. The harvestman was red, black, and white. I saw quite a few red-rumped tarantulas today along the trail near their underground burrows. They are always a cool site.
The most intriguing find I had was on a night hike down the Mayan trial. Even with some research, I am unsure of the species of this spider. It was a beautiful orange color with black stripes; it had a thicker abdomen and legs than most spiders I have seen in the canopy. I nicknamed it the tiger spider. Check out the picture and let me know what you think!
Check in tomorrow because guess what? We are going to extract our pee. Cheese Belize!
5/16/19: I woke at 5:00 o’clock this morning to go birding, and I must say, I was not sure if I would be able to do this. Typically, I am a night owl and late riser, but waking up early was not too bad. The prospect of seeing beautiful birds seem to do the trick in getting me out of bed. And of course, I saw beautiful birds. It is the tropical rain forest we are talking about here!
In addition to some beautiful birding, today we set up the camera traps for our research experiment. Our research question is: Does the clearing for Las Cuevas Research Station impact the species richness and species abundance (i.e overall biodiversity) found near the station? I have never used camera traps before, but it went quite well aside from the fact that four of our cameras were not working. But hey! That’s fieldwork, so we improvised and made it work. I am hoping that we get an answer to our question—-plus catch a jaguar or puma on camera traps!
Today was a spicy day for Arachnids. On the 50-hectare plot, I saw a Gastercantha cancriformis or Spiny Orb-Weaver Spider. It was black, yellow, and white, which was super interesting. It had the characteristic 6 spines and it was spinning a web in the middle of the trail. Also, we did see a spider (unknown) with a grasshopper in its grasp. On a final note, my favorite find of the day was a female wolf spider (genus: Hogna) carrying her egg sack across the trail. She looked so regal with her little children. I also saw my first scorpion and tarantula in the Las Cuevas clearing: a large Florida Bark Scorpion, Centroides gracilis, and a Red-Rumped Tarantula, Brachypelma vagans. Oh…. and…. let’s just say ticks also made an impact today. (Kaela had over 100 ticks!)
5/15/19: Well, today was our first full day in Belize and it was quite an experience. I have never before experienced anything like this.
It was a jammed pack day full of swimming, hiking, and exploring. We went to Rio on Pools site to swim which was super refreshing after being in the hot sun. I think I am going to keep reminiscing on those moments in the cool river while out here at Las Cuevas hiking in the humidity.
I have to say my favorite part of the day had to be exploring the Mayan Caracol ruins. It was crazy to me to think that I was climbing structures that were built thousands of years ago. It also astounded me that Belize struggles to find funds to excavate all of the sites. We were only able to see the 1% of Caracol that has been excavated. There were so many other sites that have yet to be uncovered. If I had all the money in the world, I feel like I would want to donate some to help fund the archeological projects in Belize. I was in awe of its magnitude and beauty, so I can only imagine what it would be like to see all of the ruins uncovered.
I have seen 2 arachnids today, but I was too slow to grab my camera before they scurried away. One was a small common wolf spider and the other I think could have been a huntsman/banana spider (Heteropoda venatoria). It was on the smaller side, but it had the characteristic long legs seen in most banana spiders. I hope as we venture into Chiquibul tomorrow I will see many more! Hopefully, my first wild tarantula sighting will happen soon.
On a quick final note, in honor of our driver Leo, I am excited to keep saying “Cheese Belize!” in many more photo ops on this trip.
DISCLAIMER: Las Cuevas was supposed to have internet—right now, it isn’t working. All LCRS posts from the rainforest will be posted after the fact!
On our first full day at LCRS, we started our first project! We were given a method (camera trapping) and were tasked with creating a question, testable hypothesis, and a full methodology. After much discussion, tweaking, and organizing, we decided to ask about human impact on mammal traffic. We measured this by setting camera traps in pairs—one on the trail facing the trail, the other off trail facing away from the trail. We hope to catch some great cat (like jaguar) shots!
With all the details figured out, we left for to set up the first three pairs. We went from the station, down Monkey Tail Trail, and turned onto Saffron Trail. This broad daylight hiking was different than yesterday—the sun rays glowed through the trees lighting up the forest canopy with all shades of green. Most notable canopy spotting today was a large termite nest in the Y of some branches; it had to be at least 5 ft in diameter!
I sadly did not spot any amphibians today—I think this is because it is the end of the dry season, and not that many rains have come yet. Also, most of the Belizean frogs are nocturnal and we’ve just been hiking in daylight or dusk thus far. The tree frog from yesterday was really a treat!
Somewhat related to amphibians are boa constrictors! We actually had the incredible opportunity to spot one in the wild while hiking off trail to set the camera trap. The boa was directly in front of a 30 ft wide leaf cutter ant pile, so we were all having a field day with this nature sightings. The snake, on the other hand, was very nervous but never lunged—it just followed any moving person with its eyes.
When we returned from our hike, we had a chance to shower then hear from the Director of Friends of Conservation and Development Raphael. He explained to us that (in a nutshell) his NGO is responsible for patrolling the border with Guatemala and other high-risk areas to protect the wildlife. All in all, today I learned to appreciate the rainforest, and even more, the colors and battles of the rainforest of today really made me appreciate being in the rainforest.
One day in Belize, my class and I noticed a distinct commonality between the two most biodiverse ecosystems – coral reefs and tropical rainforests. Both function in nutrient poor conditions. The two differ greatly in the causations of their low-nutrient conditions. Coral reefs demand low nutrients to hinder algae growth and allow high water clarity, a condition demanded for photosynthetic coral synergists. The trees of the tropical rainforest, however, quickly deplete the soil of nutrients as they grow. While both systems exist in low-nutrient environments, low nutrient levels can lead to coral reef formation while the high nutrient demands of tropical rainforest tree leads to poor soil nutrients.
Regardless, the two ecosystems are able to support such biodiverse systems through their creation of physical spaces. Reefs for nooks and crannies for marine organisms to reside, as well has having great surface areas to accommodate sessile organisms like anemones and sponges. Tropical trees have many layering branches and alcoves within trunks and limbs. Similarly, these create spaces to accommodate more living things. Epiphytes, commensalist plants that grow on taller trees, demand the sunlit canopy trees provide. Structurally, the two have many parallels, which likely explains their comparable biodiversity.
Rainforests and coral reefs both accommodate animals smaller than their open ocean or open grassland counterparts. Not only are these ecosystem’s spaces unable to accommodate larger animals, but also larger animals have the potential to wreak havoc on these systems by overgrazing on or causing mechanical damage to coral or trees.
With their elaborate physical structures and densely-packed biodiverse inhabitants, the coral reef and tropical rainforest I visited in Belize filled me with similar senses of awe. There was activity or an interesting organic structure just about everywhere I would look. While I knew in advance that these ecosystems have great biodiversity, there is something about being physically present that makes these facts feel real.
I had very nebulous expectations for this trip. I wanted to learn and to have fun, but other than that, I put very little thought into identifying what I wanted to take away from this trip. This mindset turned out to be a blessing, as I could absorb my surroundings without constantly questioning whether or not my expectations are met. It was freeing to allow myself to be immersed in these beautiful locales and view them for what they are.
My memory of the trip is rich with precious moments – watching a squid jet across a reef, listening to the boisterous conversations of scarlet macaws, seeing the glistening hide of a manatee as it dive back into shallow mangrove waters, feeling the chilliness of the Actun Tunichil Muknal cave, spectating the sunrise over the ocean, viewing the uninhibited star-filled sky, laying on a hammock at the end of a long day. This aggregation of serenity and excitement is what I value most about the trip. While at times I felt stressed about the grade I would make, I strove to keep an empowering mindset that allowed me to fully cherish my surroundings.
The trip left me with a wide range of new knowledge. Ethnographically, Belize has an extremely diverse human population, serving as the home of Mestizos, Creoles, Garifunas, and Mayans to name the most populous. I learned about interesting physical properties of many living, including that mantis shrimp have a grasp so strong they can hurt people, Christmas tree worms always have pairs of polychaetes, conchs’ have two projecting eyes that look like cartoon eyes, and strangling figs can overtake massive canopy-forming trees to form large and extensive woody structures. I also learned about the harmful effect human negligence can have on ecosystems, like lionfish (a nonnative species released from aquariums) overpredate juvenile reef-dwelling fish and the prevalence of Africanized bees in the New World were caused by the escape of seven queens. I’ve learned countless new things that form a mosaic as vibrant and diverse as the colors of Belize itself.
I leave Belize with new memories and knowledge. I will always remember the electric blue of the Caribbean, the stunning vibrancy of scarlet macaw plumage, and the translucence of the Caribbean reef squid. After all, all I have are these memories of Belize until I go back.
This morning I pulled tick number 19 off my ear and boarded a plane to DC. It feels strange being back on the grid, sending texts and walking past Subway and McDonald’s.
This trip was an experience unlike any that I have had before. I’m so happy to have met all of the TFBs. The reef and rainforest ecosystems were both incredible, in ways that I expected and in ways that I totally didn’t expect.
Middle Caye was, at first glance, a tropical paradise, with tall palm trees and surrounded by Gatorade-blue water. From a boat, the reef is mostly invisible. Only the reef crest, where waves break incessantly, and dark patches in the bright blue of the lagoon betrayed the reef’s position under the surface of the ocean.
Upon arrival, the Chiquibul Rainforest looked like a whole lot of trees. The ground is covered in leaf litter and the twisted roots of trees growing up and out in competition for sunlight.
In both the reef ecosystem and the rainforest ecosystem, complexity is present but not immediately apparent.
In the coral reef ecosystem, topographical complexity allows organisms to hide in crevices and under consolidated reef framework. Sponges, soft corals, and algae provide habitat, in addition to stony corals. Only after many days snorkeling around did I start to see the full range of diversity present in the ecosystem. I didn’t see any urchins until we were told to look, and then I found them tucked under rocks and under corals. I began to notice anemones wiggling in the seagrasses and I became more alert to the quick movement of reef fishes.
In the rainforest ecosystem, the diversity of plant life also provides a wide range of habitat for animal life. I did not notice the overwhelming abundance of arthropods in the rainforest until our small sampling effort yielded a whole lot of little critters. Insects and arachnids (including my enemy, the tick) were “hidden” in the grasses, on palm fronds, on tree trunks and vines and on the forest floor. Trees in the rainforest also provide habitat for other plant life (shout out epiphytes). The rainforest is far from being composed of only trees, just like the reef is far from being composed only of stony corals.
A huge similarity between the reef and the rainforest is the nutrient recycling imperative. Both coral reefs and tropical rainforests are incredibly diverse ecosystems despite being nutrient poor.
Coral reefs survive best in nutrient-poor waters. The microbial loop, during which detritus and dissolved organic matter (DOM) are incorporated into microorganisms on the reef, is necessary for rapid turnover. Tiny microorganisms are eaten, and the nutrients they consumed move up through the trophic levels on the reef. In tropical rainforests, soils are old and depleted of their nutrients. Rapid decomposition and turnover on the forest floor is a quintessential element of the rainforest. In the case of some nutrients (calcium and phosphorous) 99% appears to be recycled by forest plants.
My favorite activity from the trip was the Actun Tunichil Muknal archaeological reserve. Wading through chilly water and scrambling over slick rock formations in the dark was super cool on its own, but seeing the pottery left by the Maya and remains of human sacrifice left untouched for thousands of years was awe-inspiring. Also, the hike back through the forest in the pouring rain was rejuvenating.
My least favorite activity was collecting data on Christmas tree worms on the back reef off Middle Caye. Collecting data was difficult on the shallow reefs; constantly being pushed around by the waves and crashing into rocks was an inconvenience. Honestly, it was still a good time and Adolfo found the huge dead sponge there, so it was worth crashing around and spluttering in the waves for a while.
This course was incredibly educational; I felt like I was constantly absorbing new information. It met my expectations and exceeded them. Being a tropical field biologist requires hard-work and flexibility for when things inevitably don’t go as planned. But the experience also showed me that tropical field biology requires and encourages creativity. Being at Glover’s and Las Cuevas, in relatively untouched ecosystems, made me appreciate the awesomeness of nature.