Tag Archives: rainforest

Post-Trip: Reflection

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.

Glover’s Reef

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.

Last but not least

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.

Accomplished TFBs

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.

Final Post

One of the most striking similarities between the rainforest and the coral reef is that both are nutrient-poor environments. This seems strange considering that both are such rich in life and diversity. Contrary to popular belief, just because the soil and water are nutrient poor, doesn’t necessarily mean the environment is. It would be more accurate to say that nutrients are being constantly cycled through the many different kinds of organisms that live in the matrix. Additionally, organisms in these oligotrophic environments tend to be slow growing and have specific adaptations or symbioses that allow for greater and more efficient nutrient uptake. Both the rainforest and coral reef are complex three-dimensional networks that allow for a wide variety of physical and biochemical niches. Producers and consumers exist in a delicate balance that can be easily disrupted, a common problem when these environments are disturbed by human activities and byproducts.

In the reef especially I felt as though these conditions were most easily observable. The clear waters were an obvious indication of the oligotrophic conditions, as was the slow growth rate of coral. There were no bare surfaces and every inch of substrate was covered by coral, macroalgae, or sponge. Fish, urchins, marine worms and crustaceans filled cracks and crevices, and it seemed like every space was accounted for. In the rainforest, plants, vines and epiphytes competed for sunlight and moisture, while spiders, roaches, and ants crawled about the leaf litter. The constant activity of producers, consumers and decomposers was palatable.

This course exceeded my expectations on all accounts. I could not have imagined all of the things we got to see and do on this trip; I felt as though I finally got to really experience the reef and rainforest, as opposed to the snatches and glimpses I have received before. Partially this was due to the fact that we were able to visit places accessible only to researchers, rather than the areas that are usually overrun by tourists. I was also pleasantly surprised by the level of comfort we experienced on this trip. My time in Panama had prepared me for pasta with ketchup and spam, and stinky bucket showers. Instead we had delicious Belizan food, running water, electricity, and clean, comfortable living quarters. Also, having everything planned out for you was a real treat which let us immerse ourselves in our surroundings rather than worrying about logistics. Finally, I felt as though I had a thorough introduction to various field methods and the types of problems one might face when doing research in such an environment.

It would be hard to pick a favorite part of the course, so I’ll try to name a couple. Seeing the big cats at the zoo at night was really incredible because it was something you couldn’t see anywhere else. Sharks and rays are some of my favorite animals so seeing those on the reef made my day more than once. And, however cheesy it may be, the friendships I developed on this trip were really special. As for a least favorite, I don’t have a good answer. Sometimes trying to work on a project in such a big group was challenging and some people got their feathers ruffled while others felt they couldn’t contribute (too many cooks in the kitchen). At the same time, I felt this was a valuable lesson in collaboration and I’m not sure I would change it.

I don’t think I’ll ever forget all I learned about my taxonomic groups and topic lecture. While amphibians and annelids were never something I was interested in before, now they hold a special place in my heart. I also really value the practical knowledge I learned on this trip. Experimental design, problem solving on the spot, working smart, analyzing data in a way that reflects your research question, and my pro snorkeling skills are all things I look forward to utilizing in the future.

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Sophia Streeter (certified TFB)

6/1

Last day in the Chiquibul

We finished out the last day with another 13 mile hike to pick up all our camera traps. It took us about half the time it did on Thursday and I wasn’t nearly as tired. It’s amazing what your body can adjust to after just a few days. Even though I’m running on less sleep I feel great because of all the exercise and activity.

Checking the photos from camera traps was more exciting than you could possibly imagine. Most of it was nothing but when something popped up on screen we were elated. One of our cameras got a picture of a Tapir (!!!!) and another of an Ocelot (!!!!). Even though we only had a little taste of it I think I am starting to understand how difficult field work can be, but also how rewarding. I will miss the rainforest and all of its colors and scents and noises.

Even though we didn’t see many amphibians out here I didn’t feel too disappointed or bored because it meant I got to bounce around and look at everyone else’s taxonomic groups. The end of the dry season can be tough for herpetology but getting to watch birds, ants, mammals (I saw an agouti this morning), reptiles, and insects made up for it. Not to mention the plants! The diversity was incredible and I saw many more organisms than I was expecting.

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Sophia Streeter

5-23

Happy birthday Mom! You too Elena, sorry I missed them.