Tag Archives: reflection

Belize has my heart

The tropical rainforest and the coral reef are two of the most biologically diverse ecosystems on earth. What similarities exist between these two ecosystems, and how might these similarities relate to high levels of biological diversity? What personal observations have you made about the similarities and differences between these two ecosystems? How did the course compare with your expectations? What were your favorite—and least favorite—parts of the course? Describe three things that you learned in the course that you consider to be the most important or surprising (i.e., what did you

It seems so weird that just a couple of days ago we were in Belize and now I’m back home in my bed writing this reflection (with air conditioning).

The tropical rainforest and coral reefs have so much biodiversity, and there is still so much we have to learn and discover about these ecosystems. I knew before that there were large numbers of species that hadn’t been identified yet in the rainforest as well as coral reefs, but nothing compared to seeing this for myself. The amount of flora and fauna in the rainforest is crazy, and there were definitely things that we saw such as beetles and even ants that Scott or our guidebooks couldn’t identify. In our hurricane gap project as well as our To Pee or Not to Pee project, we separated our findings into morphospecies and the number of species we had for both projects was extremely large (so large it took us 5 hours to separate the morphospecies from the pee traps). Both ecosystems also are nutrient poor, but they overcome this by finding nutrients in their own inhabitants. Nutrient cycling takes place by decomposers or in coral reefs, by corals and sponges. Another similarity is how both ecosystems are not only threatened by natural dangers such as the changing environment but also direct human threats such as poaching and use/harvesting of land and resources by other countries like Guatemala and Honduras.

I went into this class not really knowing what to expect, as many of the other now TFBs will say as well. I was definitely nervous the day we left Rice to fly to Belize. I was worried I wouldn’t be able to keep up with the class, or I would discover I wasn’t cut out for the TFB lifestyle. However, I discovered that the TFB lifestyle is amazing and I am more than capable of completing long hikes and swims in tropical environments. I can even hold snakes and swim after sharks because I’m not afraid of them anymore. Seeing these creatures in the wild is way different than seeing a picture online, and you can truly appreciate how amazing they actually are.

One of the last days in Belize, Scott asked some of us what our favorite moment of the trip was, but having to choose one is just too hard. One of my favorites from Las Cuevas had to be the last night there where we all gathered around a laptop to look at the camera trap pictures, and we first saw a tapir picture and the second the picture changed there was a gorgeous shot of a jaguar and we all flipped out and were screaming. At Glover’s I really loved the sea urchin day, because I got to hold a ton of adorable sea urchin, including my favorite thing ever, a sea egg (yes sea urchin can be adorable).

It’s hard to say something out of this trip wasn’t great, but I guess my least favorite moment was having to endure getting a ton of mosquito bites at Glover’s. However, I was having so much fun that I wasn’t about to let bug bites get in my way.

Before this trip, I was still on the edge about what my major would be and what I wanted to do with my life, and it might sound cheesy but this class solidified that my passion is biology and I want to work on helping and studying the environment. I also met some wonderful people on this trip, and I wasn’t expecting to come back with so many people I can call close friends. We all seemed so different but were connected by our love for the environment and desire to make a difference through studying it. I feel really lucky to have met everyone and shared this experience. Finally, I realized how much I want to do to make a difference in the environment even just at home. I would always tell myself I would try and cut down on my waste, but I never stuck with it. After seeing marine debris attached to a nurse shark, and having to pick up trash off a remote island that I could never imagine having debris, I feel like not only cutting back on my waste but also educating others about the effects and of marine debris and how we can help cut back.

This trip to Belize has literally been one of the most important experiences in my life so far, and I know I will always look back and remember the things I learned and experiences I had. 

Basically Steve Irwin pt. 2

The sky over our last night in Belize. Once again, this photo is NOT color corrected!

Now that I’ve been back from Belize for a few days, I’ve had some time to gather my thoughts on the past two weeks. I had the privilege of visiting two of the world’s most biologically diverse ecosystems and witnessing their beauty firsthand. Although the rainforest and the reef seem to be completely distinct ecosystems, in reality, they have several underlying similarities.

The biggest concept I learned about these two ecosystems on my trip was that both exist in oddly nutrient-poor areas. You’d think that such diverse places would never be able to survive in environments as lacking in nutrients as the soil of the Chiquibul or the waters of Glover’s Reef. But paradoxically, they thrive here!

Upon closer inspection, the “paradoxes” of the rainforest and of the reef aren’t paradoxes at all. In both ecosystems, the efficient recycling of nutrients allows these areas to support such a large diversity of organisms. So even though the soil or the water itself may be nutrient-poor, these ecosystems are able to flourish.

Even at first glance, I noticed similarities between the rainforest and the reef. I was impressed by the sheer diversity of animals in both places. Even without going anywhere, I observed more life than I’ve ever seen back home in Texas. At Las Cuevas, hundreds of species of moths, as well as frogs, geckos, katydids, and scorpions clung to the station walls every single night. It was the same at Middle Caye at Glover’s Reef. I spotted multitudes of fish, including barracuda, sardines, lemon sharks, and nurse sharks from the dock of the island. We also shared the island with hundreds of hermit crabs, iguanas, and blue land crabs. It’s crazy how the animal life in both places came to us without us even having to seek it out.

Belize was everything I expected and more. I’m rereading my pre-trip blog now, and it’s comical to me how accurate my expectations for the trip were. Two weeks ago, I said I expected a lot of sweat and longing for air conditioning – and I was SOOO right. I don’t think I was completely dry for a single minute on the entire trip – I was always either sweaty or in the ocean.

The painfully early mornings and physical tiredness from full days of hiking or swimming were probably my least favorite aspects of the course, but even those I didn’t mind too much. (Actually, maybe finding bug bites in places where I never, EVER wanted to find bug bites was my least favorite thing. Anyway.) They were necessary for us to make the most of our time in Belize.

It’s so difficult to choose only one or a few favorite parts of the trip because I genuinely enjoyed every single day – who wouldn’t? I got to wake up in some of the most beautiful places in the world for two weeks. Like, what the heck?? But if I had to pick, my favorite moments of the trip were either checking the contents of our camera traps, collecting sea urchins, or swimming at the reef crest.

I’ll never forget the moment we saw a tapir captured in the lens, which was then followed by jaguars, pumas, armadillos, and more! We probably screamed loudly enough to wake up the whole research station. I also had a real ball finding and catching sea urchins. They were in my taxon, after all, and they were so fun to spot! It was basically iSpy, but in the name of science. And how could I not love the reef crest? I’ve never seen such extraordinary abundance of life anywhere.

In the end, believe it or not, this trip was actually a class and not a vacation. That means that I actually learned stuff and didn’t sit around drinking and eating fresh coconuts on the beach all day – although there was some of that, too. I learned a lot about the lives of real TFBs and commonly used techniques in the field. Some of these techniques include taking transects (taking measurements at set increments of distance along a straight line), using quadrats (using grids to count items of interest), and setting pitfall and camera traps. We conducted several mini-projects over the course of the trip in which we practiced using some of these techniques.

Something else that I learned about that will stick with me for a long time is not only the danger that both forests and reefs face, but also about the efforts of those who fight against these dangers. For example, the FCD, Friends for Conservation and Development, is an NGO made up of a few dozen men who patrol the forests of Belize. They also speak with the national government and mediate political conflicts that bleed over into the environment. Basically, they do jobs that seem to be meant for a government to do, and they do them well.

And finally, I learned a lot about myself. I learned that I’m not as much of a wimp as I thought I was. Sure, I’m not the most athletic person you’ll ever meet, but I can keep up on difficult hikes and I can swim through strong currents. I learned that I have a knack for spotting and catching critters, and that I’m not creeped out by creepy crawlies. In fact, I actually really enjoy them! (Unpopular opinion – millipedes are pretty cute.) And most importantly, I really, really love the TFB life. I’ll never be Steve Irwin, but now I can say that I’m a certified Tropical Field Biologist.

Feels great.

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.

Still Can’t Believe It’s Over… (Wrap Up Blog)

Although our EBIO 319 class was clearly dividing into teams Surf and Turf, based on whether we had signed up predominately to go to the reef or to the rainforest, everyone was able to thoroughly enjoy themselves in both environments because there are quite a few similarities between them. The most obvious similarity is that both are hotspots for biodiversity. Both coral reefs and rainforests are (predominately) restricted to the Tropics, and both are highly dependent on water.

Additionally, nutrient input and cycling is critical to the stability and growth of both environments. Corals thrive in oligotrophic environments, and so they are dependent on nutrient-cycling symbionts. Tropical rainforests exist in nutrient-poor soils, and so the plant species are  dependent on nutrient cycling.

Another similarity that I noticed is that it is quite difficult to traverse through either of these environments. When snorkeling on the reef, there would sometimes be spots with very little accommodation space and it was difficult to pass through without bumping into the corals. In the rainforest, when we left the trail the vegetation was often very dense. There would be lots of vines hanging down between the trees, and a lot of holes in the ground.

Additionally, you had to be careful moving through both of these environments because there were so many things that could hurt you. On the coral reef, this included anemones, fire coral, some hard corals, sharp shells, and jellies. In the rain forest, this included venomous snakes, acacia thorns, fire ants, and ticks.

I had a really good time during this course. The amount of work that it involved was much more than I expected, but during the course I didn’t worry about it too much. Going into the course, I didn’t really know what to expect about my classmates, but everybody was really cool and we got along really well. The rainforest’s appearance was not really what I expected but I think the reef did look like what I was expecting, probably just because I was more familiar with reefs going in. I was expecting Glover’s Atoll to be paradise, and it truly was.

My favorite part of the course was being able to see cool species up close. There were so many, but highlights included the green turtle, the seahorse, the Queen Angelfish,  the tapir, and the scarlet macaws. Another one of my favorite things that we did was going into the caves. These sightings and experiences are things that I will never forget.

I think my least favorite part of the course was the fact that it was so windy during our time at Glover’s because as a result we never did get to go diving on the forereef or at night. My other least favorite part was probably the lionfish dissection because I just don’t like dissecting things in general.

One of the most important things I learned on this trip was that I definitely still want to try and go into marine biology and do real field work. Another thing I learned was that friendships form really quickly when a group of people are all working together on something they’re passionate about. Lastly, I learned that conservation work is really really complicated after hearing presentations from  Alex  of the Wildlife Conservation Society and Boris of Friends of Conservation. This stuck with me because I’m doing a policy internship this summer at a marine sanctuary, and as a result I’ve gotten a small glimpse of all that conservation actually involves in this particular environment.