Tag Archives: Sam Gao

Day 6: Not Everything is as it Seems

What an exciting evening! After collecting our traps, gathering data, and finding seven species of roaches in those traps, we finally had our night-hike through the Maya Trail where we could see the forest activity in the nighttime. So many cockroaches were active at the time, nymphs and adults, large and small, colorful and drab! Most cockroaches that we see in the wild are drab in color, which helps facilitate their ability to hide on trees and in leaf litter. However, today’s hike has shown me BY FAR the strangest roach I had ever seen!

This roach was huge, probably a maximum of 10 cm, and had no wings, giant legs, and 6 orange dots towards the edge of its abdomen. However, it’s last two segments, which would supposedly be covered by exoskeleton was strangely white, soft, and exposed. I thought it was in the process of molting, since molted roaches are indeed white in color, but roaches molt from the head to tail, not the other way around. My only thoughts were that this big buddy had unfortunately been attacked and lost some of its exoskeleton. As I found ants all over the forest floor, I figured this magnificent creature was doomed to be ant food.

A few moments later, I heard a call from my colleagues. A roach of the exact same appearance had been spotted, complete with the strange white butt. It was then, I thought, two roaches, with the exact same body as each other, therefore the white end cannot be an accident. In excitement, I decided to capture a specimen for a closer look. Then the unexpected happened.

The white end exudes a sticky, dry fasting glue when the roach is distressed. Not only that, but when I had gotten the roach into my container, it suddenly hissed. This hiss is not your ordinary cat hiss or your ordinary roach hiss, which is short and sudden. This was a long, loud, sustained, and violent hissing (for a few seconds) on the roach’s part. It was almost as if it were a scream. It definitely scared most of the people with me, and it almost gave me a heart attack! Not only was this specimen not documented in my research, but this behavior of glue defenses and sustained hissing was unheard of, even to my instructors. Perhaps it was this reason, that the roach could sit openly in the field surrounded by ants. It has many defenses up its sleeve for protection.

Afterwards, I released the roach back into the wild, where it slowly waddled away, seemingly exhausted from the stressful ordeal. Definitely one of the coolest specimens I have ever come across and I hope to read more about it when I go back!


Other than that roach, I found many nymphs as well as a giant black roach spanning 6 or more inches or about the size of my hand!

Day 5: Cave Mysteries

Today was a bit low on cockroaches, mostly because our group was out busily setting up our pitfall traps. We wanted to analyze differences in nitrogen limitations (AKA organisms desire for nitrogen compounds) between creatures that live high in the forest canopy and those that live on the ground since distribution of nutrients is different in those locations. These traps held nitrogen bait (human urine!) and served to trap insects within. One trap was set onto a tree and another on the ground. Maybe this will be a good chance to see a few roaches!

Most of the roaches that I have found in Belize were often under a pile of leaves, feeding on decaying matter. The advantages of such a bottom-dweller lifestyle is double edged. Dead materials are not usually heavily competed for due to abundance of microbes and leaf litter provides excellent protection from predators and aspiring entomologists like myself. Perhaps in light of this, I can predict that if the traps can fit roaches, then I should find more roaches in the ground traps than in the tree traps. But whether their contribution to our question on differences in nitrogen limitations of the canopy and the ground will matter is up in the air until tomorrow when we retrieve our traps. Before then, I can only guess.

A roach was sighted during a noon leisure excursion to one of the Las Cuevas trails. It was tiny, wingless and fast moving. I tried to snap a photo, but it managed to hide a part of its body behind one of the spines of a give and take palm. Better than nothing I guess! I could improve my roach findings by perhaps searching during one of our night hikes!

Other than trap setups, our team visited a cave near where we lived, learning about the caves history and use by the ancient Mayan societies as a ceremonial ritual between their chief and the nine realms of the underworld that each section of the cave represented. In spite of the uneven terrain and low oxygen levels, I was captured by the mystery surrounding the cave structures and biological life! We spotted bats, tiny insects like diplurans, isopods, crickets, and even large millipedes, and learned how these creatures were sustained by cave nutrition. This may come in the form of droppings by bats or by nutrients entering the cave. No roaches, so bummer for me, but exciting nevertheless to explore one of the mysterious habitats of the earth!

Into the cave we go!
Into the cave we go!

P.S: speaking of mysteries, we found a peccary skeleton in a tiny chamber of a cave. I wonder how it got there? Did it wander through the pitch-black cave and get lost, or was it brought in as sacrifice by an ancient tribe.


Day 4: Staying Over at the Ant’s Place

Today was just another day in the field. We were investigating the interactions between two different species of ants with their respective environments, Cecroppia trees and the Azteca ants, and leaf cutter ants (Atta cephalotes). I didn’t really expect to see any roaches today, since the only roaches I knew that had some affiliation with ants are of the genus Attaphila, meaning ant loving. These guys are about 2-5 millimeters long and can often be seen hitching a ride on flying queen ants, which emerge right before the first rains in Belize. As we are coming in right at the end of the dry season, it may be possible to find these Attaphila, but I doubted whether we could spot a creature as small as a few millimeters in the midst of a giant ant nest.

One of our activities involved digging up leaf cutter ant nests to find their fungus chambers (see below!). During one of the digs, one of my colleagues spotted an inch long roach like creature in the midst of the angered ants. It appeared to have been actually living in the nest, a characteristic of Attaphila! Unfortunately we accidentally lost the roach as we were unable to stop digging, but after some in depth roach profiling with my colleague I learned that the creature was an inch long, lacking wings, shiny, and quite oval shaped (1 inch length, .5 inch width). This was clearly longer than any other Attaphila I had heard described in Belize or in other parts of the world. It may even be possible that this is a different ant loving (myrmecophile) species altogether. But without a picture I can’t verify, so hopefully I may be able to find another one during our activities!

A small sample of underground fungus farmed by leaf cutter ant (Atta cephalotes)
A small sample of underground fungus farmed by leaf cutter ant (Atta cephalotes)

Day 3: A Lesson from Nature

Cockroaches come in all different shapes, colors, and abilities, but they usually have a similar body plan that renders them distinguishable from other types of insects. Usually, cockroaches are dull colored, ranging from light brown to black. This probably assists them with camouflaging in the leaf litter, where most of them can be found. However on a few occasions you will find a roach with such a beautiful coloration that many would believe it to be something else. One roach photographed that neither Scott nor I had seen before was found relaxing on a moss covered rock.

It was colored a combination of red, yellow, and black stripes all along the pronotum and abdomen and possibly the most beautiful cockroach as of today. In excitement I attempted to capture the creature in my handy tupper ware container, only to see the creature squeeze through the grip of my hands and fly back into the leaf litter. I was frustrated of course, but later realized that I don’t need to capture these cockroaches in order to document their appearance to some extant. That was a lesson I made sure to not forget during this week at Las Cuevas. However, I wasn’t sure when I would be given another opportunity to find another specimen of the same species.

Luckily, during a short segment of a difficult hike, Dr. Correa found the same species and called for me, the so-called “roach expert.” And just like that, after a few photographs, I managed to capture an image of this awesome specimen. I’m not sure if this type of tropical roach is described anywhere in Belize, or even Central American roach databases! But more research will be needed to verify that. For now, enjoy the picture at the bottom! [I later found it that this roach is a wasp-mimicking cockroach of the genus Pseudophyllodromia].

Besides a few other roach specimens, today was very tiring! We walked about 13.5 miles of uneven terrain, a personal record for me, all to set up camera traps for one of our projects. However at each place, I was starting to have a surreal feeling of living the tropical field biologist life! While the hard science of the course is getting to my head, and my legs, the opportunity to contribute to the growing knowledge of Belize’s forest as well as the chance to observe stunning habitats overshadows the inconvenience of tiredness! Here’s to another lesson filled day tomorrow!

Not all roaches are dull! Some are fabulous
Not all roaches are dull! Some are fabulous. UPDATE (May 29): After some online research, I’ve learned that this roach is of the genus Pseudophyllodromia, a type of wasp-mimicking cockroach! I don’t really see the wasp resemblance but perhaps I should contact at true roach expert!

Day 2: Misunderstood Sadness and Joy

I managed to snap quite a few photos of different cockroaches throughout today. For example, the roach that was spotted with Dr. Correa also appeared at my lodging during morning packing. The cockroach was near death, save for the occasional twitch of antennae and legs. It’s interesting seeing this creature’s presence around human settlements. In spite of all the fuss on roach pests, only a small percentage of the 4400 cockroach species of the world are household nuisances. The roach I encountered had a dark body with a front segment (pronotum) containing a large black dot. Another cool thing, its underside is reddish brown and its legs were spiky, giving a similar appearance to the underside of the American cockroach (Periplanta americanus) rather than a Blaberus species. Another dead roach was also found in our room, but it was quite mutilated. And the roach was wingless, either indicating a wingless species or a juvenile. In any case, identification for juveniles is difficult if not impossible since they all look the same.


Another cockroach sighting was at the Caracol Ruins, the sight of an ancient Mayan metropolis and home to the largest manmade structure at Belize. This roach was a golden color and quite small. I estimate it to be no more than one inch, including the antennae of the insect. The insect was found in the leaf litter near the Sky Palace of the archeological site and was quickly scurrying away from us, hiding beneath the leaves. I managed to wrap my hand around it, but was surprised to see it take flight for a short distance back into the leaf litter. The flight distance wasn’t very far, indicating that these roaches don’t seem to be particularly strong flyers and only use it as a last resort escape. Based on what I know, I’m guessing this roach is of the genus Cariblatta, due to the small yellow color.

As for another round of good news, I managed to capture a small cockroach with a body length about one inch, and antennae about half an inch long on Scott’s towel at Las Cuevas! The cockroach is golden brown in appearance and has no black dot on its pronotum. Rather it’s entire pronotum is black and smooth. This is a completely different and unknown species to me, and I’m excited to photograph and describe it, as summary of Belize’s common cockroach species is very lacking!


In my excitement, I tried to upload these pictures, but thought I had deleted them accidentally. That made me sad throughout the day as it thought I had lost so much progress. But technology surprised me, by bringing it up again in my computer!

As a final treat, while photographing near the lights at the Las Cuevas, I managed to photograph a Cuban Green Cockroach (Panchlora nivea), as well as unintentionally capturing an unknown roach that from a distance looked like a beetle.

The green roach is a female P. nivea, while the brown/red roach is unknown
The green roach (bottom) is a female P. nivea, while the brown/red roach is unknown


Another interesting knowledge filled day has passed, from learning of Mayan history at Belize, to trying an exotic fruit (Phylodendron), to our van breaking down, and our improvised lecture session. Can’t wait to see what our first full day at the Las Cuevas will hold!

Day 1: Surprises at Every Corner

Today was filled with unexpected surprises. First day at Belize and I’m already feeling the heat (and humidity) of the class, with everything from the water crisis that closed every restaurant at Hobby Airport, to the crazy looking trees like the Ceiba during our drive to the hotel, to seeing a boa right outside the Crystal Paradise Resort dining room, to the cane toad that peed on Scott’s hand in defense. The Ceiba trees grew in plain view and were readily distinguishable from a distance. The Bridgewater book mentions that these types of trees tend to proliferate in disturbed areas of rainforest, like the sides of streets. To be able to see the example in person is like finally getting to meet your number one celebrity.

The boa Dr. Solomon located this evening was particularly active. According to one of the staff working here, the boa seemed to be on the hunt, periodically moving and stopping in the stems of trees.

But despite all the excitement in seeing these bizarre yet textbook creatures, I finally got to see what I came for, the cockroaches! Sure they’re disgusting, and I don’t really enjoy them, but witnessing one crawl down Adrienne’s leg during our outdoor dinner at Crystal Paradise, startling her in the process, made my day and got me pumped to document more of these unstudied and unappreciated insects. The cockroach we saw had a black body, but the small hood above its head, called a pronotum, had a black spot in the middle, leading me to guess it’s of the genus Blaberus, which is quite common in Central/South America. Alas, I didn’t snap a photo when I could have, serving as a reminder for me to keep my camera handy at all times. Typical of cockroaches, the insect slipped away into the crevices of the dining rooms wooden planks, out of sight.

The Long Awaited/Dreaded Time has Come

These past 2 weeks have been such a struggle. Not only have the scramble to find proper equipment and the preparation of our 2 taxa (Jellyfishes and Cockroaches)  and lecture topic (Rainforest canopy) been shaving away at my sleep, but the sheer excitement that a childhood dream will be met in a little over 12 hours has been keeping me on my toes. Or maybe it’ll be a nightmare, who knows!

I haven’t had direct experience with the tropics. I’ve only seen the forests and pristine reefs on BBC programs from the comfort of my couch. So, I anticipate this course to be quite grueling physically and enriching mentally. I expect long hours working out in the fields, with mosquitoes, cacophonic animal calls, buzzes, sweat, smells and what not overwhelming the senses. I expect, in the midst of the suffering, to be awed by the sheer diversity of shapes and forms of flora and fauna in the forest and reefs. And that would make the physical hardships totally worth it. But, I have a feeling there’s more to it. The in depth knowledge gained from the required readings, the primary literature, and other preparations has also enlightened me to the inner workings that drive and sustain the forests and seas.

I’m excited to witness in person the seemingly sci-fi mechanics of these diverse areas. At times in preparation and readings, I’ve felt a worrying tug that perhaps the trip will be underwhelming like the black and white print of the readings. But each break, when I close my laptop and look outside, I suddenly am reignited with passion to see the color of the world around and understand that behind the black text and white page is an attempt to find a new hue to color our world. Philosophical musings aside, I’m nervous about not being prepared enough for the trip, or not knowing enough about my topics and taxa than what was expected of me.

I hope to learn more in depth about the taxa and topics from my colleagues and friends on the trip. I hope to understand the life of a tropical biologist by learning methods of working in a forest, traversing canopies, diving to depths and witnessing first hand what it is that drives these biologists to ceaselessly investigate the these areas.