So surprise, I figured out that I’m used to having breakfast at 6:00 am (we did most days at Las Cuevas) because I woke up at 6:34 and had a mini heart attack thinking that I was 34 minutes late to breakfast. After my initial panic, I got up for a good breakfast and we started the day in the classroom explaining transect techniques to use when underwater in conjunction with the quadrat (square grid made of pbc pipe and string). To practice, we went to a apart of the island that was littered with dead coral amongst other things, and tallied up the amount of coral vs. other.
After lunch, and waiting for the wind to calm down, we went into the water and swam to nearby seagrass beds to see if we could quantify community changes using quadrats. This involved counting the seagrass, algae, and neither. Once done, the group was asked if we wanted to swim to a patch reef so of course I immediately said yes. Upon approaching the reef, our instructor pointed out a brown Nurse Shark laying under an overhang. After snorkeling around for a but, I began to see some herbivorous fish. I saw a brown Ocean Surgeonfish swimming amongst the coral heads and a bright yellow, juvenile Three Spotted Damselfish, it has single spots on its dorsal, caudal, and tail fins. It looked like it was picking at some algae and seemed to stay on that coral head, which could mean it was tending to an algal garden although this is usually done by adults. It could have just been eating the algae.
We ended the day with presentations on echinoderms (sea stars, brittle stars, sea urchins, and sea cucumbers), red and green algae, and an overview of mangroves and their importance to coral reefs.
After the slog of finals its finally time to head on a two week trip to Belize to the Las Cuevas research station and Glover’s reef. I really hope to see first hand what research in these environments is like, as I’m very interested in eventually pursuing a career in Marine Biology. Furthermore, I’m really interested to see if I can identify rainforest animals with limited resources. I’d also like to learn how to quickly identify an animal in the field using the i.d cards, which I’ve never had to do because I’ve always had access to a database.
I’ve prepared by reading more about the biodiversity of the rainforest as well as trying to identify certain species of birds that I see in my backyard (most of which are house sparrows and robins).
The one thing that I’m nervous about is caving. I’ve never actually been in a cave before so I’m not sure how I’ll react to the confined space or seeing cave crickets. I’ve had some experience in the tropics, mainly snorkeling in the Cayman Islands which are very close to Belize.
Today was a doozy. We had a three hour boat ride to Glover’s Reef this morning. It was a small motor boat speeding across three hours worth of ocean, so it was more like a three hour rollercoaster.
Once we made it to Glover’s, we immediately had a tour of the island, then lunch, and then our first snorkel. We couldn’t stay out for long because the current was strong, but Liz and I made it out to the patch reef, which was beautiful. I’m so excited to go out there again.
Closer to shore, we spotted many upside-down jellyfish (Cassiopeia xamachana) – a scyphozoan from my taxon ID card!!! These jellyfish are particularly interesting because they often rest on the ocean floor upside down with their tentacles in the air such that they look like harmless plants.
We went out again later to a different area of the reef. This area was much more shallow, which made it harder to navigate. This wasn’t ideal because there were many fire coral. I noticed both branching fire coral (Millipore alcicornis) and blade fire coral (Millipore complanate). These hydrozoans are actually not coral at all and can cause a nasty sting with their nematocysts.
My day began in the savanna cabanas of the tropical education center and it is about to end in a hammock on the Middle Caye of Glover’s Atoll. The view has changed drastically. Compared to the 100 meter visibility in the savanna, my view here at Glover’s is only cut short by the horizons. In this grand view, I see faraway lightning that may be associated with a brewing tropical storm. But because it is likely more than hundreds of miles away, I cannot hear the thunder.
This is our first day at the beach and it has mostly felt like vacation. We travelled to a marina in Belize City to catch a 3-hour boatride to Glover’s. On the way we saw the difference between deep and shallow water, and a myriad of other islands in the area. One constant object I observed was the availability of Sargassum on the ocean surface, some of which were cut up by the motors on our boat. Before I knew exactly what I was looking at, Scott and Jessica yelled out to me asking me to identify the green floating algae. With the amount of intensity and excitement they yelled at me, I understood it must have been something obvious: they are the Sargassum seaweed that has been infesting many coral reef areas, outcompeting many other species of corals and causing their decline. They are a group of brown algae that utilizes fouaxin to photosynthesize which gives them a slightly redder and browner color, although they also have the green pigments that come with chlorophyll. They are also the only species of red and brown algae that has air bladders, allowing them to trap air within the organism.
After arrival, we practiced snorkelling, a follow up to to first practice we had on campus in the recreational pools. This time we were surrounded by bone fish, nurse sharks, stingrays, corals, and jellyfish. The most difficult aspect of this practice was not touching things we should’t touch: corals, stingray and wildlife in general. Compared to the rainforest, where we were able to put our hands on almost anything that we were able to catch, the corals here are very fragile and many animals here are hidden and able to be aroused if touched, such as stingrays. With the construction of marine-use guadrats, we will be exploring and initiating contact with corals and perhaps a Echinoderm or two. The key is to not destroy the wildlife and no let the wildlife destroy us.
Stay tuned to find out how to best place quadrats on corals!
I’m sitting in the pleathery seat of a Southwest flight. It’s certainly strange to not be spending the day in the water. We did this morning, but now, not even being on land, but catapulted into the air, is discombobulating.
This morning’s snorkel was my favorite of the entire trip. We took the boat out with our two amazing tour guides (Herbie and Javier) to Twin Peaks. This is the name of a caye that is made up of mangroves and is separated into two pieces by a sea inlet. We walked through a portion of the land. This was quite difficult due to uneven ground hidden under a layer of seawater. We were falling into holes left and right. I fell in one that went all the up to my mid-thigh.
The best part, however, was when we got to snorkel through the inlet. I was shocked as to the community complexity that was happening on the roots of the red mangrove trees. (Unfortunately, the reign of the soft corals was over. I didn’t see any today.) The sponge symbiosis was so obvious. It was amazing to see something that was mentioned in both a taxonomic briefing and a topic lecture actually flourishing out in the field. The fact that the mangrove is an understudied ecosystem makes me even more interested in it. What if I end up there, studying evolution?
Our other stop of the day made the idea of continuing my studies out in Belize that much more attractive. We visited the Smithsonian research station. Despite being on an island that is only an acre, the facilities were beautiful. I can definitely see myself returning in some capacity. At the same time, there is so much of the world to be examined under the lens of evolution.
Even on our way to the airport we managed to squeeze in one last snorkel. This time we went to the mangroves and swam around their roots, which many organisms use as a substrate to grow on. Fish also use mangroves as a nursery where they are fairly sheltered from larger predators. Upside-down jellies bobbed along the bottom of the sea bed and fire sponge glowed orange through the murky water.
I finally saw the magnificent feather duster, recognizable by its larger size and double crown of radioles. Their tubes were attached to the mangrove roots, among the encrusting algae, sponges and hydroids. They were various shades of brown and white and tucked their filter-feeding radioles into their tubes if you touched them. Unlike the other feather dusters I’ve seen, they didn’t tuck their radioles in all the way, and the tips of the crown poked out of the tube. I am guessing this is because they are too big to fit all the way in.
Time has never passed so quickly as it did on this trip. We were so busy and there was so much to do and see that the two weeks were over before I knew it. I was never bored for a second. Being back in Houston is so strange and claustrophobic. I already miss the fresh air and pristine nature. I’d take that over clean laundry any day!
Today checked two more things off my Belize wishlist—sharks and rays. We had seen some smaller stingrays around but today, snorkeling on the fore-reef, we saw a huge spotted eagle ray gliding underneath us. Then, during our drift snorkel a nurse shark came and swam under us three separate times. It was a dream come true. We also had the opportunity to see the stag horn and elk horn corals that have been mostly destroyed over the last decade. There have been so many times during this trip that I was blown away by the things we have gotten to see or do. Truly a once in a lifetime opportunity.
The first two snorkel excursions were a little too deep for me to find many annelids but on our short trip out to the back-reef I found three split crown feather dusters. There were also spaghetti worms buried into cracks and crevices all over the place. There has been fire coral fairly evenly dispersed over every reef we’ve been to, both the branching and bladed formations. Looking forward to more christmas tree worms!
We leveled up today on our length and difficulty of our snorkeling projects. We visited patch reefs inside and outside the protected area and did transects for comparison. We also collected sea urchins in a 25 minute period, then measured and ID’ed them. Compared to the no-take zone, the unprotected zone had drastically fewer urchins, which starts to give you an idea of the breadth of human impact on some of these reefs.
To be honest, I got a little distracted during the urchin collected period because there were so many worms around! I saw about 20 christmas tree worms, two social feather dusters and one split-crown feather duster. They’re really beautiful little things. There was one coral in particular covered by about 10 christmas tree worms in a variety of colors—from blue-grey to yellow to orangeish-brown. If you wave your hand in front of them they tuck themselves inside their tube to hide, then slowly reemerge after a moment. There will be pictures to come.
Hello everyone! Today was an exciting but tiring first full day at Glover’s Reef. We began the morning with a snorkeling scavenger hunt on the patch reefs nearby, looking for behaviors like antagonistic interactions as well as different kinds of organisms, followed by a transect activity on land to determine the abundance of crab holes in the area. After lunch, we went out to the reef for our second transect activity focusing on the abundance and density of different species of green algae.
While we were in the water, I got the chance to hold my first echinoderm (!!!!), a sea urchin. It was about the size of my palm, had a reddish brown body and pale cream colored spines that got slightly darker closer to its body, and was found among the seagrass beds by the dock. It was a West Indian Sea Egg (Tripneustes ventricosus). It felt kind of weird when I was holding it, with the mouth suctioning at my hand and the spines poking me ever so slightly, but it was really cool as well.
Later on, we visited an area covered with fossilized coral. It was fascinating to examine the (almost) perfectly preserved pieces and try to identify them. I learned a lot about the different kinds of polyps and ridges that a coral can have and I’m looking forward to going back out to the reefs to look for the live versions of all the corals we saw. That’s all for today everybody! Thanks for reading! 🙂
Today we left land and moved out to sea. I enjoyed our long boat ride out to Glover’s Atoll, its been a while since I’ve been on the ocean and the waves felt great. It’s a beautiful place out here. After orientation we hopped in the water for a quick snorkel on the patch reef. I ended up having a few technical difficulties towards the end that hopefully practice will resolve.
I am already having more luck with this taxonomic group. I saw two orange Pomatostegus stellatus (star horseshoe worms) growing on a coral, and apparently Grace found Spirobranchus giganteus (christmas tree worms) as well. Besides annelids I saw staghorn coral, a queen conch, a ray, and a ton of fish, soft coral and sponges I couldn’t specifically identify.