Tag Archives: soft coral

Another Day, Another Sunrise


I woke up today at 5:30 for the second day in a row. Although the sunrise this morning wasn’t as great as yesterday, it was still worth forgoing a bit of sleep. After standing at the top of the observation deck for about half an hour, I took the best nap on the hammock before breakfast.

Sunrise over Middle Caye

For today’s diversity activity, we headed out to the back reef to collect samples of our taxonomic groups. While I couldn’t bring back any coral, I was still able to participate in the fun. I caught a Coco damsel fish in a conch shell and brought back a purple-tipped Caribbean giant anemone. I also dug up a piece of turtle grass (T. testudinum) and some black mangrove (A. germinans) roots to demonstrate to the class, which is a good introduction for my topic lecture tomorrow.

Turtle grass roots, part 1
Turtle grass leaf
Turtle grass roots, part 2

The absolute best find, however, was a baby Caribbean reef octopus that I lovingly named Squishy. It was so cool to watch Squishy swim through the bin changing color; it was also funny seeing him ink.

Squishy, the baby Caribbean reef octopus

The day ended with a poster presentation of the marine debris activity from yesterday and a short snorkel before dinner. The current was ripping, but we were able to bring back four more lionfish. Yay for conservation and ceviche!

Reflections on Randy’s Vacation

The biodiversity of the rainforest and coral reef is of a scale that we cannot easily comprehend. Even scaled down the Chiquibul forest and Glover’s reef atoll, the sheer number of species that I saw on this trip is crazy. If you narrow it even more to my two taxonomic groups, I still couldn’t tell you about all of the variety that I saw in these two short weeks.

One of the key similarities that I found between the two ecosystems was the high degree of topographical complexity. Not only were they complex, but each tropic layer added complexity in a way that created to what had already been created. For example, the bare sea floor is not a topographically complex area to start with. Over geological time scales, however, reef-building species (stony corals, formerly Acropora palmate) create a much different topography. Onto of this, other stony corals can settle and develop. From this, builds soft coral, sponges and other reef builders/space occupiers. Combined with the tight nutrient cycling and the mutualism with Symbiodinium the actions of stony corals build up to lay the groundwork for a myriad of other taxonomic groups. In the high moisture high heat environment, colonization of this topographically complex area adds and adds. In the rainforest, rather than topographical complexity being created by calcium carbonate laying species, the massive trees create the framework. Similarly, there is a nutrient-poor environment coupled with rapid cycling. These similarities are stark, more obvious than I thought they would be before going on the trip. I didn’t believe that there would such an interchange between turf and surf.

The most interesting thing about marine and terrestrial habitats for me was how similar my two taxonomic groups ended up being. Both epiphytes and soft corals were secondary groups to the dominant builders (trees and stony corals). They gained a lot from the dominant builders. Epiphytes, as plants that grow on other plants, benefit greatly from the topography created by trees. From my observations on the reef, I saw that soft corals were in a general association with the stony corals. I would never have made this association without the EBIO 319 class.

While I expected to be doing longer-term projects in both the rainforest and the reef, the smaller scale definitely allowed us to get a broader understanding of what was going on ecologically in the Chiquibul and Glover’s Reef. I also can’t say how much I loved getting to know the people on this trip. Not only the students, but also the professors, and all staff of the research stations. I am still finding it odd to not be with them right now. My only hope for the course is that next year Scott and Adrienne get to run the EBIO 320 course in Brazil. I would most certainly attend.

In the end, the most valuable thing that I got out this trip was exactly what I hoped I would at the beginning: a higher degree of clarity. I know research is what I want to do. Maybe not in the exact context of Belize, but I certainly enjoyed getting to establish connections in the region. I also gained a much greater appreciation for the surf side of things. Though I do believe that I will be terrestrial focused, I can see a lot more connections to marine life that I did not before. Additionally, lecturing about the topic of NTDs was one of my favorite parts of the trip, leading me to believe that this could be a possible field to pursue. Years from now, I certainly won’t remember the specific of our projects, but I will remember how spending two weeks with this crazy group of sixteen people gave me confidence in myself and my field of choice.

Day 14

The day is done. I think that the entire group is in disbelief. It’s hard to imagine not living 24/7 with these thirteen people always around. I, really all of us, have become accustomed to our daily routine of rising early and exploring the different natural features of Belize. If it were up to me, we would explore the other major ecosystems of this country (the Maya Mountains and the savannah). I would also be interested to see how Belize City differs from Houston, Philadelphia, or other international cities.
Anyway, today was mostly spent quantifying biodiversity on the back reef near to the research station. This means that we spent the morning wading around the shallow area searching for any organism we could find. I was particularly proud of myself for finding a cute, small snail that crawled all of the way up my dive skin. I was less excited about the dead fish that Randy stuffed in my dive skin. We found a least five different types of green algae, a sea cucumber, a sponge, lots of brown algae, red algae, a French grunt, a yellowtail damselfish, a goby, a couple molluscs, and a couple of jellies.
On another note, I did not see that many examples of my taxonomic group. On the brief times that the water was deep enough for us to snorkel, I saw (shocker) a lot of sea fans (Gorgonia ventalina). In the end, I think that I have seen all of the soft coral on the Glover’s field guide. I wonder what the relatively high abundance of soft corals means for the hard corals, in terms of reef accretion. Anyway, this trip has opened up numerous future research topics. I hope to learn more about them in the upcoming semester at Rice.

Day 12

My greatest accomplishment of today was conquering my inability to swim to depths. This day was undoubtedly the most physically demanding we have had so far. In the morning, we took the boat to the fore reef, outside of the bounds of the atoll. This meant that the water was much choppier than previously. I was worried that I would get sea sick, as the last time I was on a boat, I definitely did. In the end, I was one of the few that didn’t end up feeling bad at all.
The fore reef was amazing. It was in a completely different scale from everything that we have previously seen. According to Adrienne, the deepest part that we went to was about fifty feet. Of course we didn’t free dive that deep but we did in some of the medium depths. I was really excited about how much I improved from the first time that we entered the water. By the end of the day, I could make it down the bottom in places that were much deeper than I ever expected from myself.
I continued to see soft corals all over the reef. At this point, I don’t that the composition of this particular community dramatically changes over the different areas that we have been too. I am consistently seeing this community dominated by Gorgonia ventalina in every location.
While I don’t know what we are doing tomorrow, I think that it involves marine debris. This will be a good transition into more conservation-focused issues. I also can’t believe how few days we have left. As per usual I feel simultaneously prepared and unprepared. We shall see how the last couple of days go. I’m sure they will be just as amazing.

Day 8

As per usual, something went wrong with the van. Our original plan for the day was to leave Las Cuevas early in the morning in order to make it to ATM cave for a swim and exploration. Then, we were going to drive across Belize to stay at the zoo. This is not how our day went at all.

Most of the morning was spent sitting on the porch, waiting for our van to show up. This went on for several hours. Rather than spend all our time waiting, we got the opportunity to tour other parts of the Las Cuevas research station and learn about their ongoing projects.

When our van finally arrived, we all climbed gratefully into its semi-air-conditioned space. Unfortunately, our massive time delay prevented us from being able to visit the ATM cave.

However, we did end up going on the night tour of the Belize zoo. Not only did we get to see two of the eighteen jaguars that they have, but we got to see margays, ocelots (so noisy), two types of owls (Rice!), a tapir, and three kinds of snakes.

Overall, I remain optimistic about the rest of the trip. Each thing that goes wrong does not faze our group at all. The new challenges that the reef will pose to us will be just new bonding experiences for us.