Tag Archives: soft corals

So Many Reflections I’m Basically Mulan

After spending two weeks in Belize immersed in coral reef and tropical rainforest environments, I’ve gotten much deeper insight into these two ecosystems which have always fascinated me. I was surprised to learn that such biologically diverse ecosystems exist in nutrient-poor conditions. I always imagined that there would need to be a nutrient-rich foundation to sustain the plethora of organisms that live within each ecosystem, but that’s not the case – actually, for the coral reef it can be quite harmful. The stony corals that form the reef thrive in nutrient-poor environments and, as Ellie told us, if too many nutrients enter the system, the reef will undergo a phase shift which means that it will become overrun by algae. In the case of the rainforest, Sarah T. gave us the lowdown about how there is only a very thin layer of soil (the topsoil) which contains most of the available nutrients. The low levels of nutrients are caused in part by rapid nutrient recycling; as nutrients become available, they are quickly used by the many organisms that inhabit the two ecosystems.

Another similarity I noticed between the two ecosystems is how many symbiotic relationships there are. This is likely because the high species density in coral reefs and rainforests brings many organisms into close proximity, resulting in more specialized niches. An example in coral reefs that Sarah G. talked about is the mutualistic relationship between dinoflagellates and corals. The dinoflagellate provides photosynthetic products to the coral, while the coral provides shelter to the dinoflagellates. In the rainforest, a symbiotic relationship Scott and I discussed is when leafcutter ants cultivate fungus gardens. The fungus breaks down the leaves that the ants can’t digest, producing nutritious swellings called gongylidia. In return, the fungus receives shelter and protection.

Ultimately, the two ecosystems are more alike than I realized at first sight. Even though I had been to both a rainforest and coral reef before this course, I had never really connected the dots between the two. I had always separated them in my mind due to the obvious difference that one ecosystem is on land and the other is underwater. It was really interesting to look at them comparatively. Although there are some differences like coral reefs being more sensitive and susceptible to changing environmental factors when compared to rainforests, it’s become obvious to me now how much more they have in common.

This course went above and beyond my expectations which were to learn about field work and to look at coral reefs and rainforests through a more scientific lens than I had while on vacation. While I did come away with a greater knowledge of the ecosystems and a better understanding of being a field biologist, I also created friendships and had the most fun I’ve had in a while. I feel extremely lucky to have been part of such an amazing group. It was so interesting to watch everyone become comfortable with each other to the point where it became non-stop laughing and joking around. That was definitely the best part of the trip for me. Honestly, the only downside I can think of is that the weather didn’t permit for a night dive. With all the snorkeling and scuba diving I’ve done, I have never gone in the water at night which I thought that would be neat, but oh well.

I’ll definitely hold on to a lot of the things I’ve learned throughout the course, especially the experiential learning aspects of how science is done out in the field. It was fascinating to consider how many different directions a project can take, and how one observation can spark years of research. It’s kind of like how Therese’s work on defaunation in Gabon lead to her new project on seed-dispersal in Peru. I’ll also remember how important it is to talk to other people about their work. Scott and Adrienne really encouraged us to take advantage of where we were and to talk to the researchers at the stations. I’m normally not one to approach people I don’t know, but I made it a point to go out of my way to talk to the researchers at Glover’s and the archeology team at Las Cuevas. I’m glad I did because I got so much out of hearing their stories and listening to what they were working on. Lastly, I was completely surprised with how awesome ants are. To be honest, I wasn’t thrilled that I got ants as my taxon but I was quickly converted. I always thought it odd that my grandmother never killed the ants that crawled along the windowsills in her house, but now I understand. This trip ruined me –  I’ll never be able to squish an ant again.

Until next time, Belize. Hopefully I’ll be back soon to dive the Blue Hole and swim with whale sharks. Sorry Scott, Team Surf for life.

Chasing the Last Day at Glover’s Away

5.22.2017

I haven’t quite accepted that today is the last full day here at Glover’s. Although I know the rainforest will be a great experience, the Floridian/Cuban in me wishes I could stay here by the ocean forever. We took full advantage of the day, hitting three reefs over the course of about three hours. My favorite was “The Channel” by Long Caye. I saw at a spotted eagle ray from the boat, chased a Southern stingray across the sand, and glimpsed a spotted sun eel in the rocks. I saw a lot of soft coral on the reef, noticing that many of the fan corals (G. ventalina) were encrusted by fire coral.

“The Channel” in Glover’s Atol
Sea fan being encrusted and killed by fire coral

After that, we went to another part of Glover’s Atol called “The Aquarium” which is undergoing a phase shift and becoming overrun by algae. It was still beautiful, though. While there, I chased a nurse shark that had a remora on it and even saw a pair of Caribbean reef squid.

Nurse shark with remora under coral ledge
Pair of Caribbean reef squid swimming in “The Aquarium”

In the afternoon, I gave my lecture on mangroves and seagrass beds in preparation for tomorrow’s excursion. Then, I dissected Azlan the lionfish with Sarah T; in the spirit of full disclosure, having my hands full of fish guts wasn’t the most enjoyable.

Azlan the lionfish prepared for dissection

Afterwards, we as a class made our poster presentation quickly which gave us time to ride over to the resort at Long Caye. There, we ate delicious ceviche and (after bargaining with a fisherman for his shirt) came away with a class signed t-shirt that will (hopefully) hang in the cabana bar for memories. It has been such a fun afternoon full of laughing that ended with a beautiful sunset. I’ll be sad to leave here, but I’m really excited for all that’s still to come in the rainforest.

Sunset at Long Caye

Finding a Shell on an Island… Sounds Easy, Right?

5.20.2017

After a calm day yesterday, I decided to wake up for the sunrise in the morning which was beautiful. The sun was unobstructed by clouds and bathed the small island in orange light. After that, I just napped on a hammock until breakfast time.

Sunrise over Middle Caye

Captain Buck said the wind was too strong to go out on the boat today, so we had lectures and then took a path through the mangroves to the back reef for a study on Christmas tree worms. The current was strong, making it extremely difficult to collect data while simultaneously trying to keep myself from bashing into the reef. On the bright side, I got to see all three species of mangroves in Belize: red mangrove (R. mangle), black mangrove (A. germinans), and white mangrove (L. racemosa). Javi, one of the marine officers, even showed me the salt gland adaptation present on the leaves of the white mangrove.

Salt glands (two black dots on stem) of a leaf from a white mangrove

In the afternoon, the class split up to do trash collection around Middle Caye. I was surprised at the sheer amount of litter we found on such an isolated place like Glover’s. The saddest thing was seeing Trash Crab, a hermit crab, using a piece of plastic as a shell. I tried to find him a real shell on the island (which you would think would be like looking for a drop of water in the ocean), but couldn’t find one.

Trash Crab in his plastic “shell”

The day ended with fresh coconut water and volleyball, then free time to swing on a hammock and sit at the edge of the dock conversing. Just like yesterday, today has been another day of relaxation and I feel energized and ready for hopefully another sunrise tomorrow morning.

Fan Coral Fanatic

5.19.2017

Today was another day of assessing reef health and collecting urchins, but this time in a non-protected area of reef.

Sarah T. holding our quadrat over a sea fan (G. ventalina)

The first thing that struck me about the reef was the abundance of sea grass, specifically turtle grass (T. testudinum), as well as algae. However, there were still many beautiful sections of reef that were packed with soft corals!

Non-protected reef in Glover’s Atol
Sea plume (P. elisabethae)
Swollen-knob candelabra (E. mammosa)

The predominant soft coral I saw while snorkeling through the reef was the common sea fan (G. ventalia). I noted a few interesting observations regarding these sea fans. I saw that a good number of them had white spots indicating that part of the coral had died, as well as some whose holdfasts had become unattached from the reef framework, causing them to fall down. I also saw a couple of animals feeding on the sea fans, including a flamingo tongue snail and (surprisingly to me) a surgeonfish of some sort.

Sea fan with dead areas and unattached holdfast
Flamingo tongue snail on a sea fan

Finding sea urchins to collect was significantly harder on this patch of reef, but I felt as though there were more large fish like angelfish, tang, and snapper swimming through. I also saw a huge porcupine fish and a nurse shark in some crevices of the reef.

Me holding a long-spined sea urchin

After returning to Glover’s, the afternoon was quite relaxing. As a class, we analyzed the data we collected in the past two days then made a poster presentation of our results and findings. I played a game of soccer (my team won!) before dinner, and had lecture for a couple hours. I even had time after class to swing on the hammocks and talk to Dale and John, two researchers here at Glover’s. All in all, today has been a nice, relaxing change of pace. So much so that I think I’ll have enough energy to wake up early and see the sunrise from the observation deck tomorrow.

The Quad(rat) Pack

5.18.2017

I finally got to use my quadrat today on land and in water. We started the day looking at crab density on Middle Caye and then snorkeled through the seagrass beds surrounding the island to determine the diversity of life in that particular ecosystem. Success was limited. I saw zero crabs or crab holes in my sampling area on land, and I only saw a couple of small snails and one anemone in my sampling area in the water. On the bright side, I got to closely analyze the seagrass bed which is one of my taxonomic groups. I noticed a lot of juvenile snapper and other small fish roaming around the sea bed, which is indicative of the ecosystem’s importance as a nursery.

Sun anemone in seagrass bed

The best part of the day was by far the patch reef – I’m pretty sure I died and came back to life in soft coral heaven. Although I didn’t bring my clipboard and identification sheet with me into the water, I was able to recognize a variety of groups including sea fans (G. ventalina), sea plumes (Pseudopterogorgia spp.), and sea rods (Plexaura spp.). The reef was absolutely stunning and I found myself constantly looking around amazed while working with my quadrat.

Patch reef by Southwest Caye in Glover’s Atol
Sea rod (Plexaura sp.)

While on the reef, we were also tasked with collected sea urchins to bring back to the wet lab for further data collection. One of the urchins I was able to find and successfully retrieve was a beautifully patterned pencil urchin. I also saw a long-spined urchin but got a bit too excited trying to pry it off the rock and ended up with a souvenir spine in my fingertip. The excitement didn’t end with a prick of my finger, though. I also got squirted by the aptly named Donkey Dung sea cucumber.

Me holding a Donkey Dung sea cucumber

The day ended late with a guest lecture by Alex Tewfik of the Wildlife Conservation Society, two 15 minute taxon briefings on sponges and soft corals (the former given by yours truly), and another 30 minute topic lecture on microbes. All in all, it’s been a really productive day but I’m most definitely ready to head to bed.

I Don’t Mind the Atol At All

5.17.2017

Today has been another long day in Belize, but I have no complaints. Kenneth, the manager at Glover’s Reef, called this “paradise” and I couldn’t agree more. Middle Caye definitely could make for a good stock photo.

Home of Glover’s Reef manager, Kenneth

I’m also happy to report that it has been another great day for my taxa! On the boat ride to Glover’s, we passed a bunch of islands of red mangroves (R. mangle) with their characteristic stilt roots extending out above the water. I also spotted some smaller ones on the edge of Middle Caye which are growing strong.

Red mangrove propagules off the shore of Glover’s Reef

The shallow waters leading to and surrounding the dock at Glover’s are seagrass beds consisting of the thin blades of manatee grass and the wide blades of turtle grass. While I did see a huge green turtle in the open ocean on the way to Glover’s, I didn’t see one in the turtle seagrass. No need to be sad, though, because I saw some other really cool organisms like barracudas, schools of snapper, some conch, a Southern stingray, and a juvenile nurse shark.

Turtle seagrass (T. testudinum) bed

The patch reef we swam out to was a complete sensory overload with abundant coral cover and fish darting to and fro. My main focus was trying to find all of the items on the scavenger hunt list, but in the process I was able to identify the unmistakable corky sea finger (B. asbestinum) and the common sea fan (G. ventalina). I also saw examples of sea rods (Plexaura spp.) and sea plumes (Pseudopterogorgia spp.).

Patch reef with the common sea fan in the forefront

After a couple of hours of snorkeling, we got out of the water only to look at more corals (because you can never see too many, am I right?). At first glance, the “coral graveyard” appears to be just a pile of rubble, but upon closer observation you can see that it is actually a collection of the calcium carbonate skeletons of stony corals. I learned how to identify some of the main reef-building coral species, and even found a token dried sea fan as well as some unidentified ants!

Dried common sea fan I found in the coral graveyard

Later in the evening, a spectacular sunset fell over the water while I ate too much guava jam and cake for dessert. The day concluded with some entertaining lectures from Jordan on hard corals and Mikey on echinoderms, as well as an arts and crafts quadrat making session.

Can’t wait to see what tomorrow has in store but for now I’ll just revel in the little victory of having warm water to shower in tonight. 🙂

T-1 Day From Crossing Belize Off My Travel Bucket List

This morning, I went out fishing on my boat in Miami and it suddenly hit me that the next boat I’ll be on will be headed for Glover’s Reef Research Station. It’s crazy how fast these past two weeks have gone but I am so excited to finally visit Belize. It was on my list of the top two destinations for my high school graduation trip, but I ultimately visited Costa Rica. Now I’ll finally get to go.

These past couple of weeks have been a whirlwind of catching up with family and friends, and ultimately procrastinating on my assignments for this course. As deadlines approached, I mustered the motivation to read the textbook, make sense of jargon in about 10 different research papers on mangroves, cringe my way through magnified photographs of ants, and put together three presentations.

Speaking of my presentations, I am kind of nervous to give them. My public speaking skills aren’t too great but I’m hoping that all the preparation I’ve done will carry me through my awkwardness.

Ultimately, the presentations are just a fraction of the course and I absolutely cannot wait to get out into the field. I hope I get to learn more about two ecosystems that have fascinated me: coral reefs and rainforests. Living in South Florida and being just a stone’s throw from the Bahamas has given me the opportunity to snorkel and scuba dive, awestruck at the beauty of reefs. And just the previous summer, as I briefly mentioned, I got to visit the Osa Peninsula in Costa Rica which gave me my first immersive experience in a rainforest.

With this trip, I am hoping to see these two ecosystems through the lens of a researcher and gain some practical knowledge about them that I can carry with me when I go diving or on future vacations. I’m also interested to compare what I see in Belize to the reefs of home and the wet season in Costa Rica. If I’m going to be ready, I should probably go finish packing.

No way… next time I post I’ll be in Belize!

P.S. I’m also hoping to take some great pictures like the ones I got from Costa Rica for memories 🙂

 

Last Day?

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.

 

Day 13

As per usual, actually engaging with an issue gave us perspective today. The issue was marine debris. Yesterday, Stephanie gave us a briefing on the topic. It was a great overview of the many different ways in which trash enters the marine system, persists in the system, and is ultimately washed up onto shores across the globe. In the morning, we conducted an experiment around a beach clean up. Ultimately, we asked a question regarding the composition of trash in terms of its material. As we expected, the trash was dominated by plastics by weight and Styrofoam by volume.

What was staggering was just how little of a dent we made in just the four sites that we picked. Add to that the entirety of the island, the entirety of Belize, and then all of the other countries. The scale is just too large to comprehend.

While collecting trash, I noticed that there were so many dried up Gorgonia ventalina individuals. All of this continues to build up my thought that this species is the dominant soft coral on the Glover’s Reef Atoll.

The best part of the day, however, was the night snorkeling trip that we did. It was very logistically difficult due to the dark, the close proximity of the entire group, and the higher levels of suspended sediment. Nonetheless, the dive was great. The community composition was really different. I also saw a slipper lobster!

Tomorrow marks our last full day. I can’t really imagine going to back to the real world and Rice.

Day 11

I think that I am starting to get a much better grasp of how to maneuver on the reef. While I don’t think that I will every really be able to get over my sensitive ears. Depth does still hurt quite a bit. Anyway, I found today’s activities much easier than yesterday’s.

We had two projects to do today. First, we did a similar transect method as we did yesterday to estimate total coral cover on patch reefs inside and outside of the Marine Protected Area of Glover’s Reef. The second task was to collect as many urchin species as we could in 25 minutes for species ID, abundance, and diameter of test.

This has been one of my favorite days on the reef so far. The diversity that we saw was at the perfect depth for both quadrat measuring and for personal observation. I keep seeing so many examples of my taxonomic group, an encouraging sign. Today I saw a couple more examples of sea whips. I also noticed a lot of different sea plumes. I don’t know what exact species they are, but I believe that my taxonomic sheet has them.

Tomorrow we go to the fore reef, a more densely packed area. I hope to see even more soft coral and hard coral. These are encouraging to see because of their high contributions to reef framework growth. However, I’m sure that we will see lower levels of cover and diversity in the non-protected area. All will be revealed in the data tomorrow.