Tag Archives: Sponges

Reflection

Final Blog Post

Reflection

Written at 5:32 pm on May 31st

 

We’ve been home a little over a day now, but my brain is still reeling from this incredible experience. We may have been bitten by bugs or burned by the sun, but this trip is one I’ll always remember. I relished the opportunity to learn about field work and to do science experiments in new environments with people who are just as passionate as I am (if not even more!).

 

I had never really visited a rainforest in its pristine quality such as the Chiquibul area around Las Cuevas. There were just so many hymenopterans, insects, and plant diversity. My expectations were high due to the Planet Earth’s wonderful episodes, but wow, I was still floored.

 

Similarities wise, when comparing the rainforest to a reef, there is an equal amount of diversity—there are plants and coral that are common or rare (for their respective ecosystems), and the same seems to apply to animals/fish in both places! It’s just wild to me how such brilliant ecosystems can support as much life as they do. I was also shocked at just how much rain affected the rainforest. The first heavy rain ignited the nuptial flight for some termite and ant species! I know that rain affecting the rainforest seems obvious, but this nuptial flight and predictability of some fauna presence made the whole phenomenon magical.

 

Despite the obvious difference of salt water vs. freshwater and marine vs. terrestrial, I felt that there wasn’t much that differed. Of course, the biological diversity and make-up of the ecosystems are totally different. But if one were to equate a tree to a coral, and a reptile to a fish, one might find similar compositions and proportions of those species. However, now that I think about it a little more, there are SO MANY undiscovered arthropods in the rainforest, and probably just as many microscopic organisms in the coral reef. If I had to guess which ecosystem has greater biological richness, my money would be on the rainforest.

 

This course was everything I hoped it would be and more. I surely expected more mosquitos in the rainforest and less on the island, but the opposite was true. On a more serious note, I am really pleased with how our group got along, how we approached each poster/project, and just hung out in the downtime. Academics wise, I really felt like I learned a lot about ecology, which as a BioSciences major, I don’t have to study in total depth. If I had to pick three things that will stick with me forever… humm

  • Scarlet macaws are endangered due to poachers who steal their babies to sell as pets. This was surprising to me because finding their nests must be pretty hard already!
  • Frogs are really hard to find in the rainforest, especially during the dry season. Also, their sounds can deceive the human ear, and it sounds like they go in all different directions. I was actually shocked by the chorus of the rainforest at night, and I couldn’t really distinguish which animals were making what sounds.
  • Corals can form viable hybrids that could help increase genetic diversity and resilience of global warming effects in the ocean. This is just incredibly crucial to the future of coral reefs.

 

If I really had to pick a favorite part, I would say that snorkeling in the forereef and in the backreef, with such still water, was truly a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. There was just such a range of fish—in age, size, color, and species. And the coral/sponges were also spectacular. And the water was so blue. And the list could go on.

 

My “technically” least favorite part was the humidity in the rainforest. So dense and thick, I almost found it harder to breathe. Now, this also could have to do with my being out of shape from the semester, but either way I was surprised.

 

And truly, if that is the worst thing I can say about this trip, then amen—this was truly an incredible trip. I am so thankful to have had the opportunity to go to Belize.

Day 15: When it’s Time to Find Home, We Know the Way

Blog Post #15

Day 15: When it’s Time to Find Home, We Know the Way

Written at 9:39 am on May 30th

 

Yesterday was mixed with bittersweet emotions, memories, and travel. I really didn’t want to leave Glover’s Reef or Belize. Going back to the real world will for sure be a transition.

I woke up to see the sunrise, and it was actually gorgeous. The pictures don’t do it justice. I just soaked it all in. 

After packing, we had breakfast and said goodbye to the Glover’s Reef staff, as well as the Coast Guard and Fisheries guys too.

As we made the crossing back to the mainland, we stopped by Carrie Bow Cay, the Smithsonian Marine Biology research station. We met with the station manager and one of the scientists doing research there right now! She was studying the resistance of an acropara hybrid (stag and elk horn mixed tougher) to heat stress. She could really help figure out how to save some coral reefs when it comes to ocean warming.

Afterwards, we stopped at Twin Cay, a mangrove island, to explore what life is like under its roots. There were tons of fire sponges and orange encrusting sponges. I had no idea that mangroves could host these organisms because I didn’t come across any sponge references in mangroves in my research before class. I was fascinated. There were also tons of upside down jellyfish, and I spotted my fair share of baby barracuda.

Before I knew it, we were back on the boat headed to lunch at the marina restaurant. I ordered creamy shrimp pasta and a fruit punch drink—both delicious!

As our goodbye salute to being TFBs, our van to the airport had no air conditioning, so we all sweated out the rest of the salt water from the mangroves. The flight home was captained by Claire’s dad again (it’s so fun getting a shout-out from the cockpit!), and before we knew it, we were back in Houston.

This was truly the best “study abroad” I could have asked for with my limited credits and availability. I feel so lucky to have gone on this trip. Reflection blog post coming soon.

Day 14: There’s So Much to Do (Make Way!)   

Blog Post #14

Day 14: There’s So Much to Do (Make Way!)

Written at 5:37 am on May 29th

 

Yesterday (May 28th) was our last full day in Belize, so we had to celebrate and soak it all in.

We started by dissecting then eating the lionfish we’d caught over the course of the week. The monstrous lionfish ended up being over 0.5 kg!! He (determined by looking at the gonads) had a swim bladder that took up most of the body cavity. I was particularly fascinated with the gill structure as well as the mouth parts used to capture prey.

Class with the giant lion fish

Scott then made his famous lionfish ceviche which I had never tried before. (Both the lionfish and a ceviche.) It tasted very fishy and chewy—not my favorite, but not bad either.

In the afternoon, we had some free time, so of course, I went snorkeling. Veronica, Sam, Chloe, and Elena came as well. I saw lots of sponges, particularly the tube and rope sponges. I also saw my first Touch-me-not sponge, a stinging, painful one when rubbed the wrong way. We also saw a brain coral that was three times my arm span in diameter, which is so impressive and wonderful. There were lots of lobster out of all shapes and sizes too.

Me with the massive brain coral

When we returned, we did our special TFB tradition. There will be future TFBs reading this blog, so I won’t say it here because I don’t want to spoil it for them! If you’re curious though, ask me—it’s pretty fun.  🙂

In the evening, we did group meditation on the dock, looked for tarpon in the water, and just enjoyed our last night in Belize.

I now sit here watching the sunrise over the horizon, the last one we’ll see here. I am so grateful for this planet, this trip, and everything in between. There is still so much to do and see, I’m not ready to leave yet!!

Day 13: It’s a Dinglehopper!

Blog Post #13

Day 13: It’s a Dinglehopper!

Written 10:03 pm on May 27th

 

Today started with a HUGE thunderstorm. The ominous clouds loomed overhead while I sat in the hammocks, then the wind picked up, fiercely blowing my hammock and rocking me. As soon as I moved inside, the storm down-poured! Since it’s not the rainy season, and we are on an island, this was not an anticipated weather pattern.

Since it was raining, we did our lectures in the morning—I gave my presentation on sponges, and everyone appreciated my SpongeBob fun facts 🙂

When we finished the lectures, we set out to collect some data (and trash) from two different sides of the island. Marine debris is a HUGE problem, no matter how remote a place is, you can find trash in some form, such as whole pieces, parts, or microplastics. We wanted to compare the trash levels on the windward and leeward side of the island. We found that the windward size had larger pieces that were less transportable (like floating/moving with the current), and the leeward side has more general pieces in smaller size.

I did find a fork, and it made me think of Scuttle. I also found an entire bottle of Sprite unopened in the mangrove bed. Pictures weren’t taken because my hands were either busy holding trash or swatting as mosquitos.

In the afternoon, we headed out to do adventure snorkeling, a chance to explore the reefs around us and see our taxon on a different side of the atoll. We visited a patch reef that was 10-25 ft deep, and there we found the biggest nurse shark I (and the MPOs) had ever seen!! We decided it was a she (no idea why), and she had a bottle with a fishing line stuck to her fin. We tried to figure out ways we could free her, but there wasn’t any way we could do it without hurting both her and us since we didn’t have scissors.

For context, this shark seemed to be at least 10 feet long! (at least so it seemed to me…) 

The best experience of Glover’s Reef was getting to snorkel over the reef crest. Normally no one can swim the reef crest because the waves are big, powerful, and overwhelming. But today, the ocean was so calm we could explore. Seriously, this is almost unheard of in a marine ecosystem. The coral were gorgeous, fish were huge, there were fry schools, a blacktip reef shark, filefish, trumpetfish, triggerfish, cowfish, and so much more. I noted that there were many encrusting sponges and a few vase sponges, and my new favorite sponge, the stove pipe sponge.

This is a cowfish!
This is the teal variation of stove-pipe sponges

Life under the sea is better than anything they got up there.

Day 12: Mysterious [Two Feet] Below

Blog Post #12

Day 12: Mysterious [Two Feet] Below

Written 6:17 am on May 27th

We started May 26thwith pancakes!! I was very excited because I seemed to have willed it as I had asked Scott if we’d have them. They are feeding us so well.

In the morning, we worked on our poster for reef health. We found that our data weren’t super accurate as we had a small sample size. The live hard coral coverage was around 22.12% inside the MPA vs. 15.1% outside the MPA. Sea urchin health seemed to be comparable in both reefs. Given this, we concluded the MPA is more helpful for coral, but further studies would be needed to determine distinct differences between the two patch reefs.

In the afternoon, we headed to the backreef off of our island. Basically, it’s about 2-4 feet of wading water with your face in the water. We had no idea what we were going to find! In the seagrass bed, I found some fire sponges as well as some thin rope sponge polyps. Then we reached the true backreef of rocks and coral polyps—a true nursery considering the large number of baby fish and coral! I didn’t see any sponges oddly enough once we got closer to the backreef. This is likely due to the high wave action, the sponge polyps get pushed away and farther back into the lagoon.

Thin rope sponges in seagrass bed

We picked up shells, conchs, and other interesting creatures/plants along the way to observe back in the wet lab. Since the sponges were all rooted into the ground, I adopted the mollusks taxon. We found lots of Queen Conchs and snails, but the ultimate find was a baby octopus!!

Herbert the octopus!

I believe that Herbert is a Caribbean Reef Octopus, and he was found in one of the old conch shells. We think there was a second one, but that one didn’t come out. Herbie inked on my when I tried to pick him up and move him. That was an experience I have never had before.

Eventually, we let all our creatures return to the sea, including Herbert, who gave us an inking farewell. We had a really great time exploring the mysterious two feet below us! It was an important reminder of that there are so many creatures great and small that live in all parts of our world, and we should do our best to protect them.

Day 11: Ooo the Drop-off…

Blog Post #11
Day 11: Ooo the Drop-off…

Written at 6:25 am on May 26th

 

We did a lot of exploring and learning, and even some of the drop-off (figured I throw in some Finding Nemo reference even though it’s the wrong area of the globe). We started the morning of May 25thwith a presentation from the Belize Fisheries and Coast Guard divisions and how they enforce their laws. It was awesome to get some context on just how important of an area Glover’s Reef is.

 

Then we hopped on the boat for a morning of exploring the forereef—we stopped at two different places: an area behind Southwest Cay and an area behind our island that is the drop off. These snorkels were really gorgeous; the diversity of coral, fish, and other wildlife such as rays, sponges, and soft corals. There seemed to be a lot of Ctenophores, which are commonly known as comb jellies even though they aren’t jellyfish. I had hoped to see a sea turtle since they love snacking on those, but alas, none were found.

 

The sponges in the spurs and grooves leaving to the drop-off weren’t very diverse in species but had incredible ranges of color. The branching tube sponges were gray to green to blue, and the rope sponges varied from brown to red to tan. There were a few vase sponges that had hints of pink and light blue and green in the same one!

 

Vase sponge with baby fish (hard to see)
branching tube sponge

In the afternoon, we collected sea urchins to measure their size and species richness to test the health of the reef at one reef patch inside the MPA and the other outside of it. I did manage to nab a black sea urchin with some tongs, after many tries. We haven’t yet analyzed our data, so stay tuned!

 

My lip is sunburned, but my soul is happy. I love being out on the water and exploring, and even better to be doing science at the same time!

Day 9: See the Line Where the Sky Meets the Sea?

Blog Post #9

Day 9: See the Line Where the Sky Meets the Sea?

Written May 23rdat 10:07 pm

DISCLAIMER: There was a storm last night that knocked out the wifi. But it has returned! So here is the post for May 23rd.

To answer the question in the title—it calls me! Today, we made our transition to Glover’s Atoll, specifically Middle Cay! With the familiarity of a boat, the wind, and my (metaphorical) sail staying behind me, I felt so incredible happy. (Also, gready for a week’s worth of Moana and The Little Mermaid references!)

I was less than happy when I found out that I forgot to put sunscreen on my right arm… (Literally remembered everywhere else including the tops of my feet!) I will now be toasty red more so on one side. But oh well, I’ll hopefully get a nice tan!

When we arrived at Middle Cay and had eaten lunch, we got in the water for our introductory snorkel. It was fun to rediscover snorkeling alongside those who had never done it before. I also now officially change my taxon away from amphibians and on to sponges.

I spotted lots of encrusting sponges, and my favorite tube sponge. The water was decently murky from the seagrass beds with sand and people’s flippers kicking it up. We also found a yellow stingray, baby nurse shark, barracuda, trumpet fish, parrotfish, and lots of brown algae.

baby nurse shark!

Then I enjoyed our free time by journaling and talking to the other workers on the island on the pier—we saw a lemon shark swim by, as well as a school of bonefish. The pelican dive bombing the sardine patches definitely caught me off guard because I was looking at my journal. It was a beautiful end to an incredible Reef Day 1.

Day 8: Our Mini Weekend

Blog Post #8

Day 8: Our Mini Weekend

Written May 23rd at 7:06 am

 

Yesterday (May 22nd) was a super start to our mini weekend. We spent it in transition from Turf to Surf, and did a few fun things along the way. No amphibians (or sponges) were spotted today because we were mostly in the cave or in the sun–two environments where neither of those are found.

After a bittersweet goodbye to Las Cuevas and the staff, we hopped on a plane and headed east for 3 hours. Then we reached the ATM Cave–its English translation is “The Cave of the Stone Tomb.” There was a 45 minute swim/wade in to the cave then we climbed barefoot.

The most interesting thing we saw was a nearly intact skeleton of a 16-18 year old–the namesake for the cave. Likely, this person was a human sacrifice for when the Maya civilization was in trouble, and they were desperate to please their gods.

Then we made our way to the Tropical Education Center, our home for the night. They put us in the adorable forest cabanas and fed us a lovely meal.

That night, we got the opportunity to get a night tour of The Belize Zoo! Of course, I LOVED it. There were so many species and wonderful nocturnal life. The highlight for me: Meeting Indy the Tapir.

We fed him carrots and watched his little nose trunk. He was SO CUTE!!!! What a great end to our night.

Day 1: All the Traveling

Written at 9:01 pm Belize time on May 15th

How excited am I to be in Belize? As excited as this dog was to take their picture!

This pup is the resident at the Crystal Paradise Lodge, our first place we call home on this lovely trip. It’s been a long day, but it was a great introduction to Belize. (We aren’t supposed to pet the dogs, but at least we can take cute pictures!)

We started at 10:30 am in Anderson Bio Labs on campus—we took a cute group pic for the Biosciences Facebook page/press release (not sure where to find that). Then we hopped on the bus and headed for the airport. Upon arrival, we found out that Claire’s dad would be our pilot! We ate Chick-fil-A and Pilot Jeff bought us all cookies.  Then we turned our phones to airplane mode (not before my last game of HQ for a while), boarded our plane, and left for Belize.

After going through customs, we met Edward, our van driver for the day. He took us to the local convenience store to get some snacks and whatnot—I bought shampoo and conditioner because, oops, mine spilled in my toiletry bag…  During our 2.5-hour ride, we talked to each other, looked through the savannah plains, identified recent burn areas, and learned about each other’s lives. It was a great time. I also really enjoyed talking to Edward and learning about Belize as a country. The highway we took was called the Western Highway, but it is now called the George Price Highway in honor of his role in helping achieve Belizean independence in 1981. We took turns looking out for our taxonomic groups, but I didn’t see any of mine (Amphibians or Sponges). Claire did see one frog in our bathroom, but I didn’t get a chance to look. From her description, it seems like an Hourglass Tree Frog, but who knows…

We arrived at the Crystal Paradise Ecolodge, where we were guided to our “cabanas” and then served a delicious dinner with really good cake for dessert. There are lots of cool bugs and animal sounds, and we are really into trying to identify them all. We are quickly learning that we haven’t even scraped the surface of the insects we don’t know… And now, I’m working on my blog and my field notebook journal.

This trip is off to a really high note! Scott and Adrienne have warned us that this first location is a ton nicer than the research stations and we should enjoy it while we can. Also, on a similar vein, blog posts will be posted only when internet is accessible. Las Cuevas has an ethernet cable, but my computer doesn’t have an ethernet port… So, we shall see what happens. No idea about Glover’s Reef yet.

I hope that we will have ok enough internet to post every day, but I apologize in advance if we won’t be able to!

Let’s Go to Belize!

As I sit in my childhood backyard in Atlanta, GA, I think about all the bugs that seem to be nipping and milling about. I can only help but wonder what the bugs and critters will be like in Belize… I imagine that the mosquitoes will be much worse!

I’ve traveled to Belize before, but that was on a live-aboard sailboat! So, I’ve never been to the rainforest, and I’m really looking forward to seeing the rich fauna–even if they are hard to find. I’ve been researching amphibians, and though there are lots of them, every site says they are nearly impossible to spot unless you have a watchful eye. I am a little concerned I won’t be able to spot them as well as others because I am so short, but maybe they’ll be more on the ground!

I am most looking forward to spending time on the reef. I love being in the ocean, swimming about, seeing the fish, corals, and everything in between… I’ve always had an interest in marine biology, and I had an internship 3 summers ago at the Georgia Aquarium with the animal husbandry specialists. I’m excited to see how my research on sponges (which I also looked at back in sophomore year of high school) compares to real reef life.

All in all, as soon as I can pack, I am ready to hop on that plane and get there! I am ecstatic I get to share this experience with other equally invested and dedicated Rice students plus Surf+Turf. 🙂

EBIO 319 2018 woot woot!