Tag Archives: Stony corals

Goodbye Belize :(

I’m writing this wrap up blog to wrap up my trip and reflect on the things I learned and experienced.
To start, because of the high biodiversity of both the coral reef and the rainforest, they are similar in their specialized nature. It is common to observe a species part of a symbiotic relationship with one exact species in both ecosystems. For example, leaf cutter ants and their fungus in the forest and stony corals and their symbiodinium in the reef. It is this specificity that contributes to the diversity of the ecosystem.
Additionally, we learned that both ecosystems are nutrient poor, although for different reasons. Coral reefs must maintain relatively low nutrient levels to grow, and nutrient cycling in the rainforest is so fast that the soils are relatively nutrient poor.
Finally, we saw that both environments are under stress from human activities such as agriculture and climate change, among others. We observed the effects of these quite blatantly on this trip via marine debris, coral bleaching, and the lack of truly large trees. It is also sobering to remember that these places remain relatively untouched by humans.
One of the major differences I noticed between the two environments was the secrecy of the wildlife in the forest. My best guess for why the reef appears to be much “busier” than the forest is because we were less intrusive in the reef. We quietly swam around and observed, while in the rainforest we trampled and macheted our way through.
Overall, the course met and exceeded my expectations enormously. We learned and did so many more things than I expected. Also, we all got much closer as a group than I expected us to get in two weeks. We really had the opportunity to bond, and I think the friendships we made on this trip will be very lasting ones. It’s amazing what the jungle will do to you.
My favorite part of the course was our last day at Glovers, when we just got to snorkel around the Channel and the Aquarium and enjoy ourselves. The marine science was interesting, but I appreciated being able to chill and really appreciate the ocean.
My least favorite day was the day that we set out our camera traps. Hiking and climbing itself were not that bad, however, I got really upset when we got lost in the woods. It really freaked me out to see the sky getting dark and the nervousness on Scott and Therese’s faces.
Finally, the three things that I found most important/surprising about Belize are: 1) the overwhelming presence of plastic in marine debris. This inspired me to keep better track of the amount of plastic that I use.
 2) There are many ways to interpret the same data. We spent many hours analyzing data, and I feel that we really learned to listen to everyone to gain as much input as possible.
 Finally, 3) the right gear improves your experience dramatically. For example, my first mask was terribly foggy and I was miserable, but I switched masks and everything got easier. Also, I have never liked hiking through dense forest, but with our pants and boots, I really didn’t mind it.
I’m sad to say goodbye to Belize, but I’m thankful for all the experiences and memories I gained along the way!

Best Day Yet!

We definitely saved the best reef day for last! We went boating all around the atoll and snorkeled all morning. We started at the Channel, and I think it was my favorite reef of the whole trip! I finally got to see Dendrogyra cylindrus.
An AWESOME Dendrogyra cylindrus
I also got to see several Eusmilia fastigiata (Flower Coral) and some massive Acropora palmata. They were bigger than me!
Acropora palmata
Eusmilia fastigiata
After that, we went to a spot called the Aquarium. It was really shallow and easy snorkeling. I spotted a flounder! I also saw my first Montastrea cavernosa. Unfortunately, I never found a Pineapple Coral (Dichocoenia stokesi). Despite that, I had such an amazing time at the reef this week!
The fun didn’t stop after lunch. We dissected the Lionfish that Scott has been hunting throughout the trip. Mikey and I’s had 7 fish in its stomach. It was pretty gross. We compared the size of our fish to the fish that they caught on the 2015 trip.
After analyzing that data, we took a boat to a nearby island and had a wonderful evening on the dock. We could not possibly ask for a more perfect goodbye to Glover’s Atoll. The ocean and sunset were absolutely gorgeous! Tomorrow we’re heading back to the Belize Zoo on our way into the Chiquibul Rainforest!
Ellie and I on the dock, enjoying our last night at Glovers!

Hard Core Hard Coral Carol

Day 6 was great! We went snorkeling on the back reef in the morning. We were collecting samples of organisms to bring back to the wet lab. Because I couldn’t take corals from the reef, I had a good time just swimming around and looking at the reef life.

When we brought our organisms back to the lab, we found a tiny octopus that hitched a ride in a shell! He was so cute, and we named him Squishy. We also found a fire worm and a mantis shrimp!

Squishy!

While everyone else was sorting through the organisms trying to identify their taxon group, Adrienne and I went back into the mangroves to collect more. We flipped over logs and emptied out big conch shells. We caught a few fish, some mollusks, and so many crabs.

My Diadema friend and me

After lunch, we did taxon and topic presentations and tried our best to quickly analyze and present our data from the trash pickup yesterday. We found that plastic waste is most abundant by number of pieces and weight.

We finished quickly, so we were able to squeeze in a quick snorkel before dinner. The wind was blowing pretty hard today, so there was a strong current. It was tough, but we were still all happy to be in the water!

To finish off the night, Ellie and I battled off some giant blue land crabs because we forgot our flashlights, and we are getting an early night. We’ll be up bright and early for snorkeling tomorrow morning!

So Trashy

Today was a very different day, but it was still exciting! We spent the morning on the back reef. We went through the mangroves of not-so-death and waded out to the patch reefs near the edge of the atoll. I saw a really cool fire coral that looked like a hybrid of the two species and a Caribbean Reef Squid!

Fire Coral
Caribbean Reef Squid

We spent the afternoon out of the water. Scott and Adrienne had us collect data related to marine debris on the island, so we were out in the mangroves picking up trash. We brought it back to the wet lab and had to sort and count all of it. I helped count plastics and we had 2460 pieces!

To help relieve our hot, mosquito-bitten souls, Scott and Adrienne had some fresh coconuts waiting for us after our work. We spent the evening eating coconut and playing sand volleyball. It was wonderful and relaxing even though I got smacked in the face and knocked down by a particularly powerful serve.

Once the sun went down, we went down to the dock, sunk two dive lights, and watched the wildlife come out to play in the light. We saw lots of little fish, a stingray, a shark, and a crocodile! It was a really magical experience.

Best Birthday Ever!

What a fabulous way to turn 19! We took an early morning dive on an unprotected patch reef and collected the same type of data as yesterday. Now the moment you’ve all been waiting for… *insert drumroll* … We found that the urchins are significantly bigger and more numerous in the protected reef area!

Me + the Diadema that stung me

I hope everyone appreciated that information because we spent about 3 hours trying to crunch those numbers. I think we’re all a little sleepy and dehydrated! Eventually we put a nice poster together to show all of our data to Scott and Adrienne, and we presented it to them on the dock.

The coral on the patch reef was incredibly beautiful today! I didn’t identify any new species, but I did see a fire coral that had grown over a sea fan. It was so elegant, so check out the picture below. There were also comb jellies floating around the reef. They don’t sting, but they startled me a few times when I swam into them!

Fire Coral growing around a sea fan

The best part of the day was definitely dinner. We were sitting around the table, discussing which character from Finding Nemo best represents Therese, when Scott and Adrienne brought a cake with candles to the table and sang happy birthday. They made a pineapple cake just for me! It was a very delicious and un-Belize-ably sweet surprise.

Searchin’ for Urchins

Day 3 is just getting better! We spent most of the day in the water, so I was extra happy.
We started with a small practice experiment in the sea grass just off the island. My favorite part was when Mikey and I’s transect took us into a minefield of upside down jellyfish. There were hundreds of jellies sitting on the seafloor!
After a delicious lunch and some much needed down time, we graduated to the patch reefs by the Southwest Caye. There, we did some more advanced snorkeling, and we practiced one method for assessing coral reef health.
The stony coral presence here was amazing! Adrienne took me on a whirlwind coral tour, and I saw several new corals from my taxon card that I had not seen yet, including Eusmilia fastigiata and Acropora cervicornis.
Eusmilia fastigiata
Acropora cervicornis with bleaching
I think my favorite part of the day was sea urchin hunting. Because urchin diversity is a good measure of reef health, we collected as many as we could in 25 minutes, and we will count and size them tomorrow. We’re going to compare the urchin population from a protected marine area to that of an unprotected area. I’ll let you know what we find!

Arrived in Paradise

What a fantastic day for stony corals! We had an early start from the Belize zoo, and we were on the boat to Glovers by 8:00. I loved watching the color of the water change as we went deeper and deeper. There’s a special place in my heart for Galveston beaches, but nothing can compare to the perfect turquoise and deep blue of the Caribbean. We even saw a Green Sea Turtle!
Two and a half hours later, we arrived in paradise. I never want to leave Glovers! After a safety briefing, tour, and lunch, it was finally time for the water. We got all geared up in our dive skins, but I sadly missed the dorky group picture (sorry mom).
We swam out to the first couple patch reefs and got to explore. The reefs were amazing! There was so much to see, although I’m certain my untrained eye missed most of it. Adrienne helped me identify a few stony corals, and after a few very wrong guesses on my part, I’m feeling more comfortable with identification.
Two coral highlights from the reef include Millipora complanata (Fire Coral) and Acropora palmata (Elkhorn Coral). Fire Coral stings if you touch it, so I’m very glad I know what it looks like now. The Elkhorn Coral was a treat to see because this species is endangered.
Acropora palmata 
The stony corals didn’t end after we got out of the water! Before dinner, we walked across the island and visited a coral graveyard (I like to call it the skeleton pile). Imagine a huge pile of rocks that are actually preserved corals; it was pretty amazing.
Adrienne taught us to identify at least 11 coral species from the skeletons alone, so I am excited to see them alive out on the reef tomorrow. It was an amazing experience to be able to study real coral on land, without having to worry about snorkeling.
Skeleton Pile 🙂 
In the evening, I gave my taxon presentation about stony corals. It was nice to have an entire day dedicated to my taxon group, and I feel like I learned so much. Can’t wait for another exciting day tomorrow!

I’m Procrastinating Packing by Writing This Blog Post :)

As I sit here on my couch watching a segment called “Extreme Ironing” on Ellen, the pre-departure anxiety is starting to set in. Do I have enough sunscreen? What if I have no coral-identifying skills? What if Scott and Adrienne ask us to iron a shirt while kayaking?

While some of these anxieties are slightly more realistic than others, I know that once we’re on our way, my worries will be gone. I have come to terms with the personal fact that sunburn is unavoidable, and I have spent a significant amount of time creating taxon sheets and Powerpoint presentations to help me with identification. I feel pretty prepared for this trip after doing the required readings and extra research.

As an aspiring marine biologist, I am obviously jumping for joy at this opportunity to experience field work at a real coral reef. However, the required readings have gotten me incredibly excited to experience the diversity of the rainforest as well! I honestly can’t pick one thing that I am most looking forward to. My biggest goal for this trip is to get a feel for field research and make sure I would be happy doing it for the rest of my life.

After all this preparation, I cannot wait to get to Belize! I’ve been to the tropics before on family vacations, but I’m thrilled to visit again with the perspective of a researcher, rather than a tourist. I’m excited to see all the things I’ve spent so much time reading about up close and in the flesh, and I’m ready to completely immerse myself in the ecosystems we are there to study. The only thing left to do is pack!

Unbelizeable

The rainforest and the reef are similar and dissimilar in several ways. Both ecosystems hold incredible biodiversity, experience similar negative anthropogenic impacts, and exist in oligotrophic surroundings. The reason biodiversity is high for each has to do with the location of rainforests and reefs. Both are found low latitudes, where weather and temperature are more constant than at higher latitudes and the impact of the sun is at its fullest. The structural complexity of each provides a wide array of niches to be filled by different organisms. Both habitats are under severe threat from human activities, even if those activities are different. Though, the goal is the same, to extract resources. The soils of tropical rainforests are nutrient and nitrogen poor and the same goes for reefs. The turnover rate in both ecosystems is so large that these nutrients are almost instantly ingested by the organisms living on the forest floor or in the benthos, where it is recycled in a microbial loop.

There are differences also in the environment, types of life, and in the effects of humans. As terrestrial organisms, we are built for living on land and can be quite awkward and clumsy in the sea. The ocean is an entirely different medium, made up of salty water. To fully explore the reefs, a human must strap on fake fins and be able to hold their breath for long periods of time, or utilize scuba. Land is a remarkably easier place to do field work for most people. The types of life found in each area are also different. Insects do not inhabit the oceans but are found on every single continent. While marine fish make up a great portion of the species in the sea, as do marine mammals, most if not all are absent from the rainforest’s rivers. Reefs are probably the more fragile ecosystem, since a large part of the functionality of a reef is dependent upon the health of its main reef builders, stony corals. The forests of the Chiquibul face a number of anthropogenic threats, such as selective and indiscriminate logging, harvesting of Xate, hunting, poaching, and mining. While these forests do face some threat from global warming, its main threat is extraction. But for reefs, human extraction, pollution, as well as global warming are likely all equally threatening. Stony corals live in symbiosis with tiny dinoflagellate algae, and this symbiosis is fragile and easily susceptible to stressors in the environment. If the stony corals are unhealthy, this can cause huge changes to this ecosystem, such as a loss of architectural complexity, harms to reef fish populations and dynamics, and erosion along coastlines. The ocean also serves as a dumpster for humanity’s trash and it seems that even a place like Glover’s can be affected, whereas trash cannot just drift into the Chiquibul.

Overall I observed all of these similarities and differences between these two ecosystems. The forests may stand taller than much of the reef landscape, but it is wise not to be fooled. The outer reef contains multitudes of boulders and nooks and crannies, creating this complex and diverse habitat. We were fortunate enough to see several colonies of Acropora palmata, a beautiful, large branching coral that was nearly wiped out by White Band Disease. Once, this species formed a zone that mimicked the forest, but now, these corals are dispersed across the outer reef. Noise is another factor to consider. The forest was never still and never silent. From crickets to cicadas, from howler monkeys to the sounds of the wind blowing through the trees, there was never a time when anything stopped. In the sea however, noises were harder to hear, and were occasionally absent. Down in the depths of the outer reef, an eerie but calming silence envelops you and nearly makes you forget that you have to go back to the surface in order to draw another breath.

I am quite biased towards the reef and must say that was my favorite week. I love the ocean, and the challenges that it presents to a land creature like myself. I enjoyed every aspect of the entire trip however, and found that hiking 13.25 miles in rain boots isn’t so bad as long as you have a chipper attitude and an amazing group of people surrounding you. Michael and Sam, in their enthusiasm for insects, and Adrienne’s funny antics towards them, made me more fully appreciate their existence. While I will never pick up a cockroach, I still have a newly found respect for them. I also think that monkey hoppers are actually pretty cute. My baseline for ant size has definitely been shifted to a larger perspective. I’m excited to go home and see tiny ants and be thankful they aren’t the large soldier ants we so lovingly harassed. The reef though, is where I think I am the happiest. The large colorful and beautiful birds of the Chiquibul morph into colorful reef fishes. The large trees turn to acroporas and boulder mounds. Predatory jaguars and other cats turn into the sharks and barracudas that silently cut through the water. In the end though, I love both places, and would never turn down an opportunity to explore both even more.

A few things surprised me. Hiking 13.25 miles in one day in rain boots wasn’t so bad after all. I learned that trying to count intersect points of a quadrat in five feet of water is extremely difficult, even in the slightest of waves. I can never un-see Michael putting that bee larvae in his mouth. I also learned I am definitely not a morning person. I would tell myself literally every night that I would get up early to go bird watching or to write my blogs, but I always got up at the last second, threw on some clothes, and headed to breakfast. Cold showers are necessary and will make you wonder why you ever took a hot shower. Bees are really cool and are diverse and variable in form, and I’ll never forget that little metallic green orchid bee. I may never see one again. I shall never forget our friend Clivus. Most of all, what will definitely stick with me over the years is the awesome group of people I got to explore Belize with. This group was amazing and every person played a part in making the dynamic fantastic and crazy. Throughout my time in Belize, I met some amazing people, from Lauren and Boris at Las Cuevas, to Javier and Herbie at Glover’s Reef. I wouldn’t change anything about this course (even though the transportation was definitely not on par, our group made the best of it!) because each activity is meant to challenge our perceptions of nature and how to turn observations and experiments into usable data. I will look back on this trip with fond memories.

Postcards from Randy. See me. Pupae. Where is she (Batman voiceover). Mrrph.

Orbicella annularisDSCN3473

The last day, Day 15 :(

Today we woke up extra early and hopped on our boat. We went straight to Carrie Bow Caye and met the volunteer managers of the Smithsonian’s research facility there. Surprise surprise, they are from Bois, Idaho! Perhaps this is a sign that I should return to here next summer. The island is so tiny, only about an acre and a half, and it grows smaller and smaller every year as sea levels rise. A lot of researchers go there to do there work, and I can see why. There is easy access to seagrass beds, mangroves, the fore reef, and back reef.

After that we went to Twin Caye and explored the mangroves. I cut my leg a little on accident but oh well. Mangroves, 1 and Anna, 0. We went snorkeling after that and I saw a shortnose batfish! It was one of the weirdest things I have ever seen. I also saw a little barracuda, so many sponges, and many starfish. No stony corals. This is because we were in mangrove territory.

We loaded back up on the boats and headed to Belize City. I fell asleep in the sun and consequently have a light burn all over my arms and back. We ate at Calypso again and then headed to the airport. The flight was fast and before I knew it, we were all saying goodbye. I felt pretty sad but that’s only because it was such an awesome trip with awesome people!