Blog Post #6
Day 6: The Day the Insects, Rain, and Southern Mississippi Took Over
Written 12:30 pm May 21st
This post was supposed to be written last night (May 20th), but then I took a Benadryl (#thankschiggers) and fell asleep while typing.
Shoutout to Mom and Jems for a happy birthday!
Yesterday, we spent half of the morning collecting our urine and water samples. Veronica netted another Mexican Tree Frog, but this one had varying shades of brown and green to help it camouflage in the leaf litter. When we returnred, we started analyzing our catches. (Check out Day 4 for the background on this project.) So basically, for the next 5 hours, I looked at insects of all different kinds. Standing over a bunch of springtails, flies, etc and helping our experts (other students who looked at those insects closely) was frustrating but rewarding. Also, everything smelled like urine.
While we were analyzing data, a huge thunderstorm cracked through the sky and we had the chance to get rained on in the rainforest! Scott was especially excited because the first big rain of the season triggers social insects’ nuptial (mating) flights. A few hours later, there were termites EVERYWHERE, and their wings shed very easily.
After the thunderstorm, a group of 25 from Southern Mississippi University arrived. The instructor for their course was intrigued with our insect project, and so he asked if we could present to his group on our urine insects. After much convincing, the group unanimously decided to go for it—and along the way we made all the “pee” puns. We were sad that our personal research station was no longer just ours, but we also had a great icebreaker to meet some new people.
This morning, we got up early for a final hike before our 7 AM departure. At 7:30, the bus still hadn’t arrived. We called to discover that the bus hadn’t left yet, and was 4 hours away. We were scheduled to tour the ATM cave in the morning, but by the time we arrived we had missed our spot and wouldn’t have made it out of the cave until 7. To make matters more exciting, our bus driver decided that he was dropping us off with all our bags at the cave, and wouldn’t drive us all the way to our hotel as we had originally thought. We got a new bus driver, and stopped at a souvenir shop and ate lunch at a restaurant. I tried tamarind juice for the first time and it was delicious!
Then, we drove to the Belize Zoo. We went on a night tour of the zoo, which was amazing. All of their animals are native to Belize, either rescues or animals in rehabilitation. We got to see jaguars, ocelots, pumas, and margays that we’ve been living with all week in the forest, but never actually seen. We got to feed a tapir named Indie, who was confiscated as a baby from the pet trade. We also saw an adorable pair of pacas, which are large rodents with similar size and coloration to baby tapirs. Pacas are hunted for their skin and meat, and hunters often accidentally shoot baby tapirs while hunting pacas.
We didn’t do much hiking today, and I didn’t see any termites. Tomorrow I’ll be giving termites a rest and searching for red algae!
Today we collected the camera traps that we set out on the first day. It took us 10 hours to set out the traps the first time, but today we were done by 3 while taking a substantial lunch break. It’s amazing what a week in the jungle will do.
I didn’t see any new termite nests today, as we were walking a path we had travelled several times and didn’t stop much to poke around. We did, however, see some amazing species on the camera traps!
The first photo we looked at contained a bird, but most of the following pictures only captured leaves moving and people walking by. After sifting through hundreds of photos from 11 traps, we had seen 2 birds and a tapir. The tapir was awesome, but I think we had all been hoping to see more than 3 species. We weren’t expecting much from the 12th trap, which we had accidentally set up on top of a massive leaf cutter ant nest. To our surprise, this trap caught an agouti and an ocelot!! Those last photos definitely made the 26 miles of hiking worthwhile. We’ve heard about all of the species in the Chiquibul, but it was so incredible to see these species (almost) in person, and know that they crossed the same path that we did sometimes only an hour before.
Tomorrow morning, we will leave Las Cuevas. I’m covered in heat rash and I’ve been perpetually sleep deprived, but I feel so complete when I’m here. I have loved waking up to the sound of the howlers and being surrounded by the buzz of the jungle. I’m going to miss this place, but I know many amazing adventures await us on the reef!
This morning, we went on another hike in search of howler monkeys. We didn’t see any howlers, but instead we happened across a group of spider monkeys and coatis! The coatis were much higher in the trees than I was expecting them to be, and they were jumping from tree to tree and crashing through the canopy. Also, I saw my first termite today! Stephanie brought me a box full from a hike yesterday. They had black, spherical heads and appeared to be Constrictotermes cavifrons.
After breakfast, we finished up our project from yesterday and presented our results. We spent the rest of the day listening to presentations and taxon briefings. After dinner, we talked with a woman in grad school who has spent the year doing research at Las Cuevas. She had some incredible stories and I would love to be in her shoes someday.
Next, we went on a night hike. We found some termites (possibly Heterotermes tenius) in a decomposing log. We also saw a spider several inches tall, and a stick bug the length of my forearm. On our way back, we saw a coral snake! Tomorrow, we will head back out on the 13-mile trek to collect our camera traps. This place is already starting to feel like home, and I’m disappointed we’re leaving so soon.
Today I saw a mammal! Lucrecia and I went on a hike this morning, hoping to get closer to the howler monkeys we had been hearing. Although they stopped howling as soon as we entered the forest, we saw several birds, including a flock of parrots and possibly a mot-mot. I also found a log that appeared to have termite damage, but there were no termites to be found. As we neared the clearing of the research station, we stopped to listen to a bird. A few seconds later, a tayra wandered onto the path. It didn’t seem scared to se us, and it walked towards us for several meters before wandering back into the forest.
After breakfast, we finished up our Cecropia studies from yesterday. After 24 hours, the masses of the juvenile leaves were still identical to those of the adult trees. 2 adult leaves and no juvenile leaves had visible damage from the herbivores, but this could be due to random chance or a physical difference in the leaves, so we can’t conclude that a chemical deterrent is preventing hervbivory in juvenile trees. Also, we’re trying to have a conversation right now, but we can’t because the birds are too loud. It’s awesome.
Belize limestone forms many caves, and we visited one this afternoon. The Maya believed that caves were entrances to the underworld, and we saw Mayan artifacts throughout the cave. I can only imagine how terrifying and magical it would have been to travel through the cave without a flashlight and little understanding of why or how the cave formed. We also saw lots of bats living deep within the cave, and slid through the mud on our stomachs through the mud to see the skeleton of a peccary that had gotten lost in the cave.
Next, we set up an experiment to study nitrogen deficiencies in the rainforest canopy. Urine is very high in nitrogen, so we put vials of urine and water in trees and buried in the ground. If arthropods are deficient in nitrogen, and thus attracted to it, they will be more likely to fall into the nitrogen traps than the water traps. Tomorrow, we’ll look and see what we caught.
This morning, we explored the symbiosis between Cecropia trees and Azteca ants. These species have a mutualistic relationship where the ants defend the trees from herbivores, and the trees provide a home for the ants. However, it takes some time for the ants to colonize the trees. We set out to study how young trees defend themselves against herbivores before colonization by Azteca ants. We tested the hypothesis that young Cecropia trees use chemical defenses, such as pheromones or toxins, to prevent herbivory. To do this, we gathered leaves from mature and juvenile trees. We put a leaf fragment from both ages into containers that each contained a generalist herbivore (grasshoppers, beetles, caterpillars, etc). Tomorrow, we will measure the mass change of each leaf to see if herbivorous insects determine if they prefer a certain age of leaf without the ants to deter them. As we were looking for Cecropia trees, we found a termite foraging trail winding up the underside the branches of a tree. They were relatively far away, and we weren’t able to identify them.
Next, we explored leafcutter ant colonies. I was amazed to discover that leafcutter ants have domesticated their own fungus, and the ants in a mature colony weigh as much and eat as much as an adult cow. The first colony we excavated was about a year old. It had a single volcano shaped entrance. The second colony was approximately 5 years old, and had 3 broad, mound shaped entrances. In addition, it had larger majors that helped defend the colony. Finally, we excavated a mature colony over 10 years old. It was very large, and the ants had cleared an area approximately 20 m by 20 m in the forest. This colony may have had millions of ants, including soldiers with very large mandibles.
As we were heading back, Lucrecia and I stopped to listen to the howler monkeys. We didn’t see any, but it was incredible to know they were so close, hiding amongst the trees. When you stop and listen, the jungle comes to life around you, and the variety of calls you can hear is astounding. It is such a magical experience to share this space with so many species I never would have dreamed of encountering.
*We dug down until we could just barely see the fungus chambers. The ants will quickly repair this damage. No queens were harmed in the making of this course.
Today was our first day of actual fieldwork! We wanted to study how species richness and composition vary in natural and man-made clearings, so we marked out 12 locations on the map. The hike looked completely manageable when mapped out on the whiteboard, but the elevation was a little more than we anticipated. 13 miles, 31,000 steps, and 10 hours later, we had placed our traps. We put 6 camera traps on roads, trails, and human-frequented clearings. In addition, we put 6 traps in natural clearings such as tree fall gaps, streams, and massive leafcutter ant nests.
We saw 3 termite nests today, but still no termites. The first was an arboreal nest approximately 1 m off the ground, but it was very far off the ground. We also found a carton mound approximately 50 cm tall. Although the mound was empty, it resembled a Rotunditermes bragantinus mound. Likewise, we found an empty clay mound 20 cm tall, which could have belonged to Embiratermes neotenicus. In addition, I found a tree that had died, but was still standing. The heartwood was filled with insect tunnels reminiscent of Coptotermes formosanus damage. I have not been this tired in a very long time, but we saw and heard lots of amazing wildlife and it was definitely worth the hike.
This morning we headed to Caracol, a Mayan civilization that flourished from 300 BC to 1100 AD. The metropolis itself housed over 150,00 people, which is over half the population of the entire country today. We climbed to the top of the highest pyramid, the tallest structure in all of Belize. The view from the pyramid was amazing, and we could see for miles in every direction. To the West, the mountains in the distance were brown instead of green. This was the Belize-Guatemala border. The Guatemalan population is many times that of Belize, and they have much higher rates of deforestation as they stretch their limited resources.
Although we didn’t see any termites today, we did see several termite nests. On our way to Caracol we drove past an arboreal nest, but weren’t able to identify it. A few of the beams in the pyramid were from 70 AD. They were impressively intact for being 2,000 years old, but they did have termite tunnels burrowing through them. As we were leaving the station, we found an abandoned carton nest that had fallen from a tree. It was cracked open, so we could look at the tunnels within. We didn’t see the termites living inside, but Microcerotermes crassus do make arboreal tree nests, so this could be one of their nests.
As we were heading back from Caracol, our transmission started struggling and making strange noises. Luckily, we were close to a Belizian army camp, and we pulled in there. When they checked the engine, the transmission fluid was completely dry. We couldn’t drive the van anymore, so we piled into pickup trucks. On the way, we saw a tree full of oropendola nests and a group of toucans! Las Cuevas Research Station is beautiful. All of the buildings are on stilts, so you are eye-level with the trees and can see lots of wildlife. I can’t wait to see more of the station and the surrounding forest! I can already tell these two weeks are going to fly by.
We are in Belize! We met at Rice and headed to Hobby airport. While we were in security, a waterline broke, and they had to shut off water to the entire airport. The airport was filled with swarms of people waiting for the few places that were still serving food. We had a fairly uneventful flight, and were picked up by a driver who took us to the Crystal Palace Resort. When we arrived, we were greeted by these adorable towel swans!
We are staying at a lovely little place nestled within the forest. It was dark when we arrived, but it looks beautiful and I can’t wait to see the grounds in the morning! They served us an amazing dinner of chips and salsa, fried rice, salad, plantains, and cake (Happy birthday Claire!). We were all pretty amazed by the salsa-it had carrots and cucumbers in it and was delicious!
Belize was impressively green from the sky, but the habitat destruction is clear from the ground. Much of the area we drove through had been cleared for agriculture, and we passed a hillside covered in massive trees being burned to the ground. The soil in many fields was black, and many trees had scorch marks from previous fires.
Although we spent the day in the car, we still saw a fair bit of wildlife. We saw a few arboreal termite nests in the trees off the highway, but they were too far away to identify the species. We also saw a house gecko and a snowy egret at a convenience store we stopped at on the way to the resort. However, my favorite sightings were after the sun had set. As I was walking back to my cabin, I stumbled across a leafcutter ant trail. We followed them back to their nest, and then tracked down the tree from which they were harvesting. There must have been thousands of ants, and they had worn a smooth path through the tire tracks on the road. As I’m writing this blog post, a boa constrictor is sitting in a tree only a few feet away!