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Tropical Field Biology Presents… Brendan’s Final Blog Post

spoiler alert: I have decided to become a sea turtle

I remember sitting in the first interest meeting and hearing past participants talk about this trip. At that time, I was definitely hesitant how a trip can be so influential and eye-opening. Few months later, we had our first group meeting as the 2019 cohort. I wondered what the workload would be, how the group would interact with each other, and what we will be seeing in Belize. 

When I chose ants and sponges as my taxonomic groups, I merely picked them because of familiarity. However, as I started to look into these groups more, I realized they shared many similarities. Ants and sponges are both often overlooked because they can easily blend in the background, but they are actually crucial in maintaining the health of the rainforest or reef. They both serve an important role of recycling nutrients in their respective ecosystems. Not to mention, to identity them to the species level is pretty difficult because they can appear so differently amongst each other. 

More broadly speaking, the rainforest and reef also share many similarities with each other. These ecosystems are able to host such diverse life. Both of these ecosystems have organisms that continuously cycle nutrients back to its environment, allowing other organisms to develop. These ecosystems have food webs and food chains in place to ensure there is a balance between predator-prey relationship. In many cases, removing top-predators, like big cats and big fishes, can disrupt the ecosystem greatly. 

One thing I also realized is to just avoid anything that begins with “fire.” In the rainforest, we avoided fire ants. In the reef, we avoided fire corals, fire sponges, and fire worms. I wrote in my first blog that I expect to be challenged when it comes to naming specific organisms. Of course, I ended up being challenged in all different ways. For instance, one challenge I did not expect was waking up at 5 or 6am every morning and struggling to stay awake past 9:30pm. 

A difference that I noticed between the ecosystems is actually the way in which research is conducted. In hindsight, being able to stand on the ground definitely is a lot easier than needing to stay afloat. Perhaps we were just out of our element, but I noticed that so many variables, such as wind condition and wave action, that dictate when we can go out and do research.

My favorite part of the trip was being able to capture photos of everyone. Watching everyone’s facial expression and their sheer amazement has been such a fun part of the trip. I, too, was amazed by all the things we saw, but I found shifting perspectives and observing people in the context of nature can be equally rewarding. 


Everyone taking photos of the “sticky butt cockroach”

My least favorite part of the trip was definitely the bug bites. By now, you have probably heard of everyone complaining, but those bugs are evil! In my packing list, I remembered to pack bug sprays to prevent getting bitten, but I totally forgot to pack medicine for AFTER getting bitten. I had to continually restrain myself from scratching the insect bites. 

Here are my three key takeaways from this course: 

  1. Importance of contextualizing our trip. While learning about Belize’s natural beauty, we were also able to understand Belize’s ties to Mayan culture. Thanks to Herbert, we also understood the overarching history and future of Belize. Though we came to Belize to learn about the environment, I think we also have to acknowledge the environmental impact of traveling to Belize and all the places as well. My hope is that we can translate this experience and inspire more sustainable practices. 
  2. Don’t forget the small things! I used to have this mentality of eliminating all ants in sight. After this trip, I realized just how amazingly complex ants can be. Seeing ant colonies and leafcutter ants traveling down the highway carrying freshly cut leaves have opened my eyes to these organisms. 
  3. The bug bite trade-off. As I am writing this final blog post, I am also trying not to scratch my bug bites. In the future, I will still not use insect repellent with 99% DEET, but I will remember to bring some anti-itch medicine for these nasty bug bites. The good thing is bug bites will go, but these memories will last forever. 


ants department: 

common name: 

fire ants


Pseudomyrmex sp.

Azteca sp.

Dolichoderus sp. 


Atta cephalotes

Strumigenys ludia

16 morphospecies:

ant morphospecies from Project P


sponges department: 

some type of rope sponge

Ailochroria crassa

Aplysina fistularis (Yellow Tube Sponge)

Callyspongia vaginalis (Branching vase sponge)

Callyspongia plicifera ( Azure vase sponge)

Chondrilla nucula (Chicken liver sponge)

Cliona delitrix (Red Boring sponge)

Xestospongia muta ( Giant Barrel sponge) 

Belize Adventure Reflections: Wrap-Up

What an adventure. So many miles traveled, wisdom gained, and personal growth has taken place during these past two weeks. I can vividly recall everyone sitting outside KWG 100 that first morning, eagerly awaiting what was to come and the cleanest we ever were. I have learned so much since then, and in the past hours as I have struggled to figure out how to sum up everything I want to say about this experience, I have realized that it’s almost impossible to put it all into words without writing a novel or two, but I will do my best here.

We were fortunate enough to visit two of the most beautiful and biologically diverse ecosystems in the world during our time in Belize: the tropical rainforest and the coral reef. Though these two ecosystems appeared very different to me at first, a closer examination revealed that they share many similarities. From the many layers of the rainforest canopy and the abundance of leaf litter canvasing the rainforest floor to the shallow sea grass beds and the wide range of coral structures in the reef, both ecosystems contain countless diverse niches and microhabitats that have the capabilities for a myriad of organisms and species flourish.

The coral reef
A glimpse up into the canopy of the Chiquibul Rainforest
A glimpse up into the canopy of the Chiquibul Rainforest

Along the same lines, the complexity and depth of both of these ecosystems are things that I feel I had an idea of before but didn’t truly grasp until I was totally immersed in them for the two weeks. For example, looking carefully at what appears to be a simple leaf-covered path in the forest can reveal several termites and beetle species under a log, a variety of arachnids skittering along the surface of the leaves, and snakes hidden just under them. Similarly, studying a mound of coral colonies might show Christmas tree worms burrowed into the polyps, sea urchins wedged into the crevices, and macroalgae growing in patches.

Experiencing it all firsthand really helped me understand how the numerous things living in both of those ecosystems are interconnected. Each species contributed something crucial to the ecosystem that they inhabited, and an environmental change that impacts one species undoubtedly impacts countless others as well. Learning about my two taxa played a role in this, with the beetles being important decomposers in the rainforest and the echinoderms being important prey and predators in the reef. Also interestingly and unexpectedly (for me at least) given the structural and organismal diversity present in these ecosystems, both of these ecosystems are fairly nutrient poor yet have managed to efficiently recycle nutrients to support their inhabitants.

In addition to the obvious species differences in these ecosystems, I noticed that the behaviors of the ‘dangerous’ species in each varied. While in the rainforest I was very wary of snakes and spiders, it turned out that most creatures would avoid you and we only saw one snake and few large mammals during our trip. On the other hand, the reefs were filled with things that simply hovered about unafraid of your presence (such as the jellyfish and lionfish).

The coral snake we saw during our night hike
The coral snake slinking around during the night hike
An upside-down jellyfish swimming around the mangroves
An upside-down jellyfish swimming around the mangroves

Throughout the course, I particularly enjoyed hearing from all of the guest lecturers and the constant exploration that occurred. I never felt bored, and everywhere I looked there was always something new and exciting to learn and see or someone with a unique perspective to talk to and learn from. If I had to choose a least favorite aspect of the course, it would probably be the amount of preparation that we had to do beforehand. Still, I can see how necessary and helpful all of it was.

I will no doubt remember how interlocked everything really is. Both within the ecosystems with the large trees and corals providing for the smaller species around them and outside of the ecosystems in our lives. As far removed as we might seem in our daily lives from either of those ecosystems, the things we do in our everyday lives leave a long lasting impact on the environment, as shown by the marine debris cleanup project that we did. As cliché as it sounds, this course also further reinforced the motto of hard work truly pays off. Hearing from a graduate student who spends hours sifting through photos from camera traps in the hopes of coming across a big cat snapshot about the simplicity of just remaining cheerful even when everything goes wrong is imprinted in my mind. Furthermore, I learned that working hard on your own is important, but it takes the efforts of many to manage the dynamics of conservation. Among the other lessons learned on this trip is that traipsing around in full body spandex dive skins is not actually as bad as it sounds, but putting it on is a struggle every time.

All in all, these past two weeks far exceeded my expectations. Not only did we have running water for the whole trip (well except for the time we were still in the states, ironically), but I also had countless opportunities to push past my comfort zones and see how incredible doing so could be. All of the sights and experiences were so much more beautiful than any textbook or online image could ever portray, and I am still in awe that I had the opportunity to witness it all.

Thanks for following along everyone; what an unbelizeably wonderful ride it’s been.


And that’s a wrap

This trip was one of the most amazing experiences of my life. Not only did I learn a ton, but I also discovered how fun and rewarding field biology can be.

In visiting both the tropical rainforests and coral reefs of Belize, we were able to experience the two most biologically diverse ecosystems on the planet. Though at first glance these ecosystems may seem very different, they actually share many characteristics that may contribute to their amazing biodiversity. Both tend to exist in the tropics (as seen by the existence of both in Belize), where stable temperatures, large amounts of sunlight, and/or long evolutionary lineages may contribute to extreme biodiversity. Additionally, both rainforests and coral reefs often exist in nutrient-poor environments, and thus nutrients are cycled through the communities rather efficiently.

The rainforest and coral reefs had incredible structural diversity. In general, the rainforest’s structure was provided mostly by plants, while the reef’s was provided mostly by coral colonies. With so much structural diversity comes the creation of a plethora of niches for species to inhabit, thus allowing for many species to exist in the same ecosystem. In both areas, we saw countless species from many different taxa, some of which seemed similar but in reality had slightly different ecological roles. The species compositions of the rainforest and coral reefs were of course very unique. For example, very few mammal species exist in the Belizean reef environments, but a large diversity of mammals exists in the Chiquibul forest.

One specific similarity that I noticed between the rainforest and reefs was the complexity of their trophic pyramids. For example, on a coral reef, a great barracuda could eat a Nassau grouper, who could eat a bluestriped grunt, who could eat a clam, who may filter feed on plankton. This complexity is very interesting, and as the “expert” on mammals and piscivorous fish, I found it really exciting to be able to observe some top predators in the wild.

The only thing that this course did not provide me with was a sighting of a wild jaguar (which only means I need to go back!). It really was everything I could have hoped for. There was more scientific methodology practice than I had expected, but I think this was very helpful for learning about how science works in the field. My favorite part of EBIO 319 was just being able to explore the rainforest ecosystem, whether through early morning walks or camera trap images. My least favorite part was probably the pre-trip preparation (which was a bit stressful), but I think it all paid off in the end.

Three of the most important things that I learned on this trip:
1) Living in a more sustainable way, by focusing on true needs (like hydrate or die) rather than superfluous wants, is incredibly rewarding and strengthening.
2) Seeing an elusive creature (such as a tayra) in the wild, even if it took hours or days of seeing nothing, is absolutely worth the effort.
3) Even with little sleep, few snacks, no internet, cold showers, limited electricity, and lots of ticks, field work felt rejuvenating!

Overall, a completely unbelizeable experience!
DSCN0071 (1)

Day 8: : A Heartfelt Departure from Las Cuevas

Today, I left my forest haven. It’s certainly been a wild ride with my cockroach buddies, witnessing firsthand the cockroach species of Belize. While I didn’t mean the farewell to be sentimental, sometimes nature has its own plans. As I prepared to pack my belongings onto the (very late) bus, I noticed a small cockroach that I had identified previously in my records running across the open clearing towards me. This was strange to me, as it was the middle of the day, and the roach was terribly exposed in the open field. It seemed in a bit of a hurry, so I let it keep on with its business. However, deep inside me, I almost felt a sentimental connection with the roach, bidding it farewell as I drove in the class bus to our new lodgings in preparation for Glover’s Reef.


We drove from Las Cuevas and stopped at the Belize Zoo Lodge after a few hours of finagling with a mixed up bus schedule. At the zoo, we had the opportunity to see up close the mammals that inhabited the forest surrounding the Las Cuevas research station (the Chiquibul forest). The zoo staff showed the various big cats like jaguars, ocelots, and pumas and shared the backstories behind how the zoo obtained these beautiful felines. Many of the creatures from the zoo were rescued by the forestry departments, either from neglectful pet owners or simply weaker individuals from the wild.


While today felt more like a luxury visit, complete with ice cold drinks and gift shops, I needed to remind myself that the tropical field biologist adventure is still ongoing.


Weird Science! (feat. Urine)

Today was a lab day primarily. We collected the traps from an experiment we set up yesterday that involved urine and insect death traps. I know it sounds odd, but it was totally normal for a tropical field biologist. The experimental design we used involved placing two pitfalls on tree trunks, one filled with plain soapy water and one filled with urine (common name: pee-pee). We also placed another pair of traps in the leaf litter to catch floor dwelling insects. All the arthropods (common name: creepy crawlies) that made the unfortunate choice of exploring these traps fell to their deaths.

Our aim was to compare the community composition and the species richness (how many unique species) and abundance (how many individual organisms) of both forest canopy and forest floor species. The urine component was put into our design to collect relevant data on the affinity to nitrogen (found in ammonia in urine) of arthropods in each habitat. Here’s a photo of all the morphospecies I identified!


There are plenty of crickets and their nymphs in this photo, all of which I have not identified to a species level, but rather characterized as unique by certain morphological characters. This process can be difficult because size can vary with age and color/markings with sex. This method of ID is inherently an estimate of true species richness/abundance.


While it may seem esoteric and boring, the data set we compiled after sixteen hours of sampling was truly enlightening. No single way of looking at this data was 100% correct or incorrect, but depending on the statistical methods our group drew radically different conclusions—just another confounding and thought provoking aspect of scientific methods. Complicated, but never boring, the “telling” of the story completely affects the “message” or “moral” of what you are saying. Even in after just under a day of collection we had a TON of information on our hands and it was up to us entirely to make sense of it. Truly exciting.

I am become sweat, destroyer of pants.

Another early morning. Five am birdwatching was fun to listen to as I was dreaming, and I woke up briefly when Adrienne screamed, shocked to find her son’s toy pupa in the secret compartment of her coffee thermos. It’s hard to explain what makes some of the funnier things from this trip so funny. Maybe its the delirium setting in but hey, a good time is a good time. I guess you would have to be here.

You also have to be here to see the Scarlett Macaw (segue!!) which we did after breakfast this morning. I can’t say exactly where we saw them, because revealing their locations to poachers who prowl the internet could endanger the safety of the small population that lives in Belize. I can’t even post images of them. Needless to say, their amazing creatures. Look them up.

Before long, our day of ardor had begun. We set twelve camera traps in multiple areas and along corridors, both manmade and natural, to compare the impact of humans on species richness and community composition. The hike totaled thirteen miles by the end of the day. Two pairs of boxer-briefs and twelve hours later, we finished. Along the way I spotted this little fella.


Taenipoda eques, the Horse Lubber Grasshopper. This one’s a nymph, so no wings yet. These get pretty big though, commonly over four or five inches long. They are poisonous as well, like yesterday’s Abel’s Katydid, the yellow markings tell predators to avoid this morsel. When they are threatened they also release a noxious liquid foam that deters any truly committed attacker. I also can do this when it’s hot out.


Also included is a picture of a Leaf Mimic Katydid. Family: Tettiigoniidae. She looks like a dead leaf! Wow!


P.S. The title is because my pants are destroyed with sweat— somehow that has to do with Oppenheimer creating the atom bomb. Like I said the delirium is setting in and I think it’s time for bed.