Today began like any other day at Las Cuevas Research Station – with a 6:30 am breakfast. However, today was very different.
Rather than spending the morning in the field, my class and I spent it in a van. We departed from Las Cuevas and are en route to the airport.
Outside my window, I got a glimpse of the tall angiosperm trees that composed the rainforest transition suddenly to the pines characteristic of the mountain pine ridge ecosystem.
Further along, we stopped at a gift shop and a kitschy touristy restaurant. These served as reminders of why I am going to miss Belize so much. Belize is authentic, expressive, passionate, and in touch with reality. These attributes are rarities in the highly commercialize American culture with which I am so familiar.
We arrive at the airport, and I finally said goodbye to Belize, a country that I had had the privilege to explore the past two weeks.
Now I am back home. Like the trees of the rainforest that sharply transitioned into pine, I have to sharply transition from a tropical field biologist to an American college student. After all, I have meetings all day tomorrow and even more work the day after that.
I miss Belize already – the liveliness of the reefs, the vastness of the forest, the inhibition of the night sky, the friendliness of the people.
I know one day I will go back. I’m looking forward to it.
Today was the last day of EBIO 319, and tomorrow I will be back in my own bed. That’s pretty wild because it does not feel like two weeks have passed.
We left Las Cuevas around 8 this morning to head towards the Belize City Airport. Since we left early, I had time to bird watch, but I didn’t get a chance to see other forms of wildlife or any orthoptera. We stopped at a souvenir shop on the way, but I didn’t end up buying anything. We also stopped at Cheers Restaurant before we got to the airport. The food there was really cheap and our spending limit was really high, so I ended up getting a jumbo sized watermelon juice because I was way below the limit. I’m pretty sure they juiced an entire watermelon to make it. It was quite delicious.
After we got to the airport and went through security, I got called up to the gate to be randomly screened. I got all patted down and had my things nosed through, but it was okay because I got to board the plane before everybody else. The same thing happened to Ellie too, so we were able to save four rows so that we could all sit together.
My first interactions with Americans (besides those in EBIO 319) were very unpleasant as a result of this. First the flight attendant asked if Ellie or I wanted to date her son. Then lots of grumpy people glared at us and muttered things under their breaths as the plane got more crowded because the rest of the class was all in the very last boarding group and they didn’t like that we were saving so many seats.
I was asleep for most of the van and plane rides. This was good because we all stayed up late last night and then got up at 5 this morning to bird watch, so I definitely needed the rest. But, this was bad because I apparently sleep with my eyes open and in oddly contorted positions, so now lots of pictures of this exist.
I am very exhausted, and it’s time for me to go to bed. Tomorrow morning, I’ve got to go back to the airport, and then I’ll be finally home.
Today was the second to last travel day of our trip. We reached Las Cuevas and will stay here until the 30th when we’ll head back to the airport in Belize City.
The drive was mostly through the Pine Ridge Forest and the Chiquibul Rainforest. To break it up, we stopped in the Rio-On pools midmorning. This was for us to get an idea of the karstist geological features of Belize and to swim and enjoy ourselves.
At Rio-On, there were a lot of granite rocks with small pools and waterfalls between them. It was fun to scramble around on the rocks and try and slide down the waterfalls. We stayed there about twice as long as we were supposed to, but nobody seemed to mind.
When we got to Las Cuevas, we learned that the cave here is closed. The worst part of this is that we all brought caving helmets and we aren’t going to ever use them. At least we got to see the ATM cave already. We also learned that there isn’t Internet here, which is why all these posts are going to go up at once.
Shortly after arriving, we went on a short hike on a trail near the station. We saw ceiba, cedar, acacia, sapodilla, Gumbo-limbo, and prickly yellow trees. We also saw fish tail palms, a plant that is often illegally extracted by Guatemelons for the floral business.
I saw two species of Orthoptera, which surprised me. One I think was a species of Leaf-mimic katydid (Mimica spp.) The other one I couldn’t confidently identify yet but it might have been Amblytropidia trinitatis.
Tomorrow we are forming a question that we are going to answer with camera traps, and we’re going to spend most of the day setting them up throughout the forest. I think it is going to involve a lot of walking, which I am not looking forward to because my foot still hurts from when I stepped on a conch.
Today we went to Actun Tunichil Muknal archeological reserve. Here we hiked into a cave that was used for Mayan sacrifices and has lots of well-preserved artifacts and human remains. I did not see any Orthoptera.
To get to where the artifacts and remains were, we had to swim and scramble our way through the cave. The guide said I had to wear the top I had been carrying out of respect to the ancient Mayans, so it was real frigid being in the cave because the rivers were so cold and my clothes were so wet.
Nevertheless, it was crazy to be inside of such a sacred place, especially since we could see the vessels and victims of sacrifices all around us and knew that only the most elite Mayans would ever enter the cave. As neat and memorable as it was, I kind of felt like it was inappropriate for us tourists to be climbing around in there, given the religious significance the cave has.
Maneuvering through the cave was pretty complicated because it involved a lot of climbing up tall structures and fitting our heads through small cracks. At some point when we were climbing, Deepu scraped his leg and bled some. When we were in the cave, our guide taught us about bloodletting, a process in which people would slit themselves with obsidian blades or stingray barbs and offer their own blood to the Gods, so we were joking about how Deepu was partaking in bloodletting. It was really eerie when we emerged from the cave to see that it had just started to pour as if Deepu’s sacrifice to Chaac, the rain God, had worked.
After we left the cave, we drove to Crystal Paradise Resort where we are spending tonight before going on to Las Cuevas. On the way we stopped in the town of San Ignacio. There I bought a bag of grapes and tried a baby banana. Also, I made Therese go ask a man with a produce stand if we could have some of the oranges that had fallen out of his truck. I think he took pity on us because he just gave her two fresh ones. These are some of the advantages of having a TA.
Today was another travelling day. We left Glover’s in the morning to head back to the mainland. We did one last snorkel on the way back through the mangroves at Twin Caye. There, we saw a manatee, a yellow seahorse, a magnificent feather duster worm, and a lot of upside down jellyfish. I also saw some Caulerpa algae, and many of the algae species I’d seen around the patch reefs.
The other place we stopped on the way back was Carrie Bow Caye, the Smithsonian Research Center. It was cool to meet the volunteer station manager, Clive, and hear about the research going on there.
Once we got back to the mainland, we went back to the Tropical Education Center where we are staying again tonight. We spent the evening at the Belize Zoo and got an amazing tour. We saw five big cats, including a jaguar that did somersaults for us. We also fed a tapir and two crocodiles.
The last thing we did tonight was talk with Lucrecia, who is in Belize to do cat research and took EBIO 319 last year. It was good to see her because we ran cross country together in the fall but she spent the spring semester in Tanzania, and it sounds like she has been doing some really cool stuff.
Tomorrow we are going to a cave. I’m sure it is going to be awesome, but I’m still a little sad that we aren’t at the reef anymore.
As neat as the Belize City Airport and the Tropical Education Center were, today is when the real fun stuff started. We woke up at the crack of dawn to meet our boat in Belize City and were on our way by 8. The boat trip was idyllic because the skies were completely clear and the ride was very smooth. The water was a mosaic of different shades of blue, and we could see Mayan Mountains on the horizon. In terms of wildlife, we first saw flying fish and a green turtle. The green turtle sighting was especially special, and he was huge!
Actually being at Glover’s Reef is pretty wild because I’ve been wanting to come here for so long. Actually diving here is equally wild because it’s the first time I’ve been on a reef with any grain of legitimate knowledge whatsoever with regards to reef life.
After touring the island, eating, and getting settled in the cabins, we did a little “scavenger hunt” on a patch reef to make sure everyone was comfortable in the water. That was quite refreshing after 22 hours of feeling sticky. I saw a lot of stony corals, gorgonians, vase sponges, seagrass, and herbivorous fish all over the patch. Some of the highlights of things that I saw were an Angelfish, a Barracuda, a Manta Ray, and a Feather Duster Polychaete.
While all these things were quite neat, they could not compare with the Green Algae that I saw!! (I am obligated to be excited about green algae for the duration of this trip but they actually are kind of exciting). Since they were in the sand, rather than on the reef itself, I could get really close to the algae to examine them without worrying about kicking and harming any organisms.
I saw a few species that I know were types of Penicillus. I immediately recognized some Rhipocephalus phoenix when I swam up to it because it really did look like a pinecone! I think I also saw some Penicillus pyriformis. Then I saw an Udotea algae that I think was Udotea flabellum, but it didn’t quite match what I was expecting for either of the Udotea species I had on my card.
Later on, I saw some Halimeda that I guessed may have been Halimeda discoidea. I know for sure that it was Halimeda because I found calcium carbonate Halimeda chips around it.
After the snorkeling, Adrienne took us back to a big heap of coral skeletons on the other side of the island. Apparently it’s super rare for there to be so many skeletons so well preserved and so easily accessible, so that was neat. I don’t think I’ve seen anyone as excited in a graveyard before as Adrienne was. It was a good way to practice identifying stony corals and to clarify the differences between species with similar morphologies by comparing them side by side.
In the evening, Jordan lectured us on the Stony Coral taxon group which bettered our familiarity a bit more. Mikey lectured on Echinoderms which was a lot of new information. I didn’t see any Echinoderms today, but now that I know what to look for I think I’ll be able to spot some tomorrow.
The last thing we did for tonight was make the quadrats we are going to use tomorrow. That was not particularly noteworthy except for the fact that I got my very first wound of the class by stabbing my thumb with a pair of scissors. The trauma was minimal and I’m expecting to survive but I’m sporting a nice little Bandaid for now.
Today has been a long day of travel. Fortunately though, everything went smoothly! I can only hope that tomorrow’s boat ride is equally lacking in complications.
We left Rice a little after 10:30 this morning and loaded on a bus to go to Hobby Airport. Even though our flight didn’t leave until 2:30, the five hours we gave ourselves ended up to be just the right amount of time. As I’m learning, everything goes slower when you’re part of a group of fourteen.
Even though I was in one of the later boarding groups, I managed to snag a window seat. Most of the trip we were flying over the Gulf of Mexico. I fell asleep for a good chunk of the flight, but luckily when I woke up I could see boats below so I assumed we must be nearing the land, and I got to get a glimpse of Mexico’s gulf coast as the land reappeared.
I thought I remembered reading in the textbook for this course that we would fly over the Chiquibul as we approached the Belize City Airport, but I only saw agricultural plots with some trees in between. Maybe I wasn’t looking at the right time, or maybe the author came from a different direction.
Once we landed in Belize City, got our luggage, and got through customs, we got on another bus to head to the place we’re staying for tonight. We also stopped at a supermarket to pick up some snacks.
We are staying for tonight at The Belize Zoo’s Tropical Education Center. We got in just around dinner time, so although they showed us the trails, pond, and observation deck we did not get to do much before dark. However, we’ll be back here again at the midpoint of our trip before we head to Las Cuevas Research Station.
Just walking around the gravel trails here though, we did see a little bit of fauna. I did not see any Green Algae or Orthoptera species, but it was cool to see other people in the class recognize species from their assigned taxa groups.
We saw a green iguana snacking on some leaves in a tree right over the trail. There was also a lot of leaf cutter ants, to the point where there was a sign warning us of their traffic corridors. We saw a lot of epiphytes around the trail on the many trees here. We are in a savanna environment, but at least in the near vicinity of where we’re staying there is much denser vegetation than I would expect for a savanna. Although, driving here we passed a lot of ‘classic savanna’ scenery: sparse short trees, grasses, and very flat land.
Right in the middle of our cabin, we also saw a little toad. It would be great if all the Orthoptera and algae species got the memo and were to show up right by my bed in the coming days, but my hopes are not high.
This time tomorrow, I will be in Belize. That’s pretty wild, but to be honest it really hasn’t hit me yet. I have been putting so much of my time and thought into preparing for the trip that I haven’t had time to really think about what an exciting and fun experience it’s going to be.
As far as expectations go, I sure hope that the course itself will be less stressful than the time leading up to it has been. I am really excited to get to spend a lot of time on the reef, and I am expecting that I will be able to appreciate it much more than any other snorkel trip I’ve been on. While I’ve visited reefs several times before, I never have been able to experience one through the eyes of being a tropical field biologist! I’m especially excited because I learned so much about reefs in the Coral Reef Ecosystems class this past semester. I’m expecting to see a lot of things that I won’t recognize initially, but I hope by the end of the week on the reef I’ll have a much better idea of what I’m looking at.
In the rain forest, I expect to learn a lot. I’m expecting the days there (and the days on the reef too, I’m sure) to be extremely tiring, so I’m hoping I don’t have any gear issues that make things at all more difficult. I think the last time I was in a rain forest I hadn’t realized that I was blind yet, so I couldn’t see anything. I still don’t have the best eye for detail, but now that I wear contacts I can actually see and I’m hoping I’ll be able to notice things hiding in the trees or underbrush (especially snakes!!)
What I’m hoping to learn from this course is what it’s like to be a field biologist because that’s something I’ve always wanted to do. I’m also excited to learn about the intricacies of the rain forest and the coral reef, two of the world’s most amazing and threatened ecosystems. In preparing for this course, I took Dr. Correa’s class ‘Coral Reef Ecosystems.’ I’m really hoping I’ll be able to apply what I learned last semester to the reef we’ll be studying, and that I didn’t forget too much of the course material by this point in the summer. I’ve also taken other basic EBIO courses, and hopefully those prepared me well in terms of field techniques we might use in the rain forest.
I am nervous that I will not be able to spot any Orthoptera species at all. I am also nervous that I’m going to have trouble identifying species, of both Orthoptera and Green Algae. I’m also nervous about having difficulty staying underwater long enough to get anything done. Luckily, I have prior experience with snorkeling so I’m quite comfortable with that, it’s just the time spent underwater where I struggle sometimes. I’m also nervous that I will be ill prepared in some way. I really really hope I did not forget anything important.
I have a little previous experience in the Tropics, but only as a quite young tourist. I visited the Cloud Forest in Costa Rica with my family one time. I’ve also been to Mexico and snorkeled on reefs and in cenotes in the Yucatan more recently.
I am most excited about seeing unique tropical organisms. I want to see some Christmas tree worms, and maybe some Parrotfish on the reef. In the rainforest, it’d be amazing to see a scarlet macaw, a monkey, or a big cat, but I know that probably won’t happen. And as long as they don’t bite me, I’m exciting to see the snake species we saw during our visit to the Houston Zoo Herpetology exhibit. Finally, I’m exciting to grow close to my fellow Tropical Field Biology Classmates. I can’t believe this course is about to start!
Even on our way to the airport we managed to squeeze in one last snorkel. This time we went to the mangroves and swam around their roots, which many organisms use as a substrate to grow on. Fish also use mangroves as a nursery where they are fairly sheltered from larger predators. Upside-down jellies bobbed along the bottom of the sea bed and fire sponge glowed orange through the murky water.
I finally saw the magnificent feather duster, recognizable by its larger size and double crown of radioles. Their tubes were attached to the mangrove roots, among the encrusting algae, sponges and hydroids. They were various shades of brown and white and tucked their filter-feeding radioles into their tubes if you touched them. Unlike the other feather dusters I’ve seen, they didn’t tuck their radioles in all the way, and the tips of the crown poked out of the tube. I am guessing this is because they are too big to fit all the way in.
Time has never passed so quickly as it did on this trip. We were so busy and there was so much to do and see that the two weeks were over before I knew it. I was never bored for a second. Being back in Houston is so strange and claustrophobic. I already miss the fresh air and pristine nature. I’d take that over clean laundry any day!
Today we experienced some unforeseen vehicular complications but we all came our the other side as weathered tfb’s (tropical field biologists). We’re spending the night at this beautiful lodge right next to the Belize zoo. Last night we were taken on a night tour of the zoo to see all the nocturnal animals at their most active. This meant jaguars, a puma, an ocelot, a margay, paca, and a tapir. It was truly incredible, I feel very lucky to have gotten to get so close to these beautiful big-cats. The jaguars have huge heads to crush their prey’s skull, but you can’t appreciate how big and powerful they are until they’re right in front of you. I couldn’t wipe the smile off my face.
Tomorrow we make our way out to Glovers reef! Soon I will be updating you on annelids rather than amphibians (still no more of those by the way). If you are curious as to what those are, I’d look up christmas tree worms and social feather dusters. Those are my favorites and they are not at all what you would expect worms to look like, they’re actually quite beautiful.