Tag Archives: trees

In the Corals and the Trees (Reflection Post) with species lists

The coral reef and the rainforest are the most diverse marine and terrestrial ecosystems, respectively. They both represent what seems on the surface a paradox—nutrient poor soils in the rainforest and nutrient poor waters in the reef, despite the incredible diversity of organisms in each place. Coral reefs actually rely on the low nutrient density of the water, because when there are more nutrients available, algae tends to outcompete corals. In the rainforest, the nutrient poor soils are due to the rapid nutrient cycling and wide diversity of decomposers facilitated by high temperatures and rainfall and necessary for the incredible growth present there. In addition, my taxon groups in the rainforest and on the reef were somewhat parallel: the trees in the forest and the corals on the reef. Each of these is the foundation of the ecosystem, photosynthesize (or have a symbiotic relationship with photosynthesizing organisms), and are incredibly abundant.

I took the wide diversity of each species as a challenge, and tried to identify as many as I could, although in each case some of the organisms looked incredibly similar to one another and occupied similar niches.

Unfortunately, when I set out to take this course, I saw the obstacle of my food allergies first and any academic challenges second. The result of this was that I was thoroughly prepared to avoid food allergens, and less prepared for the actual coursework. Despite this, I learned more in these two weeks than I think I ever have in two weeks before in my life: about the rainforest, the reef, and research in the field. Interestingly (maybe this is TMI) I have a skin condition and thought it would get worse on the trip. It did the opposite and flared up as soon as we returned to Houston. Allergies also turned out to be easy to deal with, as the cooks on the island and in the rainforest were very careful and had limited ingredients in the kitchen to begin with (fewer contaminants).

It’s hard to choose a favorite part of the course. We saw spider monkeys shaking trees at us to get us to go away (we just thought they were cute); a tapir on one of our camera traps (we all cheered!), scarlet macaws almost every day in the rainforest, the inside of a leafcutter ant nest. I think the most intriguing things I saw were zombie ants. Zombie ants are ants that are infected with a fungus that somehow compels the ant to climb up (in this case on a palm). The ant then clings to the inside of the palm and slowly dies as the fungus eats it from the inside out, then sends out a fruiting body (mushroom). We saw several of these, and some ants that were still moving but appeared lost on the bottom of palm leaves, possibly controlled by the fungus. The phenomenon is incredible and frightening, as when I’ve related it to friends and family one of the first questions they ask is “can that infect humans?!” The answer to that question is no. At least, no known fungus will do that to humans.

In addition to the course content, I think we all learned how to split up the work to get something done, and not obsess about the details (for those of us inclined to do so). For example, the first research project we did took all day to analyze. We spent the morning making sure each morphospecies (“species” identified as “species A” based on observable characteristics when the species name is unimportant) was carefully identified, and the entire afternoon making a poster. We had all of our graphs on a laptop instead of the poster itself, and had the one person with some of the best handwriting and drawing skills (Liz) draw the entire poster (no printing facilities in the jungle!). By the end of the two weeks, we could whip up a poster in a few hours, max. A few people would work on each section, and at least two people would write and draw on the poster. We were much more efficient, and still conveyed our work effectively.

Scott requested a species count for each taxon in the reflection post, so here those are:


Elephant Ear/ Guanacaste (Enterlobium cyclocarpum)

Trumpet tree (Cecropia peltata)

Caribbean Pine (Pinus caribaea)

Rosewood (Dalbergia stevensonii)

Billy Webb (Sweetia panamensis)

Nargusta (Terminalia amazonica)

Mahogany (Swietenia macrophylla)

Spanish Cedar (Cedrela odorata)

Bull Thorn Acacia / Bullhorn Acacia (Acacia/Vachellia cornigera)

Basket Tie-Tie (Desmonicus schippii)

Banana (Musa sapientum/paradisiaca)

Prickly Yellow (Zanthoxylum sp.)

White Poisonwood (Sebastiana tuerckheimiana)

Black Poisonwood (Metopium Browneii) (Tropical Education Center)

Fiddlewood (Vitex gaumeri)

Kapik/Ceiba (Ceiba pentandra)

Horse’s Balls Tree (Stemmadenia donnell-smithii)

Guava (Psidium guajava)

White oak sp. (Quercus insignis) (Tropical Education Center)

Sapodilla/Chicle (Manilhara zapota)

Give-and-Take Palm (Crysophila staurocantha)

Gumbolimbo/ Tourist Tree (Bursera simaruba)

Jobillo (Astronium graveolens)

Bay Cedar (Guazuma ulmifolia)



Elkhorn Coral (Acropora palmata)

Staghorn Coral (Acropora cervicornis)

Mustard Hill Coral (Porites astreoides)

Thin Finger Coral (Porites divaricata)

Grooved Brain Coral (Pseudodiploria labyrinthiformis)

Boulder Brain Coral (Colpophyllia natans)

Pillar Coral (Dendrogyra cylindrus)

Symmetrical Brain Coral (Pseudodiploria strigosa)

Golfball Coral (Favia fragum)

Lettuce Coral (Agaricia sp.)

Mountainous Star Coral (Orbicella faveolata)

Massive Starlet Coral (Siderastrea siderea)

Additional Siderastrea sp., maybe stellata, dead coral

Boulder Star Coral (Montastrea cavernosa)

Day 2: Tour of the Caracol ruins

On the way from the Crystal Paradise Ecolodge to the Chiquibul forest and Las Cuevas Research Station, we stopped in two different places: Rio on Pools (in the Mountain Pine Ridge) and the ruins of Caracol, and ancient Mayan city.


At Rio on Pools I took several pictures of trees that I want to identify when I get a chance (during daylight hours, when I can read the field guide). Of course, we saw the Caribbean Pine, which characterizes the Mountain Pine Ridge. For anyone reading this who does not know the regions of Belize, a ‘ridge’ is a description of a general area/ecosystem and not an actual landform of high elevation. I spent most of the time taking pictures, alternating between the trees and my classmates.

Rio On Pools
Rio On Pools

The Caracol experience was more notable in terms of learning about the region. The first time Scott came on this trip, he did not go to the ruins, but local people told him that it was entirely unreasonable to be this close to the ruins and not see them. The palace at the ruins of the ancient Maya city is the tallest building in Belize, and from the top (of course we climbed it!) you can see Guatemala. We learned quite extensively about the Maya for a few hours (religion, culture, social structures).


Caracol, from the top of the tallest palace/pyramid

We also saw tons of trees. Our guide pointed out the Kapok or Ceiba tree (Ceiba pentandra) and the fluff that comes from the seed pods that I think he said was used as padding, for example in a mattress. The tree also has huge buttress roots extending from the sides that serve several purposes, including structural support and nutrient absorption. [insert picture here]

Kapok tree (Ceiba pentandra)

We also saw today:

A few more trees at the Maya site: Cohune palm (Attalea cohune), Fishtail palm (Chamaedorea sp.), more Trumpet tree (Cecropia peltata), relationship with guarding ant species, a Strangler fig (Ficus sp.), and some Montezuma Oropendolas (Psarocolius montezuma).

Fishtail Palm, Chamaedora sp.

At Las Cuevas: a Cedar (Cedrela odorata), A Scarlet Macaw (Ara macao) and a Social Flycatcher (Myiozetetes similis).

We don’t have internet today because of the weather. It appears that the rainy season has started early this year. We will get to see how that effects the visibility of our focus species.

Day 3: Monkeys and the Monkey Tail Trail

Today we set up the camera traps for our week-long research project. We are testing the impact of the human disturbance at the research station is significant on diversity of animal species, so we will count species and individuals caught on the traps over the week. Setting up the traps involved hiking multiple trails in the area, so we saw a lot of wildlife.

This morning we hiked to a 50 hectare plot, which is an area marked for research purposes, to set up three cameras in that direction at 15 minute walking intervals. Onn the way there, we saw a mahogany and a fiddlewood tree, which were marked by the research station. In terms of trees, we saw Give-and-Take palms, another spiny palm called a Basket Tie-Tie, several Gumbolimbo trees, and at least a few Sapodilla. We also saw a small tree that I thought might be a Poisonwood tree, but it was too small to tell for certain. I was using leaf characteristics for identification—none of us were willing volunteers to test out the burning properties of the caustic sap.

Chicle/Sapodilla (Manilhara zapota) with slash marks from harvesting sap for chewing gum

On the same walk, we also saw spider monkeys for the first time. They remained high up in the branches, but hung around to look at us. It seemed they were as curious about us as we were about them. “Observe how poorly acclimated to the forest are these humans,” their tour guide could say. And that would be true, although Scott said we would find the hiking easier at the end of our stay here. We did not measure distance, but we spent a few hours in the morning and another few in the afternoon hiking out to place the cameras.

In the afternoon we hiked the Monkey Tail Trail. It was threatening rain, but we only got a few drops and a few distant thunderclaps. It is possible that the rain was captured higher in the canopy by epiphytes (some of these are known as airplants) or other organisms and did not reach us on the rainforest floor. The trees we saw on this hike included more Gumbolimbo. I could see why this was called the tourist tree. It is given the name because it is red and peeling like the sunburn of a tourist unaccustomed to the intensity of the sun here. It is also used locally as a remedy for a range of ailments from colds to gastrointestinal problems to measles to sunstroke. We also saw the Bull Thorn Acacia, which has hollow pairs of thorns in the shape of a bull’s horns which are inhabited by ants. The tree produces food and provides shelter for the ants in a way that induces the ants to defend the tree as they would any other nest. As a result, if you disturb the tree (especially if you break a thorn), you may be attacked by ants. This protects the tree from predators and describes a symbiotic relationship because both species involved benefit.

In addition to some interesting beetles, we came back from the hike with quite a few ticks each. Apparently ticks here don’t carry any serious diseases, but are mostly a nuisance. Picking them up today was the result of travelling an overgrown trail, and especially affected those who were not wearing insect repellant and/or were not trying as much to avoid brushing against the brush.

Note: We still have very limited wifi and may not be able to post at regular intevals.

Day 4: Getting Our Rainforest Legs

Scott said that after a few days of hiking in the rainforest, we would start to feel more energetic and less exhausted. This despite our full days. I think a few of us are starting to feel this. Today started with more bird watching, for everyone else. I slept through bird watching and went to breakfast at 7 instead. Right after breakfast and until lunch we set up an experiment to determine nitrogen limitation on the forest floor versus in the canopy by using human urine. Where did we get human urine? Guess.

We set up vials of urine and water along a straight trail every 200m. We also saw a cave full of what might have been Leaf-Nosed Bats, another Cedar tree (Cedrela odorata), and a Bay Cedar (Guazuma ulmifolia). Liz still has yet to catch a Blue Morpho butterfly, but we can identify them well from a distance. They are an iconic rainforest animal.

The bark of the Spanish Cedar (Cedrela Odorata)

In the afternoon we went to a cave and held the day’s lectures in it. The cave was home to an ancient Maya religious site, and walls and platforms built by the Maya for ceremonies are still standing today. On some platforms Mayan pottery remains. We also saw either swallows or some other bird nesting in the entrance. There were cave crickets and a millipede, and many interesting formations, in the cave.

In the evening we went on a short night hike (not too far from the station clearing) looking for night creatures. Much of the fauna of the rainforest is more active at night than during the day. We saw a Central American Tree Snake, lots of colorful beetles, moths, a scorpion, a tailless whip scorpion (not actually a scorpion, though an arachnid), leaf cutter ants, an orb weaver and some crickets. We also saw a Wolf Spider with its abdomen absolutely coated with little baby spiders. This stage does not last long, so we were lucky to see it. What we saw at first was a yellow shine where the eyes of the spider were and what looked like a huge abdomen with green glitter. Those were the eyes of all the baby spiders.

Wolf spider with babies crawling all over its abomen (green glitter = eyes)

Day 5: A Research Project in a Day

Rainforest Canopy

Today we spent the whole day on the pitfall trap research project. We had tied some vials of urine and water to trees and buried some in the ground to collect arthropods (briefly, bugs) and compare diversity between the canopy and the ground. We collected the tubes in the morning starting around 7am, finished an inventory by noon, and spent all afternoon until 5pm making a poster and presentation which we then presented to Amanda and Scott. We were all getting pretty tired by the end of the day, and some of us started giggling with I assume relief at the end of the presentation.

We didn’t see any new trees today, but I identified a Bay Cedar (to be fair, it is also marked with a sign along one of the trails) (Guazuma ulmifolia). I found it in a field guide using the fruit. The small, spiky fruits smell like honey and are a source of fodder for grazing animals in the dry season. However, apparently small children tend to eat them, and in large quantities they can lead to constipation, which leads to names probably coined by the parents such as stuck-up-da-butt nut or plugabutt.

We saw some more cedars this morning. They are called Spanish Cedars (Cedrela odorata), but here they are just referred to as cedars. The bark has long vertical ridges and can have darker valleys, an identification similar to that of corals (my reef taxon group!). It is easiest to identify them as large trees, and there are several such along the various trails. We have at least seen them on the “flagpole” trail to the 50-hectare plot and the Maya trail. There is also one in the clearing right in front of the cabin.

This evening we saw a lot of cool stuff. That could describe any day, but today Kaela showed me some nightjars that I identified with the help of a guidebook and Scott’s knowledge of local bird names. Apparently it was a Pauraque, which is pronounced “par-ahq.” I thought it was “pear-uh-quay” or “pear-uh-kay.” I’m learning all sorts of new things on this trip.

Day 6: The Poisonwood Tree

We spent the whole day today working on more research projects, then hiked to the bird tower for the sunset in the evening.

Morning: Assessing differences in plant diversity between hurricane disturbed and undisturbed areas using sampling along transects in disturbed and undisturbed areas. From this we could not reject a null hypothesis that the diversity was the same between disturbed and undisturbed areas (couldn’t say for sure whether there was a difference at all).

Afternoon: Assessing the toughness of young Trumpet Tree (Cecropia peltata) as a protection against herbivory before colonization by Aztec ants. To do this, we had to measure the toughness of many trees of this species with a specialized tool, including trees colonized by ants. The bite of these ants isn’t too bad—speaking from experience here—but we each exposed ourselves to them as we each tested the leaves of a one tree colonized and one uncolonized by ants. We had to bend the trees down because they are very tall—I will attach a picture here—and this would cause the ants to rain down on us. Once we finished, we also had to climb over ant covered trunks that we had felled across the trail.

It is worth noting that we did not at any point go through the rainforest felling trees on a whim. This Cecropia species is a pioneer species, meaning it grows rapidly and colonizes sunny areas, so in a way it is accustomed to recovering from destruction. Most of the ones we severed were fairly young, as well, and we avoided damaging the trees where possible.

In the evening we went to the bird tower. On the way up we finally saw a White Poisonwood tree (Sebastiana tuerckheimiana)! The tree has had a few other scientific names, but this appears to be the most accepted version. It is not a widespread species and can be confused with the other poisonwood tree in Belize, the Black Poisonwood (Metopium brownei). Poisonwood trees are felled only by brazen individuals who are accustomed to the effects of the extremely caustic sap which can be found in many parts of the tree, most notably, of course, the trunk. However, it is highly sought after by some carvers and woodworkers for the exceptionally hard and smooth wood. I was excited to finally see the infamous tree from a safe distance.

White Poisonwood tree (Sebastiana tuerckheimiana)

We also saw a Cedar (Cedrela odorata) again. This time I recognized it by its pods, which pop open, the casing forming a four-pointed star with a small nut in the middle. I then looked up and saw the tree. It seems to grow in more exposed areas, but all of the ones I have identified are quite large, so it is difficult to tell what the surrounding area might have looked like when the tree was young. I have also seen them deep in the forest, however.

We had an amazing view from the top of the bird tower, but sadly the sun was obscured by clouds. I will include a picture when I have one. Someone commented that we could see nothing from the top of the hill, especially without climbing the tower, but we saw a few animals while there as well as the view. Of course, we were still surrounded by trees! There is always something new to see here.


We spent this morning retracing our steps from Day 2 to collect our camera traps, but were kept in suspense all day as to what we had caught on them. Scott did not seem optimistic, because on some traps there were only 12 or 13 captures, about the number he would expect from triggering them ourselves by walking past.

In the afternoon we analyzed our data measuring the leaf toughness of Cecropia trees, also called Trumpet tree (Cecropia peltata). Because of the variation in the penetrometer we were using, we didn’t have conclusive results surrounding the correlation between leaf toughness and colonization by ants. Scott also said that in prior years, he had not found such large individual trees lacking colonization by the mutualistic Azteca ants. A queen of the ant species usually colonizes the tree when it is rather small, then there is a delay while eggs the queen lays hatch into workers. They live in the tree because it has a chambered stalk that provides shelter and the tree also has extra-floral nectaries, which essentially means that it provides food for the ants as well. So, when herbivores threaten their home, the ants attack, which benefits the plant. What we were investigating (inconclusively) was whether the leaves might be tougher in trees not colonized by ants yet because they would have to defend themselves against herbivory.

I did some research during the break we took after this and realized that the tree we were working with was Cecropia peltata and not Cecropia obtusifolia, which was the species on my taxon ID card. The clarifying difference was the greater depth between the fingers on the leaves of C. obtusifolia. The leaf overall has a hand shape.

Trumpet tree (Cecropia peltata)

I also figured out that a small tree / bush in the clearing where we saw the scarlet macaws the other day is a guava tree (Psidium guajava). I was befuddled by the identification keys in the Costa Rica and Panama book, but figured it out using the Belize guide. I was able to figure out that it was in the Myrtle family (Myrtaceae) from the first field guide, but I didn’t figure out the exact plant until I dropped the rather worn, thin version of the Belize guide. It had gotten wet a few times, and pages were falling out. On putting the pages back in order, I saw the guava fruit. I pulled the other one out of my pocket to compare, and it was the same. I got the family right, too! I know much more about the trees here on a family level than I do those at home in Texas.

When we finally got around to checking the images on the camera traps in the evening, it was immediately after two presentations, on the biogeography of the region as a whole (including Caribbean) and on mammals. The lecture on mammals turned out to be relevant; we saw a silhouette that may have been a puma, a rainforest rat of some kind, a few birds including a Curassow, and a tapir! Tapirs are huge mammals with long snouts and are herbivores. Apparently, they aren’t aggressive, but like many large mammals, they could hurt you unintentionally. Scott relayed a story of being bitten by a friendly one in Brazil. When he got back to the research station, they said, “oh, you met [name of the tapir]?” Apparently it was often fed, and if you didn’t feed it, it would nip you. Anyway, we got a pretty good image of the tapir, and our results generally supported the hypothesis that the wildlife stays away from the immediate area around the camp—the nearest cameras did not catch much, while the farther ones caught tapir, puma, a skunk, an opossum, and the others mentioned above.

Tapir on the camera trap!

Day 8: A jaguar does somersaults

Today we left Las Cuevas very early in the morning. From there, we drove three hours to the ATM cave. ATM is an abbreviation for a Mayan phrase Actun Tunichil Muknal meaning roughly a cave with a stone tomb in it (or, Cave of the Stone Sepulcher). We crossed a river several times and then had to swim into the cave—the water was too deep to wade. After winding through several half-submerged crevasses, we climbed up a steep “cliff” of rock and were asked to remove our water shoes. The reason for this was that people without shoes on are more careful about where they step.

We saw increasing levels of Mayan artifacts after that point, which were sacrifices they made primarily to the rain god. The age of these artifacts was from 700 to 900 AD. First, there were pot shards, then whole pots (they would puncture a hole in them to make sure they would not be taken and reused). After that, we saw a bowl of a type used for bloodletting ceremonies, then finger bones, then a skull. Then the skull of a baby. Then, finally, in the last chamber we entered, we found an entire skeleton that looked as though it had fallen into position.

The escalating sacrifices may have been caused by increasing levels of drought and hardship caused by increasing deforestation. The Maya turned to the rain god, and the way they knew to appease the god was to sacrifice. They raised the value of the sacrifice and would go deeper into the cave because the caves are considered to be closer to the underworld.

When we arrived at the Tropical Education Center, our intermediate stop between the Las Cuevas Research Station and Glover’s Reef, I immediately noticed the birds. There were a couple of flycatchers similar to the Social Flycatchers we saw at Las Cuevas nesting in a Caribbean Pine (Pinus caribbaea). One fo the nesting pair was sitting next to the nest, and the other in a nearby trumpet tree (Cecropia peltata). The pines are much more common here—the only one I remember from Las Cuevas was in the clearing, and may have been planted. The reason the pines are more common here is that we are in a different region here, the Pine Savannah. This is the same region we went through to get to Las Cuevas, where the savannah was burning in patches because it is still the end of the dry season.

We went on an evening tour of the zoo, and we each held a boa constrictor to pose for a picture. Then , we looked at the different animals in the zoo. While we were looking at the owls, trying to get a good picture through the wire mesh, there was a sound behind us of leaves crunching. Apparently I dismissed it, which is alarming, because when we turned around, Scott pointed out that the jaguar in the opposite cage had been stalking us! As it turned out, more likely it wanted to be fed, and on command it performed an obstacle course and then a series of somersaults each for the reward of a small piece of meat. The incredibly strong jaws of a jaguar can kill prey by crushing the skull!

Holding a boa constrictor
Zoo sign for Pacas


Day 1: We are already seeing so much

Today we flew to Belize! I slept through my alarm and barely woke up in enough time to avoid being left behind. After a rocky start and a delayed flight (we still waited over an hour at the airport, and more after boarding the plane, we finally arrived.

On landing, after dealing with bags and logistics, I immediately started to try identifying trees… and immediately realized that I was in over my head in terms of identifying them from a distance. I focused mostly on leaf shape, bark texture, and other details when I was researching them, but did not take note of the overall appearance of the tree (beyond size).

I did notice what I thought might be Quamwood trees as we came in. Quamwood (Schizolobium parahyba) trees bloom yellow and can stand a bit above or even with the canopy, so they stick out like sore thumbs when in bloom. Scott pointed out a trumpet tree (Cecropia obtusifolia) at a restaurant called Cheers, which we stopped at on the way to the Crystal Paradise Ecolodge, where we are staying just for tonight. There are many here as well (I will attach a picture here as soon as I upload it).

Trumpet tree at Crystal Paradise Ecoolodge
Trumpet tree at Crystal Paradise Ecoolodge

I think I also noticed an Acacia species, based in part on similarity to Texas species, but there are multiple of these in Belize and I did not know the specific species. It was blooming red.

We can also see a Horse’s Balls tree (Stemmadenia donnell-smithii) right out the upstairs window of our shared cabin. It is easily identified by the shape of the seed.

After today, we will have one ethernet cable and be limited to any devices that can connect to it (and that is only available when the generator is on), so this might be my last post for a while.

Pre-departure blog: how is it already time?

These pre-departure blogs will probably all look pretty similar. I think they will diversify once we arrive in Belize, because our days will be packed and different experiences will stand out to each of us. I can’t wait to start identifying the trees of the rainforest at Las Cuevas Research Station and the hard and soft corals of the waters of Glover’s Reef.  There are overwhelming numbers of each, and each taxon is a fundamental component of its respective ecosystem.

I can’t believe we are already leaving tomorrow. Preparing for the trip, I keep thinking of one thing after another that I might want to bring– I hope I haven’t left anything out! I have never snorkeled before, aside from our class practice in the Rec center pool (and an encore with Dr. Shore to try a second pair of fins that fit better).

I think one of the largest differences for me identifying species in Belize (relative to Texas) will be the lack of internet resources in the field. I’ve become spoiled identifying plants and birds around here by their calls and visuals with aid from my smartphone and I’m quite practiced at identification, but it will be different when not able to rely on those internet resources. I’m prepared to identify several species of each (trees and coral), but am sure there will be many that I will not recognize from my studies.

This will be my first trip outside of the U.S. (if you don’t count Canada), much less to such a complex natural world as the rainforest or coral reef ecosystems, so I’m super excited to see and learn about the plants and animals and how they interact.

Metria amella moth in Houston, Texas.
This moth is in Houston. Demonstrating my reliance on internet: I had no idea what it was, but after referencing butterfliesandmoths.org, I think it is Metria amella, the Live Oak Metria Moth.

– Amy