Tag Archives: trees

Adios Belize <3

Okay reflection here we go:

There are many similarities between the tropical rainforests and the coral reefs. Starting with the most obvious, both ecosystems rely heavily on water. Both ecosystems seem to have alternating states, whether it be the seasonality in the rain forest (wet vs. dry), or the tides in the ocean (high vs. low) that can differ between the hours. The organisms in each ecosystem have various stages of their life cycles in sync with the different cycles that occur in their environment, such as mating during the start of the wet season, etc. This variation in the environments allows for speciation; when one species is inactive, another in a similar niche can thrive, and so forth.

Another similarity, which is something that I did not know about before this trip, is the paradox of both environments being in and of themselves nutrient poor, yet somehow being able to support staggering amounts of biodiversity. In our little experiments in the Chiquibul for example, we were able to identify, morphologically speaking, approximately 60 different species of arthropods that wound up on our various vials, The fact that this number is a ridiculously small fraction of what is actually out there is absolutely mind blowing. Before the trip, I was wondering how to get as many species of my taxa possible on my taxon ID cards. I foolishly thought that I would be alright with approximately 24 species of trees and 24 of herbivorous fish- I mean were going to areas that were only so big, how diverse can the species get? The truth is, I didn’t see anymore than 8 or so of the species on my ID cards, both in the rainforest and on the reef. That isn’t because there simply were 8 or so of each taxon in each ecosystem- its because there were so many species of each taxon and they were so spread out around the ecosystem, somewhat “diffused” along with hundreds of other species that it was hard to identify them based on a very limited knowledge of their physical characteristics and distribution, bot to mention the fact that so many species looked SO similar, especially in regards to the trees, but in fact were different species entirely. While I knew before that there were MANY species in the rainforest, I think it was difficult  for me to grasp how many is many until I got a small glimpse of it myself. This was one thing that somewhat did surprise me about the course; no matter how much you think you know, or how positive you can distinguish one species from one that looks strikingly similar other than a minor variation in the veins of their leaves, you will never actually know all that much at all.

I didn’t realize that working underwater would be such a challenge. Of course, this was my first experience with snorkeling, let alone my first time trying to collect data underwater- I’m sure more experienced researchers won’t get salt water into their eyes as often as I did. However, I’m pretty certain that whether you are a novice or a marine biologist with 20+ year experience, goggles will get foggy, calves will cramp up, transect tapes won’t always stay in place and quadrats will sometimes refused to fall flat on the benthos. We were lucky that there were basically no waves and the sea was very calm. I could not imagine doing the same things we did, like measure coral coverage on the benthos, in very windy or rough conditions. Communicating underwater was quite difficult as well. Most of the time, if what I was trying to say didn’t get through to the other person, we both just surfaced so could talk out loud. I imagine in conditions or project that are time constrained, researchers would need to have a detailed communication system in place so that they won’t have to waste precious time trying to ask someone to lend them their camera.

One last thing that I didn’t really think about much until this course was about how much overlap there is between different fields of study, and how humanity is tied to nature, not matter how far away from it we think we are. Biology is ecology and evolution, yes, but it is also philosophy and physics and geology and politics and chemistry and sociology and history and nearly any field you can think of. People shape their environment, but the environment shapes people too. The things that we learned about the Maya civilization, their use of the land (the trees!), their culture, their struggles and their eventual downfall is all ingrained in the biology of the land as well, from the slashed on the bark of the chicle trees, to the changing soil qualities due to slash and burn agriculture. It really made me think about questions concerning geopolitical borders- the Guatemalans can’t harvest Xate but Belizeans can, just because they are on the wrong side on an imaginary line? The Chiquibul – and nature as a whole- doesn’t follow the rules of man.

Belize was hot. More humid in the forest, and a stronger sun on the island. However, in the forest, the nights were cooler and in Glovers’, we had that occasional ocean breeze.

Complaints? I’ve been told I have had them. As I can’t really think of anything that’s been bothering me up until right now, I think all of my complaints were in the moment, mostly. My various bites are still itchy as hell, but I’m sure I won’t even be remembering them in a few weeks. If I had to pick my least favorite part of the course, I would probably be when my sunscreen keep getting into my eyes while snorkeling and I couldn’t keep them open for hours afterwards- that is until we realized that that was the cause of my temporary blindness and I stopped using sunscreen on my forehead.

It is hard to choose one favorite part of the course, but I can say that all my favorite parts were shared with the people who I have personally learned so much from throughout this course, whether it was about the various lectures we’ve had, or otherwise. We all talked about how much of a surprise it was when we looked over the camera trap pictures and saw the jaguars, or how cool it was to climb around inside the ATM cave, or see scarlet macaws in the wild. The experiences we had during this trip were one of a kind  and I will treasure them forever, but I think that my favorite part overall was being able to meet such amazing human beings with the same passion for science and learning and the environment and people as I have, and the opportunity that I had to experience this truly eye opening trip with them.

I think I somewhat came into this course thinking: okay this is it, after May 29th I will be able to decide whether or not I want to do field work in my career as a biology. I expected to have the answer to the question I’ve been asking myself for the past few months, now that graduate school applications are looming overhead. But now I realize that the answer is not that simple to be answered after a two week experience, no matter how amazing it was. Will I know pursue a career as a tropical field biologist, or even field work in general? Honestly, it’s too soon to tell. I’ll probably have to let my sand fly bites heal before I start thinking about that. What I can say now is that no matter what specific field of study I choose to pursue in my career in EEB, I can always look back at this trip to remind myself of why I do what I do- because I love science and I love what science can do for people, and what science has the potential to do for all of the earth and its creatures.



Day 8: I want a boa constrictor

We left Las Cuevas Research Station right after breakfast, around 6:30. We were all very exhausted, so we pretty much slept until we arrived at ATM Cave (Actun Tunichil Muknal). This means the Site of the Stone Sepulcher. It is a Mayan Archaeological site that you need to swim into, and then wade through differing levels of water. Once you get to the dry part (after a good climb up the rocks), there are several perfectly preserved artifacts, including several types of pottery and even human remains. These human remains were most likely victims of human sacrifice-which, as we were told by our tour guide Edward- were offered to the Mayan Gods as an appeasement so that they would send rain and fertile soil to the earth.

After the ATM cave, we headed towards the Tropical Education Center (TEC) across the Belize Zoo, which we will be staying at tonight. On our way, I saw a mahogany farm, a teakwood farm, and an orange farm. In addition, I was able to see a traveler’s palm for the first time, which I was really excited about. Many Belizeans seem to use coconut  palms as a type of fence in front of their homes- about 3-4 palms in a row.

After dinner at the TEC, we went for a night visit at the Belize Zoo. All of the animals at the zoo are rescues- take from illegal pet owners or animals that have been found shot or injured. Additionally, all of the animals are native Belizeans.

There were several jaguars, which the zookeeper fed with raw chicken, a porcupine, an ocelot, peccaries and many caotimundi (relatives of the raccoon). We feed a large rodent called a gibnut (aka the “royal” rat) with unripe bananas. In the wild, they live at the base of the Cahoun palm and eat its nuts. We were able to feed a baird’s Tapir with carrots and they are a lot larger than I expected them to be. We also got to hold a boa constrictor! It was even cooler because we were able to see one in the wild, but this one was obviously a lot friendlier since it is domesticated. Its skin was absolutely beautiful.

A big boi

While this whole experience was amazing on its own, I found it a lot more meaningful because we were able to somewhat see most of these animals in the wild via camera traps. I learned to appreciate that the animals we see in zoos really do have a home in the wild and are able to thrive- once humans disrupt their natural habitats, they are unable to survive and then become dependent on us.

Day 7: Rainforest Traphouse

We walked 9.49 miles today, the most we have walked in a day thus far. Our morning started off with a very intense hike up to a bird tower, were we got an amazing view of the maya mountains and the chiquibul forest. I noticed a lot of fiddlewood trees had been knocked over, possibly because of the really hard rain yesterday. I was pretty surprised to see this because fiddlewood trees have buttressed roots to help support them and they are supposed to be pretty strong.

Wild Owls spotted from the top of the bird tower
Not a fiddlewood tree, but an example of buttress roots

In the afternoon we went to dig up leafcutter ant colonies with another student group from The University of Southern Mississippi. In one young colony, we were able to see a fungi “farm”, which the ants feed the leaves the collect too and raise the fungi as their food. We were also able to take the queen ant out of the colony, who almost looked like a large beetle.

Fungi farm on a spoon. Yum!

In the bigger colony that we saw a few days ago, we dug up a trash or “compost” chamber, where the ants throw away old fungi, general waste and dead ant bodies. In order to provoke the solider ants to come out so that we could see them, we tapped the trunk of a poisonwood tree growing right in the middle of the colony, so that the vibrations would stir the ants up. I noticed that as the tree was being hit, the bark peeled and exposed the blood red, fleshy inner bark underneath, seeping with white poisonwood sap ( see picture). I wonder why the ants decided to build their nest around something so dangerous, not to mention that there were multiple poisonwood trees growing out of the colony.

Bark of the poisonwood tree

FYI if you ever get poisonwood sap on your skin, the cure is the inner bark of the gumbolimbo tree, with is usually located in very close proximity to the poisonwood trees. I have yet to come up with an explanation as to why this is.

The gumbolimbo tree has reddish bark, antidote to poisonwood sap

After dinner, we took a look at the pictures from the camera traps that we set up on our second day here at Las Cuevas, since we will be leaving this beautiful place tomorrow morning. We were all ASTOUNDED to see 2 jaguars, a tapir, 2 pumas, many peccaries (which are like wild hogs but meaner), an armadillo and several other mammals. Rafael the station manager said that there were so many animals around because the breadnut tree is fruiting, which is a very important source of food for many of the herbivorous and omnivorous animals around here.

A jaguar picture from my camera trap :’)

I am going to miss this place and its vast expanses of more than 320 different species of trees that are able to support all the life in the Chiquibul. All I can say is that I really hope that we as scientists and as beings on this earth realize that majesty and worth of this forest and all its organisms, and that we are able to conserve it for generations to come.

Glovers Reef, we’re coming for ya.


Day 6: Beetles and Breadnuts

Today we got to go and retrieve our pit fall traps from the forest and see how many insects crawled into the vials. The collecting took a short amount of time- it seems as though we have gotten fitter within the past few days and are now able to trek through the forest swiftly with apt agility. I only stopped to catch my breath twice every ten minutes. Progress!

On our way out, I saw a tree I have never seen before called “Jobillo” (Astronium graveolens). I saw several of the growing along side the main road San Pastor. They are frequently used for wood, like mahogany. We found a brown anole on one of them, and I got the chance to catch it.

A lot of my taxa in LCRS were already labelled

Later in the lab, we needed to inspect the contents of our vials and see if our hypotheses were correct. We assigned each group such as ants, spiders, beetles, etc., to one “expert” (i.e one of us students) who would be able to divided them into “species” based on what they looked like. We came up with 52 unique species across all our samples, including many very large beetles about the size of a half dollar coin.

Our morpospecies chart

We took a lovely break from data analyzing and stood in the afternoon rain. It is only  that we get rained on in the rainforest at least one time. Right afterwards, I looked into some field book and decided that the spherical shaped fruit that I talked about earlier are breadnuts. They are eaten by many animals, such as the peccary, several different birds and deer.

Inside of the spherical fruit I mentioned are these smaller nuts called breadnuts, loved by both people and animals

In our vials, we found more insects in the ground vials than in the canopy vials. We also found more insects in the *hem* nitrogen source *hem* than in the water source in the canopy vials. In the ground vials however, we found more insects in the ground water than in the This indicates that canopy insects are more limited by resources such as nitrogen that ground insects are. The leaf litter and other decomposing matter on the forest floor probably provide the insects and other living things with a source of nitrogen. Later in the evening, we presented the data from our experiment to a student group from the University of Southern Mississippi.

PS: Adrienne, we miss you!

Day 5: Hello Darkness my old Friend

Today we designed an experiment in which we attempted to study the affects that hurricane gaps- the large gap in the canopy forest- that occurs when a tree is knocked over because of a hurricane- has on forest floor diversity. We didn’t really see any significant results, but perhaps a longer study over more area will tell us how natural disturbances such as hurricanes have on ecosystems like the rain forest.

Our poster presentation

After dinner, we all grabbed our hiking boots and headlights and headed on a night hike. The leaves of the acacia tree were folded- I actually did not know that this happened at night. The acacia tree produces food (beltian bodies) for ants that live inside of its thorns and the ants defend the plant from predators. I was able to see the ants eating the beltian bodies on one of leaves. I have learned about this type of symbiosis in several EBIO classes and it was pretty amazing to see it in real life. Additionally, there were tiny turtles in a mud pond, and  we also saw the spine and hand of a monkey, which was likely dropped after being half-eaten by a predator like a jaguar or a bird of prey.

We saw a red backed coffee snake which we first thought was a red coral snake, i.e. a very poisonous snake. This is an example of Batesian mimicry, which is when a harmless animal mimics some aspects of the physical appearance of a poisonous animal. This is so that predators think that the harmless animal is poisonous, even though it is not. In this case, the red backed coffee snake was patterned very similar to a red coral snake, but different enough so that we could make the distinction.

After we returned to the clearing where the research station is at, we were able to see the stars and it was nothing like I had ever seen before. At home, you could see a few stars and planets scattered around the sky, but only in more suburban/rural areas.  Here however, the sky was FULL of twinkly celestial bodies.  I only went to sleep after clouds drifted overhead and covered the sky, because otherwise I would have stared at them into the morning.

Day 3: Fruit Hoarding

It’s a little strange to come to a rainforest and see bare trees. After all, you probably would expect rainforests to stay lush and green all year round. Once you go bird watching, however, you find that the dry season is actually useful. Its really easy to see any bird that would ordinarily blend into the leaves sitting on a perfectly bare branch.

Macaws in a bare tree
Waking up at 5:30 to watch birds requires a few mini naps

Today we were able to use our Science Skills™ to develop a research project, complete with question, hypothesis and methods. The perfect triad for beginning any scientific investigation. We were wondering how human trails and roads affect the presence of mammals, more specifically, how many mammals come through a human made trail, how many species and how many individuals of each species. So we set up motion-sensing cameras all around the field station, both on and off trails, and in a few days we’ll see what type of mammals show up in our pictures, and see if our theory is correct.

Sam tied his Camera trap to this Give and Take Palm- which is called this because the leaves have medicinal properties, hence the give, but you need to climb up the trunk that looks like this, hence the take

During our hike, I collected many different fruit and leave samples that I found on the forest floor that looked interesting to me. I found a green and brown round shaped fruit, a little smaller than a baseball. They might be the same fruit in different stages of maturity, but to confirm this I need to open the fruit, look at the seeds and do some research, which I intend to do as soon as possible.

I don’t know what type of plant this was (probably some type of epiphyte) but it was pretty!

The director of the Friends for Conservation and Development NGO (nongovernmental organization), Rafael, talked to us about what makes the Chiquibul unique, and about all the different threats that are posed to it. It’s very worrying to hear that this beautiful region may soon be deforested and developed. But hopefully, our friends at Friends for Conservation and Development can success in their quest to protect the magically Chiquibul, and all of the trees that keep this ecosystem alive.

Oh also we saw a 25 foot wide leaf cutter ant hill and an enormous boa constrictor. I gotta say the ant hill was slightly more threatening to me than the boa constrictor.


Day 2: THAT is Mahogany!

Today we walked 6.11 miles (according to my Fitbit). I have been told that we will walk more.

We went to a location on the Mountain Pine Ridge Forest Reserve called Rio on Pool, which means “river on pools.” I took many pictures of the pools and waterfalls (see pictures above). While doing some research on the trees of Belize prior to this course, I was pretty surprised to discover that a Tropical region had pine trees, let alone entire pine forest mountains. Unfortunately, a lot of the mountain’s pine trees had been destroyed by an infestation of the southern pine bark beetle, as well as frequent fires.

Fire damage in the Mountain Pine Ridge Forest 🙁

After Rio on Pool, we drove to an ancient Mayan ruin site called Caracol (which means conch shell in Spanish). We learned a lot about Mayan history, and saw some of the king’s and elite’s housing structures. We then climbed an enormous pyramid, and we could see Guatemala from the top of the pyramid. It was amazing when we were able to talk to people who were still on the ground- they could hear us and we could hear them, even though we were pretty high up.

Taken from about 1/2 way up the pyramid
Me (and Elena)
The Chicle tree (Manilkara zapota), used to make chewing gum. The slashes on the trunk are evidence that chicle has been extracted.
A freshavocado! A avocado tree (Persea americana)

We then drove to Las Cuevas Research Station, which we will be staying at for a few days. It was built in 1994 by the British Army and is used exclusively for research and not open to the public. It is an amazing opportunity to be able to stay here and learn all about the Chiquibul forest and all (read: some) of its inhabitants.

While driving out of Rio on Pool, we saw a logger’s trunk full of mahogany. Yay!

Day 1: No Mahogany Here

A lot of the readings and research I have done prior to our departure have discussed the importance and prevalence of Mahogany in Belize. I expected to see a lot of this tree on our drive from the airport in Belize City to Crystal Paradise Ecolodge near a region called San Antonio. Alas, I have seen none (so far).

However, I was able to recognize some species on our drive. One of them was Cecropia obtusifolia, also known as a Trumpet tree or locally known as a Guarumo.  It has a very interestingly shaped leaf that kind of looks like a baseball mitt. Hopefully soon I’ll be able to take and post a picture of one up close.

Trumpet Tree!

Another tree I saw was the Zapote or Pouteria sapota.  I didn’t see as many of these as I did of the Trumpet tree, which at some points were clustered together. These however, were pretty wide spread and not close to each other.

From the moment we got off the airplane in Belize City, I saw palm trees everywhere, but I wasn’t able to identify what species they were. On our trip, Dr. Solomon pointed out a whole field of Attalea cohune, or Cohune palm. So at least now I know for certain what that looks like (from a distance).

The Cohune Palm

Yay Belize!

I just came back from a sampling trip across various counties west of Austin for my summer research project.  I’m still a little worn out from my trip, but I know once we land in Belize City, I’ll forget about that completely and will be ready to immerse myself into tropical field biology.

I expect our trip to be physically demanding, but it will be totally worth it once we get to see a scarlet macaw in person (hopefully) and are snorkeling next to parrot fish. I also expect to get a good feel of what field work is like, and also to experience a day (or two weeks) in the life of a scientist living at a research station.

Since I’m applying to graduate school next semester, I really value these opportunities because it may (hopefully) help me narrow down (or even choose!) what narrower field of EBIO I want to study, as well as potentially answer questions like if I prefer field work over laboratory work or vice versa. I have prepared by reading all the required readings and researching my taxons (trees and herbivorous fish). I think my sampling trip last week may have also prepared me for the long hours out in the field.

I’m not really nervous about anything except the airplane ride, because I really hate airplanes. I am most excited to see rare species up close (ish) like the scarlet macaws and colorful parrotfish I talked about.

I have previously visited Colombia, which is mostly tropical. I spend my time there hiking through the Andes and looking at agricultural products that my grandpa grows, such as coffee, avocado and cacao trees.  Overall, I am just really excited about being able to spend a whole two weeks in one of the most diverse and beautiful parts of the world while doing science. Best combination ever.


Post-Trip: Reflection

One day in Belize, my class and I noticed a distinct commonality between the two most biodiverse ecosystems – coral reefs and tropical rainforests. Both function in nutrient poor conditions. The two differ greatly in the causations of their low-nutrient conditions. Coral reefs demand low nutrients to hinder algae growth and allow high water clarity, a condition demanded for photosynthetic coral synergists. The trees of the tropical rainforest, however, quickly deplete the soil of nutrients as they grow. While both systems exist in low-nutrient environments, low nutrient levels can lead to coral reef formation while the high nutrient demands of tropical rainforest tree leads to poor soil nutrients.

Regardless, the two ecosystems are able to support such biodiverse systems through their creation of physical spaces. Reefs for nooks and crannies for marine organisms to reside, as well has having great surface areas to accommodate sessile organisms like anemones and sponges. Tropical trees have many layering branches and alcoves within trunks and limbs. Similarly, these create spaces to accommodate more living things. Epiphytes, commensalist plants that grow on taller trees, demand the sunlit canopy trees provide. Structurally, the two have many parallels, which likely explains their comparable biodiversity.

Rainforests and coral reefs both accommodate animals smaller than their open ocean or open grassland counterparts. Not only are these ecosystem’s spaces unable to accommodate larger animals, but also larger animals have the potential to wreak havoc on these systems by overgrazing on or causing mechanical damage to coral or trees.

Glover’s Reef

With their elaborate physical structures and densely-packed biodiverse inhabitants, the coral reef and tropical rainforest I visited in Belize filled me with similar senses of awe. There was activity or an interesting organic structure just about everywhere I would look. While I knew in advance that these ecosystems have great biodiversity, there is something about being physically present that makes these facts feel real.

I had very nebulous expectations for this trip. I wanted to learn and to have fun, but other than that, I put very little thought into identifying what I wanted to take away from this trip. This mindset turned out to be a blessing, as I could absorb my surroundings without constantly questioning whether or not my expectations are met. It was freeing to allow myself to be immersed in these beautiful locales and view them for what they are.

My memory of the trip is rich with precious moments – watching a squid jet across a reef, listening to the boisterous conversations of scarlet macaws, seeing the glistening hide of a manatee as it dive back into shallow mangrove waters, feeling the chilliness of the Actun Tunichil Muknal cave, spectating the sunrise over the ocean, viewing the uninhibited star-filled sky, laying on a hammock at the end of a long day. This aggregation of serenity and excitement is what I value most about the trip. While at times I felt stressed about the grade I would make, I strove to keep an empowering mindset that allowed me to fully cherish my surroundings.

The trip left me with a wide range of new knowledge. Ethnographically, Belize has an extremely diverse human population, serving as the home of Mestizos, Creoles, Garifunas, and Mayans to name the most populous. I learned about interesting physical properties of many living, including that mantis shrimp have a grasp so strong they can hurt people, Christmas tree worms always have pairs of polychaetes, conchs’ have two projecting eyes that look like cartoon eyes, and strangling figs can overtake massive canopy-forming trees to form large and extensive woody structures. I also learned about the harmful effect human negligence can have on ecosystems, like lionfish (a nonnative species released from aquariums) overpredate juvenile reef-dwelling fish and the prevalence of Africanized bees in the New World were caused by the escape of seven queens. I’ve learned countless new things that form a mosaic as vibrant and diverse as the colors of Belize itself.

I leave Belize with new memories and knowledge. I will always remember the electric blue of the Caribbean, the stunning vibrancy of scarlet macaw plumage, and the translucence of the Caribbean reef squid. After all, all I have are these memories of Belize until I go back.