Tag Archives: trees

Day 7: Collecting Camera Traps

Today we spent the day collecting the 12 camera traps that we placed on day 3. We got a much earlier start than we got when we were putting the traps up, which meant that we were able to collect them all before it got dark. We were done at 3:30pm and made it back before dark, unlike last time.

After we got back, we looked through all of the pictures that our cameras had gathered. Unfortunately one of our camera’s battery died soon after we placed it, and seven of our cameras didn’t get any pictures of wildlife (unless you count very tired and dirty humans). As we scrolled through picture after picture of leaves moving and humans crossing the camera, our hopes dwindled. Luckily we were able to catch some animals. Two of our cameras caught what seemed to be the same bird species, and maybe even the same individual. Another camera caught a curassow, which is a very large black bird. But by far our most exciting sights were a tapir, ocelot, and agouti. Knowing that these animals were so close to where we had walked and spent time is almost unreal. It is strange to think about how many animals are roaming the area right by where we are but always just out of sight.

Tree species that I noticed today were the bayleaf palm (Sabal mauritiiformis) and the bay cedar (Guazuma ulmifolia). I also noticed a branch and a seedpod on the ground that were covered in dense brown spines. Each spine was about half an inch long. Based on the resources that I have, my best guess is that the species was Bactris major, but I am not sure that my analysis of the species is correct.

Day 6: Insects Galore

Day 6 began by collecting pitfall traps that we set out yesterday. The traps consisted of either water or urine and we’re placed in trees and on the ground. Insects either are attracted to the traps or fall into them and then are stuck. I was pleasantly surprised to see how many of our traps had caught insects in the 16-ish hours that they had been set up. We spent the morning analyzing the number of insects we caught. We looked at where they were caught and what morphospecies they were in order to determine the species richness and abundance of the samples. We then spent some time going over our data. It was difficult to determine exactly how we should summarize the data. We ended up coming up with one conclusion but completely reversing it after we talked to Adrienne and Scott. In the end, we found that insects in the canopy had a greater need for nitrogen and were more attracted to the urine traps.

In the evening we went on our first official night hike. Near the beginning of the hike we found an Acacia tree right on the trail that had two stick insects hanging off of it. The green stick insect was around a foot long and was hanging upside down with its front two legs extended above its head. The other stick insect was smaller and brown. Soon after we began observing them, the brown insect started climbing pretty quickly up the tree and away from our light.

Can you find the green stick insect?
Can you find the green stick insect? What about the long brown spines of the Acacia?

Acacias are special because they have a mutualism with ants, like Cecropia. The ant species is different and more aggressive. The tree that we observed didn’t appear to have an active ant colony, but we didn’t look very hard for it.

We also saw a lot of spiders and roaches.  We saw two tarantulas on a huge tree, which was different because all of the other tarantulas that we’ve seen have been on the ground. There were a lot of other large spiders and roaches that we would be much less likely to see during the day. It was good to be able to experience the forest at night, when so many new creatures can be seen.

Day 5: Null Hypotheses and Spelunking Adventures

Today we started off by summarizing the results from our experiments yesterday about Cecropia and ant interactions. My group ended up with negative results. We didn’t find any evidence of young Cecropia mimicking other plants. We did notice some differences between juvenile and adult trees, such as red petioles (the stems of leaves) and slightly longer trichomes (the tiny hairs on plants). However, we weren’t able to conclusively determine that those differences had an adaptive role. One group tested the toughness of juvenile and adult leaves and found that juvenile leaves were tougher. This could be adaptive because it would make it more difficult for herbivores to eat the leaves. If the project was continued, it would be beneficial to see if herbivores preferred younger or older leaves.

We also were able to visit the cave at Las Cuevas. The cave was a part of Mayan ceremonies, and there is still evidence of their presence. There are pottery shards throughout the cave system and the cave is built up in some areas. Platforms were built near the entrance and some spaces between chambers were made to be narrower. The whole history behind the cave is extremely interesting. The caves also had some wildlife. We saw at least two species of bats, millipedes, and a species of scorpion with long legs and no tail. One of the best aspects about the cave was how undeveloped it was. I’m not used to visiting preserved caves that haven’t been commercialized. It was cool to feel like I was one of the first to visit the cave, even though many, many people have visited it before me.

Entering the cave
Entering (taking pictures of) the cave

My favorite trees today were the big trees that we commonly see around the Chiquibul. The cedar (Cedrela odorata) can be 20-30m tall. Right now it doesn’t have leaves, but it has some wooden seed pods that are still attached to the branches. The seed pods look like 5-petaled flowers – they’re very pretty. Another big tree is the ceiba (Ceiba pentandra). When it is mature, its bark is very smooth and it can reach 60-70m. It has been difficult for me to identify ceiba from their leaves because the trunks reach so high into the canopy.

Cedar seed pod

We only have two more full days at LCRS, so we’ll have to make them count!

Day 4: Ant behavior and interactions

Today we looked at two species of ants, Azteca ants and leafcutter ants. Azteca ants are a genus of ants that have a symbiosis with Cecropia trees. The ants provide protection from herbivores and competitors for the trees, and the trees provide shelter and nutrition for the ants. We wanted to look at how the trees are able to thrive when they are juveniles and before an ant queen has colonized the tree. To do this, we split into groups and designed hypotheses for how the trees adapted. My group looked into whether juvenile Cecropia trees mimicked other plant species or characteristics through physical adaptations. Tomorrow each of the groups will summarize their data and come up with a conclusion. It will be interesting to see which of the groups has the most convincing argument.

Silhouette of a Cecropia tree
Close-up of palmate Cecropia leaves

During the second half of the day we examined the life cycle of a leafcutter ant nest. Queens can live more than 20 years, although workers usually do not live longer than a year. Some colonies can have around 5 million individuals. Additionally, a mature colony can be about equal to a cow, in both weight and volume of plant material processed in a year. While we’ve been at Las Cuevas, we’ve noticed a lot of leafcutter ant trails around the area. Today we learned that those trails are only made by colonies that have been established for around 10 years. Smaller nests aren’t able to create or maintain the trails.

Scott hard at work digging up an ant's nest
Scott hard at work digging up an ant’s nest
View into a fungal chanber
View into a fungal chamber. The ants collect leaves to feed the fungi that they farm

The most interesting tree that I observed today was a papaya tree. Originally we thought that the papaya tree was a Cecropia juvenile, but the details didn’t match. The tree had large palmate leaves, a very tall and skinny trunk, and smooth bark, which are characteristics similar to Cecropia. However, the leaves were more lobed than Cecropia leaves and the reproductive structure of the papaya was different. It would be interesting to know how related Cecropia and papaya are; the books that we have access to here didn’t have information on their relatedness. I also was able to identify a tree species that we saw at Caracol with green flowers. The tree was a Mosannona garwoodii. The flowers were very camouflaged and appeared slightly waxy. I haven’t seen the same tree yet here, but it could be around.

Palmate papaya leaves
Papaya leaves are similar to Cecropia leaves but more lobed
Mosannona garwoodii flower at Caracol

Tomorrow we have the opportunity to explore a cave in the region. I’m excited to see what life we’re able to find in the cave.

Day 3: Camera traps and hiking

Today was our first day in the field. The project of the day was to set up 12 camera traps around Las Cuevas that will record information about the animals that are active in the area. The traps will take pictures of animals for 5 days, until our last day at LCRS. This information will allow us to make inferences about the number of species in the area and where they are most likely to be found. We’re hoping that we placed the traps in such a way so they’ll capture lots of small animals and maybe some big cats, like jaguars or ocelots.

One of the best parts of the day today was seeing a group of scarlet macaws fly right by where we were. Scarlet macaws are really rare in Belize, and are threatened by poachers that take them from their nests. Hopefully increased awareness about the problem will help to decrease poaching. Tourists should avoid taking pictures with macaws that aren’t in zoos or otherwise obtained legally in order to decrease demand for macaws.

We also saw a lot of tree species along the paths today including bastard mahogany, cedar, cecropia, fiddlewood, gumbo-limbo, give-and-take palm, mahogany, chicle, and strangling fig. Some of the chicle trees were extremely tall, and it was interesting to see the marks from the chicleros go up the tree as far as we could see.

Give-and-take palm – note the sharp spines!
All of the mahogany was small due to logging in the past
Chicle tree featuring scars from chicleros and Randy for scale

Over the course of the day we walked almost 14 miles (and in rainboots no less!) so it’s safe to say I’ll sleep well tonight. Tomorrow we’re going to learn a lot about ants. Turns out they have a pretty advanced societal structure!

Day 2: Getting to Las Cuevas

Today we left San Ignacio and made our way to Las Cuevas Research Station, visiting Caracol on our way. As we were driving to Caracol, we saw a coati and a great black hawk along the road. The roads were pretty bumpy, but the drive was really pretty. As we started our drive we saw Cecropia trees and also saw some gumbo-limbos. The gumbo-limbos are also called ‘tourist trees’ because they are red and flaky, like sunburnt skin. So far none of us have begun to look like the tourist trees, which is good. Hopefully it’ll stay that way.

A gumbo limbo tree with bark resembling a tourist’s sunburnt skin

On our way to Caracol we drove through Mountain Pine Ridge, an area that was different from other places we’ve seen because of the large number of pine trees. The region was more open and seemed drier, with more grasses and fewer vines.

Once we arrived in Caracol, we walked around the archaeological site to observe the ruins and the flora and fauna of the area. The site is absolutely amazing, with towering pyramids and dense forests. It’s amazing to think that more than a million people used to live in the region, when closer to 250,000 live in all of Belize today. At Caracol the guide pointed out a number of trees, including breadnuts, allspice, and avocado. There also were a lot of Chamedorea plants around Caracol. Chamedorea is sold as an ornamental leaf. The large security presence at Caracol was in part to protect the Chamedorea leaves from poachers.

Chamedorea plant at Caracol
Chamedorea plant at Caracol
Avocado tree at Caracol

Tomorrow we venture into the forest around Las Cuevas. I’m looking forward to the start of our field work!

Day 1: Houston to Belize

At 10:30 this morning our adventure began. We met up at Rice before going to Hobby Airport and then flying to Belize City. As we descended into the city, it was already clear that we were entering a different country. The houses here are painted every bright shade imaginable, which makes everything seem more festive and exciting.

The number of trees is amazing. Wherever wasn’t developed was being lost to the forest. We noticed lots of small fires as we traveled from Belize City to San Ignacio. The current theories are that they are for burning trash and for slash-and-burn agriculture. Hopefully we’ll be able to get a better idea of these fires when it is light out in the future.

A stand of bamboo at Crystal Paradise
A stand of bamboo at Crystal Paradise

We saw many species of trees. The most common were palms, which seem to be able to rise above other trees to take full advantage of the light, and Cecropia species, which have large palmate leaves. The leaves look somewhat like hands, with multiple lobes originating from the center. I haven’t seen any algae yet because we haven’t been by water, and I’ll give an update on more trees that we find tomorrow!

T minus 36 hours

I don’t think that I’ve fully processed the fact that I’ll be in a completely different country and culture in less than 48 hours. Going into this course, I am extremely excited to have the opportunity to explore a region that I have never experienced before. The closest I’ve been to the tropics is Hawaii, which is different from continental tropics because it is so isolated and the land mass cannot support the same level of biodiversity.

I am expecting Belize to have an amazing amount of biodiversity, which makes preparing the taxon identification cards very difficult. All I can hope for is that we’ll spot most of the trees and green algae that I included on the cards! I can’t wait to see what all of my classmates have been learning about for their taxa. I feel like I’ve learned so much from A Natural History of Belize but I’m sure that I’ll learn much more during our stay at Las Cuevas Research Station. I also was able to take a course on coral reefs this spring with Adrienne Correa. I am looking forward to using what I learned during our stay at Glover’s Reef.

One of the things that I am most excited for is staying at the Belize Zoo. It will be interesting staying in the midst of so many animals – and knowing that they’re there! I wonder if I’ll feel more or less surrounded by animals in the zoo than at Las Cuevas…

I have to admit, I am a little nervous about insects and spiders that we aren’t looking for. I should be protected from biting creatures, what with my new field pants, rubber boots, long shirts, and bug spray. I’m still expecting to get bites, but not serious ones.

I can’t wait to be immersed in the forests and reefs of Belize!