Tag Archives: wrap-up

Wrap-up…life-changing

The drop

May 30th, 2019

The tropical rainforest and the coral reef are two very biodiverse and seemingly opposite ecosystems; however, I’ve learned that they are quite similar.  One similarity is that both ecosystems are actually nutrient poor, however they are able to support a wide array of organisms through very efficient nutrient cycling. In the rainforest, the nutrient cycling is due to the rapid decomposition of leaf litter. In coral reefs, the nutrient cycling mainly happens in nearby mangroves.

Also, in both the tropical rainforest and coral reefs, there is a wealth of symbiotic relationships that help organisms flourish. For example, we learned about the Pseudomyrmex ants and their relationship with the Bullhorn Acacia. The ants defend the acacia, while the acacia provides shelter, carbohydrates, and protein. While in coral the skeleton provides shelter for Symbodinium, while the algae provide food for the coral.

Quite honestly, I don’t remember what my expectations were for the course as the start of it seems so long ago. From what I can remember, I took this course as an indicator to see if I would like doing reef fieldwork and to see if that’s what I would like to do post-graduation, which I can say I want to. What I didn’t consider was how much I would love doing fieldwork in the Chiquibul. I think my favorite part of the course was diving the fore reef. Being able to swim over and stare into the drop-off was just a surreal experience. I also loved the night hike and the night snorkel; the familiar trails and reefs looked very different in the dark and it was a chance to see a lot of predators out and about. I don’t really think I have a least favorite part of the course, except for running through the Mangroves of Death and getting over 50+ bug bites.

One thing that I learned that still haunts me almost is the fragility of both ecosystems and their vulnerability. Both the tropical rainforest and coral reefs rely on a careful balance, such as the balance of coral and macroalgae, and if that balance is interrupted both ecosystems can collapse. I also did not expect how difficult it would be to perform fieldwork underwater. Despite having to deal with wind, current, and the ever-present fire coral, the hardest part was communication. Yet despite the difficulties, I loved the reef fieldwork. Last but certainly not least, I learned that every day things that I take for granted are commodities not necessities. I ended up missing things like a well paved road or warm shower, things that I had never missed before.

Rainforest Mammals seen in the wild

Alouatta caraya

Ateles geoffroyi

Chiroptera

Dasyprocta leporine (possibly)

Didelphis virginiana

Taprius bairdii (camera trap)

Puma concolor (possibly on camera trap)

 

Herbivorous reef fish

 

Acanthurus bahianus

Acanthurus coeruleus

Aacnthurus chirurgus

Stegastes planifrons

Abudefduf saxatilis

Stegastus fuscus

Stegastus partitus

Sparisoma viride

Stegastes leocostictus

I can’t Belize It’s Over!- Wrap-up Blog

 

Some of my favorite pictures:

Chiquibul Forest
Golver’s Reef Research Station
Sunset over Glover’s Reef

Outside of the fact that both the reef and the rainforest are two of the most biologically diverse ecosystems on the planet, another similarity is that they both exist in nutrient-poor areas and depend on effective nutrient cycling in order to thrive. Additionally, both ecosystems are nitrogen limited. One difference is that invasive species in the reef are much more destructive than in the rainforest. These two areas are likely so biologically diverse due to their effective nutrient cycling which allows for enough energy transfer to support an incredible amount of species abundance and richness.

My personal observations regarding the similarities and differences between both the reef and rainforest were that at both I was able to find my taxon relatively quickly; however, at the reef, it was much easier to identify them because I could get much closer. It seemed that I was also able to much more easily identify damage to the reef  (trash, etc.) than the rainforest. The rainforest seemed healthier.

This course greatly exceeded my expectations. For one, I didn’t think they we would see anywhere near the number of species we did, and I had no idea we would get to traverse through a place as amazing as the A.T.M. Cave. Also, the research stations were gorgeous and weren’t as unlivable as I thought they would be. My favorite part of the course was finding out that we had gotten a Tapir on camera trap, and my least favorite was getting seasick on the way back from the Forereef and feeling off for two days.

The most important things I learned in the course are that these ecosystems are in danger and that it is up to us to help them, that Belize is a country which truly cares for its natural resources and does everything it can to protect them, and I was surprised by both the immense amount of trash we found on the island we were staying on as well as the commonality of poaching in both the reef and rainforest. Overall, the trip was fantastic and I won’t be forgetting it anytime soon!!

Rainforest Taxa Seen: Keel-Billed Toucan, Plumbeous Kite, Vultures, Scarlet Macaw, Pauraque, Parrots, Social Flycatcher, Montezuma Oropendola, Spectacled Owl, Pygmy Owl, Barn Owl, Mottled Owl, Chachalaca, Curassow, and the Melodious Blackbird

Reef Taxa Seen: Reef Urchin, West Indian Sea Egg, Long-Spined Urchin, Brittle Stars, Red Heart Urchin, Slate Pencil Urchin, and the Donkey Dung Sea Cucumber

Wrap-up blog (I wasn’t the clever title person on this trip)

Now I’m back home, enjoying air-conditioning and incredibly fast image upload speeds to the blog, but missing the beauty of the tropics. A sea of identical suburban rooftops just doesn’t compare to the actual sea.

The rainforest and the reef are two extremely diverse ecosystems despite their low nutrient availability (like I talked about for my lecture on rainforest soils). Because nutrients are hard to come by, organisms are able to fill many different small niches where nutrients are more available. In addition, neither of these ecosystems are low energy. Their proximity to the equator means they have lots of solar energy pumping in all year long. That light is converted into more accessible energy by plants in both ecosystems. One striking similarity that I noticed in both of these ecosystems is that, despite their extreme diversity, seeing moving animals is surprisingly difficult. As you walk through the rainforest, you see very few mammals or reptiles or birds, a good number of insects, but still surprisingly few. The same was true for the reef, the fish and crustaceans and echinoderms blend in so well you often can’t see them.

Overall, this course was everything I expected and more. I came in with a vague expectation to do a little research and learn about the environments we would be surrounded by. I didn’t expect to be designing, implementing, and presenting experiments all in the same day. I also hadn’t even thought to expect how much fun this trip was. My favorite part of the course was definitely hiking through the rainforest and finding insects I knew a surprising amount about despite having never seen them before. I hadn’t realized that because I knew a good bit about one insect species I study at school I could extend that knowledge to related insects I’d never even heard of. (Hemipterans are dope!) My least favorite part of the course was swimming through the reefs. The reefs were absolutely amazing to look at, but I was always afraid of damaging everything around me. The coral reefs are famous for being in danger and as we snorkeled through them I often felt like touching anything might destroy everything. Sometimes swimming through the reefs I worried that we were doing more harm than good. The fish and the corals were beautiful and I don’t want to do anything to hurt them.

The three most important things I learned in this course were how specific knowledge can become general knowledge, how little we actually know about both of these ecosystems, and how important these ecosystems are and how closely linked they are to the entire world. I’ve already talked about the first one a little bit but finding two true bugs nobody recognized and being able to identify that they were nymphs and recognize their body plan was crazy. I could look at these two bugs and I knew what body parts to measure to quantify their size because I’d measured something similar many times before. It was really cool to see the effects of common ancestry implemented. The second thing I realized as we were all trying to identify our species. In the rainforest with birds, pretty much everything was identified, but many of the insects had little to no information available. Most of the taxon id cards featured genera at best and the books we had on tropical insects focused almost exclusively on butterflies, despite the broad diversity of everything else. In the coral reefs, I struggled to find information online about shrimp and crabs and was unable to identify plenty of organisms because they were small or because I didn’t have the right books or because they simply weren’t really described anywhere. Because these two ecosystems have so much diversity and because many of these organisms are so well hidden, information is often inaccessible unless you are an expert in a very specific field, if the information exists at all. The last of the three big things I learned is how both of these ecosystems are closely linked to everywhere else. From the reading before the course, we learned that the xatè palm is harvested from the Chiquibul forest to be used in flower arrangements. From the experiment we did with trash and from Andressa’s presentation, we learned that trash from all over the world can get moved by the wind and water and wind up in the ocean. While we are often unintentionally doing these (and many other) harmful things to the tropics, the tropics are doing surprisingly important things for us. The rainforest is an important CO2 processor and a source of many medicines. The coral reefs act as nurseries for fish that spend their adult lives all across the oceans. Without either of these ecosystems, humans would be worse off and the world would be less beautiful.

Now that I’m home, I get to reminisce about the great experience I just had and implement my new found knowledge and understanding.

Still Can’t Believe It’s Over… (Wrap Up Blog)

Although our EBIO 319 class was clearly dividing into teams Surf and Turf, based on whether we had signed up predominately to go to the reef or to the rainforest, everyone was able to thoroughly enjoy themselves in both environments because there are quite a few similarities between them. The most obvious similarity is that both are hotspots for biodiversity. Both coral reefs and rainforests are (predominately) restricted to the Tropics, and both are highly dependent on water.

Additionally, nutrient input and cycling is critical to the stability and growth of both environments. Corals thrive in oligotrophic environments, and so they are dependent on nutrient-cycling symbionts. Tropical rainforests exist in nutrient-poor soils, and so the plant species are  dependent on nutrient cycling.

Another similarity that I noticed is that it is quite difficult to traverse through either of these environments. When snorkeling on the reef, there would sometimes be spots with very little accommodation space and it was difficult to pass through without bumping into the corals. In the rainforest, when we left the trail the vegetation was often very dense. There would be lots of vines hanging down between the trees, and a lot of holes in the ground.

Additionally, you had to be careful moving through both of these environments because there were so many things that could hurt you. On the coral reef, this included anemones, fire coral, some hard corals, sharp shells, and jellies. In the rain forest, this included venomous snakes, acacia thorns, fire ants, and ticks.

I had a really good time during this course. The amount of work that it involved was much more than I expected, but during the course I didn’t worry about it too much. Going into the course, I didn’t really know what to expect about my classmates, but everybody was really cool and we got along really well. The rainforest’s appearance was not really what I expected but I think the reef did look like what I was expecting, probably just because I was more familiar with reefs going in. I was expecting Glover’s Atoll to be paradise, and it truly was.

My favorite part of the course was being able to see cool species up close. There were so many, but highlights included the green turtle, the seahorse, the Queen Angelfish,  the tapir, and the scarlet macaws. Another one of my favorite things that we did was going into the caves. These sightings and experiences are things that I will never forget.

I think my least favorite part of the course was the fact that it was so windy during our time at Glover’s because as a result we never did get to go diving on the forereef or at night. My other least favorite part was probably the lionfish dissection because I just don’t like dissecting things in general.

One of the most important things I learned on this trip was that I definitely still want to try and go into marine biology and do real field work. Another thing I learned was that friendships form really quickly when a group of people are all working together on something they’re passionate about. Lastly, I learned that conservation work is really really complicated after hearing presentations from  Alex  of the Wildlife Conservation Society and Boris of Friends of Conservation. This stuck with me because I’m doing a policy internship this summer at a marine sanctuary, and as a result I’ve gotten a small glimpse of all that conservation actually involves in this particular environment.

Day 16: Wow.

This trip has been such an amazing experience. I registered for the EBIO 319 hoping about tropical ecosystems, conducting experiments in the field, and the country of Belize.  This course far exceeded my expectations. I also learned about travel, troubleshooting, and how to feed yourself when Houston runs out of water, which I wasn’t anticipating but will surely come in handy in the future. More than that however, this trip has completely reaffirmed that I need to find a job that involves fieldwork. It’s difficult to explain, but I feel so complete hiking through the rainforest, surrounded by the buzz of countless birds, insects, and the occasional monkey, miles from human settlement. If I wasn’t flying back to the jungle tomorrow I think it would have been a bit of a culture shock to return to “normal” life.

I learned so much from the lectures and projects we worked on, but I also enjoyed the unstructured time where we were free to explore the amazing ecosystems around us. My favorite parts of the trip were 5 am walks through the jungle, kayaking through the mangroves, and late nights watching stars dart across the sky. My least favorite part was probably the pre-trip assignments, but I definitely see how helpful this preparation was in the field.

At first glance, the reef and the rainforest are vastly different ecosystems. There is almost no overlap between species, and the organisms have very different adaptations to their respective environments. However, I was amazed to see how much they had in common. Both ecosystems are incredibly diverse, in terms of species and microhabitats. Interestingly, while both ecosystems are full of life they are also very nutrient-poor and cycle nutrients very efficiently. Trees and coral colonies provide 3-dimensional structural diversity, and very different species reside in different layers of the forest and reef. When we went on night hikes and dives both ecosystems were nearly unrecognizable, and a completely different set of species revealed themselves.

In addition, I thought it was interesting how both sites managed their resources. Although Glover’s and Las Cuevas were situated in protected zones, both allowed selective removal of species. The US is a large and wealthy country, so we can afford to set aside large swaths of completely protected land in national parks. From an American perspective, it would be awesome if Belize could similarly isolate the Chiquibul. However, this forest covers 1/7 of the entire country, so it would be very difficult to isolate the forest without economic repercussions for the country.

Despite this removal of species, both areas are relatively pristine in comparison to their neighboring countries. Consequently, both struggle with people coming across the border to harvest resources—xaté palm in the chiquibul and illegal fishing in the attol. This also poses a difficult problem for the country. While they certainly want to secure their borders and protect their resources, arresting offenders will likely only worsen the problem. Most of these people are the primary providers for their families, and turning them away or arresting them could mean the starvation of their children.

I could go on for pages about everything I learned on this trip, but a few ideas really stood out to me. Conservation is an incredibly complicated problem, and we can’t barge into other countries with a single solution that will fix everything. A multitude of complex circumstances lead to the degradation of ecosystems, and many creative solutions will be needed to reverse or even slow ecosystem loss. I’ve wanted to do field research for many years, but before this trip I wasn’t quite sure what that would actually look like. Now, I can see how many of our pilot experiments could be expanded into long-term studies. Finally, this trip has definitely reaffirmed that I’m on the right path for my life. While my dreams for the future may change, I can’t imagine a life that doesn’t involve exploring nature, in whatever form that may take.

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Reflections on the course

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Plants growing in a Mayan temple at Curacao

My first day back was filled with even more travel from Houston to Washington DC. It was crazy to be around so many vehicles and people. Going through the airport seemed way more chaotic than usual, even though it probably wasn’t. Overall, I’m so glad that I got the opportunity to go to Belize with this class. The entire trip was a great experience from the places that we visited to our activities to the people that I got to meet.

Visiting the rainforest and coral reef was different than anything else I have ever done. While I have been in forests and on reefs before, the ecosystems that we visited had a much higher abundance and diversity of species. The ecosystems both have a high amount of 3D topography, which allows for the high diversity. In the rainforest, trees provide structure with their branches, trunks, and roots whereas in the reefs the corals grow to create structure from the sea floor to the surface. The structure creates room for species to fulfill different niches.

Comparing the two ecosystems, trees and corals provide many similar functions. Both have epiphytes and borers that live in their branches. The birds that live in trees are like the fish that live among the coral. I also noticed that turf algae was similar to the undergrowth in the forest that takes advantage of every bit of light and nutrients that it can. Another similarity that I noticed was the striking difference between the diurnal and nocturnal diversity of both ecosystems. When we went out at night, the regions had very different species compositions than during the day. This is another example of the different niches that are available.

One of the differences between the forest and the reef was that the forest seemed to discourage the spread of species because it is rather hard to traverse, whereas marine species are not prevented from migrating by the corals. It seems likely that species are better able to disperse on a reef than in the forest.

Looking back, this course exceeded my expectations in so many ways. I never expected to make so many friends or to have quite as much fun on the trip as I did. Every day was challenging but so rewarding. I don’t think that I have ever appreciated food as much as I did during our stay at Las Cuevas, where every meal was incredible even though the ingredients were so limited. I never could have imagined how beautiful Middle Caye would be. Bearing the sand flies and giant land crabs was more than worth the incredible views and people. This course fed a desire in me to travel and experience other places and biomes that I never knew I had. While it was definitely a form of biology bootcamp, it only strengthened my certainty that I want to do research in ecology.

EBIO 319 students being EBIO 319 students
EBIO 319 students being EBIO 319 students

Probably my least favorite part of the course was our transportation troubles. While hiking in the heat was manageable, sitting in hot buses or waiting for them made the heat feel ten times worse. I think that my favorite part had to be seeing and hearing the macaws in the Chiquibul. The birds are so charismatic and so smart, and I felt honored to be able to see them in the wild.

I learned so much from this course, so it’s difficult to pick out what was most important or surprising. Learning about tapirs’ genitalia is something surprising that I will remember for a very long time, but it probably won’t be important to my future studies. Experiencing the mangroves impressed upon me the importance of conserving habitats because of how they influence other areas. Probably the biggest thing that I am taking away from this course is the realization of how hard conservation is. There are so many factors that go into protecting biodiversity and so many sides to consider that make it impossible to please everyone. I admire the people who we met who have made conservation their focus despite the challenges that come with it.