Tag Archives: yellow prickly

Day 12: Social Interactions (5/27/2017)

I wake up in the middle of the night and step outside to something I have never felt before. It is the rainforest night. The air is rich with animal sounds. The sky is pitch black but adorned with countless stars, creating the illusion of a deep indigo-gray. Heartbeats of lighting illuminate the sky, but there is no rain. An unmatched sense of awe comes over me, something I could only feel being alone before nature’s grandeur.

Many hours later, my class and I are in the forest. Tall kapok trees (Ceiba pentandra) along the path form islets of intense shade, and yellow prickly trees (Zanthozylum spp.) sporadically flank the path with yellow-brown adornments. Some of the yellow prickly plants were speckled with tiny crawling ants. These leaf-cutter ants chisel and delivery circular sheets of leafs to their colonies, advanced eusocial communities that mature over time.

We say three ant colonies: one year old, four years old, and ten years old. Similar to an individual organism, the colonies aged, growing larger and more advanced with time. Leaf-cutter ants sustain by cultivating fungus on leaf pieces concealed in underground chambers, and thus colonies must have increasing number of chambers to grow enough food to feed their growing numbers. With time, colonies supported more types of workers and had longer, deeper, and wider tunnels.

A leafcutter ant hard at work

Late in the afternoon, I saw five scarlet macaws (Ara macao) fly across the sky in unison. Although macaws lack a complex social structure like leaf-cutter ants, they still cluster for social interaction and increased protection from predators.

It is interesting how human social interactions relate to those of other organisms. Some people have clearly defined senses of duty, like worker ants chiseling leaves for their colonies. Some exhibit altruism, like a scarlet macaw rearing her chicks. Even if there is no evolutionary relationship between the social interactions of humans and other animals, it is interesting to see the common elements.

However, sometimes it’s preferred to forgo my social role and be alone. The sky is much more powerful that way.

Day 11: Trade-offs (5/26/2017)

Today we set up camera traps throughout the forest neighboring Las Cuevas. The entire process took all day, from 10 am until 1:30 and then 2:30 to 7:30. Needless to say, the process exhausted me. Hiking on and off trail in a humid tropical environment for hours on end is certainly different from the comparatively cushy lifestyle of an American college student.

About a third of the way through the endeavor, another student proposed that we shorten the distance between camera traps so that we can set up more in a given amount of time and head back earlier. I supported the motion but the class did not. So we marched onward.

By the time we were halfway through, my boots felt so heavy that I wasn’t even walking, I was just swinging them over the ground with each step, hoping that I did not hit anything. I was panting and completely drenched in sweat. “Damn, I am out of shape,” I thought as my classmates marched onward. Despite my desperation to stop, I marched onward too. I didn’t really have a choice.

Hours later, we made it back to the station. Although I stayed well hydrated in the field, I had a splitting headache and could barely stabilize myself when I was standing upright. I had reached my limit.

As an economics major, every moment I had to think on the trail, I spent trying to calculate the expected value of moving onward. I tried to compare the benefit and probability of seeing an interesting animal with the benefit of calling it quits. I never thought it all the way through, though. I was too damn exhausted.

Despite causing me so much physical despair, the hike granted me many gifts – yellow prickly trees (Zanthozylum spp.), monstrously large strangling figs (Ficus aurea), Mexican porcupine, green tree anole, tommygoff snake, a Mexican tree frog, abundant lianas reaching up to the canopy. The yellow prickly were numerous and had sharp spines, an adaptation to keep away herbivorous arboreal megafauna. The largest strangling fig I saw completely overtook its host tree and was hollow on the inside. The Mexican porcupine I saw was climbing the tree through this hollow interior. The most vivid encounters were with blue morpho butterflies (Morpho spp.), whose radiant sapphire blue wings contrasted greatly with the browns and greens of the understory.

Lianas often stretch from the forest floor to the canopy.

Today pushed me to my limits, but it also awarded me with many of the rainforest’s treasures.

The first principle of economics is that there are trade-offs. Despite my incomparable exhaustion, I am satisfied with trading off comfort for adventure. That’s why I came to Belize.