The coral reef and the rainforest are both incredible places for biodiversity. Even though the reef is dominated by animals and the forest dominated by plants, both have fundamental living structures that provide the basis for life. Both are nutrient-poor environments, but between trees and corals both environments have living things that host other organisms. Corals build up space in the ocean where other organisms can live, and tree canopies in the forest host birds, arthropods, and many others. These spaces also provide the basis for many trophic levels, which is why they contribute so much to biodiversity.
In terms of what I observed, I have found that the rainforest had much less open space than the reefs. In the water we saw patch reefs, which were dense clusters of high diversity interspersed with more or less barren sand, but the rainforest was packed everywhere except for the man-made trails. In both cases, it was hard or rare to spot a lot of megafauna, but both places were teeming with life in any case.
Three things that I learned from this trip are that there is hope for the environment, field research is hard but rewarding, and that the rainforest is less grueling than I thought. Both Glover’s and the Chiquibul have faced threats to their health, and still do, but when left to recover it seems like the power of nature to right itself after damaging influences have negatively impacted the environment. In both locations, the group was faced with difficult questions of how to answer research questions that took us hours at times. Processing data was also very difficult, but seeing our posters completed at the end was always a good feeling. Finally, the rainforest had fewer biting insects than I thought it would, although it definitely had a fair amount. It was not as hot as I thought, either.
This course definitely met and then exceeded my expectations. We did a lot of experiential learning and exploring pristine natural environments like I expected, but I was blown away by the tranquility and biodiversity of these places. I also got a good dose of Belizean culture and hot sauce, which was a pleasant surprise. One of my favorite parts of the course was exploring both environments and seeing new critters, especially when one of them was from one of my taxonomic groups and I could then identify it for everyone. Our group was also a lot of fun and it seemed like we were always laughing together and enjoying each other’s company. The only bad part of this trip I can think of was the bug bites and sea urchin wounds, but even those are part of the greater story of an amazing trip.
Today was an amazing day for snorkeling. We hit the water right away after breakfast, visiting three different sites that all had different things to offer. Our first spot, called “the channel”, was my favorite one because it was the deepest. We saw a few nurse sharks there, along with tons of reef fish and even a few squids. It was nice to finally get out into new waters where I could dive down and attempt to blow bubble rings, which had mixed levels of success.
On those reefs, I spotted for the first time the White Encrusting Zoanthid (palythoa carbaeorum), as well as some Mat Zoanthids (Zoanthus pulchellus) and Sponge Zoanthids (Parazoanthus parasiticus). I also saw a few Giant Caribbean Anemones (Condylactis gigantea) and one Sun Anemone (Stichodacylus helianthus). Corallimorphs still manage to elude me, unfortunately. Maybe I will get lucky in the mangroves tomorrow.
After snorkeling all morning, we had lunch and then got to do another fun activity; we dissected the six lionfish that Scott had caught over the course of the week. Deepu and I named ours Monroe Buckingham, because he was a classy fish even though he was invasive. After collecting data about the lionfish, including the contents of their stomach, Scott cut them up and we made a ceviche out of their meat. We brought this ceviche to a neighboring island called Marisol where we stayed for an hour and a half enjoying ourselves. We then returned to eat dinner and present our lionfish findings.
It is unfortunate that we have to leave Glover’s tomorrow morning. I enjoy living out here on a small island, very isolated from the stresses of the world but still working hard. I’ll miss jumping into the sea every day, but I am excited for what the forest has to offer for us.
Another day, another adventure. Right after breakfast, we counted our sea urchins from yesterday and then hit the water once again. We released our urchins from yesterday and then motored over to another patch reef, this time one in an unprotected marine area. We performed more transect surveys here in the same fashion as yesterday, collected more urchins, and came back to analyze all of our data from the past two days after lunch. This took us three hours, but we received good reviews on our work. We found a lot more urchins in the protected reef.
On the reef, I only spotted more Parazoanthus parasiticus zoanthids on the same vase sponge species, but didn’t manage to spot any other members of my taxon group in the water today. I did, however, see tons of flamingo tongues, which provide a stark color contrast with their environments and have beautiful colors (pictures to come later when we return to strong wifi). Our group also saw a nurse shark lounging under a rock. To cap off a nice day in the water, I handled a Diadema sea urchin a bit recklessly and currently have two tiny spine fragments in my right hand to show for it. The joys of the sea are endless.
After wrapping up our research for the day, we had an hour of free time. Damian, Deepu, Alessi, Therese and I got a game of beach soccer going with a couple of the guys working on Middle Caye right now, which was a ton of fun and left me so sweaty that I probably looked like I had just come out of the ocean. There’s nothing like a small-sided pickup soccer game to get me going, though. I also spoke a bit of creole with some of the people here, as the Belizean dialect is very similar to the Jamaican dialect that I speak. All in all, today was a great day for research and personal enjoyment.
Today started a little later, around 6:30 am. After a serene half-hour, we went for breakfast before starting our day. Today was all about quadrats; we got some practice using them on land before jumping back into the patch reef. We used our quadrats and transect tape to measure how many organisms of different phyla we could find, and Deepu and I finally got to take our trusty quadrat, nicknamed “Larval”, into the water. On this snorkel I saw three Caribbean Anemones (Condylactis gigantea) in the sea grass, was brought what I believe to be a Sun Anemone (Stichodactyla helianthus) that was attached to a piece of sea grass, and almost laid the transect tape on top of a baby nurse shark.
After lunch, all of our quadrat practice from the morning became useful as we took a boat out to a patch reef near another caye. We used our quadrats and transect tape to measure live coral, dead coral, sponges, and other features of the reefs. Deepu and I accidentally set our transect tape into deep water, which would have made measuring twenty-odd feet down more difficult were the quadrat not covering a completely sandy area. After finishing our measurements, we got to explore the reef a bit. I found a beautiful Flamingo Tongue, and some more Sponge Zoanthids (Parazoanthus parasiticus) growing on the same type of sponge I found it on yesterday (Niphates digitalis). I also got to practice blowing bubble rings, since we finally got into water that we couldn’t stand in.
After our first data collection, we then spent 25 minutes picking up as many sea urchins as possible in order to measure them tomorrow. We will compare our findings for the urchins and the coral cover from today, which were taken in a Marine Protected Area, to findings from an area that is not protected tomorrow. I am excited to see more reefs and potentially snorkel after dark tomorrow! Glover’s Reef is truly paradise.
The 5am wakeup ended up being an easy one, since I went to sleep at 10pm for the first time in a while, not to mention the morning songbirds’ assistance. After a quick breakfast of PB&J sandwiches, we set out for Glover’s Reef Atoll. One hour and the bus and two and a half more on the boat, which featured a massive Green Turtle surfacing close to our boat. We finally arrived at Middle Caye, settled in, toured the island quickly, and then ate a much-desired lunch.
After lunch, it was time for the main event: our first snorkel of the trip. After pulling on my brand new dive skin and putting on my much older mask, the water invited us in to take a break from the blisteringly hot sun. We stayed in the shallow waters by the dock for today, snorkeling around some patch reefs a short swim away. I managed to find a fair amount of my assigned taxon group of anemones, corallimorphs, and zoanthids. With Adrienne’s help, I found a small colony of mat zoanthids (Zoanthus pulchellus) growing on a small stony patch, and I then found some small Sponge Zoanthids (Parazoanthus parasiticus) growing on a pale blue, vase-shaped sponge. I even managed to spot a small Caribbean Giant Anemone (Condylactis gigantea) among the sea-grass on the way out of the water. Although I don’t have to keep track of reptiles for another week, I noted the appearance of three spiny-tailed iguanas (Ctenosaura similis) on Middle Caye, as well as a house gecko (Hemidactylus frenatus).
After our snorkel, we went to a coral graveyard on the island full of dead coral skeletons. We identified them using guidebooks, and used them to learn to recognize the potential corals we will see tomorrow. After dinner, we rounded off our day with lectures on echinoderms and stony corals, and finished by making quadrats that we will use tomorrow for our activities.
After taking my first malaria pill and finally finishing up all my assignments, it’s beginning to finally hit me that tomorrow is the day we take off for Belize. I’m lucky enough to say that I have traveled to Belize and other parts of the Americas before, but I don’t think those trips will compare to this one. Having access to some of the most pristine habitats that can only be accessed by special groups such as ours is a privilege that I can’t wait to seize. I am especially excited for Glover’s Reef. I have always been enamored by marine life, and I take any chance I can get to dive or snorkel.
With that being said, I know this trip will not be all fun and games and that I’ll have to wake up early, take good notes in my field notebook, and write these blogs every day. Our preparations of making taxon sheets, doing readings on the environments we will encounter, making power points, and searching for gear have made it clear that this will be a fast-paced trip, but one that will also teach me a lot. I hope that the trip will give me a good idea of what it is like to be a field biologist, something that has always been alluring to me but that I don’t have firsthand experience doing. I don’t find myself too nervous about anything we will encounter except for the large amount of insect bites that I already know I will have to endure.
I do have a lot of experience traveling, especially in the last year or so, but seeing a new place never seems any less appealing to me; in fact, the more I travel, the more I want to see, and the more I want to have different experiences. I am most excited this trip because research is the focal task, unlike any trip I have ever taken before. Rather than traveling primarily to observe, I am now traveling with the primary purpose of actively interacting with my environment.
One week in the Rainforest. One week on the coral reef. As different as the two ecosystems sound, in a lot of ways they are similar. Both are hotspots for biological diversity, driven by diverse geography and topographical features which create countless niches to be filled. The niches are filled in fact by huge ranges of organisms that have adapted to suit their microenvironments. For example in both the rainforest and in coral reefs, light penetration plays a role in determining the organisms that will survive and thrive in different locations. High light-need species reach the heights of the canopy in the rainforest; they reside in shallow waters on the reef. Other factors include resilience in inclement weather, particularly in countries like Belize. Belize is affected by tropical weather systems such as hurricanes, which may reshape the ecosystems and the organisms that are not sheltered must be able to survive the effects. This is true in both the forest and the reef, as exposed species in either are at risk.
Another similarity I have noticed is the apparent paradox of high biological diversity in spite of nutrient poor environments. Both reefs and forests support incredible richness and abundance of life. In nutrient poor environments this is made possible by the efficient cycling of the nutrients that are present. In fact, the ecosystems themselves are in a way nutrient rich, in that the nutrients are usually actively being used by the occupants.
This course was what I expected, but better. I had expected to find a bit of direction and to maybe make some friends. I have found such reassurance in this course: reassurance of wanting to pursue biology and perhaps marine biology in particular. And the group of people on this trip are each individually important in creating the amazing group dynamic we had. This also includes the instructors, who are passionate about the material and make me feel passionate about it as well.
My favorite part of this trip was snorkeling the fore reef. I remember letting myself bob in the waves and then someone pointed down. There was a huge spotted eagle ray swimming right below us. Seeing something like that in its natural environment was incredible. My least favorite part of this trip was the itching. Between chigger, tick, sand fly, and mosquito bites, there are more bites on me than I can count. Incidentally I apparently also have a fairly strong reaction to most of those bites. I have never before woken up in the middle of the night due to itching so badly.
Things I have learned:
Sometimes it is easiest to believe that there is a simple right and wrong, but that’s hardly ever the case. This trip reminded me of that. It would be nice to say that all poaching is inexcusable and conservation should be the easy answer. That, however, is not the world we live in. Hearing more about conflicts between Guatemala and Belize have reminded me of that. I’m going to try very hard not to forget it.
I know that in pursuing science, sometimes the answers we end up with are not the ones we want to hear. I will not always be correct. In fact, most of the time I will probably be wrong.
There are a lot of things worth trying to save in this world. I cannot save all of them. I am not in control. So I am going to try and save a small piece of it.
Today we made our way back to Houston- not too quickly though, of course. Who would want to leave the beach? I am however okay with taking a break from the sand flies.
This morning we packed the boat up again and took off. First stop was Carrie Bow Caye, home of a Smithsonian institute research station. We got to take a tour of the facilities on the very small island. In fact the island is shrinking due to rises in sea level and is now about the size of half an acre. It was a functional lab in the field biology sense: a wet lab, dry lab, library, and boats for use. I’d definitely want the chance to research here.
The next stop was at Twin Caye, an island split in two and covered with mangrove ecosystem. We tromped through the mangroves and then took to the water to snorkel one last time. I did not see any anemones, zoanthids or corallimorphs, but in fact I didn’t see much at all. Being in the mangroves, there was a lot of loose sediment that made the water fairy murky. I did see upside down jelly fish(Cassiopea…), a cushion sea star, and a lot of juvenile fish.
Another short boat ride and we were back in Belize City to eat lunch and head to the airport. Officially over when we reached Rice University, EBIO 319 is complete.
Today was a very busy day. This morning we went out to the back reef again, this time while collecting algae and other things that were safe to bring back to the wet lab. I saw my same anemones I have been seeing (Giant Caribbean and Sun anemones). I did see something that was sort of new though. I think I saw a purple morph of the giant Caribbean anemone. We ended up collecting a sea cucumber, razor clam, crabs, so much red, green, and brown algae, and egg pods that hatched into hundreds of baby shrimp after we collected them.
The other happen stance with my groups today was that a student accidentally put her hand down on an anemone and it stung her pretty decently. Luckily, no one got stung by the box jelly fish (Carybdea alota) that were found today.
We also dissected the lionfish (Pterois volitans) that had been caught previously. The lionfish I worked on was a mature male who had recently consumed a 4-5 cm fish. It had begun to digest, but we could tell that the fish had had yellow scales.
After some relaxation, we will still need to pack up and prepare for tomorrow. We may be getting back tomorrow, but we are not done yet.
In the morning, we did a mini beach clean-up…and analyzed the trash of course. In an hour of clean-up, we collected over 90 lbs. of marine debris (trash). By mass there was by far the most plastic. I hadn’t been expecting the incredible amount of Styrofoam that washes up on the beach. There were some pretty crazy items also like a melted my little pony, a Barbie leg, a toy soldier, and a bunch of shoes. The craziest part is that beach is cleaned up a bit every week and we hardly made a dent in all of the trash there.
We went to another section of back reef to measure corals again. I did see a corkscrew anemone again. I didn’t see any other of my taxa today.
And then… we did a night snorkel. It was pretty short but I could tell everything is so different on the reef at night. It’s thrilling and a little nerve wracking. You can only see in your beam of flashlight and everyone kicks each other in the face. It is a whole other world, where you get to see the creatures you wouldn’t see otherwise (slipper lobster, squid, tiger-tail sea cucumber. All I wish is that I would have had a brighter flashlight to see even more.