Hokamp Day 15 – Auf Wiedersehen, Goodnight

We saw the two most diverse ecosystems on earth. Coral reefs, which I’ve seen once before, and the tropical rainforest, which I saw for the very first time and am already clamoring to go back. Everything from the benthos to the animals in each ecosystem reminded us of the other, and we learned much more about any similarities than differences.

DSCN2093

As the person in charge of reptiles in the terrestrial half of the course and annelids in the marine system, I was in an especially good place to see the similarities. I saw evidence of marine reptiles all over the place, and the rainforest showed me a greater quantity of segmented worms than it did reptiles. The life, the beauty, and the fragility of both systems was constantly on display, and the similarities were astounding.

IMG_2522

Sadly, the issue of poaching is also extremely relevant in both systems as well. Whether it be conchs or scarlet macaws, people use natural resources to fulfill their monetary needs, and it’s hard to blame people trying to support their families even when it does such damage. Nature is hard to defend no matter when or where.

For a brighter similarity, I have never felt as sure of my path and who I am as I did in those tropical ecosystems. I am definitely meant to be a field biologist, and everything from the nuptial flights to breaking my hand did nothing but confirm that.

I will return to the rainforest soon.

DSCN2184

Hokamp Day 14: Cave of Wonders

We left Las Cuevas today around 7:30am to travel to the Actun Tunichil Muknal Cave. We got to the cave right at lunchtime, and our guide showed us across a couple of rivers to the entrance of the cave, which you had to swim inside. The cave is a natural museum filled with Mayan artifacts and spectacular cave structures with preserved skeletons, artwork, and very little change in the last thousand years. It was a pretty amazing archaelogical adventure.

On the way to the cave we saw three different basilisk species, and one ran away from us on his hind legs. I still haven’t seen any walk on water, even though I know they can. Inside the cave we saw tons of fish, a few cave crickets, several amblypigids, a large crab, and a giant crayfish. Only the crickets seemed to be trogomorphs, and all the other animals were travelers from the outside.

We stayed at the Midas Hotel again tonight which we all enjoyed due to the hot water in the showers. Scott caught a giant toad on the way back from dinner, which was kind of fun, and we all had a great time today being tourists and saying goodbye to the rainforest.

DSCN2457

Hokamp Day 13: The Las Cuevas Challengers

Our first order of business today was collecting the photo traps from where we placed them the very first day here. On the way we saw two ghost anoles (Norops lemurinus) and some of the group ahead spotted a nondescript small snake. There were fresh scratches following the trail that seemed to be from a puma or jaguar marking their territory.

After collecting the first camera at Coral Ponds, we spotted a Smoothhead Helmeted Basilisk (Corytophanes cristatus) that was pretending very hard to be a tree. It was very committed to the illusion. It was a tree, not a lizard. Seriously, a tree. We took lots of pictures with the tree.

DSCN2456

We finished collecting the cameras very speedily, and hurried back to the station to hear our taxonomic briefings before the Las Cuevas Challenge. The challenge (which I was disqualified from, due to my hand injury) is an absurd race up and down hills, around the station, partially with a glass of water in hand. Evan won, which I took as a personal victory considering he was my bet, and Adrienne came in a close second. It looked pretty rough.

We went through the picture traps in the evening with excellent results. Our cameras in the caves revealed one opossum, the road cameras showed us a puma and several cool birds, and the paths revealed two different pumas and a tapir. The cameras in the water showed us a bat, an ocelot, two agouti, one coati, and about a hundred birds. We were seriously excited, especially about the tapir.

I said goodbye to two large tarantulas in the clearing on my way back to the cabin, and I am overall very sad to leave.

Hokamp Day 12: The Data is In

We collected our pitfall traps today. We saw some scavenging army ants on the way as well as two Norops sagrei and two Norops sericeus. The pitfall traps were in relatively good shape considering the rain of the night before, and we definitely had arthropods in most of them. We took all the traps back to the lab and analyzed them along with the herbivory data from the night before. It took a very long time. We used the morphological species concept to determine the species richness found in our 48 total pitfall traps, which was a good idea in theory, but just the entering of the data into a single Excel sheet was a time­-consuming process.

DSCN2275     20150528_112348

At around 5:30pm, we left for an evening hike to the bird tower. We saw a small jumping viper (Atropoides nummifer) on the trail on the way to the tower, which we originally thought was a Tommy Goff, but Grace realized during my presentation that it had been misidentified. Still poisonous though!

The setting sun was lovely to watch from the bird tower and we even got to see some night jars on the way back. The birds’ eyes glowed red in the reflection from our headlamps, which was kind of creepy. We also spotted a bioluminescent click beetle, which was pretty cute.

It was a good end to a data­-filled day.

Hokamp Day 11: Spelunking Mayan Style

At 5:30am today, we had a dismal showing for bird watching, but we did see a White­-Fronted Parrot, several toucans, and a kite! After birdwatching, we immediately started an herbivory experiment using Cecropia Trees. Cecropia has a mutualistic relationship with ants, but it takes some time for ants to colonize the young trees, so we’re experimenting to see what defenses trees have prior to colonization. I was on the committee testing for chemical defenses with Lindsy, Elaine, and Kate, and everyone went together to find laves for our experiments. While we were searching, I saw what I think was a male Norops species displaying for a female, which was pretty cool, but other than that observation I wasn’t much use with my broken hand. I did get some ants in my cast though, which was a fun experience.

We explored the large cave nearby after lunch, which definitely was used by Mayans. There are still fragmented pots and plaster residue from the ancient civilization. The cave has nine sections, which archaeologists think were used to mimic the nine sections of the afterlife in the Mayan belief system, and the cave loops around to a high opening where a spiritual leader could have conceivably appeared to speak to his followers. In the cave, we saw several different bat species, as well as evidence of some large mammal which has been recently hiding out in the cave. We also saw various cave isopods and cave worms.

DSCN2350

When we emerged from the cave, it was raining for the first time since we’ve been at Las Cuevas, and we learned the hard way that the first rain of the wet season is a trigger for termite nuptial flights. It started with just a few termites flying around, and then quickly mounted to swarms so thick we could hardly handle it. After the termites mated, they would lose their wings and drop to the ground, and the entire flight was finished by the time the sun fell, about two hours after we observed the start. It was a rough two hours—we all ate our share of flying termites, either by accident or on purpose. After the termites shed their wings, we could observe trails of termites all trying to exit the buildings and go back to their termite homes.

We went on a night hike at 8:00pm and saw a few cool things. I briefly saw a basilisk species, and we saw an army ant colony relocating with all their larvae to a new bivouac. We also saw an ant that had been infected with a cordyceps fungus! The ant was alone at about eye level on a tree, dead, so Scott knew something suspicious was going on. When we looked closer using my hand lens, we could see the brain­-controlling fungus growing out of the ant’s back.

An exciting day!

Hokamp Day 10 – Turning Over a New Leaf

So it turns out that the urine samples were for an experiment on nitrogen deficiency in the canopy. We took our two bottles of urine and two bottles of water out to the Fifty Hectare Trail and set up experiments with one water vial and one urine bottle on the tree and the same set up on the ground. It will be interesting to see what comes when we pick them up in two days.

When we went around the trail, we saw a little Norops iguana that befriended Elaine. He rode on her finger for quite awhile, and we named him Thomas. Kate found another one, but it wasn’t quite so friendly.

20150528_113304

After lunch we excavated several leaf cutter ant mounds, which was really interesting. The largest colony was the size of a small car. I got bit three times — once by accident, once by negligence, and once on purpose to see what it was like. It was pretty interesting to see the soldier saw away at my skin with its mandibles. It’s easy to see how they are so efficient with the leaves they cut for their fungus gardens.

While we were evacuating the largest colony we were passed by a troupe of spider monkeys! They were vocal and interactive, and it was pretty amazing to see them so close to us in the canopy. Definitely a memorable ten or so minutes. One of the female monkeys even was carrying a tiny monkey, which was totally adorable.

Lastly, since I posted yesterday’s blog on Evan’s account, here is a picture of me and Evan matching adorably.

IMG_2569

Course Review and Wrap-up Blog

The tropical rainforest and coral reef mirror each other in a variety of ways. For one, sunlight is a large part of their energy distribution, which helps support the high species richness and abundance in each ecosystem. Trees and corals (both happen to be my taxonomic groups) are the framework of the ecosystems in which they grow in large part because of the interaction of these species and sunlight at the bottom of the food web. Coral reefs are usually present in shallow waters and even in deep waters can grow quite tall, spread extensively to increase surface area or have minimal obstruction so that the sunlight can directly diffuse through the water to the zooxanthellae symbiodinium within the corals that, through photosynthesis, provide stony corals with ninety percent of their nutrition. Rainforests, on the other hand, harbor tree species that form canopies hundreds of feet off of the ground. Again, there exists a compound formula of advantageous height and width because the canopy trees do not only grow vertically, but once mature, will extend their canopy lengthwise. In this way, both ecosystems can harness a great magnitude of direct sunlight, which solidly supports a diverse range of photosynthetic autotrophs that convert the light energy into chemical energy. In an energy pyramid, an average of ten percent of the energy of an organism is transferred to its predator when the organism is eaten. This is an exponentially decreasing model of energy, so with a larger amount of energy harnessed from the sunlight by the wide variety of primary producers, a larger value of energy- though still ten percent- is transferred to higher levels on the food web supporting a more diverse and abundant consumer population.

Along the same lines, both ecosystems are so desperate for light that different species of photosynthetic autotrophs will grow on top of others. I was actually able to observe this in both the rainforest and the coral reef. The competition for sunlight is intense in both. In the rainforest, the canopies are so dense that sunlight hardly penetrates the understory so this layer is usually void of much vegetation apart from the Give and Take Palm (Cryosphila stauracantha). This palm’s surface area allows it to utilize even the slightest amount of light photons and thus it outcompetes most foliage. In coral reefs, there is a limited area of space that stony corals can grow because their growth is bounded to the ocean floor. Coral reefs are built over time as corals grow on top of dead coral and debris and even on live coral. In many areas I saw soft corals growing heavily on top of stony coral causing some dead patches where no sunlight can penetrate. In other cases, I saw live Montastraea cavernosa overgrown with encroaching Porites astreoides, Dendrogyra cylindrus, and Millepora alcicornis. Similarly, I witnessed a tree doing the splits. A fallen Mahogany tree (Swietenia macrophylla) seemed to have had a seed land on top of it, because a juvenile Cedar tree (Cedrela odorata) was growing perpendicular to the fallen tree. The cedar tree had spread its network of roots to form a sheath around the Mahogany tree before the roots actually descended to penetrate the soil. In other instances that I was not able to witness, trees can actually grow on top of the canopy of other trees. A nearby tree will disperse its seeds which will germinate on the tree top and send roots the many meters down until they reach the soil.

Lastly, an important similarity is that there is not much nutrition in the surroundings of both ecosystems. In the tropical rainforest, leaching will remove ions from organic matter that is quickly decomposing into the soil and thus to preserve these nutrients, trees will take them into their roots and keep them as reserves until needed. Tropical rainforests stand on infertile soils and maintain much of their nutrients within the vegetation. In the same way, the water that coral reefs are in do not have a consistent supply of dissolved nutrients. Because of the scarcity, coral polyps will quickly take in nutrients from the surrounding water especially at night when their zooxanthellae are not engaged in photosynthesis and the corals rely on heterotrophic feeding instead. In part because of overfishing and illegal logging and extraction, both corals and trees have a greater responsibility and tendency to quickly uptake nutrients when other sources of nutrition are lacking.

The course exceeded my expectations in many ways in that it was better or surprisingly different from my initial thoughts. For one, I expected the facilities to be much worse than they were. Perhaps, the facilities were similar to what I expected, but my threshold to withstand the transition was greater that I thought previously. The food, shower temperature, and living quarters were developed and good quality. It definitely was different from my home living, but I have no complaints about the limited food options at times or cold showers.

My favorite parts of the course were Rio On, the ATM cave, and the rainforest generally. The first two were so enjoyable because they were drastic changes in scenery that we only got exposed to for a limited amount of time and were also on travel days, so the stress levels significantly decreased during these excursions. The rainforest was my favorite half, though I loved to coral reef, partly because I have never experienced the rainforest to such a great extent before. I am also quite enthralled with trees, the wildlife of the rainforest, and the beauty of its mechanisms. Hiking is one of my favorite hobbies and getting to do that all day surrounded by such magnificent organisms was insane.

My least favorite part was leaving, honestly. There were times like the days I gave presentations when I spent the whole day stressed beyond belief because I had not gone over my presentation since I made it a long while back, but these moments do not stick out as overwhelmingly negative. After we had worked almost constantly for two weeks, the last few days of free time and relaxing activities were welcomed by all. I wish we had a little more time to reflect on our work with the EBIO 319 family while still in Belize, because the ending was very abrupt. I do understand that saying goodbye would still be difficult regardless. I do have to say that I loved being disconnected from electronics and the internet, and having to post blogs kind of took away from that. The blogs are a great idea, but I spent an hour and a half at Glover’s waiting for the internet to load instead of exploring or sleeping and had a similar situation at the Chiquibul. If there was a way for internet to be out of the equation completely, I think that would really increase the quality of the experience.

One thing I learned is that I need to just try things. I doubted myself at times- I thought I would not be able to handle the food, cold showers, terrible internet, or long, arduous adventures on the reef and rainforest- but everyday I gained more confidence in my ability and my expanded horizons. I am able to do a lot more than I ever thought I could by just pausing my doubts and jumping in headfirst to every activity that was thrown at us.

I also learned that the most learning happens when you are not trying. I spent a lot of time pouring over books and websites in preparation for the trip and thought I arrived with a good arsenal of knowledge. However, I learned more in two weeks of excitement and tribulations than I did in the months of research I completed before coming on the trip.

Finally, I learned how important a fluid team dynamic is. At first, I realized there were a variety of personalities in our group and expected that everyone would have their own niche and specialty. Throughout the trip, I saw how we transformed into generalists and all were equally involved in various aspects of experiments and activities. Individuals swapped roles constantly, but we never faltered regarding collective participation. We did not always plan- as a team we evolved to soundlessly enter into the activity and work together in really amazing ways. Even when we disagreed, all the arguments and different perspectives were valuable and helped highlight caveats or other considerations.

Day 7 – CrustAnts?

Today I woke up early, weirdly, and watched a beautiful last sunrise over the ocean, but then we swiftly packed up, got a last delicious meal, and then headed out back toward Belize City.

My crustacean discoveries weren’t quite finished, however – before returning to the city we stopped at one last mangrove at Twin Caye. This area had really different ecosystem with lots of awesome creatures and crustaceans!

The mangrove roots were very colonized by beautifully colored sponges with all shades of orange, and blue and pale green and purple-blue and maroon… they were beautiful! And holey and squishy. There were also lots of starfish and fish and even a baby bird in a nest.

But best of all were the arrow crabs! They have very long, skinny legs and look a lot like large, thin spiders with long skinny bodies and stripes. They were awesome. Some of the mangrove branches were colonized by little barnacles which were also interesting. Finally, as we were returning to our boat, a friend spied some sort of crustacean which turned out to be a striped coral shrimp! Which is red and white striped and very long- limbed and ridgey and that was the coolest. All of these crustaceans area awesome because you can just pick them up and look at them up real close.

Eventually, we headed back to the city and had a leisurely lunch then took a van out to the small city of San Ignacio, where we explored and ate and explored some more! But most exciting were the tiny insects I started to see more and more of – ants! Bring on the rainforest!

DSCN3005

Wrap-up Blog

After visiting both the reefs and the rain forest’s, at a mere glance it is hard to tell that there are any similarities but this could not be farther from the truth. Both these environments foster large areas of protection, and nutrients. This most definitely leads to an increase in biological diversity. The protection and nutrients these areas have to offer leads to migrations by a wide variety of animals. These migrations, for many species, lead directly through coral reefs and rain forests. Due to abundant sunlight and other environmental factors, both coral reefs and rain forests have flourished in the tropical environment. With an increase in floral growth comes and increase in fauna growth. Since both environments have nutrients (fruit, algae, coral, plants) for fauna to eat there is naturally an increase in species diversity. With an increase in these herbivores comes predators and eventually a diverse and abundant ecosystem is formed.

The way both these ecosystem operate is quite visually different, but biologically quite similar. In the reefs you have coral, algae, and other autotrophs (grass). Then you have the heterotrophs that consume these species like urchins, fish etc. Moving along the food chain, you have animals that consume these animals, and thus you have your predators and eventually your apex predators. This is similar to the rain forest as well. In the rain forest you have your plants, then your herbivores, then your carnivores. Both environments have this distinct structure.

Coming into this class I didn’t know exactly what to expect. My goal was to be able to learn more about the two distinct ecosystems as well as get a taste doing field work. Thus the course exceeded my expectations in that regard. Doing the various experiments and learning about the floral and animal interplay in the reef and rain forest from my peers and my professors in tandum with experiencing it first hand was more informative and practical then any other class I have taken.

My favorite part of the course, aside from winning the Las Cuevas Challenge, was exploring the back reef, purely for fun. It was only Elaine, Laura, Me, the two instructors and the two swimming safety officers. I was able to swim with Javier (swimming safety officer) who was able to show me many things 1 on 1 that I would have other wise not seen. The backreef was full of life and seeing all that around you was truly a humbling moment. My least favorite part of the course was the trash experiment. It was interesting to see what litter wound up on the island and helped to remove trash from the shores. Compared with the other experiments, however, I felt it was the least enriching.

 

In the reefs I learned about the structure and development of coral. Prior to this class I didn’t even know what a polyp was, and thought that coral was autotrophic. My understanding for this environment was very limited. I consider learning about coral and the reef it forms as one of the best things I have taken from this class. In the rain forest I consider the expansion of my knowledge on various species to be the best thing I learned. I knew about leaf cutter ants, I knew about jaguar, I knew about birds. I didn’t know that leaf cutter ants have fungal gardens to harvest their food. I didn’t know that jaguar perched in trees and pounced on their prey below, and that their spots are unique for each individual. I didn’t know that some birds fashion their nests in pendulums hanging off of branches, and that parrots are always in pairs. The last thing I learned from this course was the grave impact humans are having on these exotic environments. The fact that I could be telling my grand kids about coral reefs knowing that they would never see one for themselves is astonishing. You often read about human natures destruction on the environment but never take any heed. This course helped to realize that actions need to be taken before these environments will be read about in history books and not biology ones.

Overall I loved the trip, I loved my environment, I loved my peers, and my professors were tolerable… just kidding they were awesome.

-Sea Cow

P.S My camera broke fairly early into the trip and was unable to take many photos. The photos I did take were given to Water Bear to upload to dropbox. My computer does not have a card reader so all my photos will come off of the dropbox.