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.