This week we are taking science education outside the classroom and on to the beautiful waters of the Caribbean. Our classroom for the next week is going to be the oceans and coral reefs offshore of Hopkins, Belize. There, we will be teaming up with 25 students from Professor Dave Cox’s Marine Biology class at Lincoln-Land Community College. To better understand the ecology of this threatened environment, Professor Cox has focused the curriculum around the impact of lionfish (genus Pterois) on the coral reef, although we did do several other expeditions into the surrounding area. Here is a quick summary of each day’s activities:
Day 5: Monkey River Expedition
On the last day, while the main group was making its way back to Belize City to catch a flight home, we heading down to Placencia for a day tour along the Monkey River basin. The long car ride and boat trip was more than worth it. In addition to a number of bird species, we had the opportunity to observe two families of howler monkeys, as well as an up close encounter with manatees and dolphins.
Day 4: Glovers Atoll
On our fourth day, we were heading back out to the coral reef – except this time it was at Glover’s Reef Research Station, located about 25 miles off the coast of Hopkins. While the weather was rough, and the ride out resembled a roller coaster more than a boat ride, the destination was worth it. Glover’s atoll is one of only four atolls in the Western hemisphere. Unlike other atolls, these are not the result of volcanic activity, but rather have been formed by outcroppings of bedrock along ancient fault lines.
Day 3: Into the Jungle
While the main group returned to the coral reef for the third day of snorkeling and lion fish hunting, we headed off to the Cockscomb Basin Nature Reserve to get some photos of the rain forest around Hopkins. Since it was midday by the time we started our hike to the Ben’s Bluff Falls, there was not a lot of wildlife on the trail. However, there were a large number of insects, butterflies, moths, and of course, plant life along the trail.
This reserve has an interesting history, and is the site of the largest jaguar preserves in the Western hemisphere. As expected, we did not see any jaguars, but did find a well maintained series of trails that provided access to the rain forest. We will definitely be coming back to this location in the future.
Day 2: Surveying Biodiversity
Today’s activities placed us back on the reef – but this time we separated into two groups – a dive team and a snorkeling team. The dive team went out to the barrier reef, while the snorkeling stayed close by in the patch reef. We followed basically the same game plan as Day 1, survey the flora and fauna of the reef, and if any lionfish were discovered, attempt to spear them for research back on the beach.
A lot of the underwater images are still being processed by the students, but here are some quick images that were taken during the land-based portions of today’s events. (We will update this over the next few days as images start to come in!)
Unfortunately, we did not get to go on the bioluminescence tour this evening. Recent rains at Anderson Lagoon have diluted the dioflagellate population. However, the lionfish collection today went well, with 19 individuals being captured (the largest was 630 grams). For dinner tonight the chef at the resort prepared a series of lionfish appetizers for the group – including baked, fried and a lionfish seafood salad. To date we have collected 42 lionfish – a nice number for a class of just 20 students.
Day 1: Introduction to the Reef and the First Lionfish Collection
While our goal on day one was to become familiar with open water activities, the student’s quickly turned their attention to collecting lionfish. Since lionfish possess venomous spines, care had to be taken in the collection process. Luckily, our guides from VivaBelize were skilled in collecting the fish after they were speared on the reef. Over the span of the first day, we collected 23 lionfish from three locations.
Once we were back ashore, we began collecting data on the lionfish. In addition to weight and length, data was collected on mouth width and stomach contents. This provides a snapshot of what the lionfish are consuming on the reef. Lionfish are invasive predators with voracious appetites , and they can quickly consume the smaller reef fish. Since these fish consume algae, it causes the algal population to increase, which in turn smothers the coral. These smaller fish are also the preferred food source of larger, economically important fish, such as grouper. In a short period of time, lionfish can significantly disrupt the ecology of a reef. Thus the importance of trips such as these. The data we collect on this trip will be shared with lionfish researchers to develop a better picture on the nature of the lionfish population off the coast of Belize.
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