Program (L to R): Jordan Casey, Walker Ueland, Prof. Evans, Emily Guest, Elizabeth Beilharz, Lucy Riddle, Heather Crosby, Callie Oldfield, Ethan Evans, Elmer Tzalam (BFREE staff), Amy Evans
This year, seven Sewanee students took part in Field Study in Belize (Bio 251), a 10-day intensive immersion course which explores two of the most biologically diverse ecosystems on earth: tropical rainforests and coral reefs. The class is taught by Dr. Jon Evans, Professor of Biology and Assistant Provost for Environmental Stewardship and Sustainability, and assisted by Jordan Casey (C’09), a PhD student in Marine Biology at James Cook University in Australia.
After hiking into the Maya Mountains, students spent 5 days learning about the natural history, biology, and diversity of the rainforest. Students stayed at the Belize Foundation for Research and Environmental Education (BFREE) field station, an organization which is deeply involved in educating the surrounding community and has produced key research on the Harpy Eagle. Mornings at BFREE were spent on bird and plant walks, and in the evening, students searched for fish and crustaceans in the river and set up bat-catching nets. A group of rare Central American spider monkeys watched the class from the rainforest canopy during a hike into the nature reserve.
After a heavy rain, students found a Mexican burrowing toad, a unique amphibian that comes out of the ground only once a year to mate.
The class also toured a cacao plantation, where they learned about sustainable farming and peeled dried cacao seeds to make a traditional chocolate drink. On the final day, students worked together in groups to develop and test a hypothesis which related to their particular interests. Two groups studied bird and palm species compositional change up a topographic slope, and the third studied the correlation between a tropical understory herb and the Cohune palm. On the way to the reef, the class visited Nim Li Punit, a Mayan ruin that was active before the Mayan collapse, and viewed its well-preserved stela, which are massive carved stones depicting historic events.
The second half of the class took place on South Water Caye, an island off the coast of Belize. The class snorkeled at various reefs, learning about fish and coral species and their unique interactions. Students were able to see and swim with dolphins, sea turtles, manatees, rays, and nurse sharks. On the coral reefs, students witnessed the balance between coral and algae, as the territorial algae-gardener damselfish encouraged algae, and the butterflyfish fed on coral. During a night snorkel, a Caribbean reef octopus was spotted, changing colors as it swam.
The class also visited Carrie Bow Caye, a Smithsonian marine research station, where students learned about current research on reefs and sponges. The class was able to explore Man of War Caye, a rookery, and the Twin Cayes, a mangrove ecosystem. On the roots of the mangroves live a rich community of sponges, anemones, fish, and crustaceans. The photosynthetic upside-down jellyfish and shortnose batfish were found on the mangrove floor. All of the student projects took place on the reef, and they examined diverse topics. The groups studied Christmas tree worm correlation with coral substrate, damselfish species aggressiveness, and butterflyfish feeding preferences.
- Callie Oldfield (EcoBio'15)