Coral research in Belize, a cultural melting pot. Field Season 2014

The Castillo Lab Field Team (2014).  (Credit: Joe Townsend)

The Castillo Lab Field Team (2014).
(Credit: Joe Townsend)

Some days I really love my job. Today is one of those days. I just returned from a 2 week field research trip to Belize with 5 of my friends. I’ve been to the field several times in the past, but only to help other people with projects. This trip was organized and planned by me as part of my PhD. So, what am I working on?

The research team above a Siderastrea siderea colony. One of our target species.  (Credit: Joe Townsend)

The research team above a Siderastrea siderea colony. One of our target species.
(Credit: Joe Townsend)

My research is broadly based in coral reef science. I am interested in the acclimatization ability of corals to climate change. As we’ve all heard plenty of times, coral reefs are on the decline worldwide due to anthropogenic (caused by humans) climate change and several other human related stressors (pollution, overfishing, habitat destruction). Research has shown that some corals are better able to survive and acclimatize to stress compared to other corals. My research is focusing on the mechanisms behind this.

To keep it brief I am leaving out a lot of detail. Feel free to send me an email, DM me on Twitter, or strike up a conversation via Facebook to discuss more. I identified areas of backreef and patch reef in Belize that experienced high, moderate, and low annual temperature variability, along with high/lowest maximum annual temperatures, and highest/lowest number of days per year above the local bleaching threshold (temperature at which corals are susceptible to bleaching, or loss of photosynthetic symbiont or pigment). We sampled corals from 15 different sites (5 high, 5 moderate/average, and 5 low) so see how coral communities changed. We did this by diving on the reefs with survey equipment, laying transects, and counting corals! Below are some brief videos of what that looked like:

It was hard work for me, an inexperienced diver, but eventually I figured it out. The toughest part was often identifying which species was which. Many corals look very similar. For example, here is a side by side picture of Siderastrea siderea and Siderastrea radians. S. radians is the small one.

S. siderea and S. radians (Credit: Joe Townsend)

S. siderea and S. radians
(Credit: Joe Townsend)

Our survey crew was tasked with telling these two guys apart (among several other, harder pairs of species) and recording the numbers and sizes of each that were seen on the reef. S. radians is almost always smaller and paler than S. siderea, S. radians also looks like it has deeper polyps (with more dark space) sometimes. The technical difference is in the number of septa each coral has in each polyp, but that is very difficult to see.

In addition to diver surveys, we also recorded video transects (to be viewed later) using GoPro cameras.

In the coming months I will be slowing these videos down to identify coral, quantify cover, and determine species diversity and composition.

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Field research may look like fun, but it’s a lot of hard work. Months of planning and preparing come down to just 12 days in the field and you have to work with what you get when you arrive. I went to Belize for the very first time during this project, but I was tasked with organizing essentially every part of the trip remotely. Usually, I booked a hotel or made plans to travel to certain areas without ever seeing them. I wouldn’t have been nearly as successful without the help of my advisor, and Belize native, Karl Castillo. He knows a lot about his home country, and has worked maybe every job possible in conservation there. Without his contacts and knowledge we probably would have been in trouble.

Karl is almost always happy, but when he is in Belize he is extra happy (it's probably the fry jacks). (Credit: Joe Townsend)

Karl is almost always happy, but when he is in Belize he is extra happy (it’s probably the fry jacks).
(Credit: Joe Townsend)

So, we went hunting for corals in 15 different locations (many of which are no where near popular reefs for fishing and diving). I had marked areas with GPS coordinates before we left, and we went to the spots and hunted for corals. We often tried a few different areas before we found anything. Luckily, we hired local boat captains to take us to our sites. These guys are active fisherman and/or divers. They depend on the reef for their livelihoods and they know it as well as anyone. More than a few times, our captain found us corals in a places where there were probably not very many.

Karl and Dale (one of our captains) working some coral finding magic. (Credit: Joe Townsend)

Karl and Dale (one of our captains) working some coral finding magic.
(Credit: Joe Townsend)

Travis hunting for dark spots (aka reefs) from the bow of our small vessel.  (Credit: Joe Townsend)

Travis hunting for dark spots (aka reefs) from the bow of our small vessel.
(Credit: Joe Townsend)

When we did find coral, we made dove in to survey it. We laid transect after transect (a total of 12 per site) and collected a ton of data. In addition to transects, we sampled the water at each site, and we also collected small subsamples of 4 coral species for coral animal and symbiont genetic work.

Everyone had a different task and each task took a different amount of time, so we occasionally had some free time. During this time, our undergraduate research assistant, Joe Townsend, followed us around and recorded video of us working. He also took tons of pictures and filmed pretty much everything that happened on the trip. All photos and videos on this post are credit to him. Joe is working on a documentary about the trip Stay tuned for more!

We also took some time to get up close and personal with the invasive wildlife…

Lionfish. Marie Sharp's hot sauce bottle for scale. (Credit: Joe Townsend)

Lionfish. Marie Sharp’s hot sauce bottle for scale.
(Credit: Joe Townsend)

Lionfish are everywhere on the fore reef, but we weren’t out there very much. In back reef and patch reef areas, lionfish weren’t terribly abundant, but every now and then we would see one. These guys are invasive in the Caribbean. For more information, go read some of Serena Hackerott’s posts on the topic (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6).

We also met some other local fauna:

Cormorants (Credit: Joe Townsend)

Cormorants
(Credit: Joe Townsend)

and a lazy cat  (Credit: Joe Townsend)

a lazy cat
(Credit: Joe Townsend)

and a coconut loving island dog (Credit: J. Baumann)

and a coconut loving island dog
(Credit: J. Baumann)

The science went extremely well. We managed to find coral, survey, and sample at 13 out of 15 sites. We didn’t have to skip any days due to weather or illness, and we basically did everything we set out to do.

This trip went beyond science though. We also experienced a very rich, diverse culture. Belize is a melting pot of people. People from surrounding Central and South American countries call it home, as do many folks of African descent (known as the Garifuna). Garifuna culture dominates the southern coastal regions of Belize, whereas latin culture dominates in the North. It is like several countries in one. Every time we traveled to a new city we saw a new mixture of people and cultures. It was really interesting. Especially the food.

Curry chicken

Curry chicken

Hatchet Caye. A beautiful place that served up delicious lionfish dishes. I highly recommend eating lionfish if you ever get the chance.

Hatchet Caye. A beautiful place that served up delicious lionfish dishes. I highly recommend eating lionfish if you ever get the chance.

The ever-present Marie Sharp's hot sauce (Credit: Joe Townsend)

The ever-present Marie Sharp’s hot sauce
(Credit: Joe Townsend)

We ate Salvadorian papusas, Belizian fry jacks, honey bun,  tons of different types of curry and stewed chicken, and even some American food. Every town had it’s own cuisine, but usually you could find a place that had any of these items. Everyone always had two things: Marie Sharp’s hot sauce and Belikin Beer. Both are products of Belize and are ubiquitous. Marie Sharp’s permeated our hearts and minds and we may have created an overweight piece of checked luggage just to bring a ton of it home.

Belize is a great place to do research. The people are generally friendly and everyone we talked to was interested in or supportive of our work. They rely on the reef and they know it is in decline. Everyone from fisherman to tourists wanted to know what we were doing. It was great to be able to chat to locals and tourists alike and explain the situation on the reef. I am looking forward to returning in the future to help preserve and protect the reef that so many people have come to depend on.

Special thanks to my funding sources: The DoD NDSEG Fellowship and the Rufford Foundation

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